The UNSC Cheonan Statement Is a Gift the US Doesn’t Deserve

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I’m not surprised. Dismayed, yes. But, strangely I feel vindicated.

Friday’s U.N. Security Council statement condemning the March sinking the South Korean warship Cheonan, but not fingering the culprit, may look like another example of the grubby compromises required to close a deal here.

But it could have been a lot worse.

In the final stages of the closed door negotiations of the text, North Korea’s veto-wielding champion, China’s U.N. envoy Li Baodong, sought to gut the statement of any language that even hinted at North Korean responsibility, diplomats familiar with the talks told Turtle Bay.

China’s efforts on behalf of North Korea reflected Beijing’s concern that its nuclear-armed neighbor might respond provocatively if it were confronted by a direct charge of committing an act of war. So, China dedicated weeks of its considerable diplomatic firepower to lessening the sting of the U.N. response.

For instance, China proposed replacing four references in the statement to the word “attack “– as in the Cheonan suffered an attack — for the milder words “incident” and “act,” those officials said. The watered down language would have made it easier for North Korea to suggest, for example, that the Cheonan had been split in two by accident.

So, instead of condemning the “attack which led to the sinking of the Cheonan,” the Chinese wanted to condemn the “act which led to the sinking of the Cheonan.” It may not sound like much of a difference. But it’s an important one: the American negotiators, led by U.S. ambassador Susan E. Rice, have based their contention that the U.N. statement really does blame North Korea for torpedoing the South Korea vessel on the fact that nobody else but Seoul’s mortal enemy, North Korea, had a motive for mounting an attack.

“This statement is notable, and I think is clear because in the first instance, it uses the term attack repeatedly, which you don’t have to be a scholar of the English language to understand it’s not a neutral term,” Rice said.

China also sought to remove any language indicating that the council “expresses its deep concern” over the findings of a South Korean-led allied investigation into the attack. That provision, which stayed in the final text, provided the strongest hint, in an otherwise noncommittal statement, that North Korea probably fired on the Cheonan.

I always knew the United Nations could conduct diplomacy in such a cryptic manner that no one would be satisfied, and no one would even be able to use straight language to explain what the UN had purported to do. The Cheonan statement is a masterpiece of obfuscation. And, even its harshest critics have managed not to call for the UN’s dismantling in the wake of this “compromise”. Or, is it a “climb-down” Has Sinic culture permeated global mores so thoroughly, that even the US needs to save face?

The ROK currently fields a SAM network that would have been state of the art in the 1960s, and effective into the early 1980s. The modernization programs underway will correct many of its deficiencies and shortcomings, allowing the network to achieve technological parity with other nations in the region and provide capable and effective defense well into the 21st Century. Hopefully the ROK’s citizens will find their government’s desire to defend them acceptable.

And, however supportive one wants to be of Seoul’s political existence, the Cheonan sinking and embarrassingly too frequent other mishaps highlight the debilitated state of an ally which on paper should be able to handle the North Korean paper tiger in a fair fight with ease. But, even more worryingly, the ROK-US alliance itself is in no condition to deserve a bellicose verdict – even if it can still do business.

Obama tried to deliver some concrete results as well to demonstrate his focus on Asia. After a year of suggesting the administration might just scuttle the U.S.–South Korea free-trade deal signed during the Bush administration, in late June Obama announced that the White House would push for its ratification, which would create the most important American trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed early in the Clinton administration. Obama also set a specific timetable, calling for the Korea deal to be completed by November.

But he has made similar moves before, only to abandon them. In the early days of his administration, he declared himself the first “Pacific president” and said he wanted to distinguish himself from George W. Bush by sending the message to the world’s fastest-growing and most populous region that America is once again engaged in Asia. At a regional Asian gathering in July 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the “United States is back” in Asia. The White House built on that promise by quickly notching a series of Asian triumphs. It acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a cornerstone of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and a document the Bush administration had refused to sign. Last November, Obama sat down with all 10 ASEAN leaders, the first time an American president had taken that step. The White House launched plans for a “comprehensive partnership” with Indonesia, a country where Obama, unlike Bush, enjoyed enormous popularity, in part because he spent four years of his childhood in Jakarta. Result: early in his term he boasted high approval ratings nearly everywhere in Asia, from Indonesia to India and even China, where two thirds of respondents in one BBC poll believed America’s relations with the world would improve under Obama.

But then these efforts began to go downhill. Distracted by the Middle East, the war in Afghanistan, and an increasingly toxic political environment at home, Obama made little progress with Asia. He appeared distrustful of the new Japanese government and unsure of how to build on the relationship with India. In early June he canceled a planned trip to Indonesia—for the third time—angering many of his Indonesian supporters and reminding Asians of the Bush administration, which also did not seem to understand the value of putting in face time to improve diplomacy in the region. The Obama White House also invested precious little capital pushing trade initiatives in Asia. And even with the region’s giants—India, Japan, and China—the administration often appears to be ignoring their central concerns or simply alienating their leaders.

The Obama administration has put itself into the diplomatic position where this North Korean offer is the best it might be able to expect for its bluster.

The Korean People’s Army is proposing a working-level (Colonel) military meeting with the US to discuss the Cheonan investigation. This is North Korea’s counter-proposal to the US, which had proposed a meeting of this kind in June to explain the results of the official investigation to the North Koreans.

It’s indulgently cathartic to rage moralistically about the “murder” of the Cheonan crew, or rail against “flaccid” UN rhetoric. But, the Obama administration is lucky it got anything, that doesn’t expose its military and diplomatic vulnerabilities in the Northeast Asian region. I mourn, too, for the Cheonan 46. They died in the name of an alliance that for all practical purposes – like keeping 46 sailors safe – does not exist.

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Filed under: East Asia, IGOs, Korea, Maritime, Military, News, Russia, USA Tagged: barack h. obama, cheonan, china. prc, dprk, north korea, South Korea, susan rice, united nations, unsc


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