UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. Security Council failed to take action to defuse tensions between North and South Korea on Sunday and diplomats blamed China for refusing to condemn the North for two deadly attacks this year that helped send relations to their lowest point in decades.
At the end of an eight-hour emergency meeting called by Russia, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the vast majority of the 15-member council was insisting on "a clear-cut condemnation" of North Korea but there was no unanimity.
Although diplomats from some countries still need to consult their capitals, Rice said, "I think it's safe to predict that the gaps that remain are unlikely to be bridged." She said she based that assessment on what she heard in the closed-door meetings.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin agreed "we were not successful in bridging all the bridges," but expressed hope the meeting will have an impact and that continued diplomatic contacts "will result in a successful outcome."
The council meeting took place as South Korea's military prepared to conduct one-day, live-fire drills by Tuesday on the same front-line island the North shelled last month as the South conducted a similar exercise.
China and Russia, the countries with the closest ties to North Korea, have called on South Korea to cancel the exercise. But the United States, a staunch ally of South Korea, has defended the country's right to train for self-defense — a point reiterated by Rice who said the two North Korean attacks made such training "prudent given than North Korean belligerence has cost 50 South Korean lives in the last nine months alone."
North Korea has warned of a "catastrophe" if South Korea goes ahead with the drills. The reclusive communist government in Pyongyang said it would strike back harder than it did on Nov. 23, when two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed on Yeonpyeong Island.
Churkin expressed "the very strong concern of the Russian Federation that within hours, there may be a serious aggravation of tension, a serious conflict for that matter."
He said Russia borders North Korea and so the escalating tensions are not only "of grave concern" to Moscow but they pose "serious security issues" for the country.
He said Moscow called the emergency council meeting because it wanted the U.N.'s most powerful body to send a message of restraint to both Koreas and to launch a new diplomatic initiative to try to reduce tensions and restart negotiations.
Russia proposed a draft statement that called on North Korea and South Korea "to exercise maximum restraint," urged immediate diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions, and asked Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to appoint an envoy "to consult on urgent measures" to peacefully settle the crisis. It did not mention the two attacks.
Most council members, including the United States which holds the rotating council presidency this month, viewed the Russian draft as unfairly equating the actions of the two Koreas, according to council diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks took place in private.
The United States, Britain, France and many others demanded that the council condemn North Korea for the shelling of Yeonpyeong island and the March 26 sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors and was blamed on a North Korean torpedo, the diplomats said.
A draft circulated by Britain condemned both attacks and shared the secretary-general's view that the shelling of the island was one of "the gravest provocations" since the Korean War which endangers peace and security in the region and beyond, diplomats said.
It calls for North Korea to refrain from further attacks and urges all parties to exercise restraint, avoid a further deterioration of relations, and engage in peaceful dialogue and negotiations, the diplomats said.
Churkin said he agreed to two revisions of his draft statement, incorporating some of the British proposals, but "unfortunately" the result was not acceptable to all council members.
Diplomats said Russia showed "flexibility" on a compromise text that included a condemnation of North Korea, and Rice thanked the Russians for their "constructive role" in trying to bridge differences. Churkin wouldn't discuss the negotiations but said the Russian government condemned the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island on the day it took place.
Diplomats said China refused to agree to any condemnation of the North and even opposed including the name of Yeonpyeong Island in a statement, insisting that the text refer to events of Nov. 23.
China also refused to condemn North Korea for the attack on the Cheonan.
Churkin said the proposal for the secretary-general to appoint an envoy received considerable support and expressed hope "that this idea can still be pursued."
"Now, we have a situation of very serious political tension and no game plan on the diplomatic side because the six-party talks (on North Korea's nuclear program) are not operative .... and there is no other diplomatic activity," Churkin said.
"We believe that there must be an initiative — and this initiative of the secretary-general in appointing an envoy might be something which will set a political process in train which could help resolve the current crisis situation," he said.
The council began meeting shortly after 11 a.m. EST (1600 GMT) and heard a briefing from U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe on the situation in the Koreas.
The council diplomat said Pascoe echoed Ban, who on Friday called the Nov. 23 attack on the tiny island of Yeonpyeong "one of the gravest provocations since the end of (the) Korean War."
North Korea claims South Korea fired artillery toward its territorial waters before it unleashed shells on the island on Nov. 23, while the South says it launched shells southward, not toward North Korea, as part of routine exercises.
During a private meeting in the Security Council chamber Sunday afternoon, diplomats said North Korean Ambassador Sin Son Ho and South Korean Ambassador Park In-kook blamed each other's military for starting the attack.
Churkin said "most importantly" they had a chance to listen to the messages of council members.
Several bloody naval skirmishes occurred along the western sea border between the two Koreas in recent years, but last month's assault was the first by the North to target a civilian area since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The North does not recognize the U.N.-drawn sea border in the area.