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Beijing up to bat

October 10, 2006

WHETHER NORTH KOREA'S self-proclaimed nuclear test turns out to have been a big bang or a little pop, it already has done incalculable damage to global security. Yet however radioactive the geopolitical fallout, it cannot be allowed to damage relations between Beijing and Washington.

Recriminations already have begun in Washington, with politicians and pundits simply adjusting their debate to take Monday's events into account. The question is no longer how to persuade North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to abandon his quest for nuclear weapons but whether he could have been persuaded -- and whether the approach was too bellicose toward Kim or too obliging to China.

This argument is now even more fruitless. But it could turn ugly if members of Congress already hostile to China because of its position on Taiwan or because of trade issues are joined by those who ask why Beijing didn't do more to stop North Korea from going nuclear.

The Bush administration should be careful not to let criticism from members of Congress distract it from diplomatic efforts to win more complete cooperation from the Chinese. But the Chinese need to decide once and for all whether they want to play the leading role in this crisis or whether they are content to continue to criticize the U.S. for failing to do so.

Beijing has implied that the administration's refusal to hold one-on-one negotiations with North Korea has made it impossible to make headway with Pyongyang. But if China doesn't want the U.S. to behave like a global hegemonist and doesn't want Japan to abandon its pacifist constitution, then it must share the responsibility for deterring and containing North Korea -- or better yet, persuade it to disarm.

Chinese officials are said to roll their eyes in private at North Korean intransigence and to downplay their influence over Kim. Their act isn't terribly convincing. China is North Korea's last friend and ally and its biggest supplier of food and fuel. In 2003, it briefly shut off gas pipelines to make the point that Pyongyang had better agree to six-party negotiations over nuclear disarmament.

Chinese and South Korean reluctance to punish North Korea economically, lest privation trigger floods of refugees across their borders, is understandable. But both nations must now realize that their interest would be far more threatened by a nuclear arms race in the region and beyond.

With South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon poised to become the next United Nations secretary-general, the international community should begin planning for humanitarian assistance for North Korean refugees. Such plans would be wise in any case -- in the event stiff international sanctions are applied or Kim's regime collapses because of its own suicidal economic and political policies.

Meanwhile, the best course for the U.S. and China is to present a united, anti-nuclear stance to the world. Beijing's denunciation Monday of North Korea's actions was its strongest and swiftest in years. May it soon be matched by Chinese action.

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