US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice today arrived in South Korea to press Seoul to support sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear test that rattled the world.
Rice’s trip is part of a regional tour to rally support for a UN Security Council resolution and call for tough action by the North’s main trade partners.
South Korea has previously been reluctant to raise the North’s ire, maintaining its policy of reconciliation that has led to unprecedented cooperation between the former wartime foes.
However, a senior US official speaking on Rice’s plane from Tokyo said the top US diplomat would not press Seoul too hard.
Rice “will be careful not to give the (South) Koreans specific suggestions,” the official said. “They don’t want to be seen as being pushed.”
The official said Washington was also hopeful about an apparent trip to the North by Chinese envoys to help resolve the stand-off.
The US wasn’t informed ahead of time by Beijing of that mission, the official said, which comes amid concerns the North could be preparing for more nuclear tests.
“I’m pretty convinced that the Chinese will have a very strong message about future tests,” he said.
Even before Rice arrived in Seoul, there were signs that South Korea could take tougher action against the North.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that Seoul had decided to halt subsidies to a joint tourism venture that operates the North’s Diamond Mountain resort that has been open since 1998.
The report, which didn’t cite any source, also said the South was planning to inspect cargo heading to North Korea, and to probe North Korean ships stopping at South Korean ports.
The South’s Unification Ministry couldn’t immediately confirm the report. It said the plans were being considered but no final decision had been made.
Washington had expressed scepticism about the tourism project earlier this week, with top US nuclear envoy Christopher Hill saying in Seoul that the venture seemed to be “designed to give money to the North Korean authorities".
Yonhap also said South Korea was reconsidering how it paid workers at a joint economic zone in North Korea’s border city of Kaesong.
Officials were considering paying the labourers directly, rather than sending the money to a group account for later disbursement, which critics say is vulnerable to abuse.
Yonhap said the South also would not provide additional material or tools for projects to link rail lines and roads between the Koreas, which remain technically at war and are separated by the world’s most fortified border.
Seoul was also considering whether to ban future shipments of emergency aid promised after the North suffered devastating floods in mid-July, Yonhap said.
Seoul already halted regular aid after the North test-launched a barrage of missiles in early July over international objections.
Ties between Washington and Seoul were strained even before the test. The US has called for a tougher line against Pyongyang, while South Korea has been reluctant to raise tensions – following the “sunshine policy” of engagement it has pursued since a 2000 summit between the two nations’ leaders.