U.N. Security Council condemns sinking of South Korean warship

By Chico Harlan and Colum Lynch
Saturday, July 10, 2010

TOKYO -- In a show of compromise rather than muscle, the U.N. Security Council on Friday unanimously condemned the sinking of South Korea's Cheonan warship in an ambiguous statement that creates at least the possibility that North and South Korea can step back from tensions raised by the March incident.

The statement said the 15-nation council "condemns that attack," which killed 46 sailors, and "expresses its deep concern" over the findings of the South Korean-led investigation that concluded North Korea was responsible for the sinking. But it stopped short of directly blaming North Korea, leaving Pyongyang temporarily unprovoked and Seoul chastened but acquiescent.

South Korea had originally sought a direct condemnation of its neighbor, which the North had said would be met with military action. But all punches were pulled. In Seoul, a Foreign Ministry official had expressed "satisfaction" with the draft statement circulated Thursday, noting that China was not likely to support direct finger-pointing at the government of its ally Kim Jong Il.

"Both sides had to work to narrow the gap," the official told the Yonhap news agency, referring to China. "From our perspective, we both showed a lot of flexibility." The statement's reference to an "attack" met one of South Korea's main requirements.

After Friday's vote, South Korea's U.N. ambassador, Park In-kook, told reporters that the statement "made it clear it is North Korea to blame" for the March 26 sinking. "I'm sure that today's strong unanimous statement will serve to make North Korea refrain from further attack or provocation," he said.

South Korea's acceptance of the statement marked another step in a retreat from its once-assertive stance toward its neighbor. As recently as late May, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, empowered by the investigation's conclusion that the North had blown up the Cheonan with a torpedo, vowed that "North Korea will pay a price." But since then -- in a reflection of China's role as a shield for North Korea and the South Korean public's reluctance to see escalation -- the South's response has been marked by half-measures and delays.

North Korea's U.N. envoy, Sin Son Ho, characterized Friday's statement as "our great diplomatic victory" and said his government would "do our utmost to dig out the truth behind this incident." In an apparent reversal, Sin also said his government would continue to pursue the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through six-party talks.

The White House and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton portrayed Friday's action as a clear condemnation of North Korea's role in the attack and pledged "unwavering" support for South Korea in the face of further provocations.

"The message to North Korean leadership is crystal clear," said Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "The Security Council condemns and deplores this attack; it warns against any further attacks."

U.S.-South Korean interests could yet collide with China's if the United States and the South stage a planned military exercise in the Yellow Sea. China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, was quoted in the South Korean media this week as saying that it could re-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

For now, Washington and Seoul have separately stated their intentions to proceed with the exercise -- a show of defensive muscle in an area where North Korea has sought to create a border.

Lynch reported from New York.

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