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China toughens stance toward
but doesn't back sanctions
SEOUL -- China toughened its position toward North Korea Friday but fell short of the support for a U.N. Security Council rebuke that South Korean leaders had hoped for during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's high-profile visit.
Wen told South Korean President Lee Myung-bak that China has not concluded whether North Korea is responsible for the March 26 sinking of a South Korean naval ship that killed 46 sailors. The incident has triggered one of the worst security crises on this divided peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean War.
That stance, in stark contrast to an international investigation blaming Pyongyang for the torpedo attack, reflects China's traditional kid-gloves approach to the isolated, impoverished and heavily armed dictatorship on its far eastern border.
Still, Wen signaled a shift in position by not simply supporting North Korea and by telling Lee that China would not defend anyone responsible for the sinking of the 1,200-ton Cheonan.
"It is a modest shift, but a pretty disappointing one," said Michael J. Green, a top adviser on North Korea in President George W. Bush's administration.
Green said that among China's leaders, Wen is one of the most sympathetic to South Korea's position and that his remarks indicate that China ultimately would support a U.N. resolution -- but "will do everything to water it down" and press for a return to negotiations. He noted that "Beijing never before has been under such pressure to choose between North and South," which is a major trading partner.
"We certainly hope that, you know, through this visit, China will recognize and support the conclusions of the investigation," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "We think that the evidence is compelling. And we think that it's time for the international community to come together in a united and demonstrated way and send a clear message to North Korea."
North Korea adamantly denies sinking the ship and has threatened war if there is any move to punish it. Pyongyang also said this week that it is severing relations with the South, a move that followed Seoul's imposition of trade, diplomatic and military measures to punish North Korea.
The North: Sinking 'faked'
On Friday, a senior North Korean general said the sinking was a hoax perpetrated by Seoul, and he warned of war. At a rare news conference for a member of the powerful National Defense Commission, Maj. Gen. Pak Rim Su reportedly said South Korea had "faked" the sinking.
Wen said China is examining the international investigation that blamed North Korea, whose state-run economy depends almost exclusively on China for fuel, food aid and trade. The investigation, conducted by South Korea and experts from the United States and three other countries, found evidence that a North Korean-made torpedo fired by a North Korean mini-submarine sank the ship.
China "always opposes and condemns any acts detrimental to peace and stability on the peninsula," Wen said, according to the official New China News Agency. He added that Beijing "takes serious note of the results of a joint investigation by South Korea and other countries, as well as the reactions of all parties."
Wen is in South Korea for a three-day visit that presents a difficult diplomatic challenge. China has to balance its historically protective stance toward North Korea against the surging importance of its economic ties to South Korea and Japan. This weekend, Wen meets again with Lee and with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.
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China toughens stance toward North Korea,
but doesn't back sanctions
The South Korean government is working with the United States to secure Security Council condemnation of North Korea. In their meeting in Seoul, Lee pressed Wen "to play an active role in making North Korea admit its wrongdoing," the president's spokesman said.
Wen did not go nearly that far, according to accounts of their meeting. Yet his careful comments appeared to recalibrate the rules in Beijing's treatment of North Korea, which would almost certainly collapse without China's concessionary aid. Before Friday, China had confined its comments on the ship's sinking to expressions of sympathy for the loss of life while cautioning all governments to remain calm.
China appears to be standing alone among veto-wielding members of the Security Council in questioning the findings of the investigation into the ship's sinking.
Russia announced this week that it will send a team of experts to examine evidence gathered by investigators. South Korean officials said they think that Russia is likely to accept their findings.
China has made no similar commitment to send its scientists to look at the evidence. But South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said in an interview Friday that it is his "expectation" that such a commitment will be made after officials "consult with the Chinese a bit more."
Yu said South Korea needs to move carefully in dealing with China on the ship incident, nudging Beijing to accept the "facts" of the investigation without derailing "very good relations" between the two countries.
"I don't want to push them," Yu said.
China is South Korea's most important trading partner, the primary focus of its foreign investment and its leading tourist destination. About 5 million people travel between the two countries every year.
Yu said his government understands that the warship's sinking has pushed Beijing into an awkward corner.
"China has a very special linkage and interest" in North Korea, Yu said. "So I presume that it is not that easy to ignore the North Koreans' appeal to support their position."
"If China will do anything, it will be done in a very quiet manner," Yu said. "China will never say in public what they are going to do."
Amid all the fiery rhetoric this week, an important door was left open: Both countries have not shut down the Kaesong industrial complex, a factory park just inside the North Korean border. More than 40,000 North Koreans work there for South Korean companies. Over the past six years, the complex has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the North's struggling economy.
"We don't want to spoil a good kind of showcase for North-South economic cooperation," Yu said.
As it moved this week to punish the North, South Korea said it would install propaganda loudspeakers along the border. In response, North Korea threatened to blow up the speakers and close down Kaesong.
But Yu said South Korea is open to delaying its psychological warfare operations if the North sends the right signals.
The North Korean government of Kim Jong Il also has been "very careful" not to use rhetoric that would force Kaesong to close, said a high-ranking South Korean official who briefed foreign reporters Friday.
"It is a kind of verbal chicken game," the official said. But he said North Korean authorities understand that the factory park supports the livelihoods of 200,000 people in the Kaesong area and that shutting it down could lead to unrest that might spread to other cities.