The blame from the sinking of the South Korean frigate Chon An has now been formally laid at the feet of North Korea. The consequences are coming, but it is unlikely that the South Korean government will resort to any sort of violent response. The fact that the findings were announced with the concurrence of all the investigators, which included representatives from Sweden, Australia, Britain and the US, will put North Korea in the position of denying the obvious.
Back in April, I questioned the “why” not the “how”. That question is still unanswered although it may simply be one of retaliation for successful defensive measures taken by South Korea in previous naval incidents. However, a pre-meditated attack is of a different order.
Various scenarios will begin to play out, including a call for additional sanctions in the United Nations. Korea is already an unpleasant place to live – more sanctions could make it all the more so. Which brings up China.
This might be the least welcome event for China during its period of negotiations with Japan over fishing rights and its position on financial matters with the United States. North Korea is supported economically by China and a surge of refugees that could result as North Korea is further penalized with sanctions is not tolerable prospect for Beijing. The US is likely now to bring additional, unwelcome, pressure on China to do something with North Korea. Japan may join the push as well. Certainly the South Korean will not look favourably on China if it fails to take any action or opposes additional sanctions.
The reality is that North Korea is a drain on China, both economically and politically. At the same time, an unstable North Korea is a threat to all her neighbours’ and, by treaty, to the US. The reaction of China to the findings will be important in maintaining stability while simultaneously dealing with a dangerous state prone to tantrums resulting in damage and deaths.
I suspect that a new set of sanctions will be discussed, but not imposed. China would not want the UN to further exacerbate North Korea's economic problems which could escalate uncontrollably. It certainly does not want another tantrum from North Korea that could actually provoke a military response. But, China will need to give up something for their neighbor's latest provocation.