Options On North Korea May Be Limited

Despite tough talk from President Obama and the U.N. Security Council in the wake of North Korea's latest nuclear test, the options to pressure North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons development are limited.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. North Korea fired two short-range missiles today after yesterday's underground nuclear test. That test was North Korea's first since 2006. The question now is what to do about it. Many nations, including the U.S., want to use the U.N. Security Council to impose new economic sanctions against North Korea.

As NPR's Mike Shuster reports, there are doubts that new sanctions will work.

MIKE SHUSTER: The U.N. Security Council was working today privately to produce a resolution that will almost certainly call for some new sanctions against North Korea. All the members of the Security Council were in line yesterday with the sentiments of the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice.

Ambassador SUSAN RICE (U.S. Representative, United Nations): The U.S. thinks that this is a grave violation of international law, and a threat to regional and international peace and security.

SHUSTER: But exactly what can be done about North Korea's nuclear test is a far more difficult question to answer. The government of North Korea has been operating under a variety of economic sanctions since the end of the Korean War. When North Korea first tested a nuclear weapon in 2006, the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions, but they were never fully implemented.

The likelihood is that any new sanctions won't change much, and that had the U.N. ambassador from Japan, Yukio Takasu, frustrated because given its geographical proximity, Japan feels most threatened by North Korea's nuclear and missile tests.

Ambassador YUKIO TAKASU (Japan Representative, United Nations): What's their meaning of Security Council passing the resolution, and then acting in this way and letting it go? I think there should be very clear consequence to that.

SHUSTER: But real consequences for North Korea are dubious.

Mr. JOEL WIT (North Korea Expert, U.S. Korea Institute of Johns Hopkins University): None of these sanctions are really going to have the effect that we want them to have, and that is to make North Korea reverse course.

SHUSTER: Joel Wit is an expert on North Korea at the U.S.-Korea Institute of Johns Hopkins University, and a former negotiator with North Korea during the Clinton administration.

Mr. WIT: The bottom line here is yes, we do need to put into effect sanctions, but we also need to understand that sanctions, the effect of sanctions on North Korea will be quite limited, and we need to continue to look for opportunities to get back to negotiation.

SHUSTER: The negotiating mechanism that has been at work for years is known as the Six-Party Talks, involving China, Japan, South Korea and Russia as well as the U.S. and North Korea. These talks have seen some achievements, including an agreement on North Korea's part two years ago to dismantle much of its nuclear weapons facilities at Yangbian.

But after the U.N. Security Council criticized North Korea for its long-range rocket launch in early April, Pyongyang said it would no longer participate in the Six-Party Talks. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that the Six-Party process will one day be revived with North Korea's participation, but many Korea experts have reluctantly come to the conclusion that those talks will not persuade North Korea to give up nuclear weapons.

The Obama administration, much like the Bush administration before it, is also hoping that China may have the leverage with North Korea to stop its nuclear program. China released a statement after Monday's nuclear test expressing its resolute opposition to North Korea's action.

But Beijing is unlikely to go much beyond that, says David Straub, a former State Department expert on North Korea, now at Stanford University.

Mr. DAVID STRAUB (Associate Director of Korean Studies Program, Stanford University): Their basic interest is maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula first. Second, they want to maintain the North Korean regime as a buffer between the U.S. ally, South Korea, and China. And only third do they want to try to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.

SHUSTER: Straub says this is a long-term problem for the Obama administration to manage. That will inevitably involve negotiations. Most experts believe North Korea will return to the negotiating table at some point and in some form. Whether it's the Six-Party process or bilateral talks with the United States, there will be almost certainly an opportunity to bargain with North Korea again - but with little prospect that anything will persuade Pyongyang to give up the nuclear weapons it has acquired.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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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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