SEOUL, South Korea—At the conclusion of weekend talks between China, Japan, and South Korea, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao showed no intention of supporting sanctions against North Korea for its attack on a South Korean warship two months ago.
The two-day summit in the South Korean capital was held amid high tensions on the Korean peninsula after the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan ship, which left 46 dead. An international investigation concluded earlier this month that evidence proved a North Korean torpedo sank the corvette.
At a closed-door meeting with Wen Friday afternoon, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak focused on the Cheonan case and detailed the evidence from the investigation, according to South Korea’s top presidential aide for public relations Lee Dong-kwan. The meeting, originally scheduled as a 30-minute session, lasted more than an hour and a half.
Despite the investigation’s conclusive evidence, Wen skirted the issue and the appeal from the regional leaders, thus buffering China’s long-time ally from international pressure. In familiar fashion, the communist leader spoke of “gradually” defusing tensions and avoiding “possible conflicts.”
“The Chinese government will review the results of international probes closely and seriously consider reactions from countries concerned,” Wen was quoted as saying at the meeting with President Lee. “It will then take its position on this issue in an objective and fair manner. According to the investigation results, China will not protect anyone,” he said.
The Chinese communist premier said China objects to any action that may threaten peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. It is not clear whether “action” in Wen's comment referred to further violence, such as the North Korean torpedo attack, or conversely to the imposition of international sanctions.
Wen’s statements have disappointed those who were hoping China would join the international sanction against the most severe military attack from North Korea since the 1953 Korean War.
After North Korean troops invaded South Korea in 1950—followed by a flood of Chinese communist troops into the Korean peninsula to battle U.S. and U.N. forces—China has historically protected North Korea, thwarting international measures against the dictatorship.
China and North Korea signed a “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance” in the 1960s, which “in accordance with Marxism-Leninism and the principle of proletarian internationalism,” binds the two dictatorships “to adopt all measures to prevent aggression against either of the Contracting Parties by any state.”
Furthermore, Article III of the treaty states that neither party “shall conclude any alliance directed against the other Contracting Party or take part in any bloc or in any action or measure directed against the other Contracting Party.”
The treaty is still in effect today. Technically, according to the treaty itself, China's support of international sanctions and cooperation with efforts to hold North Korea accountable may be in violation of their formalized relationship.
In a gesture that speaks of this relationship, just weeks after the sinking of the Cheonan, Beijing welcomed North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il’s state visit with the highest diplomatic protocol.
As South Korea plans its next move—to take the case to the United Nations Security Council and push for a resolution to punish North Korea—many fear China’s potential veto will largely limit punitive measures against North Korea.
The Cheonan case has strengthened alliances between Japan, the United States, and South Korea. Japan on Friday imposed a new sanction on North Korea, clamping down on money transfers to the country and planning to relocate a U.S. air base on Okinawa Island.
The U.S. Air Force also completed its deployment of 12 F-22 Raptors to its Kadena Air Base in Japan on May 26, according to a May 28 report by Korea’s Arirang TV.
North Korea, on the other hand, held an unusual press conference in Pyongyang on May 28, denying it had anything to do with the sinking of Cheonan. A top official from the Defense Commission claimed that if the South dared to commit armed provocation, the North would make an all-out effort to retaliate, including using nuclear weapons, according to China's state-run Xinhua News Agency.