Korean tremor

October 10, 2006

The American policy of isolating and demonizing North Korea as a means of restraining its nuclear ambitions has come up wanting, but the friendlier Chinese tactics, employed toward the same goal, have been no more successful. North Korea's announcement that it had tested a nuclear device was rightly termed "provocative" by President Bush, even if, as some suspect, the test was something less than it first appeared to be; what this provocation calls for is a different international approach.

The U.S. proposed a list of tough but limited sanctions to the U.N. Security Council yesterday. Any effort to pull the noose so tight that it brings down the regime will not work, because China will make sure that it doesn't. Beijing would rather have a nuclear-armed North Korea than a failed state and millions of refugees pouring across its border.

But China has been stung by the announcement - in some ways, more so than the U.S. has. Its efforts to constrain North Korea have been thrown back in its face. The Chinese well understand, moreover, that if North Korea is allowed to proceed unchecked, Japan is very likely at some point to pursue its own nuclear weapons program, which would keep national leaders across East Asia, and then some, awake at night.

Yesterday's incident, if handled adroitly, could forge a consensus between the U.S. and China, and it would be one that South Korea, Japan and Russia would inevitably sign on to. It would require actual diplomacy, and the development of a hard-nosed and united stand toward North Korea that would acknowledge its right to exist. It might make sense for Beijing to take the lead on dealing with the regime in Pyongyang, as long as the U.S. can be assured that the Chinese, angry though they may be right now, won't eventually start backtracking.

Unfortunately, there's a wrench just waiting to fall into the works, and it's called Iran. The Bush administration wants to stop Iran in its tracks (and China and Russia are resisting). Accomplishing that while dealing with a nuclear-capable North Korea (with China and Russia cooperating) comes close to trying to square a circle. It's evident that the White House has done a great deal to push North Korea and Iran into their current positions - through its "axis-of-evil" rhetoric and its appalling destruction of a non-nuclear Iraq - but that doesn't make it any easier to go forward from here. Staking out as much common ground as possible with China would be a good way to start.

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