North Korea headed back to the Security Council?

North Korea’s alleged torpedo strike in March against the South Korean naval ship Cheonan is likely to come before the U.N. Security Council next week, placing Pyongyang back in its familiar role as the U.N. villain. South Korea is expected to press next week for a resolution that would condemn North Korea’s action and reaffirm ...

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Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images
Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images
Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images

North Korea's alleged torpedo strike in March against the South Korean naval ship Cheonan is likely to come before the U.N. Security Council next week, placing Pyongyang back in its familiar role as the U.N. villain.

South Korea is expected to press next week for a resolution that would condemn North Korea's action and reaffirm international support for economic sanctions imposed on North Korea last year for its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, according to Michael J. Green, an Asia expert in the second Bush White House. But South Korean officials have expressed concern that North Korea's influential ally, China, will block any tough measures in the 15-nation council, according to Green, who recently met with Korean officials in Seoul.

"The Koreans are really pissed at the Chinese," said Green, noting lingering frustration that Beijing hosted North Korean leader Kim Jong Il after the March 26 attack. "They are expecting the worst."

North Korea’s alleged torpedo strike in March against the South Korean naval ship Cheonan is likely to come before the U.N. Security Council next week, placing Pyongyang back in its familiar role as the U.N. villain.

South Korea is expected to press next week for a resolution that would condemn North Korea’s action and reaffirm international support for economic sanctions imposed on North Korea last year for its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, according to Michael J. Green, an Asia expert in the second Bush White House. But South Korean officials have expressed concern that North Korea’s influential ally, China, will block any tough measures in the 15-nation council, according to Green, who recently met with Korean officials in Seoul.

"The Koreans are really pissed at the Chinese," said Green, noting lingering frustration that Beijing hosted North Korean leader Kim Jong Il after the March 26 attack. "They are expecting the worst."

Green said that South Korean officials have told him and other outside experts that "they are determined to restore deterrence. That means they need to impose tough-enough measures that dissuade Kim Jong Il from doing it again but not so tough that they trigger further escalation. It’s going to be hard to find that sweet spot."

North Korea responded angrily to South Korea’s claim that it had attacked its naval vessel as "sheer fabrication" and said it would answer any South Korean action "with various forms of tough measures including all-out war."

The Security Council has a range of options, from the adoption of a mild statement by the president of the Security Council raising concern about the dispute over the sinking of the Cheonan, to a legally binding resolution that will sanction North Korea for engaging in an act of war. U.N. diplomats rate it highly unlikely that any proposed resolution would authorize a military response.

China, which has veto power in the council, has expressed skepticism about evidence suggesting a North Korean midget submarine attacked the South Korean vessel. China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, told his counterparts in South Korea and Japan that China had to see "scientific evidence" of North Korean culpability. Instead of seeking to punish Pyongyang, Beijing has looked to the current crisis to restart a long-standing effort to restart six-nation talks with North Korea over its nuclear program.

South Korea does not a favor an immediate return to such talks, according to Green. "They made it clear ‘the last thing we want to do is go rushing back to six-party talks after they sink one of our subs.’"

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will travel to Beijing this weekend to press the government to support a Security Council resolution condemning North Korea’s action and reaffirming existing sanctions imposed on Pyongyang for its nuclear program. Green said the result of those meetings could have a lasting impact on Sino-American relations.

But officials said there are a number of steps that South Korea, the United States and other allies can take even without Chinese approval. Those include stepping up U.S.-South Korean military exercises in the region, cutting assistance to Pyongyang, and increasing pressure on governments to enforce existing sanctions against the North Korean regime. The United States could also place North Korea back on the State Department list of sponsors of state terrorism.

"A direct military strike is probably over the line," said Green.

In Washington, Senate leaders blamed North Korean for attacking a key ally. "The findings of the investigation presented by the Republic of Korea demonstrate conclusively that North Korea was responsible for the torpedo attack of a South Korean Navy ship that killed 46 sailors," said Sen. Jim Webb, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs. "It is imperative that the United States work with the Republic of Korea, a key U.S. ally, and with others in the international community in order to develop an appropriate response to this inexcusable act and to address any other provocative gestures from North Korea that threaten the stability and security of the region."

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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