A U.S., China Partnership On North Korea?

U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice i i

hide captionSusan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaks to reporters Monday about international reaction to a nuclear test by North Korea. Options for dealing with the isolated communist regime may be limited.

Daniel Barry/Getty Images
U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice

Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaks to reporters Monday about international reaction to a nuclear test by North Korea. Options for dealing with the isolated communist regime may be limited.

Daniel Barry/Getty Images

North Korea's latest nuclear test poses foreign policy challenges to the new Obama administration.

The nuclear and missile tests force the Obama administration to try to rally a strong response from U.S. allies to what the president denounced as "a blatant violation of international law."

President Obama also must attempt to get cooperation from China, the country believed to have the most influence on North Korea.

The State Department said Tuesday that North Korea will "pay a price for the path they are on," but that the door remains open for talks. Spokesman Ian Kelly said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is working to make sure "the international community conveys a strong message."

An emergency session of the 15-member United Nations Security Council, including the U.S. and China, on Monday unanimously condemned the nuclear test.

But Robert Kagan, a historian and foreign policy analyst, says North Korea's latest act of defiance shows that the administration's options are limited.

Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the North Korean tests demonstrate that the so-called six-party talks on North Korea are futile, and that if the U.S. needs to talk to North Korea, it should do so directly.

Are Six-Party Talks Useless?

The six-party talks, composed of the U.S., North Korea, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, produced a 2007 promise from North Korea that it would shut down its nuclear facilities and work to normalize relations with the U.S. and Japan.

The deal began to unravel soon after it was made, and it fell apart completely earlier this year, when the United Nations condemned the isolated communist nation for firing a long-range rocket that Western experts said was a move toward developing a military weapon. North Korea said it was attempting to put a satellite in orbit.

North Korea responded by dropping out of the six-party talks, expelling all nuclear inspectors, and saying that it would resume its nuclear enrichment program.

Kagan also discounts the idea that China, alarmed at the prospect for greater instability on the Korean peninsula, might be willing to put real pressure on North Korea to change its behavior.

The Chinese "have interests that are very divergent from ours, which explains why we haven't had much action from them," Kagan says.

In an opinion piece published Tuesday in The Washington Post, written with Dan Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute, Kagan argues that it is in China's interests to have a nuclear-armed, anti-Western country on its border, rather than face a united Korea that might be allied with the United States.

China's Response Will Be Key

Sheila Smith disagrees. Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says China has a much greater interest in maintaining peace on the Korean peninsula than it has been given credit for in the West.

Smith notes that the North Korean regime is difficult to influence because it is already very isolated. "The Chinese are quite honest in saying they don't have control over what goes on there," she says.

Smith says that China viewed North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006 as "crossing a red line." She says the fact that Chinese leaders moved quickly to make a sharp denunciation of the latest test is a sign that China may be ready for stronger measures.

One measure that could get the attention of North Korean officials, Smith says, would be for China to freeze an estimated $2 billion in assets that the north has in Chinese banks.

"I'm not saying that Beijing will walk immediately into a sanctions regime," Smith says. "But I think that quietly, behind the scenes, they may be ready to take stronger action."

Obama has reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea and Japan against any aggression from North Korea.

Smith says that North Korea may not be finished demonstrating its displeasure over the international community's condemnation. She notes that North Korea is preparing to try two American reporters next month who were seized on March 17 along North Korea's border with China.

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