SINGAPORE – The United States said on Saturday it is weighing new options beyond the United Nations to punish North Korea, which South Korea blames for the sinking of a warship that has escalated tensions on the peninsula.
Seoul has complained to the U.N. Security Council over the sinking of the corvette Cheonan in March, killing 46 sailors. South Korea and its main ally, the United States, blame the shadowy North for torpedoing the ship, although it is unclear what concrete action, if any, the U.N. will take.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a security conference in Singapore it was the "collective responsibility" of Asian states to address North Korean "provocations," increasing pressure on a reluctant China to rebuke its long-time ally.
"To do nothing would set the wrong precedent," Gates said at a meeting with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts.
In private, Gates told the ministers it was critical to show a "united front to deter further provocations" by the unpredictable North, said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell.
Gates said the United States would conduct more joint military exercises with South Korea and support "action" by the Security Council in response to the Cheonan attack.
"At the same time, we are assessing additional options to hold North Korea accountable," he said, suggesting the United States and its allies could act unilaterally or in concert.
Officials said Washington was looking at a range of options, which could include tightening economic sanctions, expanding searches of North Korean vessels and holding more large-scale shows of military force to try to deter future attacks.
North Korea denies responsibility for sinking the Cheonan and accuses South Korean President Lee Myung-bak of staging the incident to help his chances in local elections this week.
In increasingly shrill rhetoric, the North has warned several times that "war could break out at any moment."
Lee pledged to clamp down on any action deemed threatening but dismissed the likelihood of open conflict.
"There is no possibility of a war. There has been occasionally and locally peace-threatening behavior but we will strongly suppress it," Lee's spokesman, contacted by telephone, quoted him as telling businessmen at the Singapore summit.
U.S. military officials, including Admiral Robert Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, have also played down the risk of a major conflict, saying there were no signs North Korea was preparing a nuclear test or moving troops toward the South.
But another attack cannot be ruled out, officials said. "When you're dealing with a regime as unpredictable as (North Korea), that is always a concern," Morrell said.
Though stretched by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military insists that it is ready for any eventuality on the Korean peninsula. "American military power, and particularly conventional military power, is in my view as strong today as it has ever been in the Pacific. We are looking at ways to strengthen it further," Gates said.
But in talks with Asian leaders, Gates and other officials have made it very clear their goal is to avoid an escalation, diplomats said.
The United States and South Korea face a difficult balancing act -- finding a way to punish the North without provoking another attack. Underscoring those concerns, Gates raised the possibility that Seoul would stop short of seeking a full-blown Security Council resolution.
Planned U.S.-South Korea military drills might also be put off, at least until it becomes clear what action the United Nations is prepared to take, officials said.
The big question facing the United States, South Korea and Japan is how to gain leverage over a regime that appears to be indifferent to international pressure and responds in such seemingly erratic ways.
China, North Korea's only major ally and benefactor, may be the central player, although some U.S. intelligence officials have questioned how much sway it really has.
As a permanent member of the Security Council, China can veto any proposed U.N. resolution or statement chastising the North.
Without referring to China by name, Gates pointedly told Asian leaders in Singapore that all the nations in the region "share the task of addressing these dangerous provocations."
"Inaction would amount to an abdication of our collective responsibility to protect the peace and reinforce stability in Asia," he said.
Beijing has so far declined publicly to join international condemnation of Pyongyang, saying it is assessing the evidence.
U.S. officials say it remains to be seen what position China will ultimately take but acknowledge it appears reluctant to embrace tough measures at the United Nations.
Likewise, Russia has yet to fully sign onto South Korea's version of events about the sinking, raising questions about its position at the United Nations, they cautioned.
Beijing broke off military ties with Washington after it told Congress in January of a plan to sell Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade state, up to $6.4 billion worth of arms.
At the annual conference, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, Gates urged Beijing to accept the "reality" that Washington is committed to arming Taiwan, like it or not.
That drew a sharp challenge from Major General Zhu Chenghu of China's National Defense University. He said continued arms sales to Taiwan sent the message that America saw the Chinese as "enemies." Gates rejected that characterization, saying China and the United States were partners in many areas.
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