May 19, 2010 12:39
Investigators probing the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan have apparently discovered a smoking gun -- pieces of a propeller from a torpedo believed to have sank the vessel -- that implicates North Korea. They compared the collected pieces with a North Korean torpedo sample that was retrieved in the West Sea seven years ago and also analyzed traces of gunpowder found in the wreckage of the Cheonan, a government official said. The government is to announce the results of the investigation on Thursday.
The next task is to gain the support of the international community to come up with effective sanctions against North Korea. U.S. President Barack Obama spoke on the phone with President Lee Myung-bak on Tuesday and said the U.S. trusts and supports South Korea's response and investigation. Obama pledged to send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Seoul for close consultations about a response. Cooperation with Washington will prove a decisive factor in effectively implementing additional UN sanctions, bolstering joint military exercises, searching North Korean vessels on the high seas and freezing the North's overseas accounts.
The biggest variable is China, North Korea's trusty guardian. In order for sanctions against North Korea to be effective, Beijing's cooperation is essential, but instead it continues to back North Korea. Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie met South Korean veterans in Beijing and told them that the South must not make "the wrong judgment." Chinese Ambassador to Seoul Zhang Xinsen visited the headquarters of the main opposition Democratic Party on Monday and said, "We've been told by North Korean officials about their denial of involvement. There should be neither subjective speculation nor jumping to conclusions during the investigation." It flew in the face of diplomatic protocol for Zhang to visit the DP, which for election purposes is reluctant to pursue sanctions against North Korea, instead of the ruling party.
China only in 2008 elevated South Korea's status to "strategic partner," but there is little evidence of that. Instead, Beijing keeps repeating that a "scientific and objective investigation" is needed. How would Beijing react if one of its own Navy ships had been attacked and a country that is supposed to be a "strategic partner" simply kept trotting out some noncommittal mantra?
If China continues to toe this line over the Cheonan sinking, the U.S. and South Korean governments will have to find ways to bolster naval defense capabilities and training exercises without Beijing's participation. If that happens, then tensions will inevitably rise in the West Sea and could even lead to armed confrontation. China must carefully consider whether it stands to gain anything by recreating a Cold War rivalry in the West Sea.
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