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US: North Korean Ship Attack Violated Armistice, Not Act of Terrorism

The Obama administration said Monday that it considers the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, attributed to North Korea, to be a violation of the Korean War armistice and not an act of terrorism. Since the attack, there have been calls for North Korea to be returned to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, which carries with it major sanctions.

Obama administration officials say they will closely monitor North Korean activity for signs of a return to international terrorism.

But they say they consider the sinking of the South Korean warship the Cheonon to have been a military-against-military operation and not an act of terrorism. Forty-six South Korean sailors died in the attack.

There had been calls from members of Congress since the March 26 sinking for the Obama administration to reverse its 2008 decision to remove Pyongyang from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.

That decision, aimed at encouraging Pyongyang to proceed with an agreement in principle to scrap its nuclear weapons program, was made on grounds that there was no evidence linking North Korea to international terrorism since the 1980s.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said returning North Korea to the list is under continual review.

But he said U.S. officials believe the Cheonon sinking was not an act of international terrorism and that the attack by itself would not trigger the return of North Korea to the blacklist.

"It was provocative action, but one taken by the military of a state against the military of another state. That in our view does not constitute an act of international terrorism. It is certainly a violation of the existing armistice between the North and South. And we are obviously seeking a meeting with North Korean officials to discuss that," said Crowley.

Although a South Korean investigation, carried out with participation of foreign experts, concluded that a North Korean torpedo sank the Cheonon, Pyongyang has denied responsibility and has rejected calls for a meeting of the armistice commission.

Amid increased North-South tensions in the aftermath of the attack, the United States and South Korea agreed on Saturday that U.S. officers will remain in command of joint forces on the Korean Peninsula until 2015 instead of yielding authority to South Korea in 2012, as originally planned.

President Barack Obama also promised at the G20 summit in Canada to make a new push for Congressional approval of the U.S.-South Korea free-trade accord reached in 2007.

Opposition from U.S. labor unions, among other groups, has stalled the accord in Congress, although the Obama administration says progress has been made in easing Congressional concerns.

President Obama said in Canada that South Korea is an important U.S. ally and that this is a good time to help strengthen the alliance.