A senior US envoy arrived in Seoul on Wednesday for talks on the sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on North Korea that has inflamed tensions on the peninsula.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell flew in a day after Washington branded North Korea a “criminal state” over its threats of reprisals if it is censured by the UN Security Council over the warship sinking in March.
Campbell was due to meet South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy, Wi Sung-Lac, later Wednesday before holding talks with other top officials on Thursday, the Yonhap news agency reported.
“The Cheonan issue will be a main topic,” a foreign ministry official was quoted as saying.
South Korea has already imposed a slew of reprisals against North Korea, including the suspension of trade, over the sinking of the Cheonan which went down near their disputed Yellow Sea border with the loss of 46 sailors.
A multinational investigation last month said the blast which tore the corvette in two was caused by a North Korean torpedo, but Pyongyang has strongly denied any involvement.
North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations warned Tuesday that Pyongyang would take military action if the council condemns the reclusive communist regime over the sinking.
“That sounds like the same kind of provocative behaviour that has characterised North Korea unfortunately since early 2009,” US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters Tuesday.
“What we need from North Korea is accountability,” Crowley said. “We’re looking for North Korea to change its unacceptable behaviour, to cease belligerent actions.”
President Barack Obama also on Tuesday renewed unilateral US sanctions on North Korea left by his predecessor George W. Bush, citing the continuing threat from Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.
The Cheonan sinking has halted efforts to revive six-nation talks on North Korean disarmament which were suspended when Pyongyang walked out in April last year and then staged its second nuclear test.
The UN Security Council on Monday warned both Koreas against escalating regional tension after hearing briefings by both sides on the Cheonan incident, the deadliest peacetime naval disaster for South Korea.
Pyongyang has fired off a barrage of threats since the findings of the multinational probe were revealed last month, warning of all-out war on the peninsula and boasting it could turn Seoul “into a sea of flame”.
Seoul is seeking a UN censure of Pyongyang but China and Russia — two veto-wielding council members and key backers of the North — have voiced reservations about the findings of the multinational warship probe.
The two Koreas have remained technically at war since their three-year conflict which began on June 25, 1950 was ended only by an armistice three years later.
Sixty years on, South Korea’s navy plans to re-enact a Korean War sea battle to mark the anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict.
Seoul said earlier Wednesday that the South Korean and US navies had agreed to cooperate more closely on monitoring North Korean submarines and bolster intelligence sharing.
The South Korean military has been criticised over the Cheonan sinking, because of prior warnings of possible attacks by the North’s submarines near the disputed sea border.