[Viewpoint] China’s maverick friendWhether it decides to pass a formal resolution of condemnation, or a weaker type of statement, the United Nations Security Council will make its judgement on North Korea’s involvement in the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan soon.
South Korea has been waging an all-out diplomatic campaign to get China to support the conclusions of the multinational investigation - that North Korea attacked and sank the Cheonan - and to join the international condemnation.
The future of South Korea-China relations literally hinges on how the condemnation is presented - whether in the form of a resolution approved by Security Council members or a “presidential statement,” based on a broad consensus of whether North Korea should be specially accused of making the attack.
At the moment, Seoul primarily aims for a presidential statement straightforwardly condemning North Korea. If the country’s name is dropped from the statement due to opposition from China, as has been suggested, the government at least wants some language that clearly implies that North Korea was behind the attack.
Of course, a China-backed resolution would be the best outcome, but the South Korean government will be content with a statement citing the findings of the investigative report and condemning the nation that carried out such a provocative action. But in its effort not to upset its temperamental ally, China is trying its utmost to come up with some ambiguous wording for the statement while strenuously asking backing from Russia.
Seoul plans to pursue a Council resolution voted on by all 15 permanent and nonpermanent members if it cannot get a presidential statement that specifically accuses North Korea, or at least strongly implies that North Korea was the guilty party. But China will most likely give up its vote: It won’t dare to veto.
Even if both China and Russia waive their votes, the resolution is approved when nine other members vote in its favor. China will very likely feel awkward to forego a vote alone when all the other members back the South Korean government-led investigative findings and move to condemn North Korea.
That is why China is trying to persuade South Korea to compromise on a moderately worded statement that won’t provoke North Korea. China has proposed a meeting between foreign ministers of the two countries on the sidelines of the G-8 Summit meeting in Toronto to address the issue.
Contrary to general public understanding, a presidential statement is more effective in penalizing North Korea than a resolution. A statement is passed by unanimous approval of the 15 members, while a resolution can be passed with the votes of nine countries.
If the five permanent council members do not exercise vetoes, but abstain from a vote, a resolution can pass. South Korea does not need another resolution since North Korea is already under resolution-bind sanctions. Resolution 1874 condemns and imposes punitive action against North Korea for its second nuclear test in May last year, and is still effectively handicapping the country.
In fact, Security Council measures are like suspended sentences. They send a strong warning that punishment will get worse if the offender attempts another provocative action. North Korea’s resources have been shrunken by the Security Council’s fetters, serving as future deterrence.
But China’s unsupportive position poses a serious dilemma for the Security Council. North Korea has been noisily threatening that it will regard a Security Council action as a provocation and counteract with an armed response. Most members worry that if they waver over those belligerent threats and shy away from punitive action, their authority will be questioned. China can undermine the UN’s authority if it insists on solo action.
If UN actions fall short of our expectations, the “strategic partnership” between South Korea and China will exist in name only. The expectations and warmth South Koreans bore toward China over the last two decades will prove to be sentimental froth.
Our love affair with China has been one-sided. Politicians have had to cancel plans to visit Taiwan several times after getting protests from the Chinese embassy. Buddhist groups in South Korea have tried to invite Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to visit, but the government had to deny him a visa due to pressure from Beijing.
If China refuses to cooperate with us in such a crucial matter, the government should allow the Dalai Lama to come to our land and allow politicians to freely travel to Taiwan.
China has long benefited from the prestigious veto-wielding power it has at the UN, but it would be shooting itself in the foot if it goes against a Security Council consensus and would undermine its authority. China will be diminishing its clout in the East Asian region and over Korean affairs if it sides with North Korea.
If the UN fails to act on the Cheonan attack despite hard evidence thanks to China’s sabotage, efforts to curb provocative actions in all parts of the world will be seriously impaired.
Based on China’s logic, South Korea could face no repercussions if it attacked a North Korean maritime base, after leaving behind plenty of hard evidence, unless it admitted to the attack.
We have a piece of advice for China. Don’t take us for fools, and please respect our state interests. If China really cares for North Korea’s leadership and regime, it should know when to say no to a maverick friend.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Young-hie