Creative diplomacy papers over the Cheonan incident

by Frank Ching

The dispute over the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March has been papered over with a presidential statement unanimously approved by the 15-member United Nations Security Council.

As a result, we have the bizarre situation where the statement was applauded by both South Korea, the victim, and North Korea, the alleged attacker.

This was possible only because of a compromise reached between the United States, South Korea’s ally, and China, North Korea’s biggest supporter.

The statement finessed the issue of who had carried out the attack. Because China would not agree to the open condemnation of North Korea, the statement cited both the findings of a South Korean-led investigation, which concluded that North Korea was responsible, as well as Pyongyang’s denial of responsibility.

So China and the U.S. were able to work together, containing the incident while each country looked after the interests of its ally.

Of course, China is not totally in North Korea’s corner. It, too, does not want to see such attacks on South Korea in the future.

Similarly, both the U.S. and China wish to make sure that this incident does not escalate. Thus the statement praised the restraint shown by Seoul and emphasized the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the region.

Ever since South Korea in May unveiled the findings of the multinational investigation, both China and the U.S. had been aware of the potential that the Cheonan incident had for destabilizing the region.

While the U.S. was supportive of South Korea, including taking the case to the Security Council, it has little interest in allowing the case to be blown out of all proportion.

China was distinctly unenthusiastic about Seoul’s decision to take the issue to the Security Council and from the beginning had called upon all countries to exercise restraint and bear in mind “the overall interests of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”

And, as soon as the presidential statement was issued, China urged all parties to “turn over the page of the Cheonan incident as soon as possible” and make “joint efforts to maintain the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula.”

The U.S., too, is interested in a resumption of the six-party talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula although it recognizes that a cooling off period is needed.

For one thing, South Korea is demanding that North Korea first apologize and prove its willingness to denuclearize before the talks resume.

The presidential statement ends the Security Council’s involvement but the repercussions from the Cheonan incident are by no means over.

South Korea had rejected North Korean suggestions of inter-Korean talks on the issue, asserting that the torpedo attack on the Cheonan was a violation of the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953 and thus should be discussed by the U.N. Command’s Military Armistice Commission, which oversees the truce.

Interestingly, the Security Council statement called for “full adherence to the Korean Armistice Agreement” and encouraged “the settlement of outstanding issues on the Korean Peninsula by peaceful means to resume direct dialogue and negotiation through appropriate channels as early as possible.”

Thus the Security Council — including both China and the U.S. — seems to have endorsed talks between North Korea and the U.S.-led United Nations Command.

On July 9, the day of the Security Council statement, Pyongyang responded to the U.S. proposal by suggesting preliminary talks this week. A preliminary meeting at Panmunjom is meant to lead to higher level military talks on the incident. It is unlikely that the timing was entirely coincidental.

What all this suggests is a degree of behind-the-scenes coordination involving Washington and Beijing and, quite possibly, Pyongyang.

But the Cheonan incident may yet strain relations between China on one hand and the U.S. and South Korea on the other.

Seoul is planning a joint naval exercise with the U.S. in the Yellow Sea to send a signal to Pyongyang that behavior such as the attack on the Cheonan is unacceptable.

However, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman has warned that Beijing is “firmly opposed to foreign military vessels engaging in activities that undermine China’s security interests in the Yellow Sea or waters close to China.”

Thus, a warning signal to Pyongyang may turn into a provocation against Beijing and be even more destabilizing than the original Cheonan incident. That is certainly something that none of the parties concerned — China, the U.S. and South Korea — wish to see.

Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator.