UN statement sinks along with the Cheonan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 July, 2010, 12:00am

The United Nations Security Council's statement on the Cheonan episode was a model of compromise. Now debate rages on whether it was a shrewd way to avoid the 'all-out war' threatened by North Korea, or a study in appeasement that will only invite a worsening conflict.

There's no doubt, though, that the North Koreans came out ahead. They got away with an act of war. Still, unanimous assent to a mere statement does defuse tensions - at least for now.

It's impossible, however, to relegate the sinking of the Cheonan to the annals of history. The episode has deep repercussions and implications, beginning with such immediate questions as the resumption of talks on North Korea's nuclear programme and naval exercises in the Yellow Sea. North Korea has called for renewed six-nation talks 'on an equal footing' in order to achieve 'denuclearisation' of the entire Korean Peninsula. That's the language the North has always used to win recognition as a nuclear power while finding excuses for never living up to agreements for abandoning its nuclear programme.

Beijing appears more concerned about the prospect of joint US-South Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea than about returning to the six-nation talks. Washington and Seoul say war games are needed to hone skills in anti-submarine warfare. It was in the Yellow Sea that a North Korean submarine fired the torpedo on March 26 that split the Cheonan in two, sinking it in minutes with the loss of 46 sailors. Beijing has intimated repeatedly that any show of force in the Yellow Sea would be an act of intimidation.

South Korean officials, in deference to Chinese pressure, say they may hold the exercises off Korea's southern or eastern coasts. US diplomats have been assuring Beijing that they will train for submarine attacks, not to offend Chinese sensitivities.

American diplomats said the UN statement was cleverly worded to suggest North Korea was to blame. It did, after all, note sanctimoniously that five nations participated in the investigation in which North Korea was held 'responsible for sinking the Cheonan'. But the statement was basically meaningless. As a North Korean report noted with total accuracy, it was 'devoid of any proper judgment and conclusion'.

North Korea can move ahead on diplomacy and propaganda with the confidence that China is firmly on its side, and sure to become more so as tensions in the region increase. The US, meanwhile, is counting on Beijing to keep the North Koreans under control while bringing about a return to six-party talks. Considering Beijing's refusal to budge in its support for North Korea at the UN, it's absurd to believe that China will get North Korea to give up its nuclear programme.

The Cheonan episode will live on in the region's tragic history of conflict. China's reluctance to censure its North Korean protectorate offers no guarantee against future incidents, which may again upset the stability on which Beijing claims to place the highest priority.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers and journals