Is China backing away from censuring North Korea over the sinking of South's Cheonan warship?

Despite indications last week that it might take a harder line on North Korea over the North's apparent sinking of South Korea's Cheonan warship, China now appears unwilling to censure its Communist ally.

Lee Jae-won/AP
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (r.) and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi confer during the trilateral summit of South Korea, Japan and China in Seogwipo on Jeju island, South Korea, Sunday. The three leaders met Sunday on the last day of a summit expected to focus on how to respond to the sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on North Korea.

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China appears to be maintaining its unwillingness to censure North Korea for its involvement in the sinking of a South Korean warship, despite earlier indications to the contrary, as a summit between China, Japan, and South Korea ended without any public statement concerning North Korea.

The Korea Times reports that Chinese Primier Wen Jiabao, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made a joint statement at a news conference Sunday calling for regional peace and stability. But despite efforts by Mr. Lee to convince China to join in the international condemnation of North Korea's sinking of the South Korean cruiser Cheonan, the joint statement made no mention of North Korea.

During a joint press conference, Hatoyama and Wen offered their deep condolences to the families of 46 deceased sailors and vowed to cooperate with the international community to deal with the aftermath.

President Lee said South Korea will take appropriate steps to address the naval tragedy in close partnership with China and Japan. However, he stopped short of blaming North Korea.
"We will work together to properly deal with the case based on the common understanding that it is closely related to peace and stability in Northeast Asia," the leaders said in a joint statement.

The New York Times wrote that the fact that North Korea was not mentioned by name during the joint appearance is "an indication of subtle yet fundamental differences between China and its two capitalist neighbors in responding to North Korea." And while calling Wen's statement "China's strongest language yet to describe the grave situation" between the Koreas, The Associated Press reports that experts do not foresee China using its position on the UN Security Council to punish North Korea, its traditional ally.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said he doubted the Security Council would take up the Cheonan case.
"Wen Jiabao's speech today gave no practical measures in dealing with the Cheonan incident," Yang said. "He said nothing about how specifically China will get involved in regard to the U.N. Security Council."

South Korea will take its case against North Korea to the Security Council this week, according to South Korean news organization Arirang.

At the start of his visit to South Korea Friday, Wen had given indication that China might be amenable to South Korea's arguments against the North regarding the Cheonan.

The Korean daily Chosun Ilbo wrote that Wen said that China "will not protect" those responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan, and condemned "any act that destroys the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula."

The Christian Science Monitor reported that this led some analysts to suggest "China’s lack of enthusiasm for North Korea’s threatening rhetoric as well as its denials of sinking the 1,200-ton naval vessel...."

[Michael Breen, author of two books on Korean issues,] 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.

The Chosun Ilbo reports that the US, in support of Seoul, plans to use new sanctions to freeze the slush funds of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, rather than impose sanctions against the North Korean people. But Yonhap News writes that the escalating military tensions between the Koreas have led the South's military to defer its plans to restart leaflet drops over North Korea, which were stopped in 2004. Seoul had planned to renew the drops of anti-Pyongyang propaganda in response to the sinking of the Cheonan, but a military official says that "the political situation" has "put it on hold for the time being."

The Daily NK, a Seoul-based news site about North Korea, notes that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has been markedly absent from North Korean official news reports since Seoul's announcement of the result of its investigation into the Cheonan's sinking. Mr. Kim has made only a single public appearance since the announcement, writes the Daily NK, which experts say "is highly unusual; noting that after he suffered a stroke the media exaggerated Kim’s activities and promoted his healthy condition for purposes of domestic solidarity."

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