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(LEAD) U.N. Security Council debating extent of N. Korea's responsibility for sinking: envoy

All Headlines 19:02 July 02, 2010

(ATTN: UPDATES with S. Korean envoy's return from Washington; RECASTS lead, headline; ADDS details)

UNITED NATIONS/INCHEON, July 2 (Yonhap) -- The U.N. Security Council (UNSC) is debating the extent to which North Korea should be held responsible for the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March, a senior South Korean diplomat said Friday after returning from the United States.

The discussions at the UNSC have been stalled largely due to the reluctance of China and Russia to pinpoint North Korea as the culprit in the sinking of the 1,200-ton Cheonan in the Yellow Sea.

North Korea has denied any involvement in the sinking that claimed 46 lives. Citing a multinational investigation that blamed the North, South Korea has been pushing for a strongly worded UNSC statement condemning Pyongyang.

The focus of discussions at the UNSC is "to what extent North Korea can be held responsible and pointed out," Wi Sung-lac, South Korea's top nuclear envoy, told Yonhap News Agency at an airport west of Seoul after returning from New York and Washington.

Wi declined to elaborate as the discussions were still underway at the 15-nation global security body. But sources in New York said earlier in the day that China and Russia, Pyongyang's traditional backers, have been a stumbling block to Seoul's diplomatic bid.

The two regional powers have expressed reservations about the result of the probe that ended in May. Their backing is crucial for any UNSC move because they are veto-holding permanent members.

Prospects for a consensus appeared to rise when Russia agreed on a statement issued at last week's G-8/G-20 summit in Toronto. The statement condemned the attack while indirectly naming North Korea as accountable. Officials in Seoul say that the G-8 statement could be a guide to discussions at the U.N.

"Negotiations are not easy as China, which is not included in the G-8, is virtually speaking for North Korea at the Security Council," one source in New York said, suggesting that final language would be watered down from the G-8 statement.

Experts have said China fears that a strong U.N. measure could provoke Pyongyang and further raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula and in the region and hurt its fast-growing economy.

North Korea has threatened an "all-out war" if it is punished or sanctioned. On Friday, it released a fresh set of statements condemning the South for its efforts to punish Pyongyang.

Pyongyang "flatly rejects the (G-8) declaration as a clumsy hackwork which admits of no argument," the official Korean Central News Agency said in a commentary, warning of consequences for any penalties.

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