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(5th LD) White House condemns N. Korea's artillery attack

All Headlines 07:11 November 24, 2010

(ATTN: ADDS Gates' phone call with Minister Kim in paras 21-22)
By Hwang Doo-hyong

WASHINGTON, Nov. 23 (Yonhap) -- The United States Tuesday denounced North Korea's artillery attack on a South Korean island near the western sea border that killed two soldiers and injured dozens of others.

"The United States strongly condemns this attack and calls on North Korea to halt its belligerent action and to fully abide by the terms of the Armistice Agreement," Robert Gibbs, White House spokesman, said in a statement. "The United States is firmly committed to the defense of our ally, the Republic of Korea, and to the maintenance of regional peace and stability."

North Korea fired more than 100 artillery rounds on Yeonpyeong Island and nearby waters, where the South Korean navy was conducting a drill near the disputed maritime border in the Yellow Sea.

The attack comes amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula since North Korea's torpedoing of a South Korean warship, which killed 46 sailors in the Yellow Sea in March, and its most recent disclosure of a uranium enrichment plant, which could produce material for nuclear warheads.

North Korea early this month showed American nuclear scientists and experts what it claimed were a 100-megawatt light-water reactor and a uranium enrichment facility with possibly 2,000 centrifuges.

Pyongyang said they were for generating power, but the facilities are believed to be linked to the communist state's long-suspected program to produce highly enriched uranium for bombs.

U.S. President Barack Obama will soon converse with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak over the phone to discuss the artillery shelling, White House officials said, adding Obama was awakened by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon at around 4 a.m. and briefed by aides at the Oval Office on the incident before he left for Indiana to visit a Chrysler auto plant.

Speaking to reporters, Bill Burton, White House deputy press secretary, said, "The president is outraged by these actions. We'll be working with South Korea and the international community in coming days on the best way forward in securing peace and stability in the region."

The spokesman dismissed the shelling and the revelation of the uranium program as part of the North's traditional brinkmanship.

"North Korea has a pattern of doing things that are provocative," Burton said. "What North Korea needs to do is live up to their international obligations and make real progress in ending their illegal nuclear program."

Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy, who visited Beijing earlier in the day on the third and last leg of a tour that included Tokyo and Seoul, said he met with Chinese officials and discussed the shelling as well as the uranium project.

"The subject did, of course, come up in my meetings with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I think we both share the view that such conflict is very undesirable," he told reporters in Beijing. "I expressed to them the desire that restraint be exercised on all sides, and I think we agree on that."

Bosworth said that he and Chinese officials reconfirmed the need to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue through the six-party talks, involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.

The nuclear talks have been stalled over U.N. sanctions for the North's nuclear and missile tests early last year and the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan. Pyongyang denies any role.

"We agreed on the essential need for us to continue coordination and consultation on this issue, the uranium enrichment program, and of course on the subject of how most appropriately and most desirably to bring about a resumption of the six-party process," Bosworth said. "We strongly believe that a multilateral, diplomatic approach is the only way to realistically resolve these problems."

The envoy said in Tokyo earlier in the day that "We do not contemplate resuming negotiations while active programs are under way or while there is a possibility that the North Koreans will test another nuclear device or test a missile."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack as "one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean War." He called for "immediate restraint" and insisted that any differences be resolved "by peaceful means and dialogue."

Ban also "conveyed his utmost concern to the president of the Security Council," but it is not clear at the moment whether the council will convene a meeting soon to discuss the provocations.

Marine Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. military is "still monitoring the situation and talking with our allies," adding, "At this point it's premature to say that we're considering any action."

Geoff Morrell, another Pentagon spokesman, told reporters that the U.S. takes the shelling "very seriously, just as we took the sinking of the Cheonan earlier this year very seriously in which the North murdered some 40 South Korean sailors."

Morrell said Defense Secretary Robert Gates talked to South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young over the shelling.

"In a phone call this morning, Secretary Gates told Minister Kim the United States strongly condemns the attack by North Korea, views it as a violation of the armistice agreement and assured him that we are committed to South Korea's defense," the spokesman said. "He expressed sympathy for the loss of life and appreciation for the restraint shown to date by the South Korean government."

Morrell noted the difficulty of "piling more sanctions upon the North than are already there."

"We've always known they aren't foolproof," Morrell said. "This is a regime that is determined to bypass the sanctions, to not abide by its international obligations."

China is seen as key to implementing sanctions on North Korea as Beijing provides more than 80 percent of the food, oil and other necessities to the isolated, impoverished communist ally.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday that the North's move to bolster its nuclear arsenal "has to do with a succession plan for his son," referring to ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who is about to transfer power to his third and youngest son, Jong-un.

China has been lukewarm in sanctioning North Korea due to fears that instability would result in a massive influx of refugees across their shared border or, in the longer term, a unified Korean Peninsula under South Korean and U.S. control.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told MSNBC: "China, even though it's frustrated with North Korea, is essentially a country that prefers a version of the status quo to anything that could lead to dramatic change."

"They don't want to see a wave of millions of refugees come across the border," Haass said. "They do not want to set in motion a chain of events that would lead to a war and, ultimately, a unified Korea under the control of Seoul in the American political and diplomatic and security orbit."

He recommended Washington and its allies get tougher.

"What you need to do is retaliate when they do things like this, and you need to be prepared for something bigger," he said. "If they, for example, take any of their newfound nuclear capabilities and transfer them to a country like Iran or to any of the terrorist groups, we ought to be very clear that that would lead to our taking extraordinary military action, perhaps, seeking regime change."

Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo) called on Beijing to put more pressure on Pyongyang.

"I'd like to see our Chinese friends who really do have the biggest control over North Korea, really, start to crack down on them," Bond told CNBC's "Squawk Box." "I would like to see them a much more progressive and effective role in squeezing North Korea to get them back in the box."

Mark Toner, deputy spokesman for the State Department, said the U.S. will work with China and other partners to the six-party talks on the North's provocations, but added, "We're going to take a measured and unified approach."

Paul Stares, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he expects "an intensified diplomatic effort by the United States and China to contain this latest crisis and prevent such incidents from happening again."

"The United States will pressure China to rein in North Korea, emphasizing how much of a strategic liability it has become, while China will pressure the United States to lessen the military and diplomatic pressure that has been put on North Korea since the Cheonan incident," Stares said.

Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, sees the recent provocations as "the North's strategic escalating pattern of provocations designed to force the United States and South Korea to abandon pressure tactics, including sanctions on the regime.

"This incident is also another reminder of the White House's misplaced priorities," Klingner said. "While Obama spends every waking second using Chicago-style tactics to press for ratification of the New START nuclear deal with Russia, North Korea is running amok," he said.


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