[Viewpoint] All eyes on the United Nations

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[Viewpoint] All eyes on the United Nations

The South Korean national football team won its first match in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It was a refreshing and joyous victory that completely blew away all the fatigue from the Cheonan disaster. But on the very day the Korean squad defeated Greece 2-0, North Korea again brought up its threat to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” if South Korea wages psychological warfare against the North using loudspeakers installed near the border.

Whether North Korea would actually carry out its threat is not clear, but we certainly cannot completely exclude the possibility of an armed clash. Even as Koreans on both sides of the DMZ celebrate the international sporting festival, the Cheonan incident still poses an urgent and serious crisis.

How long do Seoul and Pyongyang have to continue this unstable and dangerous game of chicken? In five months, Seoul will host the G-20 summit meeting. We need to take care of the “Korea risk” factor and readdress the issue of North Korean nuclear proliferation. The national division surrounding the Cheonan disaster is also serious. We need to contemplate realistic solutions to dig ourselves out of the quagmire that is the Cheonan tragedy. And the answer has to be found in the United Nations. Unless we resort to using force, there is no realistic alternative to international pressure on North Korea.

On Monday, South and North Korea played an unofficial game of “To Tell the Truth” at the UN Security Council. In front of the 15 member countries, the joint investigation team representing South Korea presented scientific and objective evidence that North Korea was clearly responsible for sinking the ship. Meanwhile, North Korea raised questions about the investigation’s outcome, and insisted that the evidence was fabricated and the incident was a frame-up.

The next step is up to the Security Council members, but the bottom line is that North Korea must be held responsible. As long as the council reaches a consensus that the sinking was an armed provocation by the North against the South and denounces Pyongyang, it doesn’t matter if the censure takes the form of a resolution or a presidential statement.

The obstacles are China and Russia. These two countries are skeptical about North Korea’s involvement, and, fearing a military clash on the Korean Peninsula, have tried to ignore the results of Seoul’s investigation. If China and Russia take Pyongyang’s side despite international criticism, a consensus at the Security Council will be impossible. If the United States and Japan side with South Korea and China and Russia back North Korea, the confrontation will likely delay any conclusion.

The worst-case scenario would be an ambiguous conclusion. If the Security Council only restates the arguments of South and North Korea and calls for restraint and patience from both sides, Seoul’s post-Cheonan diplomacy will not only be a complete defeat, it will backfire. Such a conclusion would mean that the council rejects the results of the investigation, and under international law the Cheonan case would be forever unsolved. That would only divide national sentiment even more, and the move to sanction the North would lose momentum - a conclusion totally unacceptable to South Korea.

If China and Russia obfuscate the point and dilute the seriousness of the matter, the Security Council’s discussion could take an unexpected direction. In that case, Seoul can request an official investigation by the United Nations itself. If a UN investigative team visits both South and North Korea and reports its findings to the Council, no one would object to the result. Because Seoul is confident in its investigation, there is no reason to refuse an official probe. If China objects, it would not be able to refute claims that it fears that North Korea’s involvement would be proved.

Having enjoyed more benefits than it had expected from the Cheonan incident, the United States seems to be stepping aside. Thanks to the Cheonan fallout, Washington was able to settle the relocation of Okinawa’s Futenma base without much trouble and reconfirm its influence in Northeast Asia. It also grabbed an opportunity to sell military equipment, as Seoul will augment its naval capacity. China has also boasted that its influence is comparable to the United States’, and enhanced North Korea’s dependence on it.

North Korea’s reckless provocation ended up benefitting the powerful nations only. The longer the crisis continues, the greater the loss for South Korea.

Korea must concentrate its diplomatic efforts to induce the UN Security Council to issue a resolution - or a statement - denouncing North Korea. Once legitimate sanctions against Pyongyang are secured under international law, Seoul will be able to get out of the Cheonan quagmire and move on to the six-party talks. If not, we need to request an official UN investigation and watch the result.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Bae Myung-bok
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