South Korean soldiers set up a barbed wire fence during an exercise near… (Ahn Young-joon, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration reacted with new sanctions and blunt warnings Monday to a North Korean declaration that it had "completely scrapped" the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.
Sharpening the tensions on the peninsula, the North Korean regime declared in the party newspaper Rodong Sinmun that the 60-year-old truce was over and "the time for final showdown has arrived." It severed a hotline that has been used to prevent an unintended confrontation between North and South Korea and angrily condemned a 13,000-troop U.S.-South Korean military exercise that began Monday.
But while expressing concern over the North's actions, Obama administration officials insisted they would not seek to ease tensions, as past administrations have done, by providing aid in exchange for Pyongyang's promises to scale back its weapons program.
"The United States will not play the game of accepting empty promises or yielding to threats," Thomas Donilon, President Obama's national security advisor, said in a speech to the Asia Society in New York. "To get the assistance it desperately needs and the respect it claims it wants, North Korea will have to change course."
Donilon announced that the administration was issuing sanctions aimed at cutting off the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea from the U.S. financial system, saying the bank provides financing for Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programs. The punishments, which also blacklist three individual North Korean officials, come on top of financial sanctions imposed last week by the United Nations Security Council.
Donilon also warned Pyongyang, which is suspected of supporting an Iranian arms program, that the United States considers any sale of banned weapons technology a "grave threat" to the United States and "will hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences."
North Korea has previously threatened to void the armistice, but U.S. officials and private analysts are increasingly concerned that the North's mounting threats are a signal that it could soon lash out at South Korea.
Pyongyang responded furiously last week to the U.N. sanctions, which were imposed by unanimous vote in response to North Korea's Feb. 12 nuclear test. It has warned that planes and vessels need to stay away from sections of the East Sea and Yellow Sea, hints that it may be considering more missile tests.
South Korea's new president, Park Geun-hye, said Monday during her first Cabinet meeting that the country needed to "deal strongly with the North Korean provocation." She also said her government was prepared to work to build trust between the North and South.
Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington predicted that Pyongyang would lash out with a military provocation within weeks, noting in an assessment that North Korea has authorized some military action within weeks of the inauguration of each new South Korean leader dating to 1992. Park was inaugurated Feb. 25.
But Christopher Hill, who was U.S. envoy for North Korean nuclear negotiations during the George W. Bush administration, said he thought the North's unprecedented tough rhetoric was aimed primarily at strengthening North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's position with his domestic audience, as well as defying the Chinese, who have been tougher than usual in their condemnation of the nuclear test.
"It bears some watching, but I don't think this is a sign of impending conflict," said Hill, now at the University of Denver.
Donilon's comments appeared to suggest that the administration was not about to overhaul its approach to North Korea — sometimes called "strategic patience" — despite pressure from the left to return to negotiations and from the right to escalate punishment.
"I don't think there is anywhere they can go," Hill said. "There aren't a lot of great choices."
Times staff writer Richter reported from Washington and special correspondent Choi from Seoul.