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
Emboldened by the UN Security Councilâ€™s unanimous assent Friday to a statement that â€śdeplores the loss of life and injuriesâ€ť and â€ścondemns the attackâ€ť 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 â€śis right to crow about the UNSC statement,â€ť says Aidan Foster-Carter, a longtime follower of Korean affairs at Leeds University in England. â€śThey sank a ship, and pretty much got away with this act of war.â€ť
Return to six-party talks?
Mr. Foster-Carter adds, however, that the UN Security Council statement â€śwas the best that could be gottenâ€ť in view of Chinese as well as Russian objections. He notes, moreover, that the statement does cite the outcome of the lengthy investigationÂ in which experts from South Korea and four other countries â€“ the US, Britain, Australia, and Sweden â€“ 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 â€śthe compromise came out entirely because China would not accept a condemnation.â€ť Still, he adds, â€śit is likely to defuse tensions for the time being.â€ť
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 â€śon an equal footingâ€ť in order to achieve â€śdenuclearizationâ€ť of the entire Korean peninsula â€“ the same language the North has used in the run-up to previous agreements.
China, as North Koreaâ€™s ally and the source of most of its food aid, has also called for resumption of the talks, urging all sides â€śto remain calmâ€ť and â€śmove quickly to the next page of the Cheonan incident.â€ť
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 â€śresolutely opposesâ€ť any such activities â€śthat affect Chinaâ€™s security interests.â€ť
South Korean officials, responding to complaints from China, now say they may hold the exercises in waters off the Korean Peninsulaâ€™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.
â€śThere is a danger,â€ť says Mr. Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, â€śof North Korea drawing the lesson that provocations are cost-free.â€ť
Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of the 28,500 US troops in South Korea, agrees. Warning of â€śmore and more provocations,â€ť he said US and South Korean forces had to prepare for â€śasymmetricâ€ť warfare in which North Koreaâ€™s ailing leader Kim Jong-ilÂ attempts to assert his authority â€śthrough military provocations and threatening neighbors."