Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Clinton, Gates visit DMZ dividing 2 Koreas-AP

Clinton, Gates visit DMZ dividing 2 Koreas*

The Associated Press, Panmunjom, Korea
Wed, 07/21/2010 10:32 AM

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates paid a rare visit Wednesday to the heavily fortified border dividing the two Koreas - a symbolic trip four months after the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on the North.

Forty-six South Korean sailors were killed when the Cheonan exploded in the waters near the Koreas' western maritime border. An international team of investigators pinned the blast on a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine - the worst military attack on South Korea since the 1950-'53 Korean War.

Sixty years after the fighting began, the peninsula remains divided in a state of war because the conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. Hundreds of thousands of troops stand ready on both sides of the DMZ, making it one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world.

Clinton, arriving at the DMZ on a rainy, overcast day, said she and Gates wanted to make a "real show of solidarity" with their visit. Later, they are to lay wreaths at the War Memorial for the 46 sailors killed in the sinking of the Cheonan and to commemorate the Korean War. They sit down for security talks with their South Korean defense and diplomatic counterparts later Wednesday.

"It's particularly timely to show our strong support for South Korea, a stalwart ally, and send a strong message to North Korea," she told reporters in Kabul, Afghanistan, before departing for Seoul.

North Korea has denied any role in the sinking of the Cheonan and has warned that any punishment would trigger war.

The U.N. Security Council earlier this month approved a statement condemning the sinking but stopped short of directly blaming Pyongyang for the attack. But U.S. and South Korean officials say the aggression must not go unpunished.

U.S. officials said they expect an announcement Wednesday of "country-specific sanctions" against North Korea. One official described them as "strong," and said they would target banks and other institutions but declined to be more specific.

South Korea's foreign minister, Yu Myung-hwan, told YTN television Tuesday that he also expected Washington to announce additional sanctions against North Korea.

Gates, arriving a day earlier than Clinton, announced Tuesday with his South Korean counterpart Kim Tae-young that the U.S. and South Korea would push ahead with four days of joint military exercises starting Sunday.

The U.S. stations 28,500 soldiers in South Korea, a legacy of the Korean War, and routinely holds joint military drills that raise the ire of North Korean officials, who cite the threat as a main reason for building up its nuclear program.

The DMZ visit, Korean War commemoration and security talks reflect Washington's "strong relationship and partnership" with South Korea, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington on Tuesday.

"We hope that North Korea's paying attention. We hope that it will understand that we are fully committed to the defense of South Korea, and we hope that it will take steps as a result to reduce tensions, improve relations with its neighbors, cease these provocative actions and work more constructively towards denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," he said.

The 155-mile-long DMZ serves as a buffer between the two Koreas, strewn with land mines and guarded by scores of combat-ready troops.

At the height of the Cold War, the two Koreas occasionally exchanged gunfire along the DMZ. In 1976, two U.S. Army officers were hacked to death with their own axes by North Korean soldiers.

South Korean soldiers adopt taekwondo stances while manning the "truce village" of Panmunjom just feet away from North Korean troops with the red badges bearing the image of late President Kim Il Sung pinned to their uniforms.

Former President George W. Bush, during a 2002 visit to the DMZ, urged the "despotic regime" in the North to unite with the free South, saying: "No nation should be a prison for its own people."

His predecessor, Bill Clinton, reportedly described it as "the scariest place on Earth" after touring the no man's land in 1993.