U.S. backs Seoul’s charge that North Korea sank ship

Navy soldiers stand guard near the wreckage of the naval vessel Cheonan, which was sunk on March 26 near the maritime border with North Korea, at the Second Fleet Command's naval base in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, May 19, 2010.

U.S. President Barack Obama vowed to help South Korea defend itself against any further “acts of aggression,” the White House said on Wednesday as it backed Seoul in its accusation that North Korea sank one of its navy ships.

“Such unacceptable behavior only deepens North Korea’s isolation,” the White House said in a statement. “It reinforces the resolve of its neighbors to intensify their cooperation to safeguard peace and stability in the region against all provocations.”

The U.S. government echoed Seoul’s assertion that an international investigation had yielded proof that a North Korean submarine fired the torpedo that hit the South Korean ship in March, killing 46 sailors.

“It points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that North Korea was responsible for this attack,” the White House said.

“This act of aggression is one more instance of North Korea’s unacceptable behavior and defiance of international law,” it said. “This attack constitutes a challenge to international peace and security and is a violation of the Armistice Agreement.”

Obama spoke by phone to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak two days ago, the statement said, and “made clear that the United States fully supports the Republic of Korea, both in the effort to secure justice for the 46 service members killed in this attack and in its defense against further acts of aggression.”

Obama’s efforts to engage diplomatically with nuclear-armed North Korea in the early days of his administration last year were met with defiance, and the U.S. leader has since toughened his rhetoric against Pyongyang over its nuclear program.

Lee pledged a firm response against North Korea.

Pyongyang called the accusation a fabrication and threatened strong measures, including war, if South Korea imposed sanctions.

Seoul’s bid to further isolate Pyongyang could also lead to a U.S.-backed push for harsher U.N. sanctions against North Korea that could tighten the vise on its already impoverished economy.

Beijing, a pivotal player in long-stalled six-nation talks to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, is the reclusive state’s only major ally and is reluctant to penalize its government for fear of causing instability on its border.

North Korea has denied it was responsible for the ship sinking, accusing the South’s conservative government of using the incident for political gain and to worsen already chilly ties between the two Koreas.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Seoul on May 26 in what analysts see as a show of solidarity with the long-time U.S. ally.

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