- Associated Press - Thursday, July 22, 2010

HANOI (AP) — North Korea warned the United States and South Korea on Thursday to call off military exercises scheduled for this weekend and to back off any new sanctions against the communist country or risk placing the entire region in danger.

The warning issued on the sidelines of a meeting of Southeast Asian nations in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, came as tensions on the Korean peninsula simmer over the sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors. The North was blamed for the attack but has denied any responsibility.

“Amid growing concerns by the international community, South Korea and the United States have announced they would hold joint naval exercises,” said Ri Tong Il, a North Korean spokesman, according to Yonhap news agency. “Such a move presents a grave threat to the peace and security not only to the Korean peninsula, but to the region.”

On Wednesday, Washington announced it would impose new sanctions aimed at stifling the North’s nuclear activities. Mr. Ri said any new sanctions would be in violation of a U.N. Security Council statement approved earlier this month that condemned the sinking but stopped short of directly assigning blame.

“If the U.S. is really interested in the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, it should halt the military exercises and sanctions that destroy the mood for dialogue,” Mr. Ri told reporters.

Sanctions mean “escalation of the (United States‘) hostile policy toward North Korea,” he added.

He later said the North is willing to meet the United States and Japan on the sidelines of Friday’s security meeting if they request it, but no such proposals have come, Yonhap reported.

Seoul has said there will be no one-on-one meetings with the North until an apology is issued for the sinking of the navy ship Cheonan, and though U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and representatives of the other countries involved in stalled nuclear talks will be in Vietnam, diplomats have said a meeting among the sides are unlikely.

In a sign of how tense relations are — and how difficult such meetings would be — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates struck back Thursday at North Korea’s criticism of the military drills. “My response to that is that I condemn their sinking of the Cheonan,” Mr. Gates said to reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said that he wasn’t surprised the North was upset about the drills, but that South Korea and the United States have the right to conduct the military exercises.

“They can be angry on many things,” he told reporters, speaking in English. “If you Google North Korea every day, you find all kinds of angry words, and I’ll be in trouble if I follow my policy based on their state of emotion.”

An international investigation blamed the North for the March ship sinking, which has raised tensions on the peninsula. The two Koreas remain in a state of war because a peace treaty was never signed to end their three-year war in the 1950s. Pyongyang cites the presence of 28,500 U.S. troops on South Korean soil as a main reason for building up its atomic program.

North Korea vehemently denies any involvement in the sinking and has asked the U.N. Command governing the armistice to let the regime conduct its own investigation. Military officers from the command and North Korea were to meet along the heavily fortified border that divides the peninsula, known as the Demilitarized Zone, on Friday.

The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations now are caught in the middle of a diplomatic tug of war, with the two Koreas battling over the exact wording of one paragraph in a regional security statement about the sinking. The statement will be issued Friday by ASEAN, along with 17 other nations that include the United States, Japan and both Koreas.

The North and its main ally, China, are pushing to avoid any terse wording, while South Korea and its staunch backer, the United States, want tough language condemning the attack and nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.

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