Turtle Bay

You think the Cheonan statement was weak? It could have been worse

Friday’s U.N. Security Council statement condemning the March sinking the South Korean warship Cheonan, but not fingering the culprit, may look like another example of the grubby compromises required to close a deal here. But it could have been a lot worse. In the final stages of the closed door negotiations of the text, North ...

Friday’s U.N. Security Council statement condemning the March sinking the South Korean warship Cheonan, but not fingering the culprit, may look like another example of the grubby compromises required to close a deal here.

But it could have been a lot worse. In the final stages of the closed door negotiations of the text, North Korea’s veto-wielding champion, China’s U.N. envoy Li Baodong, sought to gut the statement of any language that even hinted at North Korean responsibility, diplomats familiar with the talks told Turtle Bay.

China’s efforts on behalf of North Korea reflected Beijing’s concern that its nuclear-armed neighbor might respond provocatively if it were confronted by a direct charge of committing an act of war. So, China dedicated weeks of its considerable diplomatic firepower to lessening the sting of the U.N. response.

For instance, China proposed replacing four references in the statement to the word "attack "– as in the Cheonan suffered an attack — for the milder words "incident" and "act," those officials said. The watered down language would have made it easier for North Korea to suggest, for example, that the Cheonan had been split in two by accident.

So, instead of condemning the "attack which led to the sinking of the Cheonan," the Chinese wanted to condemn the "act which led to the sinking of the Cheonan." It may not sound like much of a difference. But it’s an important one: the American negotiators, led by U.S. ambassador Susan E. Rice, have based their contention that the U.N. statement really does blame North Korea for torpedoing the South Korea vessel on the fact that nobody else but Seoul’s mortal enemy, North Korea, had a motive for mounting an attack.

"This statement is notable, and I think is clear because in the first instance, it uses the term attack repeatedly, which you don’t have to be a scholar of the English language to understand it’s not a neutral term," Rice said.

China also sought to remove any language indicating that the council "expresses its deep concern" over the findings of a South Korean-led allied investigation into the attack. That provision, which stayed in the final text, provided the strongest hint, in an otherwise noncommittal statement, that North Korea probably fired on the Cheonan.

That investigation, which included specialists from the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada, concluded that a North Korean midget submarine shot a torpedo into the Cheonan, killing all 46 seamen onboard.

The investigators — known as the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group –presented the Security Council last month with a detailed briefing of their findings, including photographs of a torpedo tail with Korean writing and a series of test results eliminating the possibility of an explosion inside the vessel.

China simply wanted to take note of the investigators’ findings of North Korean culpability while similarly taking note of North Korea’s insistence that it had nothing to do with the attack. 

In the end, the two Korean delegations walked away from the meeting claiming they had got what they wanted. South Korea’s U.N. envoy Park In-kook, told reporters he was satisfied that the U.N. statement "made it clear it is North Korea to blame." He said, "I’m sure today’s strong unanimous statement will serve to make North Korea refrain from further attack or provocation."

North Korea’s U.N. envoy, Sin Son-ho, meanwhile, denied responsibility for the attack, and said his government would "do our utmost to dig out the truth behind this incident." As for the fact that the council stopped short of directly blaming his government: "It is out great diplomatic victory."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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