North Korea's Denials on Ship Sinking May Cloud Lee-Hu Meeting in Shanghai

North Korea’s possible involvement in the sinking of a South Korean warship last month may have overshadowed today’s meeting in Shanghai between the South’s president, Lee Myung Bak, and Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao.

Hu’s summit with Lee, in China to celebrate the opening of the $44 billion World Expo, will help shape any international response should an investigation indicate that North Korea caused the March 26 sinking, which killed 46 South Korean sailors. China is North Korea’s principal trading partner and political ally as well as the host for stalled negotiations on the reclusive regime’s nuclear weapons program.

China’s six-decade alliance with North Korea has come under increasing strain as Kim Jong Il defies United Nations demands to end his weapons program. Protecting Kim poses a risk to China’s reputation as the country seeks a bigger role in world affairs, said Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Washington- based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The Chinese need to realize the broader dilemma that North Korea is more and more of a liability,” said Cha, who was a National Security Council adviser on Asia to former President George W. Bush. The relationship “affects perceptions of them as a responsible and credible player in Asia.”

Hu offered condolences for the dead sailors and their families at the beginning of his meeting with Lee, according to a media pool report provided by Lee’s office. There were no further details on what the two leaders discussed.

North Korean Denial

South Korea’s Defense Ministry said the sinking, off its west coast close to the disputed border with North Korea, was most likely caused by a torpedo. South Korea may take the incident to the UN Security Council if North Korea’s role is confirmed, Foreign Minister Yu Myung Hwan said on April 20.

North Korea on April 17 denied it had anything to do with the incident. Lee and Hu are in Shanghai for the opening ceremony of the Expo. North Korea’s deputy leader Kim Yong Nam is also attending, Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday.

“South Korea needs China’s support” to put pressure on North Korea, said Scott Snyder of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. “Lee will surely request China’s understanding and support.”

China fought on North Korea’s side during the 1950-53 conflict against South Korean forces backed by the U.S. It is the main supplier of the goods and aid propping up Kim’s regime, and has used its veto in the UN Security Council to hinder attempts by the U.S. and Japan to punish North Korea.

That changed after Kim’s government detonated a second nuclear device in May 2009, prompting China to back curbs on financial transactions with North Korea.

Six-Party Talks

China is host of six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear program. The forum, which last met in December 2008, also includes Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S.

Lee has invited experts from the U.S., Australia and Sweden to investigate the sinking. The likelihood of “smoking gun evidence” pointing to North Korea is low, Cha said.

“In that context, getting the Chinese to sign on to a new set of UN Security Council sanctions is not likely,” Cha said. “The art of this is trying to find things that the Chinese can do that would have an impact on North Korea without it looking like direct punishment for an act that they have not been proven guilty of.”

China’s economic ties to South Korea now dwarf those with North Korea. Two-way commerce with South Korea jumped 49 percent to $45.3 billion in the first three months of this year, more than 90 times the trade with North Korea, according to China’s Commerce Ministry.

“We have noted that the Republic of Korea plans to conduct a scientific and objective investigation and believe the issue will be properly handled,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters in Beijing on April 22.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bomi Lim in Seoul at blim30@bloomberg.net

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