(ATTN: UPDATES throughout detailed steps announced by ministers, planned diplomatic schedules, Clinton's remarks, other details)
By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, May 24 (Yonhap) -- South Korea said Monday it will unhesitatingly exercise its right of self-defense in the event of future armed provocation by North Korea and freeze all of its remaining exchanges with the communist neighbor, except for Kaesong industrial park.
Announcing a set of tough punitive steps against Pyongyang for its fatal attack on one of its warships in March, President Lee Myung-bak said his government will request the U.N. Security Council take up the case.
"From now on, the Republic of Korea will not tolerate any provocative act by the North and will maintain a principle of proactive deterrence," the president said in a nationally televised address made at the War Memorial of Korea in central Seoul. "If our territorial waters, airspace or territory are militarily violated, we will immediately exercise our right of self-defense."
The president's speech came after a team of multinational investigators last week concluded that a North Korean submarine torpedoed the 1,200-ton warship, the Cheonan, on March 26 in waters just below Koreas' western sea border, killing 46 South Korean sailors.
Lee said Seoul will suspend all trade and exchange programs with the North, apart from the Kaesong project, while maintaining minimum levels of humanitarian aid for infants and children living in the impoverished country.
"Under these circumstances, any inter-Korean trade or other cooperative activity is meaningless," the president said, adding that North Korean ships will no longer be allowed to use South Korean waterways as short-cuts, including the Jeju Strait.
Lee urged North Korean authorities to offer an apology for the Cheonan incident and punish those responsible for it.
His speech was followed by a joint press conference by his defense, unification, and foreign ministers who provided more details on how Seoul will punish Pyongyang for the attack, one of the worst on the peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean War.
Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said his military will conduct joint anti-submarine drills with the U.S. in the Yellow Sea and expand participation in international interdiction training as a member of the Proliferation Security Initiative -- aimed at curbing the spread of weapons of massive destruction.
The South's troops will also resume sending propaganda messages through loudspeakers across the heavily fortified border with the North, a campaign that was halted six years ago.
Unification Minister Hyun In-taek, Seoul's point man on Pyongyang, said Seoul will prevent new investment in the Kaesong industrial zone, where more than 100 South Korean manufacturing firms operate and about 1,000 South Korean workers stay, as well as ban South Koreans from entering the North outside of Kaesong.
"If the security of our nationals (there) is threatened, we will respond sternly," Hyun warned. Officials here said Seoul will first scale down the operation of the Kaesong park and consider the next step in accordance with the North's attitude.
Regarding international cooperation, Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan vowed all-inclusive diplomatic efforts, especially with China and Russia -- the North's traditional communist allies. The two are veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and hold the key to putting economic pressure on Pyongyang. China, the North's largest patron, remains cautious about the outcome of the Seoul-led probe into the ship sinking, heralding a tough round of South Korean diplomacy on the issue.
In Beijing, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the need for cooperation in punishing the North.
"North Korea is also a matter of urgent concern. Today we face another serious challenge provoked by the sinking of the South Korean ship," she said at the start of two days of high-level talks with Chinese officials. "So, we must work together to address this challenge and advance our shared objective of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula,
Yu plans to use his talks with Clinton later this week to showcase the close partnership between the two countries in handling the matter.
President Lee Myung-bak is scheduled to hold talks with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Seoul on Friday and trilateral summit talks involving Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in Jeju Island over the weekend.
Meanwhile, South Korea's presidential aides said they will leave the door open for North Korea to avert its course of confrontation. That is why Lee did not blame North Korean leader Kim Jong-il by name in the public speech, they explained.
"It is now time for the North Korean regime to change," he said.
The president also deliberately picked the War Memorial which commemorates the 1950-53 Korean War and other wars on the Korean Peninsula, as the venue for the address, according to Lee Dong-kwan, senior secretary for public affairs at Cheong Wa Dae.
The choice of the venue reflects "President Lee's will for peace and his resolve not to let go of a string of hope for the future of the Korean Peninsula," he said.
The president did not directly mention North Korea's nuclear ambitions so as not to distract Seoul's message on the Cheonan case, the secretary said.
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