SEOUL, South Korea – Top U.S. and South Korean defense officials met Friday for talks expected to focus on heightened tensions over North Korea's nuclear and missile threats. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called the North a "stumbling block" to world peace and security.
Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy's trip to Seoul came 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.
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.) agressors" 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 as an American destroyer shadowed a North Korean freighter sailing off China's coast, possibly with banned goods on board. The North Korean-flagged ship, Kang Nam 1, is the first to be tracked under the U.N. resolution.
Flournoy's Asia trip, which already took her to Beijing and Tokyo, also followed signs that North Korea is gearing up to test-fire short- or medium-range missiles in violation of the U.N. resolution. Pyongyang has issued a no-sail zone in waters off its east coast, effective from Thursday through July 10.
Details of Flournoy's talks with South Korea's Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee were not immediately available. She made no comments to reporters upon arrival at the Defense Ministry for the meeting.
President Lee criticized the North for "threatening compatriots with nuclear weapons and missiles." The regime is a "stumbling block to world peace and security," Lee said in a speech read by one of his aides at a ceremony marking the death of a renowned independence fighter.
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.
If permission for inspection is refused, the ship must dock at a port of its choosing so local authorities can check its cargo. Vessels suspected of carrying banned goods must not be offered bunkering services at port, such as fuel, the resolution says.
A senior U.S. defense official said the ship had cleared the Taiwan Strait. He said he didn't know whether or when the Kang Nam may need to stop in some port to refuel, but that the Kang Nam has in the past stopped in Hong Kong's port.
Another U.S. defense official said he tended to doubt reports that the Kang Nam was carrying nuclear-related equipment, saying information seems to indicate the cargo is banned conventional munitions. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity in order to talk about intelligence.
North Korea is suspected to have transported banned goods to Myanmar before on the Kang Nam, said Bertil Lintner, a Bangkok-based North Korea expert who has written a book about leader Kim Jong Il.