Officially, Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing have vowed to keep in close contact over North Korea’s alleged sinking of a South Korean warship, but critics don’t expect China to join other countries in adopting a United Nations resolution against Pyongyang.
During their summit Monday in Tokyo, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that North Korea should be “strongly condemned” in line with international rules, a senior Japanese diplomat said.
Wen’s actual response was not immediately known because Japanese diplomats refused to divulge any comments from the Chinese side. But at any rate Tokyo apparently failed to get Beijing to send a joint message against North Korea.
“I don’t think a (U.N.) resolution or a censure resolution is possible this time because China won’t agree to it,” said University of Shizuoka professor Hajime Izumi, a noted expert on North Korea.
“China’s view is that (any) resolution would damage the peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” he said.
Tokyo more than ever needs China to be part of a united front with South Korea and the U.S. against North Korea.
Regional tensions are rising and Japan-U.S. military ties have been under pressure over the relocation of a key U.S. base in Okinawa.
But Beijing appears reluctant to punish Pyongyang. Since the deadly March sinking, China, the North’s top ally, has called for restraint, while Seoul is set to bring the issue to the U.N. Security Council.
“It is an extremely delicate situation,” said Takashi Kawakami, a professor of security issues at Takushoku University. “Things are tense already, and the situation is likely to escalate when (South Korea) appeals to the U.N.”
Fighting could break out, Kawakami said.
Immediately after Seoul last week announced the findings of an international probe that concluded that a North Korean torpedo fired from a submarine sank the corvette Cheonan, Japan and the United States were quick to denounce Pyongyang and stand behind the South.
Hatoyama and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak agreed to push China to adopt a U.N. resolution against North Korea over the incident.
As one of the five veto-wielding powers on the Security Council, if China doesn’t go along, there can’t be a U.N. resolution.
China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner, providing a large share of key logistical goods, including food, medicine and heavy oil.
Pyongyang would thus be devastated if it lost Beijing’s support, which is why Japan, South Korea and other states are pushing China to take strong action against the hermit state.
“Preventing North Korea from taking further provocative action — that is the role that China must play,” Izumi said. “To maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, China has to make sure North Korea doesn’t step out of line.”
The Hatoyama administration said Friday that Tokyo’s sanctions against Pyongyang will be beefed up, including reducing the amount of money that can be sent to the hermit state without having to report to the government.
But Japan has already banned trade with the North, so it has little room for further effective action.
Imposing sanctions “is a way for Japan to indicate its intention, but I am not sure how much effect (sanctions) have,” Izumi said, noting they are only effective if they come from a nation Pyongyang depends on.
“In that sense, sanctions by China and South Korea are effective.”
Last week, Lee announced his country would resume sending propaganda broadcasts across the border and cut trade and other ties except those pertaining to a joint factory park in the border town of Kaesong.
In response, Pyongyang threatened to cut all ties, including Kaesong, and to fire at any loudspeakers broadcasting anti-North propaganda.
Halting the Kaesong project would impact both nations, Izumi said.
“North Korea itself would be hit badly and suffer from the cut in (Kaesong) trade,” he said. “It is tit for tat, but North Korea resorted to (cutting all ties) from the beginning, putting itself and South Korea in a tough spot.”
The political row over the Futenma air base in Ginowan, Okinawa, has meanwhile lessened Hatoyama’s diplomatic leverage in handling the Korean crisis.
Since the inauguration of his Cabinet in September, he explored ways to revise a 2006 bilateral accord to relocate the base within Okinawa, where antimilitary sentiment remains strong.
Hatoyama formally gave up the idea Friday in favor of underscoring Japan’s alliance with the U.S. amid the Korean crisis.
But he has angered the people of Okinawa and lost voter support nationwide, further weakening his political base and raising rumors he may be forced to step down before the Upper House election.
Hatoyama said the U.S. military presence in Okinawa is a “deterrence” and helps maintain peace and security in “the entire East Asian region.”