ARF Meeting in Hanoi Expresses Concerns over Sinking of S. Korean Warship
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea staged a tough diplomatic duel last week over the sinking in March of a South Korean warship at the regional security forum held in Hanoi, but the annual conference only expressed "concerns" over the sinking of the warship Cheonan without naming North Korea as the culprit.
In the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) held in the Vietnamese capital, South Korea demanded North Korea acknowledge its responsibility for the incident and apologize, but North Korea said it has nothing to do with the warship and claimed that South Korea, instead, should apologize.
This year's ARF session came just weeks after the U.N. Security Council condemned the Cheonan attack that left 46 sailors dead near the Yellow Sea border on March 26. The U.N. Council's presidential statement, however, did not directly link it to North Korea.
The forum brought together the foreign ministers from 26 countries plus the European Union under the aegis of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
In a statement, the top diplomats who attended the ARF meeting expressed "deep concerns" on July 24 over the incident, but did not pinpoint North Korea as the perpetrator behind the sinking.
The position taken by this year's ARF is almost the same as that taken by the U.N. Security Council on July 9. "The ministers expressed deep concerns over the sinking of the Republic of Korea's naval ship, the Cheonan, resulted from the attack on 26 March 2010," said the statement issued by the ARF chairman.
South Korea voiced satisfaction with the ARF statement. "The ARF chairman's statement duly reflects this year's meeting and contains a message censuring North Korea's provocation and attack, and discouraging armed provocations to protect peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula," South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said.
The ARF statement was issued a day after the annual forum ended its session on July 23, underlining difficulties in reconciling the two nations' wide differences on the matter.
The U.N. statement did not name North Korea as the culprit, only condemning the "attack" that led to the ship sinking. North Korea has denied any role in the sinking and has accused South Korea of fabricating the investigation results.
In the ARF statement, the ministers stressed the importance of maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the region, and called on all concerned parties to resolve all disputes by peaceful means.
The ministers also "reaffirmed their support for the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and encouraged the parties to return to the six-party talks in due course," and underscored the importance of relevant U.N. resolutions, according to the statement.
North Korean diplomats attending the security forum reiterated calls for an end to the sanctions imposed on North Korea and the signing of a peace treaty as conditions to returning to the six-party talks, which have been stalled since early last year.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not meet with North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun in Hanoi, but she met with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to discuss North Korea and other issues.
China, North Korea's major ally and a veto-wielding council member, is the host of the six-party talks, involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia, which have been deadlocked over U.N. sanctions imposed after Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests early last year.
Yang demanded on July 23 that all parties concerned turn the page on the Cheonan incident for an early revival of the six-party talks.
Clinton said in Seoul on July 21 the time is not ripe for the resumption of the talks. A new round "is not something we're looking at yet," Clinton said, noting that North Korea has shown no commitment to halt provocative actions or forswear nuclear weapons. "To date, we have seen nothing."
Ahead of the ARF statement, South Korea pressed North Korea on July 23 to apologize for torpedoing its warships, but North Korea refused to comply, as the rival states tussled over how to reflect their views in the chairman's statement.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yu, speaking at the forum, pressed North Korea to "clearly and truthfully acknowledge its provocation on the Cheonan and apologize for it."
Along with the sinking of the 1,200-ton South Korean warship, North Korea's nuclear programs were high on the agenda of the forum. Yu accused North Korea of continuing its nuclear development in defiance of the international community.
Pak Ui-chun, the North Korean foreign minister, rejected the South Korean demand for an apology, arguing that it has not been determined yet who is responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan.
"The Cheonan case is still not resolved and a fair and objective probe must take place," Pak was quoted by South Korean officials as saying. "We've asked to send our inspection team, but South Korea and Washington have refused."
Pak reiterated the North Korean position that the country would only return to the six-party nuclear disarmament table when sanctions imposed on it are lifted, they said.
On July 23, a North Korean diplomat warned there would be "physical response" to the planned joint naval exercises between South Korea and the United States, and said it will not apologize for the sinking.
"There will be a physical response against the steps imposed by the United States militarily," said Ri Tong-il, spokesman for the North Korean delegation for the ARF. "The exercises are another expression of hostile policy against the DPRK (North Korea)."
South Korea and the United States began high-powered four-day drills on July 25 in the East Sea as a resolute signal to the North that its provocations will not be tolerated. Officials of the two allies said the maneuver was a defensive one meant to deter the communist regime.
Ri responded by saying any military drills involving a warship like the USS George Washington, the nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier, cannot be considered defensive.
"There are many sophisticated weapon equipments," Ri said. "(The drills are) against the sovereignty of the DPRK and security of the DPRK. It's a great threat to the Korean Peninsula and also to the region of Asia as a whole."
Ri again accused Seoul of fabricating the probe results with "political and military motives" and conspiring with the United States. The North could never accept the South's attempts to "dump responsibility" on Pyongyang, he said.
Meanwhile, North Korea's foreign minister has complained that high tensions caused by what he called "provocative actions" taken by South Korea and the U.S. in connection with the sinking of a South Korean warship are hurting the North's economy, South Korean officials said on July 24.
Minister Pak Ui-chun strenuously complained the March 26 sinking has driven the peninsula "to the brink of war," they said.
"Our great leader Kim Jong-il has prepared monumental policies on international investment, expansion of tourism and growing economic development," Pak told the forum, according to them.
"More than ever, we need stability. But the South Korean military brought up the Cheonan incident, which only offered one-sided results and raised doubt even within South Korea, and is making life difficult for us."
Pak boasted that his country made "miraculous achievements" in its steel and machinery industries last year and is looking to develop its light industry and agriculture, according to the South Korean officials.