China may alter position

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China may alter position

Both South Korea and the United States feel that China is prepared to join other nations in condemning North Korea for sinking the South Korean warship Cheonan, officials from Seoul and Washington said yesterday.

A high-ranking Blue House official said China may take time to alter its position, but “we will be able to persuade them with our objective findings” that the North was behind the disaster. A second official said, “China, as a responsible member of the international community, must be thinking long and hard [about abandoning its neutrality over the Cheonan].”

Another government source said that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited Seoul Wednesday, successfully convinced the Chinese leadership to take a stand during her trip to Beijing this week. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak shared Clinton’s optimism, the source added.

However, China’s only official comment yesterday simply repeated an earlier statement that fell short of assigning blame. “China’s position on the ship remains unchanged,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said at a press briefing.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is set to meet with Lee today, ahead of tomorrow’s summit between South Korea, China and Japan on Jeju Island. One Blue House official said Lee will use the opportunity to further press China.

U.S. officials said earlier yesterday (Korean time) that China has indicated it is prepared to hold North Korea responsible and join in formal sanctions at the UN Security Council. The officials spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity after holding strategic talks with Beijing earlier this week.

A binding resolution to impose sanctions on Pyongyang requires unanimity by five veto-wielding permanent members - the United States, China, Britain, France and Russia.

The U.S. officials also said that when Wen meets Lee tomorrow, the Chinese premier is likely to express regret for the deaths of the 46 Cheonan sailors and hint that China will accept the results of the international investigation. Should that happen, it would be a diplomatic breakthrough for Seoul and Washington. Both have tried to persuade North Korea’s traditional ally to join other members of the international community in punishing Pyongyang for the torpedo attack

In a move that could put even more pressure on China, Russia announced Wednesday that it will dispatch a team of experts to Seoul to examine the results of the Cheonan probe, at the South’s invitation. The Kremlin said President Dmitry Medvedev “considers it extremely important to establish the precise reason for the loss of the ship and to reveal accurately who is personally responsible for the events.” Medvedev also repeated a call for restraint on all sides.

The State Department yesterday noted that China and Russia “clearly have to play a significant role in that response that sends a very clear and compelling message to North Korea.”

“It’s for [China and Russia] to make their own judgment as to the implications of the investigation,” spokesman Philip Crowley said. “We’ve made our judgment. We are going to support South Korea and we would hope that China and Russia will do the same.”

By Yoo Jee-ho, Namkoong Wook []
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