UNITED NATIONS — South Korea officially referred North Korea to the U.N. Security Council Friday over the sinking of a navy ship that killed 46 sailors, taking its strongest step ever toward making the communist North face international punishment.
South Korea's U.N. Ambassador Park In-kook handed over a letter to Mexico's U.N. Ambassador Claude Heller, the current Security Council president, asking for a response from the U.N.'s most powerful body to deter "any further provocations."
North Korea has steadfastly denied responsibility for the sinking of the Cheonan and naval spokesman Col. Pak In Ho warned last month in comments to broadcaster AP Television News that any move to retaliate or punish Pyongyang would mean war.
Heller said he will circulate the letter to the 14 other council members and then initiate consultations "to give an appropriate answer to this request." He will talk to council members before setting a date for the first closed-door council discussion, Mexico's U.N. spokesman Marco Morales said.
Despite a history of being attacked by North Korea, Seoul has never taken Pyongyang to the Security Council for an inter-Korean provocation, indicating now that it wants to take the matter beyond the Korean peninsula.
In the letter, Park said an international investigation determined that the torpedo that sank the 1,200-ton South Korean corvette Cheonan in March was made in North Korea and that additional evidence pointed "overwhelmingly" to the conclusion that it was fired by a North Korean submarine.
He called the attack a violation of the U.N. Charter, the 1953 Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War, and the 1992 North-South agreement on reconciliation, nonaggression and cooperation. The two Koreas technically remain in a state of war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.
"As such, the armed attack by North Korea constitutes a threat to the peace and security on the Korean peninsula and beyond," he said.
"My government requests that the Security Council duly consider this matter and respond in a manner appropriate to the gravity of North Korea's military provocation in order to deter recurrence of any further provocation by North Korea," Park said.
The letter was delivered hours after South Korea's president, in a hard-hitting speech bereft of diplomatic politeness, called North Korea a liar and a threat to northeast Asia. He called the ship attack "a military provocation" that also "undermines global peace."
"North Korea must admit its wrongdoing" and "pledge to never again engage in such a reprehensible action," President Lee Myung-bak said. "If the enemy continues to taunt us and think that they can do whatever they want they must understand that there is a limit."
They "must understand very clearly that they will have to suffer the consequences."
Lee, who was addressing Asia-Pacific defense ministers including U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, called for international support to act against North Korea and its secret nuclear weapons program.
The Security Council has several choices, a resolution with or without new sanctions against North Korea, a weaker presidential statement calling for specific actions, or a press statement.
U.N. diplomats familiar with consultations on possible action against North Korea said China, the North's closest ally, is opposed to new sanctions and indicated the more likely result will be a presidential statement. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because the contacts have been private.
The Security Council previously imposed sanctions against Pyongyang after its two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. These include U.N. embargoes on nuclear and ballistic missile related items and technology, on arms exports and imports except light weapons, and on luxury goods.
Frosty relations between the Koreas have plunged since the sinking of the Cheonan in March, and tensions have increased in northeast Asia.
When ambassador Park was asked at U.N. headquarters what kind of action South Korea would like, he replied: "I think the action which is commensurate with the gravity of this situation."