North Korea warned the United States and South Korea on Thursday to halt military exercises scheduled for this weekend and to back off any new sanctions against the communist country if they want to see a nuclear weapon—free Korean peninsula.

The warning issued on the sidelines of a regional meeting of Southeast Asian nations in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, came as tensions on the peninsula simmer over the sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors and a day after Washington said it would impose new sanctions aimed at stifling the North’s nuclear activities.

“If the U.S. is really interested in the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, it should halt the military exercises and sanctions that destroy the mood for dialogue,” North Korean spokesman Ri Tong Il told reporters.

He said any new sanctions would be in violation of a U.N. Security Council statement approved earlier this month that condemned the sinking but stopped short of directly assigning blame.

An international investigation blamed the North for the March sinking of the navy ship Cheonan, but the country has vehemently denied the allegations.

The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are now caught in the middle of a diplomatic tug—of—war, with the two Koreas each battling for the exact wording of one paragraph in a regional security statement about the sinking. The statement will be issued on Friday by ASEAN, along with 17 other nations that include the United States, Japan and both Koreas.

The North and its main ally China are pushing to avoid any terse wording, while South Korea and its staunch backer the United States want tough language condemning the attack and nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.

There was similar haggling earlier in the week during the ASEAN’s foreign ministers meeting, which concluded with a watered—down version of what South Korea wanted. The ministers’ statement “deplored” the ship sinking, but characterized it as an “incident” instead of an “attack.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Vietnam on Thursday, a day after announcing the new sanctions while on a visit to Seoul. She and the representatives of the other five nations involved in stalled talks on the North’s nuclear programme will be at Friday’s security gathering, but diplomats have said meetings between the sides are unlikely.

Seoul has said no one—on—one meetings with the North are possible until an apology is issued for the ship sinking.

More In: International | News