International Criminal Court probes alleged North Korean war crimes

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2010; 7:12 PM

The International Criminal Court has launched a preliminary investigation into allegations that North Korean forces committed war crimes when they shelled civilian areas in South Korea and allegedly sank a South Korean warship, the court announced Monday.

In a statement from its headquarters in The Hague, the court said its chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, is looking into two incidents: the Nov. 23 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which killed two South Korean marines and two civilians, and the March 26 torpedoing of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, which left 46 sailors dead.

Although North Korea acknowledges shelling Yeonpyeong Island, it has denied sinking the Cheonan.

The court said it was prompted to undertake its investigation because of complaints it had received - most probably from the South Korean government, which signed the international treaty that established the war crimes court in 2002.

The court's announcement came as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan in Washington for a one-day meeting designed to tighten cooperation among the three nations as they deal with heightened tensions with North Korea.

In welcoming Japan's Seiji Maehara and her South Korean counterpart, Kim Sung-hwan, who was on his first trip to Washington as foreign minister, Clinton said the gathering was "particularly significant now as we discuss the important challenges we confront because of the actions of North Korea."

In addition to attacking South Korean forces, the North has recently unveiled the existence of a program to enrich uranium, which would give it a second path to creating nuclear weapons. It already has fabricated nuclear devices from plutonium.

In a joint statement at the end of the meeting, Clinton and her two counterparts vowed not to resume nuclear negotiations with North Korea until it stops its "provocative and belligerent" behavior and rolls back its nuclear arms program.

"They need to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose in ending their provocations and let the world know they are now ready to come to the table and fulfill the commitments they have already made," Clinton told reporters after the meeting.

The three also called on China to do more to rein in North Korea. President Obama spoke with China's president, Hu Jintao, on Sunday night and made the case that China needs to do more to stop North Korean provocations. Hu expressed his regret for the loss of civilian lives and property during the North Korean attack on Yeonpyeong Island but did not criticize North Korea.

China is reluctant to push hard on North Korea, partly because its leadership has decided that it needs North Korea as a buffer between China and the capitalist and generally pro-American South. Beijing also appears to be trapped by its old beliefs.

"China's obsolete ideology plays a key role here," Zhu Feng, deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, wrote in a posting last week on Project "Its policies and attitudes toward the North remain mired in a morbid comradeship."

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