The Cable

So much for consequences for North Korea over ship sinking

When the results of the international investigation into the sinking of the South Korean ship the Cheonan were released in May, the U.S. State Department was adamant that it believed North Korea was responsible -- and that the country would have to face some actual punishment for killing 46 innocent South Korea sailors.

"I think it is important to send a clear message to North Korea that provocative actions have consequences," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said May 21 while visiting her Japanese counterpart in Tokyo.

Fast forward to today, when the United Nations released a presidential statement which not only does not specify any consequences for the Kim Jong Il regime, but doesn't even conclude that North Korea was responsible for the attack in the first place.

The statement acknowledges that the South Korean investigation, which included broad international participation, blamed North Korea, and then "takes note of the responses from other relevant parties, including from the DPRK, which has stated that it had nothing to do with the incident."

"Therefore, the Security Council condemns the attack which led to the sinking of the Cheonan," the statement reads.

The White House's spokesman on such matters, Mike Hammer, issued a statement clearly stating that the Obama administration believes North Korea was responsible and arguing that the U.N. statement "constitutes an endorsement of the findings" of the Joint Investigative Group that issued the report blaming North Korea.  

So the U.S. and the South Koreans believe North Korea was guilty but the U.N. isn't willing to go that far. But what about the next step? Will there be any follow up, any "consequences" for North Korea, as Clinton seemed to promise in May?

"I think right now we're just allowing North Korea to absorb the international community's response to its actions," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday.

North Korea's representative to the U.N., Sin Son Ho, called the statement a "great diplomatic victory."

"That doesn't sound like a lot of absorption," one member of the State Department press corps shot back at Toner.

When asked what comes next, Toner said there were no plans to pursue additional measures, other than enforcing U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874, and there were no outstanding requests from South Korea for additional measures. "We'll wait and let the statement stand," he said.

So what happened between May and now? According to both South Korean and U.S. officials, the countries pushing for actual penalties were serious about it at first, as is shown in the June 4 letter from South Korea, endorsed by the U.S., which urged the Security Council to "respond in a manner appropriate to the gravity of North Korea's military provocation in order to deter recurrence of any further provocation by North Korea."

But as China, ever the defender of the Hermit Kingdom, stalled on making any definitive statements about the incident, officials in Seoul and Washington began to worry that they might not be able to get any U.N. action whatsoever.

Then, toward the end of June, Beijing became nervous about the mounting international pressure and decided to try to wrap up the U.N. discussions as quickly as possible. They calculated that it was a losing game, so moved to get a statement out quickly with a small concession as a means of getting the whole issue behind them.

"This is less than we expected from the beginning," a South Korean official told The Cable, "But it clearly says the Cheonan was sunk by an attack, cites the five-country international joint-investigation result, and condemns it as a deplorable behavior. Even though it did not clarify it was North Korea's torpedo attack, it theoretically points the finger at North Korea as being responsible."

The South Korean official pointed at Russia and China as being responsible for the weakness of the statement.

"Definitely there has been a tough negotiation, especially to persuade the PRC and Russia, and this is result," the official said, "All the other countries except [China and Russia] strongly supported putting pressure on them."

Korea experts and former officials in Washington are sympathetic to the Obama administration's compromise in terms of the statement, but strongly lament that this administration seems not to be in any rush to do anything to engage North Korea or get back to tackling the problem of its growing nuclear arsenal.

"This is a glass one third full, with an explanation to convince you that it's not two thirds empty," said former North Korea negotiator Jack Pritchard, now president of the Korea Economic Institute. The statement was meant not to identify winners, but to allow everyone to avoid being named losers, he said.

"It's not clear cut and it's unsatisfactory, but it may have been the best that we could do," Pritchard acknowledged. The problem as he sees is it that now the Obama administration is back to the status quo, which means no discernable progress on North Korea nuclear discussions, something referred to as "strategic patience."

Joel Wit, another former negotiator who is now a visiting fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said the time is way past overdue to find some way to get back to talking with North Korea.

"The key issue here is, are we ready to turn this corner and try to return to some sort of negotiation, some sort of dialogue that tries to deal with the problems between us, or do we just continue with strategic patience?" Wit said.

Pritchard warned that because Pyongyang has backed off its promise to move towards denuclearization and the Obama administration can't accept a nuclear North Korea, the only way to move forward would be to get North Korea to change its calculus... and that can only be done with Chinese help.

"It requires at least a perception that the Chinese will abide by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874 and that's not currently the case," said Pritchard. "Strategic patience is an attitude, not a policy."

LEE JAE-WON/AFP/Getty Images

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