Uncertainties Hobble S.Korea's Response to Cheonan Sinking

      June 14, 2010 06:22

      South Korea's response to North Korea's sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan is being increasingly blunted after encountering resistance on all fronts.

      President Lee Myung-bak announced a list of steps against North Korea over the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan in an address to the nation on May 24, but counter-threats from North Korea and lack of support from China have thrown a spanner in the works.

      ◆ China's Reluctance

      Seoul on June 5 officially referred the sinking to the UN Security Council's 15 permanent and non-permanent members by sending a letter to chairman Claude Heller of Mexico. The cooperation of permanent member China is needed for a resolution against the North, but Beijing, a close North Korea ally, is sitting on the fence.

      Seoul's diplomatic efforts have focused on persuading Beijing. Second Vice Foreign Minister Chun Young-woo met senior Chinese Foreign Ministry officials in Beijing for three days from Tuesday to convince them that a UNSC resolution should make clear that the sinking was the result of an "armed attack from the North." But Beijing is unwilling to accept the wording.

      On June 2, chief nuclear negotiator Wi Sung-lac went to Russia to seek cooperation. A Russian team of naval experts have checked the finding of an international probe into the sinking and they seemed to conclude there is insufficient evidence to implicate North Korea. But their official conclusions will only be announced next month.

      A South Korean Foreign Ministry official expressed hope that China could change its mind if Russia comes on side.

      ◆ Trade Sanctions

      The Unification Ministry has halted all inter-Korean economic cooperation and exchange projects except the joint-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex, as announced on May 24.

      The North is estimated to lose over US$320 million per year in cash revenue alone. The industrial park has been maintained, but the number of South Korean staff there was cut by half from about 1,000 to about 500. A government official said the South could suspend operation of the industrial park if the North bans South Korean staff from traveling and leaves them stranded there, or detains any of them.

      If the industrial park is closed, the North would lose some $40 million-$50 million per year in what is nominally billed as "salaries" for 43,000 North Korean workers there.

      ◆ Military Exercise Delayed

      The Defense Ministry decided to delay or downscale a joint South Korea-U.S. military exercise in the West Sea and propaganda broadcasts across the military demarcation line. Seoul and Washington had planned to start the joint maritime exercise in the West Sea on Tuesday but put it off until after mid-June.

      Despite the ministry's claim that it is "adjusting" the schedule to "maximize the effects" of the exercise, there is widespread speculation that this is due to opposition from Beijing, which does not want a noisy U.S. military presence on its doorstep.

      The ministry also planned to resume propaganda broadcasts immediately, but loudspeakers had been set up along only 11 locations along the demilitarized zone by Wednesday, mostly concealed. And it is still unclear when the actual broadcasts will start or whether they will resume at all, apparently for fear of skirmishes after the North threatened to shoot down the loudspeakers if they do.

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