HANOI, Vietnam — North Korea inflamed tensions over the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship by threatening the United States and South Korea on Friday with a "physical response" if they carry out naval maneuvers this weekend. The United States refused to back down.
North Korea's official news agency followed up early today by releasing a North Korean Defense Commission statement saying: "All these war maneuvers are nothing but outright provocations aimed to stifle the DPRK by force of arms to all intents and purposes."
It referred to North Korea's formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK):
"The army and people of the DPRK will legitimately counter with their powerful nuclear deterrence the largest-ever nuclear war exercises to be staged by the U.S. and the south Korean puppet forces."
The latest threat came four months after the sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors. The North has been blamed, but vehemently denies any involvement.
In Vietnam for a Southeast Asian regional security forum, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and a North Korean official traded barbs over the sinking, the four-day military drills beginning Sunday and the imposition of new U.S. sanctions against the North.
Also Friday, the U.S.-led military command monitoring the cease-fire on the Korean peninsula confronted the North about the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan, calling it a violation of the armistice that ended the Korean War. Colonels from the U.N. Command, who met at the border with counterparts from the North's army, reminded them of the U.N. Security Council order to honor the truce. Officers also proposed a joint task force to discuss armistice violations.
A team of international investigators concluded in May that a North Korean submarine fired the torpedo that sank the Cheonan. The U.N. Security Council approved a presidential statement this month condemning the sinking, but did not directly blame Pyongyang.
At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Hanoi, North Korean spokesman Ri Tong Il repeated Pyongyang's denial of responsibility for the sinking. He said the upcoming military drills — to be conducted in the Sea of Japan off Korea's east coast and in the Yellow Sea closer to China's shores — were a violation of its sovereignty.
The exercises will be "another expression of hostile policy against" North Korea. "There will be physical response against the threat imposed by the United States militarily," Ri said.
Clinton responded by saying the United States is willing to meet and negotiate with the North, but that this type of threat only heightens tensions.
"It is distressing when North Korea continues its threats and causes so much anxiety among its neighbors and the larger region," she said. "But we will demonstrate once again with our military exercises ... that the United States stands in firm support of the defense of South Korea and we will continue to do so."
Shortly before Ri spoke, Clinton had lashed out against belligerent acts by the North, warning Pyongyang must reverse a "campaign of provocative, dangerous behavior" if it wants improved relations with its neighbors and the United States.
She said stability in the region, particularly on the Korean peninsula, depends in large part on persuading an "isolated and belligerent" North Korea to alter course and return to nuclear disarmament talks which it pulled out of last year.
Members of the U.S. and North Korean delegations did not meet at the annual ASEAN Regional Forum, which has in the past been a venue for talks between the two sides. The 27-member bloc expressed "deep concern" over the Cheonan's sinking in a joint statement, a weakened version of an earlier ASEAN statement.
On Wednesday, Clinton announced that the U.S. would slap new sanctions on the North. The penalties will target the country's elite by taking aim at illicit activities, such as counterfeiting cigarettes and cash and money laundering.
SOUTH CHINA SEA: Clinton said "the United States has a national interest" in resolving conflicting claims over the Spratly and Paracel island chains in the South China Sea, particularly between China and Vietnam. She said the disputes interfere with maritime commerce, hamper access to international waters in the area and undermine the U.N. law of the sea. Her remarks are likely to anger China, which asserts sovereignty over the whole South China Sea.