N.Korea willing to talk after escaping UN blame

North Korea said Saturday it was willing in principle to return to nuclear disarmament talks after the United Nations failed to blame it for a deadly attack on a South Korean warship.

The North, which denies US and South Korean claims that it torpedoed the ship with the loss of 46 lives, said it was vindicated by the UN statement which was watered down under pressure from China, Pyongyang's ally.

All parties in the dispute, which has sharply raised regional tensions, professed satisfaction with the compromise statement adopted Friday, which condemns the March attack without specifying the culprit.

The North said the statement exposes the "foolish calculation" of the United States and South Korea in bringing the issue to the UN. It warned of "strong physical retaliation" if they press on with countermeasures over the sinking.

A giant floating crane lifts the stern of the South Korean warship Cheonan to place it on a barge in April 2010.
A giant floating crane lifts the stern of the South Korean warship Cheonan to place it on a barge in April 2010.

If hostile forces persist in "demonstration of forces and sanctions", they would not escape "strong physical retaliation" or evade responsibility for escalating the conflict, a foreign ministry spokesman said in official media.

The South Korean and US navies are planning a joint exercise to deter North Korean "provocation". Seoul has announced reprisals including a partial trade cut-off.

Repeating its earlier stance, the North said it would make "consistent efforts for the conclusion of a peace treaty and the denuclearisation through the six-party talks conducted on equal footing".

Professor Kim Yong-Hyun of Seoul's Dongguk University said Pyongyang believed it had put up a good defence at the United Nations as the statement stopped short of blaming the sinking on the North.

"North Korea is now taking a peace offensive, calling for dialogue," he said.

The North abandoned the six-party talks in April 2009. It calls for talks on a formal peace treaty with the United States, and an end to sanctions, before returning to the nuclear dialogue.

South Korea, its ally the United States and several other countries had urged the UN to censure the North for the sinking, but China resisted such a move.

The statement condemns the attack as a threat to regional peace and calls for "appropriate and peaceful measures" against those responsible.

It expresses deep concern at the findings of a multinational investigation team which concluded the North was to blame, but "takes note" of the North's denial of responsibility.

The statement welcomes Seoul's restraint and calls for direct talks to settle disputes on the peninsula peacefully.

The North's ambassador to the UN, Sin Son-ho, hailed the statement as "our great diplomatic victory". The foreign ministry spokesman was less triumphal but noted the call for dialogue.

The spokesman complained that the UN "hastily tabled and handled the case before the truth of the case has been probed" and said the issue should have been handled between the two Koreas.

The North "remains unchanged in its stand to probe the truth about the case to the last", it said, describing the allegations against it as a "conspiratorial farce".

South Korea welcomed the UN's stance, saying it "emphasised the importance of preventing further provocations" but called on the North to accept responsibility for the attack and make an apology.

The South's defence ministry meanwhile said there was no change to its plan to carry out a joint naval exercise with the United States in the Yellow Sea, despite objections from China.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will visit South Korea this month, said the UN had sent a warning to North Korea "that such irresponsible and provocative behaviour is a threat to peace and security in the region and will not be tolerated".

The White House issued a similar statement, noting that the UN action came after the Security Council imposed tough sanctions on North Korea over last year's nuclear and missile tests.

Japan described the UN text as "a clear message of the international community about a North Korean attack" while China merely said it was time to move on.

"We hope the involved parties continue to maintain calm and restraint, and take this opportunity to flip over the page of the Cheonan incident as soon as possible," a foreign ministry spokesman said in Beijing.

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