On March 26, the South Korean corvette Cheonan was sunk in the Yellow Sea with the loss of 46 lives. Six weeks later, an investigation conducted by South Korean, Australian, Swedish, Canadian, British and American experts determined that the warship had been hit by a North Korean torpedo, parts of which were found near the wreck. Both Seoul and Washington promised there would be a serious response to the attack. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton proclaimed that there "will not be and cannot be business as usual." Yet all the allies did was refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council.
On July 9, the Security Council issued a weak statement that fudged responsibility for the attack and opposed any retaliation. The document was less than a formal resolution and was adopted without a vote. It noted the international investigation, "which concluded that the DPRK was responsible for sinking the Cheonan" and said "the Security Council expresses its deep concern." But then the document noted that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea had "stated that it had nothing to do with the incident. Therefore, the Security Council condemns the attack that led to the sinking of the Cheonan" without directly choosing which side to believe.
That the conclusion was ambiguous was confirmed by the Chinese Communist Party newspaper Global Times, which referred to the "unexplained explosion" in its report on the Security Council statement. North Korea's U.N. Ambassador Sin Son Ho called it "our great diplomatic victory." Pyongyang has warned repeatedly that its military forces would respond to any Security Council condemnation for the sinking.
The real aim of North Korea's allies, China and Russia, was less the assessment of blame than the prevention of anything being put on the record that could justify counteraction against the Kim Jong-il regime. They let it be known early that no sanctions would be considered. What they got was a statement that only calls "for appropriate and peaceful measures to be taken against those responsible for the incident aimed at the peaceful settlement of the issue" and "the settlement of outstanding issues on the Korean peninsula by peaceful means to resume direct dialogue and negotiation ... averting escalation." North Korea will thus get away with its act of maritime aggression.
Li Baodong, China's U.N. representative, said it was time to "turn the page" on the sinking and move on. He called for a resumption of the Six Party Talks on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, which were suspended in December 2008. The Six Party Talks were conceived by Beijing in 2003 to protect North Korea in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. North Korea, Iraq and Iran had been called an "axis of evil" by President George W. Bush. During the talks, Pyongyang has conducted nuclear and long-range missile tests. And with the end of the Bush administration, North Korea no longer thinks the talks are necessary to deflect U.S. action.
Beijing has stepped from behind its facade as a responsible stakeholder to protect Pyongyang. Kim Myong-chol, a frequent writer for Asia Times who is billed as an "unofficial" spokesman for North Korea, has said China has concluded from its own investigation that the South Korean corvette was sunk by an American mine. Mr. Kim said the Chinese sent the report to left-wing groups overseas, where it has been circulating through the anti-imperialist and appeasement blogs.
Joint U.S.-South Korean naval maneuvers in the Yellow Sea have been postponed repeatedly, the latest excuse being to await the Security Council action. China did not wait. It held naval exercises in the East China Sea, the gateway to the Yellow Sea, June 30 through July 5. Russia held a major Far East war game June 29 through July 8. President Dmitry Medvedev, fresh from "burger diplomacy" with President Obama, boarded the Russian flagship Pyotr Veliky (Peter the Great) to watch the operation. The Pyotr Veliky is a nuclear-powered battle cruiser that the Russian media calls a "killer of aircraft carriers."
On July 14, the Pentagon said that joint U.S.-South Korean naval exercises would be held, but it did not give a date. It also said some of the maneuvers would take place in the Yellow Sea, though the drills would commence on the other side of the Korean Peninsula in the Sea of Japan. The strike group, led by the nuclear aircraft carrier George Washington, is slated to participate in at least some of the exercises, but the Pentagon would not confirm whether it will sail into the Yellow Sea against strong objections by Beijing. Chinese officials and the state-owned media have called any trespass into the Yellow Sea by a carrier group to be a threat to China, not just North Korea.
When joint U.S.-South Korean maneuvers will take place and what ships will be deployed in the aftermath of the Chinese and Russian show-of-force exercises will tell the world much about the balance of willpower in Northeast Asia. The Security Council statement will not deter North Korea, nor will a timid display at sea.
William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues.
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