U.S.-China deal blocks Japan’s action on N. Korea’s rocket launch

by Ko Hirano

Kyodo News

PATTAYA, Thailand — Japan’s acceptance of a U.N. Security Council presidential statement in response to North Korea’s April 5 rocket launch instead of a UNSC resolution stemmed largely from a policy shift by the United States, Tokyo’s closest ally.

The compromise — struck between Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during their talks Saturday in Pattaya, Thailand — led the Security Council to reach a basic accord the same day on a draft presidential statement, paving the way for official adoption as early as Monday.

Initially, the United States supported calls by Japan and South Korea for a legally binding resolution, the strongest response from the United Nations’ most powerful body, for what is widely seen as a long-range ballistic missile test by North Korea.

A presidential statement, though a weaker response by the Security Council, becomes part of its official record, unlike a press statement, which China initially called for.

But China’s opposition to a resolution, Washington’s priority of an early resumption of the six-party talks on denuclearizing North Korea, prompted the United States to broker a deal between Japan and China, analysts say.

“The U.S. priority is to halt nuclear development and proliferation to terrorists and rogue states, as President Barack Obama said in laying out a vision for a world without nuclear weapons in his speech in Prague in early April,” said Shinichi Mizuta, a foreign policy analyst at the Mitsubishi Research Institute in Tokyo.

“The Obama administration’s focus is how to resume the stalled six-party talks,” Mizuta said. “I suspect the United States could not afford to confront China — chair of the denuclearization talks — by sticking to insistence on this missile issue. But that is not to say that Washington will overlook the issue and be tolerant to North Korea.”

Mizuta also pointed out that the United States needs support from China and Russia in addressing Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs because Washington has used a key diplomatic card — the removal of North Korea from the U.S. blacklist of terrorist-sponsoring nations last October.

China and Russia — traditional allies of North Korea and two of the five permanent Security Council members with veto power — have opposed invoking a new resolution against Pyongyang because they do not believe the launch was in violation of UNSC Resolution 1718, which bans any ballistic missile and nuclear activity by North Korea. Japan, the United States and South Korea claim the launch was such an activity, while North Korea says it was for a satellite.

China and Russia were also concerned that imposing tougher sanctions against Pyongyang in a resolution would prompt the country to pull out of the six-party process, a move that would increase tension in and around the Korean Peninsula.

The six-party talks — suspended since December over ways to verify Pyongyang’s nuclear programs — involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

Speaking to reporters after meeting bilaterally with Wen and as a trio with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak on Saturday, Aso said, “If a strong message can be ensured and the international community can swiftly send that message (to North Korea), we don’t think we need to stick to a certain format.”

The remark suggests that Aso and Wen — and Lee and Wen — agreed that a presidential statement condemns Pyongyang for the suspected missile launch, demands that North Korea comply with its obligation under Resolution 1718 and calls for an early resumption of the six-party talks.

Now that the weeklong UNSC negotiations on North Korea, convened immediately after the launch at the request of Japan, have come to an end, Japan will step up its North Korean diplomacy in a broader context using various diplomatic channels, while solidifying tie-ups with the United States and South Korea.

Aso is expected to take up North Korean issues, including missiles, nuclear and the abduction of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang, when he meets Chinese leaders April 29-30 in China and European Union leaders possibly in early May in the Czech Republic.

Aso is also likely to discuss the issues with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during his visit to Tokyo in May. Leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States will hold their annual Group of Eight summit in July in Italy.