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Clinton condemns North Korea as South Korea weighs response

North Korea and South Korea have been careful to avoid explicit calls for war, but both nations have implied that military action is possible if their diplomatic standoff continues.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / May 21, 2010

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton answers a question from the media during a joint press conference with her Japanese counterpart Katsuya Okada following their meeting at the Iikura guesthouse in Tokyo, Japan, Friday.

Saul Loeb/AP


Seoul, South Korea

South Korea and North Korea escalated their war of words Friday in an atmosphere of mounting tension that raised the distinct possibility of more battles in the Yellow, or West Sea but no reprisals for North Korea’s torpedoing the Navy ship Cheonan in March.

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South Korean leaders appeared ambivalent about how tough to talk or act, or what to do militarily amid vague threats that left analysts wondering if they had settled on a clear plan of action.

No sooner had President Lee Myung-bak told his top aides “we must be highly prudent” than his defense minister was vowing to “make sure that North Korea pays for its dastardly deeds.”

Kim Tae-yong, talking to foreign reporters at the Defense Ministry, stopped short of a military threat but came up with a fighting analogy that left scope for an armed response.

“A boxer in a ring would only hit with gloves,” he said, suggesting North Korea had broken the rules for the match.

“There must be limits to its hostility and methods,” said Mr. Kim. “For such acts, this government will definitely make North Korea pay.”

Counting on supportive words from visiting Clinton

But just how was the question as the government warmed up for diplomatic overtures, including pressure to get the United Nations Security Council both to condemn North Korea for torpedoing the Cheonan, killing 46 of its 104 crew members, and to strengthen sanctions.

President Lee is counting on much-needed support from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrives here next week after talking with her counterparts in Japan and China.

In Tokyo, she spoke Friday of the importance of “sending a clear message to North Korea that provocative actions have consequences.” Mrs.Clinton, however, appeared deliberately vague as she declared “this will not be and cannot be business as usual” and called for “not just a regional but an international response.”

Lee, for his part, warned against “a single mistake in all of our responsive measures,” while North Korea repeated its denials of anything to do with the incident and vowed “merciless punishment” in response to retaliation.

Pro forma rhetoric from North Korea

South Korean officials brushed off the North Korean rhetoric as pretty much pro forma for a regime that has on several occasions threatened to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire,” but worried over a repetition of hostilities in disputed waters off the Korean west coast. North Korea signaled that possibility Friday, vowing “the complete abrogation of the North-South agreement on non-aggression,” a reference to a pact reached in 1991 in which the North promised to respect the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the Yellow Sea.