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Wednesday, July 21, 2010


The U.N. pulls its punches

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the U.N. Security Council blinked — again. Offered the chance to make a forceful denunciation of the attack on the South Korean naval corvette Cheonan, the council pulled its punches. Three months of intense negotiations yielded a statement that looks good until it is parsed. Then it falls apart as it offers a little something for anyone. Any condemnation of North Korean behavior that Pyongyang can openly label a diplomatic "victory" is clearly not tough enough.

The South Korean Navy vessel Cheonan sank as a result of an unexplained explosion March 26, resulting in the loss of 46 lives; a diver died in the days after the sinking during the search and rescue operations. The South Korean government stilled the urge to immediately denounce North Korea and instead convened a multinational investigation group — with members from South Korea, Australia, Britain, the United States and Sweden — to examine and explain what happened. The investigation concluded that the ship sank as the result of a "strong underwater explosion generated by the detonation of a homing torpedo." The torpedo was made in North Korea and "the evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine. There is no other plausible explanation."

North Korea denies the charge. Pyongyang has insisted that the entire incident is a fabrication and threatened to turn Seoul into "a sea of fire" if there was any retaliation against the North. That provided the backdrop for the Security Council deliberations.

South Korea presented the UNSC with the results of its investigation. Its conclusions were noted in the final statement approved by the council, but it merely points out that "in view of the findings . . . the Security Council expresses its deep concern." It does not attribute causality, nor accept the conclusions as definitive. In fact, it even "takes note of the responses from other relevant parties, including from the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea), which has stated that it had nothing to do with the incident." To its credit, the Security Council "deplores" the attack and the loss of lives, noting that it endangers regional peace and security. It calls for appropriate measures to be taken against those responsible.

For those keeping score, that is a pretty good response from the Security Council. It acknowledged that an attack had occurred — rather than a mere "incident" — and demanded a response. By calling for full adherence to the Korean Armistice Agreement, the statement implies that a violation of the agreement has already occurred.

Those inclined to see a glass half-empty — instead of half-full — have a compelling case. First, the July 9 statement was just that — a presidential statement. It was not a resolution of the Security Council, which has considerably more authority. Moreover, while it endorses a response against those responsible for the incident, it should be both "appropriate and peaceful." While we do not believe in "an eye for an eye" and invariably favor peaceful diplomacy, the United Nations is the one institution that should have the authority and legitimacy to enforce international law. It should have all options available.

If the statement seems toothless, then the credit, or the blame, goes to China. Since the sinking of the Cheonan, Beijing has continually challenged the validity of accusations against North Korea, questioning whether an attack had even occurred, and insisting on peace and stability above all else. Beijing has several reasons to take that position. First, it seeks to preserve its influence over Pyongyang and sheltering that regime from international condemnation goes a long way to win friends. Second, and most important, China is rightly concerned about the prospect of conflict on its border and the potentially dangerous spillover effects.

But China fails to see how its readiness to turn a blind eye to North Korea's actions will only encourage Pyongyang to indulge in more provocative behavior. For the last decade, North Korea has marched boldly up to each red line drawn by the international community and crossed it, confident that it would not be challenged for its belligerence. Thus far, that has been a safe bet, and key to North Korean confidence has been the near certainty that Beijing would protect Pyongyang from the consequences of its actions. China's reaction to the sinking of the Cheonan contrasts sharply with its reaction to the recent shooting of its own citizens by a North Korean border guard: Beijing demanded, and got, an immediate apology from Pyongyang.

That is not to say that the road to North Korea runs through Beijing. Chinese influence over Pyongyang is limited. But China's tolerance of North Korean provocations risks the very instability that Beijing fears most. If China wishes to preserve regional peace, it should demand justice and accountability for any party that threatens stability and should empower the United Nations, the international institution entrusted with keeping the peace, to do more. In this case, it did not.

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