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Asia Goal Proving Elusive for Rice

October 21, 2006|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — As U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left China today for Russia, her goal of uniting Northeast Asia in a strong, unambiguous punitive stance against North Korea remained elusive.

China continued to balk at using its economic leverage too aggressively against its longtime ally, given the risk that a wave of refugees along their 880-mile shared border could destabilize its industrial northeast. China would be the linchpin of any effective sanctions since it supplies most of North Korea's fuel and much of its food.

South Korea has refused to shutter two major economic projects with the North that put millions of dollars in hard currency into the pockets of the isolated Stalinist regime.

Russia, the final stop on Rice's four-nation trip in the wake of North Korea's Oct. 9 nuclear test, opposes tough economic sanctions or intrusive searches.

And Japan, closest to Washington in its thinking on the crisis, is roundly viewed in the region as the wrong player at the wrong time to make like neighborhood cop. The concern is that memories of Japan's wartime brutality on the Korean peninsula and throughout Asia would inflame tensions were it to inspect North Korean ships at sea or take other tough enforcement steps.

With no easy answers, a wily adversary in Pyongyang, the North's capital, and limited options, Rice sought Friday to lower expectations, even as she praised China's willingness to consider tougher measures in the interest of regional and global stability.

"This is an early trip. People are reviewing where they are," she told reporters in Beijing. "What do we know about securing the land border with North Korea? Not very much."

Amid South Korean and Japanese media reports that Pyongyang had no plan to test a second nuclear device, and that it was contrite about the test that rattled nerves around the world, the North remained publicly defiant.

"The nuclear test was an exercise of the independent and legitimate right of [North Korea] as a sovereign state," said Choe Thae Bok, a senior member of the North's Korean Workers' Party, according to the country's official news agency.

The record is not very good when it comes to nations getting the nuclear genie back into the bottle.

"No country has stopped nuclear tests after only carrying out one," Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso told reporters in Tokyo. "We have to think that [a second test] will be done."

Faced with few alternatives, North Korea's neighbors have put renewed faith in the heretofore unsuccessful six-nation talks as a way to contain the isolated, impoverished state. Negotiations stalled after Pyongyang walked out a year ago. In addition to China and the United States, the participants are the two Koreas, Japan and Russia.

As usual, a great deal comes down to mercurial North Korea's stance, behavior and negotiating tactics.

"I can't answer to whether they're serious about returning to six-party talks or not," Rice told reporters. "I don't think anybody believes that six or seven six-party talk sessions in which we again get into an argument about the sequencing of a light-water reactor is going to be very helpful to anyone."

China's desire to see the talks succeed -- it had a crucial role in setting them up -- and its role as mediator and host are additional reasons it is reluctant to push North Korea too hard on sanctions. Beijing believes that if it is identified too closely with a U.S. hard-line stance, it loses the opportunity to broker a solution in the future, with the international prestige that entails.

"Our purpose is to do some punitive things," said Shen Dingli, an international relations professor at Fudan University in Shanghai. "But the ultimate goal is to bring them back to the six-party talks and to abandon their nuclear weapons."

Times staff writer Bruce Wallace in Tokyo and Yin Lijin in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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