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(News Focus) S. Korea cautious about U.N. referral of N. Korean attack

All Headlines 11:17 November 24, 2010

By Chang Jae-soon

SEOUL, Nov. 24 (Yonhap) -- South Korea remains cautious about the possibility of bringing North Korea's deadly bombing of a front-line island to the U.N. Security Council for punishment, weighing its benefit and cost amid uncertainties about whether China and Russia will come on board.

Officials in Seoul have heavily denounced Tuesday's artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea as a violation of the armistice between the two Koreas, the U.N. Charter and other peace agreements. Two marines were killed and 18 others, including civilians, were wounded in the bombing.

The shocking daylight attack marked the first time North Korea has shelled South Korean soil and civilian areas since the 1950-53 Korean War. Pyongyang's provocations had so far been limited to maritime skirmishes or gunfights across their heavily armed border.

South Korea returned fire, but on a limited scale, apparently fearing the possibility of the clash expanding into a full-scale war that could wreck the bustling capital Seoul, less than 50 kilometers from the border, and wipe out the shining economic development the country has undergone since the Korean War.

On the diplomatic front, the serious nature of the attack immediately raised the possibility of referring the case to the U.N. Security Council for punishment of the provocative regime as in the case of the North's deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March. But officials have expressed reservations about it.

"We haven't set our position on that yet," a foreign ministry official said of the possibility of a U.N. referral, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I think we have to do some calculations of the cost and benefit of that before making our position."

As in the case of March's ship sinking, China and Russia hold the key to any Security Council action. The two countries are among the five veto-wielding permanent members at the council, and have closer ties with North Korea than any other major nations.

Countries around the world strongly condemned Tuesday's attack, with U.S. President Barack Obama expressing outrage and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon denouncing the attack as "one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean War."

Japan, Canada, Britain, France and the European Union have issued similar denunciations.

But the reactions from Beijing and Moscow were markedly muted.

China's foreign ministry said the country is "concerned about the current situation" and that it hopes all sides will work for peace on the Korean Peninsula. But it stopped short of blaming the North.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reportedly denounced the attack, but the formal statement from his ministry did not criticize North Korea, only saying that Moscow views the case "with deep concerns" and that all conflicts should be resolved peacefully through political and diplomatic means.

On Tuesday night, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan called in the Japanese, Chinese and Russian ambassadors and asked for cooperation in dealing with the case. But officials said that China's ambassador, Zhang Xinsen, did not make any comments critical of North Korea.

The reactions were reminiscent of their responses after March's ship sinking. Despite repeated pleas from Seoul, China and Russia refused to back South Korea's effort to clearly denounce North Korea for the torpedo attack that killed 46 South Korean sailors.

As a result, the U.N. Security Council settled for a rather vaguely worded presidential statement denouncing the attack without pinpointing North Korea as the culprit. Pyongyang's ambassador to the U.N. at the time called the statement "a great diplomatic victory" for the country.

China is considered North Korea's last-remaining major ally that has provided food and energy aid to the impoverished nation as well as diplomatic support for Pyongyang. Experts say Beijing believes pushing North Korea too hard could create instability on the Korean Peninsula and hurt its economic growth.

At best, the Security Council statement was no more than a slap on the wrist for a rogue nation that has been under international condemnation for its nuclear ambitions, human rights abuses and other problems, raising questions whether it was worth the effort that South Korea put in to try to persuade China and Russia.

"The attack is an issue that the U.N. Security Council should take up as it violated the U.N. Charter and the inter-Korean armistice," said Yun Deok-min, a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. "But we should not expect too much from the Security Council as it's a sort of talk shop."

In New York, a senior North Korean envoy voiced opposition to a Council referral of the attack.

"It should not be discussed by the Security Council but should be discussed between the North and South," Pak Dok-hun, deputy chief of North Korea's mission at the U.N., was quoted as saying by foreign media.

Britain, which now holds the rotating presidency at the Security Council, is in consultations with other Council members, and South Korea will "carefully review" a referral while "monitoring the overall atmosphere," a senior official said on condition of anonymity.


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