China toughens stance toward North Korea, but doesn't back sanctions

South Korea says North Korea is responsible for the torpedo attack that killed 46 sailors aboard the Cheonan in March.
By Blaine Harden
Saturday, May 29, 2010

SEOUL -- China toughened its position toward North Korea Friday but fell short of the support for a U.N. Security Council rebuke that South Korean leaders had hoped for during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's high-profile visit.

Wen told South Korean President Lee Myung-bak that China has not concluded whether North Korea is responsible for the March 26 sinking of a South Korean naval ship that killed 46 sailors. The incident has triggered one of the worst security crises on this divided peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean War.

That stance, in stark contrast to an international investigation blaming Pyongyang for the torpedo attack, reflects China's traditional kid-gloves approach to the isolated, impoverished and heavily armed dictatorship on its far eastern border.

Still, Wen signaled a shift in position by not simply supporting North Korea and by telling Lee that China would not defend anyone responsible for the sinking of the 1,200-ton Cheonan.

"It is a modest shift, but a pretty disappointing one," said Michael J. Green, a top adviser on North Korea in President George W. Bush's administration.

Green said that among China's leaders, Wen is one of the most sympathetic to South Korea's position and that his remarks indicate that China ultimately would support a U.N. resolution -- but "will do everything to water it down" and press for a return to negotiations. He noted that "Beijing never before has been under such pressure to choose between North and South," which is a major trading partner.

"We certainly hope that, you know, through this visit, China will recognize and support the conclusions of the investigation," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "We think that the evidence is compelling. And we think that it's time for the international community to come together in a united and demonstrated way and send a clear message to North Korea."

North Korea adamantly denies sinking the ship and has threatened war if there is any move to punish it. Pyongyang also said this week that it is severing relations with the South, a move that followed Seoul's imposition of trade, diplomatic and military measures to punish North Korea.

The North: Sinking 'faked'

On Friday, a senior North Korean general said the sinking was a hoax perpetrated by Seoul, and he warned of war. At a rare news conference for a member of the powerful National Defense Commission, Maj. Gen. Pak Rim Su reportedly said South Korea had "faked" the sinking.

Wen said China is examining the international investigation that blamed North Korea, whose state-run economy depends almost exclusively on China for fuel, food aid and trade. The investigation, conducted by South Korea and experts from the United States and three other countries, found evidence that a North Korean-made torpedo fired by a North Korean mini-submarine sank the ship.

China "always opposes and condemns any acts detrimental to peace and stability on the peninsula," Wen said, according to the official New China News Agency. He added that Beijing "takes serious note of the results of a joint investigation by South Korea and other countries, as well as the reactions of all parties."

Wen is in South Korea for a three-day visit that presents a difficult diplomatic challenge. China has to balance its historically protective stance toward North Korea against the surging importance of its economic ties to South Korea and Japan. This weekend, Wen meets again with Lee and with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

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