Security Council's move depends on support from veto-wielding China, which in the past opposed curbs against its 'friendly neighbour'.
South Korea seeks UN action on North
NEW YORK // With tensions rising on the Korean peninsula this weekend, Security Council members have been grappling with Seoul's demand for action against its northern neighbour over a torpedo attack that sunk their warship and left dozens of sailors dead.
On Friday, South Korea in a letter urged the 15-nation body to respond "appropriate to the gravity of this situation" ; only hours after the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, ratcheted up the rhetoric by describing the North as a liar, a war-monger and an unrepentant rogue nation. Pyongyang vehemently denies being behind the March 26 torpedo attack on the Cheonan and the deaths of 46 seamen, with a North Korean military commander warning that it will "mercilessly punish the enemy with the might of our army" if provoked.
Despite a history of suffering North Korean attacks, Seoul has never before taken Pyongyang to the Security Council for an inter-Korean provocation, indicating now that it wants to escalate the matter beyond the Korean peninsula. Last month, a multinational team of investigators concluded that the Cheonan was split in two by a North Korean torpedo. On Friday, Chung Min-lee, a senior South Korean official, said the UN body must "step up to the plate" but did not specify a desired outcome. It remains unclear what action the Security Council can take unless it secures support from veto-wielding China, the North's closest ally, which has been reluctant in the past to back tough sanctions against its communist neighbour.
"At this point, I don't think anyone's necessarily got a specific idea of exactly what the response should be," said the US state department spokesman PJ Crowley. "South Korea has indicated it wants the Security Council to act appropriately, given the severity of the North Korean sinking of the Cheonan." In a show of solidarity, US, Japanese and South Korean defence chiefs met in Singapore to discuss punitive steps against North Korea.
The US defence secretary Robert Gates told his counterparts that "it's important we have a unified front to deter further provocations", his press secretary, Geoff Morrell, told reporters. Meanwhile, Russia has dispatched its own team of investigators to Seoul, composed of experts on torpedoes and submarines, who have been inspecting the wreckage and visiting the site of the sinking. They are scheduled to return to Russia tomorrow.
The council will possibly hear envoys from Pyongyang and Seoul before deciding whether to pursue new sanctions, release a statement or call on the UN secretariat to launch an impartial investigation into the sunken corvette. North Korea proved defiant in the face of curbs imposed in June last year in response to its a nuclear test the previous month, when the council adopted a resolution toughening a pre-existing arms embargo and calling on UN members to search suspect cargo. This latest allegation to bolster the North's reputation as an international pariah presents the council members with the problem of tackling a repeat offender that shows brazen disregard to sanctions, diplomacy and threats.
Kongdan Oh, an analyst for the New York-based Asia Society, said Washington should push for sanctions targeted against the leader "Kim Jong-il and his loyal cadre", halting trade of luxury items and freezing their overseas bank accounts. "China is the stumbling block; it has not lifted a finger even though there is iron-clad, overwhelming evidence that this was North Korea's belligerent act during a time of war," she said. "China has been really dragging its feet."
China has some strategic and trade interests with its southern neighbour and is perhaps the only country capable of influencing its nuclear-armed leader. It has avoided criticising Pyongyang directly and appealed for restraint from both sides. Beijing provides impoverished North Korea with food and energy, and fears that punitive measures could prompt the collapse of its hard-line regime, an exodus of starving refugees and the expansion of a pro-western South Korea to its southern border.
In this context, Evan Feigenbaum, a regional expert from the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent think tank that advises the US government on foreign policy, said the UN body was more likely to forge agreement by drawing up a "presidential statement" that criticises the North for a hostile act. "The issue, long-term, isn't just a few words on a presidential statement," said Mr Feigenbaum.
"It is how much longer China, which wields the Security Council veto, is going to effectively shield North Korea from international action. "The Chinese have supported punitive action against North Korea before, but enforcement has been such a problem, not least in the sanctions. This demonstrates how China has still not traversed the distance philosophically, intellectually and psychologically to view North Korea as the fundamental challenge to the stability of the Korean peninsula that China supposedly cherishes."
John Delury, another Asia Society analyst, warned of a "dance of increasing tensions" between two nations that are still technically at war, because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953. "Perhaps one of the most useful functions of a UN-driven process now would be to take the Cheonan incident out of this combustible, inter-Korean context, and create room for impartial investigation and adjudication," he said.
firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse