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The Next Step Depends on U.S. and China

Diplomats say the two powers are the key to forcing North Korea into negotiations.

October 10, 2006|Doyle McManus, Mark Magnier and Paul Richter | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — For almost two decades, the United States and China have tried different approaches to dissuade North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons -- all of which appear to have failed with Pyongyang's announcement Monday that it had exploded a nuclear device.

Now the two big Pacific Rim powers are scrambling to come up with a strategy to prevent North Korea's move from touching off an arms race in Asia. As before, success may depend on whether Washington and Beijing can work together.

At least initially, North Korea's defiance has pushed the United States and China closer.

Both governments called Monday for a firm response from the United Nations Security Council, indicating that each would probably support new and tougher economic sanctions against the regime in Pyongyang, diplomats said.

One option that does not appear to be under consideration by the Bush administration is military action.

U.S. military officials said that destroying North Korea's nuclear facilities would be difficult and that trying to do so could engulf the region in war.

The ability of sanctions to force North Korea into serious negotiations over its nuclear program will depend almost entirely on China, which supplies most of Pyongyang's energy and much of its food.

"We really have to do something about this but, you know, we can't do it unilaterally. This is not a U.S. problem," Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said on CNN.

"A key country in all of this will be China."

Joseph Cheng, a foreign policy expert at the City University of Hong Kong, said that until now, "China tried to go the soft approach. But given North Korea's brinkmanship, China will probably have to bite the bullet now and take a tougher line."

Even if the United States and China agree on new sanctions, they will face a decision on the next step: What kind of deal to seek with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to persuade him to abandon his nuclear weapons program.

"After you get your sanctions, what then?" asked Robert L. Gallucci, who was the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea under President Clinton. "The North Koreans want very much to do a deal with us. It's going to be up to the Bush administration ... to decide whether they want a deal."

If the Security Council adopts new sanctions, he said, it could make negotiations easier because North Korea would have more reasons to come to the table.

"At that point, there will immediately be something for North Korea to gain: a removal of sanctions," Gallucci said.

The United States, China and North Korea have met repeatedly since 2003 in what are called the six-party talks because they also include Pyongyang's three other neighbors: South Korea, Japan and Russia.

But those talks have not been held since November 2005.

U.S. officials said they were hoping to persuade China, which has joined the United States in some financial sanctions against Pyongyang, to cut off some of North Korea's fuel supply, limit traffic across the two countries' long border and join in a maritime embargo to search ships entering and leaving North Korean ports.

But China will not want to tighten economic pressure on North Korea enough to provoke large-scale refugee flows and chaos on the border, officials said.

Derek Mitchell, an East Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, noted that China had begun to bear down on Pyongyang, and predicted that Beijing would start out taking a strong position.

In time, however, "we're going to run into ... the question of whether these countries will want to keep up the pressure over the long term," he said.

At least in the short run, he said, the North Korean test has shifted the balance of power in the Bush administration.

"I think the hard-liners in the Bush administration are pretty happy today," Mitchell said. "This undermines the credibility of the diplomats at the State Department, and that of other countries like China."

In China, analysts said they expected the government to go slow on imposing new economic sanctions, even as it appeared to have rethought its approach.

"It may be time for China to adjust its policy a bit," said Xu Wenji, a professor of North Korean studies at Jilin University in northeast China. "We need some new wisdom to solve this problem."

As a first step, China is likely to send an envoy to Pyongyang to read its ally the riot act, analysts said.

Beijing may threaten and, if necessary, carry out a selective cutoff of aid or oil supplies behind the scenes to get its neighbor's attention without publicly humiliating a fellow communist nation.

At the same time, analysts added, it may lobby the United States for more time before the Security Council votes on a resolution imposing new sanctions.

China may agree to sanctions that limit North Korea's access to technology, hoping to blunt calls for an economic stranglehold on its isolated neighbor, analysts said.

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