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.

Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo/Handout/Reuters
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.

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

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.”

In what appears to be a calculated campaign to gain diplomatic momentum and international recognition as a nuclear power, North Korea also is expressing an interest in returning to six-nation talks on its nuclear weapons program for the first time since December 2008. North Korea has called for talks “on an equal footing” in order to achieve “denuclearization” of the entire Korean peninsula – the same language the North has used in the run-up to previous agreements.

China, as North Korea’s ally and the source of most of its food aid, has also called for resumption of the talks, urging all sides “to remain calm” and “move quickly to the next page of the Cheonan incident.”

China opposes exercises in Yellow Sea

The Chinese appear still more concerned about antisubmarine warfare exercises that the South Koreans and Americans say they still plan to hold in the waters off South Korea. South Korean defense officials for weeks have been pressing the Americans to agree to stage the exercises in the Yellow Sea, the same general area in which an investigation concluded that a North Korean midget submarine fired the torpedo that sank the Cheonan on March 26.

China clearly views any show of force in the Yellow Sea, the large body of water between the Korean Peninsula and the Chinese mainland, as an act of intimidation. As a Chinese Foreign Ministry official put it, China “resolutely opposes” any such activities “that affect China’s security interests.”

South Korean officials, responding to complaints from China, now say they may hold the exercises in waters off the Korean Peninsula’s southern or eastern coasts. US officials have said US ships will participate but have yet to confirm whether the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington will lead the flotilla.

In any case, US diplomats have been assuring the Chinese the war games are to sharpen the skills of South Koreans in combating North Korean submarine attacks and are not intended to offend Chinese sensitivities.

The exercises, even if held in the Yellow Sea, will be well south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), set by the UN Command in South Korea after the Korean War, below which North Korean vessels are banned. The Cheonan was sunk just south of the NLL, in waters that have been the scene of bloody battles between North and South Korean vessels in June 1999 and June 2002.

Analysts remain uncertain, however, of the long-range repercussions of compromise in the aftermath of the waffling UN statement and the uncertainty of how to deal with both China and North Korea.

“There is a danger,” says Mr. Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “of North Korea drawing the lesson that provocations are cost-free.”

Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of the 28,500 US troops in South Korea, agrees. Warning of “more and more provocations,” he said US and South Korean forces had to prepare for “asymmetric” warfare in which North Korea’s ailing leader Kim Jong-il attempts to assert his authority “through military provocations and threatening neighbors."


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