WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday pledged the United States would stand "shoulder to shoulder" with South Korea after what the White House branded a provocative, outrageous attack by North Korea on its neighbor. Its options limited, the U.S. sought a diplomatic rather a military response to one of those most ominous clashes between the Koreas in decades.
"South Korea is our ally. It has been since the Korean war," Obama said in his first comments about the North Korean shelling of a South Korean island early Tuesday. "And we strongly affirm our commitment to defend South Korea as part of that alliance."
Working to head off any escalation, the U.S. did not reposition any of its 29,000 troops in the South or make other military moves after North Korea fired salvos of shells into the island, setting off an artillery duel between the two sides.
The president, speaking to ABC News, would not speculate when asked about military options.
Obama called South Korean President Lee Myung-bak later Tuesday night, saying the U.S. would work with the international community to strongly condemn the attack that killed the two South Koreans and injured many more, the White House said.
The White House said the two presidents agreed to hold combined military exercises and enhanced training in the days ahead to continue the close security cooperation between the two countries.
Obama assured Lee that "the United States stands shoulder to shoulder with our close friend and ally, the Republic of Korea," the White House statement said.
"President Obama said that North Korea must stop its provocative actions, which will only lead to further isolation, and fully abide by the terms of the armistice agreement and its obligations under international law," the statement said.
The U.S. has relatively few options when dealing with the Pyongyang government. Military action is particularly unappealing, since the unpredictable North possesses crude nuclear weapons as well as a huge standing army. North Korea exists largely outside the system of international financial and diplomatic institutions that the U.S. has used as leverage in dealing with other hostile countries, including Iran.
North Korea has also resisted pressure from its major ally, China, which appears to be nervous about the signs of instability in its neighbor.
"We strongly condemn the attack and we are rallying the international community to put pressure on North Korea," Obama said in the ABC interview, specifically citing the need for China's help. Obama said every nation in the region must know "this is a serious and ongoing threat."
An administration official said Tuesday evening that U.S. officials in Washington and in Beijing were appealing strongly to China to condemn the attack by arguing that it was an act that threatened the stability of the entire region, not just the Korean peninsula. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates phoned South Korea's defense minister to express sympathy for the deaths of two of the South's marines in the artillery shelling of a small South Korean island and to express appreciation "for the restraint shown to date" by the South's government, a Pentagon spokesman said.
Obama called North Korea's action "just one more provocative incident" and said he would consult with Lee on an appropriate response.
In his phone call to South Korea's defense minister, Gates said the U.S. viewed recent attacks as a violation of the armistice agreement that ended the Korea War in 1953, and he reiterated the U.S. commitment to South Korea's defense, said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.
Obama was awakened at 4 a.m. Tuesday with the news. He went ahead with an Indiana trip focused on the economy before returning to the White House after dark.
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