China's Refusal to Condemn North Korea at UN Narrows U.S., Allied Options

China’s refusal to condemn North Korea for its expanding nuclear program and its attack on a South Korean island limits the retaliatory options for the U.S., Japan and South Korea.

“Not much can be done,” said Sue Mi Terry, deputy national intelligence officer for East Asia at the National Intelligence Council from 2007 to 2009.

“China is the key, but when it comes down to any kind of action, they are not willing to play ball,” Terry said in an interview. “So I believe the situation is going to get worse.”

China has refused to back a bid by the U.S. and Japan in the United Nations Security Council to condemn North Korea’s latest provocations, Japan’s Ambassador Tsuneo Nishida said in an interview.

“The Chinese have always been resistant” to directly accusing North Korea of wrongdoing, Nishida said. “This is always the argument.”

With the Security Council deadlocked, the U.S. plans to host high-level talks next week with South Korea and Japan.

President Barack Obama’s top military adviser called on China to use its influence to persuade North Korea to end its “deeply destabilizing behavior.”

“China shares a relationship with the North that is not matched anywhere else in the world,” Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

‘Significant Leverage’

“Given the aid and support China has provided to North Korea over the years, there’s significant leverage they could apply to avoiding escalation and improving this troubling situation,” Mullen said.

China’s ties with North Korea “have witnessed significant progress this year,” Wu Bangguo, a member of the standing committee of China’s Politburo, said yesterday, according to a statement on the website of the Communist Party. Wu pledged to strengthen those links in his third meeting this year with Choe Tae Bok, a key aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet in Washington on Dec. 6 with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan and Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara. The meeting demonstrates their “commitment to security on the Korean peninsula and stability in the region,” the State Department said in a statement.

Enlisting China’s Backing

The U.S., Japan and South Korea likely will discuss how to enlist China’s backing and what further sanctions they can impose on North Korea, said Thomas Lee, professor of international law at Fordham University in New York and a former U.S. naval intelligence officer in South Korea.

“They might have to give China something,” Lee said, noting that the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, set for Dec. 10, offers an opportunity to ease pressure in the government in Beijing.

“They could put a freeze on some suspect bank accounts in Thailand and Malaysia,” Lee said, limiting North Korea’s access to hard currency. He said other options include a South Korea move to shut down the Kaesong economic complex jointly run by both Koreas, cancellation of humanitarian aid shipments to North Korea, and “live fire” air and sea maneuvers at the edge of the 12-mile limit of North Korea’s territorial waters.

U.S.-Japan Drills

China today criticized planned week-long military exercises by more than 40,000 Japanese and American troops that will begin tomorrow as an obstacle to easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, and reiterated its call for increased diplomatic efforts.

“Brandishing of force cannot solve the issue,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a regular briefing in Beijing. “Some are playing with knives and guns while China is criticized for calling for dialogue, is that fair?”

Fresh from maneuvers in the Yellow Sea with South Korea’s navy, the aircraft carrier USS George Washington will join a force of about 400 aircraft and 60 warships. Drills will include responding to ballistic missile attacks on unspecified Pacific islands, the Joint Staff of the Japan Self-Defense Forces said in a statement.

At the United Nations, where Ambassador Nishida of Japan said he didn’t “dare to say” that talks on a Security Council response were dead, British and Russian envoys said an accord wasn’t likely.

“It doesn’t look like it,” Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said, noting “some problems” in private bilateral talks that followed North Korea’s announcement of a new plant to enrich uranium and the Nov. 23 artillery attack on the South Korean island.

No ‘Weak Response’

“We are not prepared to have a weak response by the council,” U.K. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said. “There are serious violations on the nuclear side, and the shelling should be condemned if we are to make any statement at all.

“It is disappointing because the Security Council ought to be in a position to respond to these sorts of incidents that are clearly a threat to international peace and security,” he said. “But the Security Council operates by unanimity when it comes to these kinds of statements, and there wasn’t any.”

Earlier this year, it took the Security Council almost four months to agree on a statement condemning the March 26 sinking of the South Korea warship Cheonan, and it didn’t explicitly condemn North Korea. The statement condemned the attack without accusing North Korea and took “note” of North Korea’s denial of complicity.

A multinational investigation reported in June that a North Korean-made torpedo caused the sinking in which 46 sailors died.

‘Stakes Are Going Up’

“They sank a ship, killed 46 sailors, they killed four Korean citizens the other day” and showed foreign experts a uranium enrichment facility, Mullen said. “The ante is going up, and I think the stakes are going up, and I think the stakes in terms of stability in the region are going up.”

Yang Tao, political director of China’s mission to the UN, said that his government was still considering proposed language of a Security Council statement on the latest incidents and that consultations haven’t ended.

China favors handling tensions on the Korean peninsula in the format of the six-party talks among China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Russia and the U.S. China has called for an emergency meeting of that group.

The U.S., Japan and South Korea haven’t agreed to China’s proposal, saying they want to see more concrete action by North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program before restarting the talks. Churkin said Russia was open to the six-party proposal, calling it a “positive” initiative by China.

“Beijing’s call for consultations will not substitute for action,” Mullen said yesterday. “I do not believe we should continue to reward North Korea’s provocative and deeply destabilizing behavior with bargaining or new incentives.”

Terry, who is now a national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said it was likely that the U.S. would return to the talks after a face-saving interval and make a new bid at the UN to tighten existing sanctions on North Korea.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bill Varner at the United Nations at wvarner@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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