China leans toward South Korea's view of Cheonan warship sinking

Is China leaning toward supporting sanctions against North Korea? China’s Premier Wen Jiabao discussed with South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak the evidence of the Cheonan warship sinking. Japan, China, and South Korea meet this weekend.

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    South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak (r.) and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao attend a signing ceremony at the presidential Blue House in Seoul Friday. Mr. Wen discussed with Mr. Lee the evidence of the Cheonan warship sinking.
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China showed signs Friday of edging toward South Korea’s view of the March sinking of the South Korean navy vessel, the Cheonan. At least, China’s second highest leader indicated China would not side with North Korea’s denial of having anything to do with it.

China’s Premier Wen Jiabao left that impression after a two-hour meeting here with South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak. The Cheonan episode, in which 46 sailors died, was the central topic.

Mr. Wen, as quoted by a spokesman for Mr. Lee, assured him that China "opposes and censures any kind of act destroying peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula."

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In what many viewed as a careful exercise in diplomacy, as reported by Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, Wen said China would “determine its position in an objective and fair way” – with due regard for “the international investigation” that concluded last week that a North Korean midget submarine had fired the torpedo that sank the Cheonan on March 26.

While not the condemnation that South Korea was hoping for from China, analysts say, it showed China’s lack of enthusiasm for North Korea’s threatening rhetoric as well as its denials of sinking the 1,200-ton naval vessel in disputed waters in the West or Yellow Sea.

“The Chinese are not the big mates of North Korea that everyone thinks they are,” says Michael Breen, author of two books on Korean issues, but “if they do anything, it will be low key.”

Mr. Breen sees China as going part way to meeting South Korean hopes for support. Although China might not back condemnation or sanctions by the United Nations Security Council, he says, “they might just not block sanctions either.” Rather than exercising the power of veto, he believes, China might simply abstain.

Lee briefed Wen in minute detail on the results of the investigation that included experts from 10 Korean agencies as well as the United States, Australia, Britain, and Sweden, according to the spokesman for the Blue House. The two leaders reviewed documents and other material to substantiate the conclusion of “overwhelming” evidence.

Lee, a one-time top executive in the Hyundai empire, apparently did not mince words as he sought to bring China around to the South Korean view, telling Wen bluntly that “China needs to play an active role in making North Korea admit its wrongdoing.”

Although Wen avoided a commitment, he promised that “China would not patronize anyone” who might have been responsible for the incident, said the Blue House spokesman.

China spoke to Kim Jong-il about the attack

Analysts here say that China is well aware of North Korea’s role – and that China’s President Hu Jintao communicated his concerns to North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il before receiving Mr. Kim in Beijing earlier this month.

China’s President Hu Jintao spoke on the telephone with Kim Jong-il telling him he knew that Mr. Kim had ordered the sinking of the ship, according to Ha Tae Keung, president of Open Radio for North Korea. “He warned Kim Jong-il not to violate the stability of the Korean peninsula.”

Mr. Ha, whose short-wave station beams two hours a day of news and commentary into North Korea, says he got that information, and much more, from sources inside North Korea. His station runs a website that regularly carries reports passed on by clandestine cell phone calls from contacts inside North Korea or by messages from people crossing the Yalu or Tumen River border into China.

China has been loathe to join nations around the world in criticizing North Korea for the incident. Its ties to Pyongyang go back to the Korean War, in which Chinese troops drove US and South Korean forces from the Yalu River and rescued the North Korean regime. China, pumping food and military materiel into the North, has been keeping the ruined North Korean economy on life support ever since the failure of communism in the former Soviet Union ended Soviet and East bloc aid in the early 1990s.

More meetings this weekend

“China's unwillingness has been a key stumbling block for South Korea's plan to bring the case to the UN Security Council for sanctions,” according to an analysis by Yonhap. “Support from Beijing is crucial as the nation is one of five Council members that could block any Council move.”

The fact that Premier Wen is spending so much time here, however, suggests his desire to placate South Korean sensitivities.

He and President Lee are talking again on Saturday along with Japan’s Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in an extraordinary three-way summit on the resort island of Jeju, off South Korea’s southern coast. Mr. Hatoyama has already added his voice to the chorus of condemnation of North Korea, and Japan on Friday strengthened its own sanctions on dealings with the North.

“Tensions go up and down,” says Mr. Breen, visiting Jeju. “China will play a let’s-calm-down role.”

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