Sunday, July 11, 2010

China-North Korea: an embarassing friendship

Security Council Blinks
The New York Times, July 9, 2010

“Lowest common denominator” is too often the standard at the United Nations. Even then, the Security Council’s new statement on the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan is absurdly, dangerously lame.

The Council deplored the attack and expressed “deep concern” over the findings of an international investigation that held Pyongyang responsible. But it also took “note” of North Korea’s insistence that it had nothing to do with the incident

Forty-six South Korean sailors died last March when the warship sank in disputed waters. Seoul quickly accused North Korea of torpedoing the ship but showed admirable restraint, inviting in an international team to investigate. The team did its work and agreed that a North Korean ship was responsible. South Korea produced a torpedo propeller with North Korean markings.

Afterward, Seoul and Washington both condemned Pyongyang’s actions and vowed to obtain a similarly tough Security Council statement. But all in all, South Korea continues to exercise restraint.

Which is why a clear condemnation from the Security Council was especially important. North Korea needs to know that such a brazen act of aggression will not be tolerated. And South Korea needs to know that there is diplomatic recourse in the face of such belligerence.

China, which has veto power on the Council, insisted on watering down the statement. The Obama administration could not change its mind. Beijing fears that a political collapse in North Korea would send millions of refugees streaming into China, and it has a long history of enabling Pyongyang. Even after the North exploded two nuclear devices, China continues to be its major supplier of aid, food and oil — and continues to shield it from the full effects of Security Council sanctions.

The statement “underscored the importance of preventing further such attacks or hostilities against” South Korea or in the region. But given the weasel wording about blame, it is hard to imagine that Pyongyang will listen. China has even more of a responsibility now to use its aid and its influence to curb the North’s excesses.

The United States and its partners in the long-stalled nuclear talks with North Korea — Japan, South Korea, Russia and China — must look for other ways to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula. They can start by helping the two Koreas agree on a demarcation line in the West Sea, where the Cheonan was attacked.

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