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(News Focus) South Korea comes away with a partial victory at ARF

All Headlines 22:38 July 24, 2010

By Yoo Jee-ho

HANOI, July 24 (Yonhap) -- It probably wasn't what South Korea exactly wanted, but the chairman's statement issued at the end of this year's meeting of an Asian security forum in Hanoi can be seen as a partial victory for the country.

Over the past five days, South Korean diplomats worked overtime trying to convince their Southeast Asian neighbors and other countries to believe that North Korea should be held responsible for the March sinking of its warship Cheonan. North Korea did the same, claiming that it played no part in it.

Ahead of this year's meeting of the Asian Regional Forum (ARF) that opened in the Vietnamese capital earlier this week, Seoul officials had said they were seeking a document that would at least match an earlier U.N. Security Council presidential statement on the issue in its tone and severity.

The U.N. text condemned and deplored the "attack" that led to the sinking of the Cheonan with the lives of 46 sailors, but without directly linking it to North Korea.

However, the text's phrasal construction left no doubt that North Korea was behind the attack.

According to the ARF statement, the foreign ministers "expressed deep concerns" over the sinking, using the same phrase as in the Security Council text. The ministers also showed their support for the Security Council action.

But there was no condeming or deploring of the attack on the ship in the ARF statement.

At least, the ARF didn't acknowledge North Korea's repeated denial of responsibility. The Security Council did that, prompting Pyongyang to declare a diplomatic victory and insist that the statement was "devoid of any proper judgment and conclusion."

On the sidelines of the ARF Friday, Ri Tong-il, spokesman for the North Korean delegation, said it still wasn't clear who was responsible for the Cheonan sinking.

A South Korean foreign ministry official said on Monday that Seoul would oppose inclusion of the North's denial in the ARF statement, and it would prefer not to have any reference to the Cheonan incident at all.

But for all their push for a strong ARF statement against North Korea, South Korea finally had to lower their expectations.

One senior foreign ministry official told reporters in Seoul Friday that an ARF chairman's statement "doesn't have much value" to speak of, since the chair nation often tries to cater to North Korea's needs.

"North Korea is the big ticket for the ARF, and without North Korea, the forum would not be as significant and wouldn't generate as much interest," the official said on the condition of anonymity.

"North Koreans threaten that they would leave the forum if their demands aren't met. The chairman doesn't want to anger them."

Another ministry official also downplayed the significance of the ARF statement, saying that a typical ARF chairman's statement is often "political" and takes a compromised approach on contentious issues.

The international community, the official said, has already reached its conclusion on the Cheonan sinking within the context of the U.N. Security Council statement.

"We don't want to be seen having verbal battles with North Korea over the statement," he said.


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