(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; UPDATES throughout with Lee's comments, details)
By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, May 21 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Friday ordered "resolute and systematic" countermeasures against North Korea, saying its torpedo attack on a South Korean warship in March violates the U.N. Charter and the 1953 armistice agreement that effectively ended the Korean War.
Presiding over an emergency meeting of his National Security Council (NSC), Lee also called for a prudent approach toward what he said is a serious and grave issue.
It was a "surprise military attack from North Korea (that came) while South Korean people were resting late at night," Lee said, according to spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye. "It constitutes a violation of the U.N. Charter, the armistice agreement, and the South-North Basic Agreement."
The 1991 Basic Agreement obliges the two sides not to invade each other and to work together towards reconciliation.
Lee instructed related ministries to take "systematic and resolute countermeasures against North Korea so that it cannot repeat this reckless provocation," the spokeswoman added.
Lee convened the NSC a day after a multinational investigation team announced that a small North Korean submarine sneaked into South Korean waters near their Yellow Sea border on March 26 and torpedoed the 1,200-ton corvette, the Cheonan, which was on a routine patrol mission. The Cheonan was split in two and sank, killing 46 sailors. Investigators presented forensic evidence, but the North claimed the findings were fabricated.
It is the first time that the president assembled the NSC since a year ago, when the North conducted its second nuclear test. The highest-level presidential advisory body for national security includes the prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister, unification minister, home minister, finance minister and state spy agency chief.
Lee said Friday's NSC session was to discuss "military aspects in connection with the (Cheonan) incident and the today and tomorrow of South-North relations, as well as international aspects externally and its impact on our society and economy, which is in a recovery phase."
Lee added he will deliver a public speech early next week to present what was discussed at the NSC meeting.
Presidential aides said the address will include some of Seoul's concrete measures to punish the North.
Analysts say South Korea has limited options as it is unlikely to retaliate militarily. Most inter-Korean economic exchanges have already been suspended since Lee took office in early 2008 with a promise to tie economic projects with the North's denuclearization.
South Korean officials have hinted at diplomatic means of punishment, including bringing the case to the U.N. Security Council for additional sanctions on the North.
It remains unclear whether China, the North's closest ally and a veto-wielding member of the Council, will back the move. China called for restraint in handling the sinking issue and said it would make its own assessment of the probe results.
Another dilemma for South Korean officials is how to deal with the Seoul-funded industrial complex in Kaesong, a North Korean border town, once a symbol of inter-Korean rapprochement but now a point of further tension.
More than 100 South Korean manufacturing firms operate in the complex, the last remaining major joint venture between the two Koreas. Nearly 1,000 South Korean workers stay there.
Government sources said among the viable options is a ban on North Korean commercial ships using South Korean waters. Under a maritime agreement signed in 2004, South Korea has allowed North Korean ships to traverse its waters, including the Jeju Strait between the southern island and the mainland.
North Korea reacted furiously to the results of the South Korean investigation and threatened to stage another war should Seoul push for sanctions.
The North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said earlier Friday that Pyongyang will regard "the present situation as the phase of a war and decisively handle" all inter-Korean affairs.
An unnamed spokesman of the committee, which deals with the North's daily affairs with the South, in a statement accused the South Korean government of "creating (an) atmosphere reminiscent of a wartime situation" in a bid to weather a crisis at home from failures in domestic and foreign policies ahead of the June 2 regional elections.
"In case the puppet group opts for 'counteraction' and 'retaliation' under the pretext of the sinking of the warship, the DPRK will strongly react to them with such merciless punishment as the total freeze of the inter-Korean relations, the complete abrogation of the north-South agreement on non-aggression and a total halt to the inter-Korean cooperation undertakings," read the statement, carried by Pyongyang's state media.
On Thursday, the North's National Defense Commission, chaired by leader Kim Jong-il, said it would take tough measures including an all-out war if Seoul presses ahead with retaliatory steps against Pyongyang.
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