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Why North Korea Cheonan sinking gets wrist slap from UN

North Korea agreed to its first talks with the US in a year, and is signaling interest in restarting the six-party talks about nuclear disarmament.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / July 12, 2010

Park In-kook, South Korean ambassador to the United Nations, speaks to the press outside the Security Council chambers at United Nations headquarters in New York July 9. The Security Council condemned on Friday what it called an attack leading to the sinking of a South Korean ship in March, but in a concession to China stopped short of explicitly blaming North Korea.

Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo/Handout/Reuters

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A UN Security Council statement that fails to blame North Korea for sinking a South Korean naval vessel may already be reaping diplomatic rewards.

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At least, that's how North Korea is playing it. China and North Korea are moving quickly to try to put the Cheonan sinking behind it.

Emboldened by the UN Security Council’s unanimous assent Friday to a statement that “deplores the loss of life and injuries” and “condemns the attack” in which 46 South Korean sailors were killed in March, North Korea agreed Monday to the first talks in more than a year. The talks will be held Tuesday at the border truce village of Panmunjom.

Senior North Korean and US military officers, meeting under terms of the Korean War armistice, are expected to discuss the sinking of the South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, as a prelude to broader issues. The North Koreans are sure to repeat oft-stated denials of involvement with the attack while demanding that South Korea call off planned naval exercises with the US that the North has said could lead to war.

Analysts agree North Korea came out ahead in wresting a simple statement from the Security Council rather than a strong resolution condemning the North for the attack.

North Korea “is right to crow about the UNSC statement,” says Aidan Foster-Carter, a longtime follower of Korean affairs at Leeds University in England. “They sank a ship, and pretty much got away with this act of war.”

Return to six-party talks?

Mr. Foster-Carter adds, however, that the UN Security Council statement “was the best that could be gotten” in view of Chinese as well as Russian objections. He notes, moreover, that the statement does cite the outcome of the lengthy investigation in which experts from South Korea and four other countries – the US, Britain, Australia, and Sweden – agreed the North had staged the attack.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US State Department official, now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, agrees “the compromise came out entirely because China would not accept a condemnation.” Still, he adds, “it is likely to defuse tensions for the time being.”

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