HANOI, Vietnam – North Korea on Thursday warned the United States that imposing fresh sanctions and holding military drills with South Korea this weekend will endanger the entire region and destroy hopes for a nuke-free Korean peninsula.
The remarks precede an Asian security meeting in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, on Friday, attended by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the top diplomats from both Koreas four months after the sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors. The North has been blamed but denies responsibility.
“If the U.S. is really interested in the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, it should halt the military exercises and sanctions that destroy the mood for dialogue,” North Korean spokesman Ri Tong Il told reporters on the sidelines of meetings Thursday.
Sanctions, he said, escalate the U.S.’s “hostile policy toward North Korea.”
On Wednesday, Washington announced it would impose new sanctions aimed at stifling the North’s nuclear activities. Ri said any new sanctions would be in violation of a U.N. Security Council statement approved earlier this month that condemned the sinking but stopped short of directly assigning blame.
Regarding the naval drills the U.S. and South Korea plan this weekend, Ri told Yonhap news agency, “Such a move presents a grave threat to the peace and security not only to the Korean peninsula, but to the region.”
He later said the North is willing to meet the U.S. and Japan on the sidelines of Friday’s security meeting if they request it, but no such proposals have come, Yonhap reported.
Seoul has said there will be no one-on-one meetings with the North until an apology is issued for the sinking of the navy ship Cheonan. Clinton and representatives from all other parties in the stalled nuclear talks will be in Vietnam, but diplomats have said a meeting among them is unlikely.
In a sign of how tense relations are — and how difficult such meetings would be — U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates struck back Thursday at North Korea’s criticism of the military drills. “My response to that is that I condemn their sinking of the Cheonan,” Gates said to reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia.
South Korea has said the naval drills are defensive training exercises that do not violate the U.N. Security Council statement and that the sanctions are not to avenge the ship sinking but instead target the North’s illicit nuclear activities.
A South Korean foreign ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, accused North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun of using the meeting in Vietnam to look for friends.
“North Korea’s foreign minister has been very busy hanging out and trying to gain support from other countries,” the official said. “Many countries support South Korea’s position, and nobody likes North Korea.”
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said he wasn’t surprised the North was upset about the drills, but that South Korea and the U.S. have the right to conduct the military exercises.
“They can be angry on many things,” he told reporters, speaking in English. “If you Google North Korea every day, you find all kinds of angry words, and I’ll be in trouble if I follow my policy based on their state of emotion.”
An international investigation concluded the North sunk the ship by torpedo attack. The two Koreas remain in a state of war because a peace treaty was never signed to end their three-year war in the 1950s. Pyongyang cites the presence of 28,500 U.S. troops on South Korean soil as a main reason it needs to build nuclear weapons to defend itself.
North Korea vehemently denies any involvement in the sinking, and has asked the U.N. Command governing the armistice to let the regime conduct its own investigation. Military officers from the command and North Korea were to meet along the heavily fortified border that divides the peninsula, known as the Demilitarized Zone, on Friday.
The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are now caught in the middle of a diplomatic tug-of-war, with the two Koreas battling over the exact wording of one paragraph in a regional security statement about the sinking. The statement will be issued Friday by ASEAN, along with 17 other nations that include the United States, Japan and both Koreas.
The North and its main ally China are pushing to avoid any terse wording, while South Korea and its staunch backer the United States want tough language condemning the attack and nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.
There was similar haggling earlier in the week during the ASEAN’s foreign ministers meeting, which concluded with a watered-down version of what South Korea wanted. The ministers’ statement “deplored” the ship sinking, but characterized it as an “incident” instead of an “attack.”
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Tran Van Minh in Hanoi, Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and Joe Cochrane in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.