SEOUL | The United States will not use force to inspect a North Korean ship suspected of carrying banned goods, an American official was quoted as saying Friday.
An American destroyer has been shadowing the North Korean freighter sailing off China's coast, possibly on its way to Myanmar.
Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy met with South Korean officials in Seoul on Friday as the U.S. sought international support for aggressively enforcing a U.N. sanctions resolution aimed at punishing Pyongyang for its second nuclear test last month. The North Korean-flagged ship, Kang Nam 1, is the first to be tracked under the U.N. resolution.
North Korea has in response escalated threats of war, with a slew of harsh rhetoric including warnings that it would unleash a "fire shower of nuclear retaliation" and "wipe out the [U.S.] aggressors" in the event of a conflict.
On Thursday, the communist regime organized a massive anti-American rally in Pyongyang, where some 100,000 participants vowed to "crush" the U.S. One senior speaker told the crowd that the North will respond to any sanctions or U.S. provocations with "an annihilating blow."
That was seen as a pointed threat in response to the American destroyer.
Ms. Flournoy said Friday that Washington has ruled out use of military force to inspect the North Korean freighter.
"The U.N. resolution lays out a regime that has a very clear set of steps," Ms. Flournoy said, according to the Yonhap news agency. "I want to be very clear. ... This is not a resolution that sponsors, that authorizes use of force for interdiction."
Ms. Flournoy said the U.S. still has "incentives and disincentives that will get North Korea to change course."
"Everything remains on the table, but we're focused on implementing the resolution fully, responsibly and with our international partners," she said.
Ms. Flournoy's trip came as the U.S. sought international support for aggressively enforcing the U.N. sanctions.
It is not clear what was on board the North Korean freighter, but officials have mentioned artillery and other conventional weaponry. One intelligence expert suspected missiles.
The U.S. and its allies have made no decision on whether to request inspection of the ship, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Wednesday in Washington, but North Korea has said it would consider any interception an act of war.
A senior U.S. defense official said the ship had cleared the Taiwan Strait. He said that he didn't know whether or when the Kang Nam may need to stop in some port to refuel but that the ship has in the past stopped in Hong Kong's port.
North Korea is suspected to have transported banned goods to Myanmar before on the Kang Nam, said Bertil Lintner, a Bangkok-based North Korea specialist who has written a book about leader Kim Jong-il.