South Korea made its first concrete move Thursday to enforce sanctions over North Korea's nuclear test, saying it will ban officials from its northern neighbor who fall under a U.N. travel restriction.
Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok said Seoul would also control transactions and remittances relating to inter-Korean trade and investment with the North Korean officials, Yonhap news agency reported.
South Korea made the decision despite a warning from the North on Wednesday that any sanctions imposed by Seoul would be seen as a "declaration of confrontation" and could cause a breakdown in inter-Korean relations.
Seoul had been hesitant to take strong measures to support the sanctions, mindful of Pyongyang's massive armed forces poised at the border, its family and cultural ties with the North and its wish to expand economic relations with its neighbor.
But its decision is certain to be welcomed in Washington, where U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday urged South Korea to show "a strong commitment" to the international sanctions endorsed by the U.N. after the North's Oct. 9 nuclear blast.
"We understand that this is a complicated set of issues for South Korea," Rice said. "North Korea's behavior poses a regional challenge and it must be addressed in a regional context. South Korea must be part of the solution, as should Japan and China and Russia."
Meanwhile Thursday, a leading international think tank warned of a humanitarian crisis, saying that growing numbers of North Koreans could try to flee their homeland.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group called on regional governments to improve their treatment of North Korean refugees, more than 9,000 of whom have fled to freedom, mostly in South Korea.
"There's a very real possibility that the nuclear crisis will be followed by a humanitarian crisis," said Peter Beck, head of the group's Seoul office. "The more belligerent the North is, the less the world wants to help them, no matter how much you try and separate politics from humanitarian issues."
Meanwhile Thursday, Japan's Foreign Ministry denied a news report that its government is planning a meeting with the U.S. and South Korea as early as next month to solidify a common stance on the North Korean nuclear standoff.
Kyodo News agency, citing unidentified government officials, said Japan wants the trilateral meeting to reaffirm the demand that the North Korean nuclear crisis be resolved through six-party talks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country is one of those involved in the six-party talks, called North Korea's nuclear test "inadmissible" but said that "the way out of the current situation is to return to six-party talks." Pressuring North Korea could result in an impasse, he warned.
A U.N. resolution passed in response to the North's Oct. 9 nuclear test bans the sale of weapons material, luxury goods and more to North Korea is key. The sanctions also seek interception of ships believed to be carrying suspect materials. The resolution calls for all member countries to state how they plan to implement sanctions on the North within 30 days from its Oct. 14 adoption.
Seoul's task force held its first meeting Tuesday.
In response, the North warned that any move by South Korea to impose trade, travel and financial sanctions would be seen as a "declaration of confrontation" that would elicit "corresponding measures" from Pyongyang. The North also warned the sanctions could cause a breakdown in inter-Korean relations.
South Korea's participation in sanctions is important as it is one of the key aid providers to the impoverished North, along with China.
Also at issue is whether South Korea would expand its participation in a U.S.-led international drive aimed at stopping and searching ships and aircraft suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction or related material.
Lee, the unification minister, told lawmakers Thursday that South Korea needs a "cautious approach" to the PSI as long as there is the possibility of armed clash between the two Koreas.
Lee has offered to step down in apology over the North's test, the office of President Roh Moo-hyun said. Lee has been a strong supporter of engagement with North Korea, and his critics accuse him of being pro-Pyongyang.