Facing the fallout

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 September, 2010, 12:00am

Seoul has released the full report on the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan in March, with the loss of 46 lives, and it should go far to allay doubts about the initial conclusion - that the vessel was sunk by a North Korean torpedo.

One by one, the report considers then discards other possibilities, such as an internal explosion, grounding of the ship and fatigue fracture. The report reflects the international nature of the investigation. For example, the Swedish investigation team concluded that the deformation of the ship's starboard propellers could not have occurred 'due to a grounding event'.

Although the report said the explosion of a 'moored mine cannot be excluded', that possibility was highly unlikely partly because the tidal current in the area would pose 'severe limitations' to the installation of the mine and, besides, the Cheonan had patrolled that area many times that day without incident.

Ultimately, detailed investigations - aided by an analysis of a simulated underwater explosion provided by American experts - led to the assessment that 'an underwater explosion occurred'.

As to the identity of the perpetrator, an intelligence task force made up of South Korea, the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia concluded: 'The evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine. There is no other plausible explanation.'

The release of the report once again puts Beijing in an awkward position since it has become the de facto defender of Pyongyang even though Premier Wen Jiabao , while visiting Seoul in May, promised that Beijing would not protect whoever was responsible for the attack. He said then that China had not yet reached a conclusion on the incident.

Four months later, it seems, Beijing still has not reached a conclusion on the incident. The Chinese have declined a South Korean offer to examine the gathered evidence. The release of the full report now provides another opportunity for Chinese officials to study the evidence, if they are interested in actually reaching a conclusion.

But Beijing's behaviour suggests it is less interested in what actually happened than in protecting North Korea and ensuring political stability on the peninsula. In the UN Security Council, China insisted on a vague condemnation of the Cheonan attack without identifying the attacker. Then Beijing immediately urged all parties to 'turn over the page of the Cheonan incident as soon as possible', in order to make 'joint efforts to maintain the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula'.

The denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula can only be achieved through diplomacy, yet it is questionable whether the time is ripe for a resumption of the six-party-talks. That effort resulted in a 2005 joint statement in which North Korea agreed to abandon all nuclear weapons and its weapons programmes, while the five other parties - the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea - agreed to provide energy assistance to Pyongyang. But ultimately the talks broke down over the issue of verification.

Last year, North Korea asserted that it 'will not be bound by any agreement reached at the talks'. It is pointless to resume talks if they are going to be a re-enactment of 2005-2009. North Korea and China have to explain how any new talks will be different from those that collapsed. The question is whether Pyongyang will be more forthcoming on the issue of verification.

Another way to approach the Korean issue is to improve relations between the North and the South. However, despite some recent conciliatory moves by Pyongyang, such as the release of South Korean fishermen, Seoul has taken the position that it will not do more than provide humanitarian aid for the North as long as it does not apologise for the attack on the Cheonan.

China is the country best placed to see to it that Pyongyang changes its basic approach to South Korea and on denuclearisation. Protecting North Korea from the consequences of its own actions is not the way to do it.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator