Despite U.S. Prodding, China Merely Calls for Restraint on the Korean Peninsula

By Patrick Goodenough | May 25, 2010 | 4:41 AM EDT

South Korean soldiers train for possible North Korean attacks near the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas on Tuesday, May 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

( – As South Korea and the United States turn up the pressure on North Korea over the sinking of a South Korean warship, Kim Jong-il’s closest ally looks unwilling to do or say anything about the incident beyond its customary calls for calm.
As a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council and the source of 70 percent of its communist neighbor’s energy and food supplies, China’s stance on the destruction of the Cheonan will be key to any attempts for a credible international response.
So far, however, Beijing has restricted its response to urging the parties to exercise restraint, while hinting that it remains unconvinced that North Korea was behind the tragedy.
An international team of investigators concluded last week that a North Korea submarine fired a torpedo at the Cheonan last March, causing it to split in half and sink. Forty-six sailors died in the incident, South Korea’s costliest military loss since the Korean War more than half a century ago. Pyongyang has angrily denied responsibility.
Chinese government spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said Monday that matters such as the sinking of the ship should be handled “fairly and objectively” and based on facts, Xinhua reported.
While Beijing has said little publicly, the Global Times, a paper linked to the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, quoted a North Korean expert at Dalian University’s Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, Lu Chao, as saying that any Chinese statement favoring one side could add fuel to the fire, and that “further investigation into the alleged attack is necessary.”
Voicing concern about regional instability, Lu repeated the line that China stresses each time tensions rise on the Korean peninsula – that the best solution would be the resumption of the “six-party talks.”

North Korean defectors rip a picture of Kim Jong-il during a protest against Pyongyang in Seoul, South Korea, on Monday, May 24, 2010. (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)

The Beijing-chaired dialogue launched in 2003 in the hope of resolving the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons has been stalled since late 2008, with Pyongyang refusing to return before U.N. sanctions imposed after its nuclear and missile tests are lifted.

“The Chinese keep saying that the evidence is not 100 percent convincing but it certainly meets the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ test,” Ralph Cossa, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Pacific Forum in Honolulu said Tuesday.
China’s stance on the Cheonan affair has drawn criticism in South Korea from the outset, not least of all because it took the Chinese government a month after the ship sank before it offered condolences for the loss of the life. Beijing also hosted Kim Jong-il earlier this month, just days after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited Shanghai and discussed the ship sinking with President Hu Jintao.
“It is time for China to act according to its own global status and uphold the principles of world peace, even if that means sacrificing a few of its interests in relations with North Korea,” Seoul’s conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial Monday.
“Now that North Korea has been proved to have disrupted international order at sea, China must show it is willing to place greater priority on the principles of world peace than its special relationship with the North.”
Another paper, JoongAng Ilbo, said China’s international stature would be damaged by its continuing sheltering of its ally.
‘Prudent and appropriate’
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Beijing for bilateral strategic and economic talks, urged China Monday to “work together” with the U.S. to address the “serious challenge provoked by the sinking of the South Korean ship.”

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and defense officials at the Korean War Memorial after Lee delivered a speech on Monday, May 24, 2010 outlining punitive steps against North Korea. (AP Photo/Lee Jae-Won, Pool)

The South Korean government will tackle the Chinese on Tuesday, when Beijing’s special representative for the Korean peninsula visits, and again on Friday, when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is scheduled to hold talks with President Lee in Seoul.
Lee on Monday announced a range of measures in response to the incident, including bringing the matter before the U.N. Security Council, suspending economic relations with the North, and steps to strengthen his country’s defense posture.

North Korean ships will not be allowed to enter South Korean waters and anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts, which were stopped as a goodwill gesture in 2004, will resume.
“From now on, the Republic of Korea will not tolerate any provocative act by the North and will maintain the principle of proactive deterrence,” Lee said. “If our territorial waters, airspace or territory are violated, we will immediately exercise our right of self-defense.”
Clinton, whose regional trip takes her to Seoul on Wednesday, said in Beijing the measures announced by Lee were “prudent and entirely appropriate.”
The Pentagon announced that the U.S. Navy plans to hold joint exercises with the South Koreans focusing on anti-submarine warfare and at-sea interdicting of vessels. Spokesman Bryan Whitman linked the maneuvers directly to the Cheonan investigation findings.

‘Mild rebuke’

Cossa of the Pacific Forum said Pyongyang has placed China in a lose-lose position.

“After allowing Kim Jong-il to come to China, it would be difficult to turn around and accuse him of lying (since North continues to claim innocence),” he said.

“On the other hand, the Chinese are clearly losing patience and seem to be besides themselves – as is everyone else – in trying to figure out what to do with the North.”

Cossa predicted that China would, in the end, support a “mild rebuke” of North Korea at the Security Council.

“What's required is for South Korea, the U.S., Japan, and others to press for a really strict, firm U.N. response so that Chinese can then support something milder and explain to Pyongyang that it would have been much, much worse if they had not ridden to the rescue,” he said.

Cossa said the real hurt will be inflicted on North Korea by economic measures by the South, “provided the Chinese do not simply fill the gap.”

“Seoul and Washington will need to do full court press to ensure that China not only approves stricter measures but actually enforces them.”

As far as the six-party talks go, Cossa said they could not begin again until South Korea has taken steps, unilaterally and otherwise, to “punish” North Korea.

Thereafter, it is possible talks could resume, he said, although expecting that North Korea would agree to abandon its nuclear weapons, “is completely unrealistic.”

“The main reason for resuming the six-party talks is that no-one has a better alternative and the appearance of progress seems better than no progress at all.”
In yet another statement responding to South Korea's accusations, North Korea’s foreign ministry called the affair “a farce orchestrated by the group of traitors with the approval of the U.S. and under its patronage.”
The “group of traitors” is a term commonly used by Pyongyang to describe the conservative Lee government, which it reviles for putting the brakes on the decade-long “sunshine” policy of engagement practiced by Lee’s liberal predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow