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Korean Tensions: Waiting for China

Author: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies
May 24, 2010

Korean Tensions: Waiting for China - korean-tensions-waiting-for-china


South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, after a measured response to the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel two months ago, announced Seoul's own actions today, including a freeze in trade with the North. Lee also said that should another such incident occur, South Korea would take all steps necessary for self defense. South Korea's military would review its defense readiness and, in concert with its allies, maintain its forces on a high state of readiness to defend the country.

South Korea has the full backing of the Obama administration. The White House today noted that U.S. commanders would work closely with their South Korean counterparts to deter any future aggression. Moreover, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a strong statement of support for Lee, commending his leadership and giving him the "full support of the United States."

Clinton's visit to Asia this weekend provided the opportunity to shore up U.S.-Japan-South Korean coordination on the response to the North Korean attack. Her stop in Japan produced a strong statement from the cabinet of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama for concerted action, and a reassertion of support for Seoul from Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada. Despite recent tensions over Japanese plans to relocate the Futenma U.S. military airbase in Okinawa, the United States and the Hatoyama government have demonstrated an ability to work well together in time of crisis. In her press remarks, Secretary Clinton commended Hatoyama for his "difficult but nevertheless correct" decision to relocate Futenma within Okinawa prefecture.

But China seems reluctant to embrace a role in regional crisis management. China's reaction to the ship's sinking has been cause for deep anger inside South Korea. In the initial days after the incident, China made little reference to the loss of life, and Beijing's silence did not go unnoticed within South Korean society. When Lee visited Shanghai on April 30, China's president, Hu Jintao, gave him little reason to believe China would support a regional response to the incident. More offensive was the invitation to Kim Jong-Il to visit Beijing in the midst of the tensions.

The discussion will move next to the UN Security Council, which has the power to intensify sanctions against North Korea, and here again Beijing will need to find its voice in condemning North Korean provocation. Clinton's Beijing visit also focused on the need for a regional approach to instability on the Korean peninsula. On May 24, Clinton noted her "intensive" consultations with the Chinese government, and she will need to continue to press China to identify itself with those in Northeast Asia who want to maintain peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.

Beijing must engage more effectively with its neighbors in containing North Korea's efforts to destabilize Northeast Asia, or it could end up facilitating the very conflict China says it wants to avoid.

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