North Korea is facing new pressures over its suspected sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, with the United Nations body that oversees the multinational force in South Korea saying Saturday it will investigate whether the North’s actions violated the five-decade-old Korean War armistice.
The conclusion of the investigation will be submitted to UN headquarters, the multinational United Nations Command (Korea) says – with an affirmative finding likely to boost calls for some kind of UN action condemning North Korea.
A UN response could range from a condemnatory statement to reinforced sanctions on North Korea. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is in China, said Pyongyang must face concrete “consequences” after South Korea issued a report Thursday finding that the March sinking of the Korean warship Cheonan was caused by a North Korean submarine torpedo.
North Korea denies any responsibility for the sinking that killed 46 South Korean sailors, and on Saturday blasted the UN investigation as a “bogus mechanism” to investigate something it said was “faked up by the South [Korean] side.”
But South Korea says its investigation – which included numerous international participants – found incontrovertible evidence of the North’s responsibility, including the inscriptions on the torpedo’s propeller, which indicated it was made in North Korea.
Secretary Clinton is in China on a trip that was supposed to focus on the two-day US-China strategic and economic dialogue set for Beijing beginning Monday, but which is quickly becoming dominated by the Cheonan issue.
Clinton will take the message to Beijing that Pyongyang can’t be allowed to take such aggressive and bellicose actions with impunity, US officials say. But the Chinese government, always worried about the North’s stability, is not expected to put lesson-teaching first.
For some experts, the Cheonan incident serves as a kind of wake-up call to the international community of the dangers that lurk in leaving the challenge presented by North Korea unaddressed. But even with a renewed will to confront Pyongyang, some say China is unlikely to go along with any measures that risk provoking its difficult neighbor.
“The question becomes, what is Beijing willing to do to signal to North Korea that this [action] was wrong?” says Dean Cheng, a research fellow in Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
According to Mr. Cheng, it is “quite possible” that the Cheonan incident caught China’s leadership off guard. Indeed, some experts speculate that Pyongyang – which may have been acting in retaliation for a naval skirmish between the North and the South last November that left one Northern sailor dead and at least one of its ships severely damaged – may have itself been surprised by the extent of the damage it inflicted.
Clinton is unlikely to greet her Chinese hosts with a list of demands for action on North Korea, especially since the US is seeking Chinese cooperation in other areas ranging from nuclear non-proliferation (focused on North Korea and Iran) and currency policy. Clinton and US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will use the strategic and economic dialogue to press China for a revaluation if its currency – an issue of top priority for the US Congress.
As a result, Cheng says, Clinton is more likely to “inquire with [the Chinese] what measures they are willing to entertain on the Cheonan,” he says. But he says even that would require that the US and South Korea have “a really clear policy … on how to respond,” and he says nothing indicates that such a policy has been worked out.