South Korea and the U.S. are treading carefully in taking steps against North Korea over the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan amid a rift between Washington and Beijing about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
The two allies reportedly agreed to put on hold any measures that could upset China and are giving top priority to persuading the UN Security Council to adopt a strong resolution against the North.
Seoul and Washington agreed in a bilateral security meeting in Singapore on Saturday to postpone a joint military exercise which they had decided to stage as soon as possible until late this month.
Beijing had apparently called for a cancelation or drastic reduction of the scale of the exercise. Beijing has declined a fence-mending visit by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to express its displeasure at Washington's sale of US$6.4 billion worth of arms to Taiwan.
Gates and Defense Minister Kim Tae-young therefore decided to proceed softly and canceled their scheduled press conference in Singapore. Second Vice Foreign Minister Chun Young-woo may visit Beijing to explain South Korea's position.
According to diplomatic sources in Washington, Seoul is concerned that the UNSC, where China is a permanent member, may be unable to arrive at a sufficiently strong resolution.
They recall that after a 1996 incursion by North Korea into waters off Gangneung, the UNSC adopted only a chairman's statement, rather than a proper resolution, 12 days after the South Korean government brought the issue up, which only expressed concern and called for the armistice agreement to be upheld. "The UNSC chairman's statement at the time was nothing but a piece of paper that failed to point to the culprit behind the provocation," a diplomat recalled.
The threat of a veto from China, North Korea's staunchest ally, could again rob the UNSC response of any teeth.
Some officials within the U.S. administration are already reportedly in favor of a strongly worded UNSC chairman's statement rather than a watered-down resolution.