China premier treads carefully in South Korea

China’s premier tried to soothe an angry South Korean leadership Friday with condolences for the deaths of 46 sailors and promises to investigate North Korea’s culpability in the sinking of a South Korean warship, but stopped short of making any commitments.

Making a three-day visit to South Korea, Premier Wen Jiabao had to navigate between tensions with one of his country’s major trading partners and allegiance to the communist ally China rescued during the 1950-1953 Korean War.

An investigation commissioned by the South Korean government concluded that the Cheonan, a warship that was on patrol in the Yellow Sea when it broke apart March 26, had been hit by a North Korean torpedo. The estranged Koreas have severed communications, blocked each other’s vessels from entering their waters and exchanged threats since the report was released May 20.

“As a responsible country, China takes serious note of the results of a joint investigation by South Korea and other countries, as well as the reactions of all parties,” the official New China News Agency quoted Wen as telling South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

“I understand the grief of the Korean people, especially the family members of those who died,” Wen said.

With the strong backing from the United States, South Korea says it will seek sanctions before the U.N. Security Council. China’s support is essential, both because of its veto power on the council and its 850-mile border with North Korea.

“China needs to play an active role in making North Korea admit its wrongdoing,"South Korean presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan quoted Lee as telling Wen.

The South Koreans have been furious that China has refused to come down harder on North Korea, compounding their anger over an enthusiastic welcome given to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during a visit to China this month.

Lee had been in China three days earlier and met with President Hu Jintao. Hu did not inform him of Kim’s impending arrival, according to Victor Cha, a former National Security Council official who is now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It was a loss of face,” Cha said. “You wouldn’t treat your business partners that way.”

South Korea and China are projected to do up to $200 billion in trade annually by 2012, according to Wen’s remarks Friday in Seoul; trade between China and North Korea is estimated at $1.5 billion.