North Korea's Neighbors Discuss Ship Sinking

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The leaders of South Korea and China meet to discuss the tension in the Korean peninsula on Friday. The tension between South and North Korea follow a torpedo attack that left dozens of South Korean sailors dead in March. The South blames the North for the attack, and is hoping China will take a more critical stance against the North.

DAVID GREENE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Even experts on North Korea can't always explain the actions of one of the world's most secretive countries. In a few moments, we'll hear some theories on the north's recent hostile actions towards the south. That was at the top of the agenda when the president of South Korea met today with the premiere of China. The tension between South and North Korea began with a torpedo attack that left dozens of South Korean sailors dead in March. The South blames the North for the attack, and is hoping China will take a more critical stance towards the North. NPR's Mike Shuster joins us from Seoul.

And, Mike, what has China said so far about this crisis?

MIKE SHUSTER: So far, Renee, very little. The foreign ministry calls the situation highly complicated, and has said China doesn't have enough firsthand information to judge. That's how China's explaining its failure to embrace the results of an international investigation about this attack.

Last week, South Korea made public that investigation, which concluded it was a North Korean submarine that torpedoed the South Korean warship the Cheonan, splitting it in half and killing the 46 sailors.

Wen, the Chinese premiere, was quoted today at the beginning of his meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak as saying only that China and South Korea maintain a strategic cooperative partnership and have maintained communications. And then later today, he was quoted as saying he condemns all acts against peace and stability on the Korean peninsula - still very much boiler plate from China's point of view. China has made it clear that's the most important goal here, stability, and so it won't say or do anything that could undermine stability in North Korea.

MONTAGNE: What do South Korea and the U.S. really, though, want China to do?

SHUSTER: They want China to put pressure directly on North Korea. They see China as the only nation here with any leverage over North Korea. And they believe China has the capability to bring about a de-escalation of the hostile rhetoric between the two Koreas if they can convince North Korea to refrain from further hostile rhetoric or, indeed, any additional hostile acts it might be contemplating. North Korea actually has threatened all-out war. That's part of the rhetoric, for instance, if South Korea takes any actions against it.

The U.S. and South Korea are frustrated that they can't persuade China to take a stand and accept the results of this investigation and put that directly to North Korea. And then, of course, the U.S. and South Korea want China to support sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, or at least not use its veto power to block them.

MONTAGNE: And why won't China do any of those things?

SHUSTER: Well, for one thing, China generally has never liked the use of economic sanctions in international relations. That's a longstanding principle of China. But that comes in spades, especially against the state with which it has had a long, friendly history of support. And that describes, in part, the China-North Korea relationship.

Of course, North Korea denies that it torpedoed the ship, and China doesn't want to - just doesn't want to contradict it publicly. China's fear of destabilizing the Korean Peninsula suggests it's worried about the stability of the government in Pyongyang and the possibility of a crisis and control there.

And anything that could result in turmoil or chaos in North Korea could eventually affect China because of the possible flood of refugees that would cross North Korea's border with China and go into China.

So even though China and South Korea have this very close trade relationship and it's far more important to China than the economic relationship with North Korea, still, China doesn't want to put pressure on North Korea.

MONTAGNE: What is the mood like there where you are in Seoul?

SHUSTER: Well, interestingly enough, it doesn't feel very tense here at all. Seoul seems quite calm. I've been here half a dozen times in the past, and it doesn't seem unusual in any way. People are going about their everyday lives. The streets are clogged with traffic. The stores are packed with shoppers.

But there is this tension between the two governments. And there's this gradual ratcheting up of action and statement on the part of both Koreas. And that could ultimately lead to miscalculation and mistakes and actions that might lead to additional clashes that nobody wants, really.

MONTAGNE: Mike, thanks very much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We've been talking to NPR's Mike Shuster in Seoul, South Korea.

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