China Dilutes Another U.N. Measure Dealing With North Korea’s Aggression

By Patrick Goodenough | July 9, 2010 | 4:57 AM EDT

South Korean Navy personnel walk past the wreckage of a warship that the government claims was sunk by a North Korean torpedo in March, in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul on Thursday, July 8, 2010. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

( – The Obama administration says a U.N. Security Council presidential statement condemning the sinking of a South Korean warship is “an appropriate response” to the deadly attack, even though it does not directly apportion blame.
At China’s insistence, the text stops short of accusing North Korea of responsibility for the March 26 sinking near the disputed maritime border between the two Koreas.
A South Korean-convened investigation involving international experts concluded that a North Korean torpedo sank the Cheonan. Forty-six South Korean sailors on the corvette died.
A month after negotiations on the issue began at U.N. headquarters, the five permanent council members, plus South Korea and Japan, agreed on the draft text Thursday. It is expected to be adopted by the full council on Friday.
South Korea originally pressed for a binding resolution, which carries more weight than a presidential statement, but ran into Chinese objections. A foreign ministry spokesman in Seoul told the Yonhap news agency Friday that the draft statement was satisfactory.
The statement says the council “condemns the attack which led to the sinking of the Cheonan.” It goes on to voice “deep concern” over the findings of the investigation which found North Korea responsible, but also notes North Korea’s denial of any involvement.
The statement also “underscores the importance of preventing further such attacks” and “calls for appropriate and peaceful measures to be taken against those responsible for the incident” – in both cases again without identifying the culprits.

U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice (AP Photo)

U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice told reporters Thursday that the statement was “a very clear and an appropriate response that – if approved by the full council – would send a unified message that the Security Council condemns the attack.”
But despite repeating two more times that the statement was “very clear,” Rice declined to answer directly the key issue of whether or not it blamed North Korea.
“In my reading of it it doesn’t directly blame North Korea for the attack – is that your reading or do you think that it does directly blame North Korea?” a reporter asked.
“We think the statement is very clear,” Rice replied. “It expresses the council’s judgment that the attack on the ship is to be condemned and that no further attacks against the Republic of Korea should be contemplated.”
North Korea has threatened that any punishment for the incident would draw a military response.
The Cheonan episode is the latest in a long series of occasions when China – sometimes joined by Russia – has used its position as a veto-wielding permanent council member to shield its ally in Pyongyang.
China (unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War) has never actually used its veto to block a North Korean-related resolution, but the mere threat – spoken or unspoken – of doing so has been enough to water down numerous measures over the years, including those responding to Pyongyang’s nuclear test and long-range missile launch last year.
Beijing’s impact on the Cheonan debate in the Security Council is evident in comparing the council’s draft statement to a statement issued by the Group of Eight at a summit in Canada late last month.
On that occasion the G-8, which excludes China, noted that the investigation had “concluded that the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea was responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan. We condemn, in this context, the attack which led to the sinking of the Cheonan. We demand that the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea refrain from committing any attacks or threatening hostilities against the Republic of Korea.”
(The Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea is the Stalinist state’s official name.)
At the end of the G-8 summit, President Obama used unusually strong language in speaking about China’s refusal to blame North Korea.
“I think it is a bad habit that we need to break to try to shy away from ugly facts with respect to North Korea’s behavior in the interests of, or under the illusion that that will somehow help to maintain the peace,” he said.
There was a difference between China adopting a posture of restraint – which was understandable, given its concerns about potential chaos in a neighboring country – and “willful blindness to consistent problems,” Obama added.
China hit back a day later, publishing an editorial in the Communist Party’s People’s Daily and an associated outlet, Global Times calling the remarks “irresponsible and flippant.”
It said Obama’s words were “based on ignorance of China’s consistent and difficult efforts in pushing for peace on the peninsula.”
“The U.S. president made the remarks only because China has not acted in accordance with the requests made by some countries,” the editorial said. “But those are unreasonable and irrational requests.”
There was no sign from the Security Council this week that Obama’s words had succeeded in shifting Beijing’s stance.
Reserving judgment
Pyongyang has consistently rejected the findings of the investigation panel, which included members from South Korea, the U.S., Britain, Australia and Sweden.
It demanded that South Korea allow a North Korean investigative team to hold its own inquiry, but South Korea refused.
Seoul did invite China and Russia, both of whom reserved judgment on the incident, to send their own investigators. China declined; Russia sent a team of experts for a week’s visit a month ago, but has yet to announce any verdict.
In a statement issued Tuesday, a North Korea’s foreign ministry spokesman said that as time passed there was “growing suspicion” around the world about the results of the original investigation and sympathy for Pyongyang’s desire to carry out an inquiry.
“The United Nations Security Council should abide by the principle of objectivity and impartiality so as to distinguish truth from falsehood and take heed of our proposal aimed at giving priority to the work of getting to the bottom of the incident,” the spokesman said.
Reports circulating on conspiracy-inclined Web sites blame the U.S. for the sinking of the Cheonan. One hypothesis, cited favorably by former Cuban president Fidel Castro in a column last month, holds that U.S. commandos sank the ship in order to alarm Japan, and thereby prompt Tokyo to back down in a dispute over relocating a U.S. airbase on Okinawa.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow