Clinton pushes for North Korea sanctions over ship’s sinking

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton opened a U.S. campaign Friday for international measures to punish North Korea for the sinking of a South Korean warship, but it was unclear how receptive Pyongyang’s benefactors in China — or even its rival South Korea — would be.

Clinton began an Asian tour making it clear that the Obama administration wants the United Nations to take action against North Korea for sinking the patrol boat Cheonan in March, killing 46 South Korean crew members.

South Korea said this week that a multinational investigation had concluded that North Korea fired a torpedo that sank the vessel.

“Let me be clear. This will not be, and cannot be, business as usual,” Clinton said in Tokyo at an appearance with her Japanese counterpart, Katsuya Okada. “There must be an international — not just a regional, but an international — response.”

Clinton did not suggest specific actions. North Korea already is under a series of U.N. sanctions, but analysts said additional steps still could make it more difficult for North Korean organizations to do business abroad and could further isolate the country’s rulers.

Clinton travels to China this weekend, and it may prove difficult for her to make headway there on the North Korea issue. Beijing considers itself a protector of its isolated neighbor and is likely to resist new punitive measures. Pushing China on the question may be difficult for Clinton, who also is trying to hold on to Beijing’s support for sanctions against Iran.

With China reluctant, analysts said they expect a struggle within the U.N. Security Council on the question of new measures against North Korea.

After meeting with Chinese leaders, Clinton is scheduled to travel to Seoul. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has threatened “stern” action, and North Korea has vowed “all-out war” as a response to any retaliation.

The sinking of the Cheonan has been called South Korea’s Sept. 11, a national wake-up call that resulted in weeks of televised images of sobbing mothers and grim-faced generals. Officials in Seoul were considering steps including severing economic aid to the North, realigning military forces and asking the Security Council to rebuke Pyongyang.

Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said “the government will definitely make sure North Korea pays,” and conversative commentators have called the sinking of the vessel an act of aggression.

But opinion in South Korea is far from unanimous. The opposition, which favors greater engagement with North Korea and is suspicious of the pro-U.S. leanings of the governing conservatives, has been slower to blame Pyongyang, even in some cases questioning the authenticity of the evidence.

The opposition-leaning Hankyoreh newspaper challenged the premise that a North Korean submarine would have been able to get close enough to the Cheonan undetected, fire on it and then escape. Even if the North Koreans were responsible, it said, the event shouldn’t be used to mask South Korean failures that allowed the attackers to succeed.

“One cannot help wondering if this is a sorry attempt to use North Korea’s actions to cover up one’s own mistakes,” it said.

And younger South Koreans born after the 1950s war often view the North less as an evil empire than a colony of misguided cousins with whom they will one day be reunited.

“People just doubt and doubt and doubt,” Lee Ji-sook said of her government’s accusation that North Korea launched a surprise submarine attack.

A 22-year-old urban planning major at Yongsei University who is spending a year abroad in the U.S., Lee says many in her generation don’t believe North Korea poses a threat to the South.

“There is no common consensus on the Cheonan incident,” said Kim Yong-hyun, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.

Instead, Kim said, many South Koreans believe that the government needs a convenient foil so it can sell its agenda of increased security in June 2 elections for local and regional positions.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said that even if the government of the North’s Kim Jong Il is responsible for sinking the Cheonan, most South Koreans reject violence.

“There are suspicious voices looming over what the government has called the ‘smoking gun’ of evidence,” he said. “This is an election year. Many people believe the government is using this tragedy to its advantage.”

Many South Koreans insist on seeing the North as part of an overall, cohesive Korea.

“It may be just a fringe element, but people like my South Korean brother-in-law were excited last year when North Korea tested an atomic weapon,” said Tom Coyner, a Seoul business consultant who posts a South Korean political blog.

“He believed the event wasn’t a North Korean achievement, but a Korean achievement — that we should have all been proud if it.”


Richter reported from Washington and Glionna from Seoul. Ju-min Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau and special correspondent Teke Wiggin in Washington contributed to this report.