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U.S. Officials Press China on North Korea, Trade

South Korea’s decision to cut nearly all trade and economic assistance to North Korea, close its waters to North Korean ships, and halt visits between the two countries dramatically escalated tensions on the Korean peninsula Monday, just as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a 200-strong delegation of U.S. officials kicked off three days of high-level talks in Beijing.

How the international community should respond to North Korea’s alleged sinking of a South Korean warship in March, which led to South Korea’s response Monday, will be at the forefront of the U.S.-China talks.

Clinton is in Beijing, along with Treasury Secretary Tim Geither, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, and more than a dozen Cabinet secretaries and U.S. agency heads, to discuss a full agenda of economic and security topics between the two nations, including the hope that China will create a more open trade policy, revalue its currency, and further cooperate with the United States on sanctions against Iran.

But the situation on the Korean peninsula looks likely to dominate the talks after Monday’s announcement by the South Korean president that his country would take steps against North Korea.

“We have always tolerated North Korea’s brutality, time and again,” South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said in a nationally televised speech. “But now things are different. North Korea will pay a price corresponding to its provocative acts. Trade and exchanges between South and North Korea will be suspended.”

In a statement released by the White House Monday, the administration said:

“President Obama fully supports President Lee in his handling of the ROKS Cheonan incident and the objective investigation that followed….Specifically, we endorse President Lee’s demand that North Korea immediately apologize and punish those responsible for the attack, and, most importantly, stop its belligerent and threatening behavior. U.S. support for South Korea’s defense is unequivocal, and the President has directed his military commanders to coordinate closely with their Republic of Korea counterparts to ensure readiness and to deter future aggression.”

On the sidelines of the Beijing talks, Clinton told reporters, “We are working hard to avoid an escalation of belligerence and provocation,” according to the Washington Post. “This is a highly precarious situation that the North Koreans have caused in the region. And it is one that every country that neighbors or is in proximity to North Korea understands must be contained.”

China has yet to make a public stance on the issue, despite intensive lobbying by South Korea and the United States to send the issue to the U.N. Security Council. Earlier this month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il visited China, just a week after South Korea’s leader visited Beijing to present its findings that the North had torpedoed and sunk a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 sailors in the deadliest attack there since the Korean War.

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