SEOUL — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on world leaders — particularly those in China — to join in the condemnation of North Korea for its alleged role in the March 26 sinking of a South Korean warship.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to belligerence and provocation,” she told reporters Wednesday after meeting with South Korean leaders in Seoul. “This was an unacceptable provocation by North Korea, and the international community has a responsibility and a duty to respond.”

Clinton said she is confident that China, North Korea’s most important ally, will eventually agree with the findings of an international investigation team, which blamed the rogue nation for the sinking of the patrol ship Cheonan and the deaths of 46 crewmembers.

“I believe that the Chinese understand the seriousness of this issue and are willing to listen to the concerns expressed by both South Korea and the United States,” she said. “We believe it is in everybody’s interest, including China … for North Korea to change direction.”

China is widely believed to be the wild card that could affect how the United Nations Security Council will respond after a review of the Cheonan incident.

Clinton’s visit came during a week in which the two Koreas exchanged threats and war rhetoric. The countries are still technically at war after 1950-53 Korean War hostilities were ended with an armistice rather than a formal peace treaty.

Last week, investigators announced that torpedo parts found on the ocean floor, along with other evidence and testimony, led them to conclude that a North Korean submarine was responsible for blowing the Cheonan in two and killing almost half its crew in disputed waters of the Yellow Sea, near the maritime border between the two countries.

On Monday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak announced a variety of steps his country would take against North Korea in retaliation, including cutting off trade, not allowing cargo ships to use South Korean waters, staging a number of military exercises and broadcasting propaganda across the Demilitarized Zone.

In response, North Korea — which has denied responsibility for the Cheonan’s sinking — threatened “all-out war” and said it would cut off all communication until Lee’s term as president is over in 2013.

North Korea also said it would fire on any speakers set up to blast propaganda northward, and it barred eight South Korean government employees from continuing to work at the Kaesong Industrial Complex just north of the DMZ, where 1,000 South Koreans continue to work with 42,000 North Koreans at 120 South Korean-owned plants. The North also has threatened to close the complex altogether.

Clinton, who met with Chinese leaders earlier this week, praised Lee and his administration for the “firm, patient and deliberate” way they handled the investigation and response to the Cheonan tragedy.

Calling South Korea’s countermeasures “absolutely appropriate,” she said, “We will stand with you in this difficult hour, and we stand with you always.”

Clinton repeatedly suggested the response to the Cheonan incident could lead to significant changes that could ultimately benefit the poor people of North Korea.

“Its people could finally experience a better life,” she said, suggesting the economic success of South Korea could be used as a model. “North Korea’s future depends on the choices its leaders make today.”

The U.S. has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea. Clinton said another byproduct of the Cheonan incident could be “additional enhancements” that would improve the alliance’s ability to deter North Korean aggression and defend itself if necessary. She did not elaborate.

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