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Stakes Rise for North Korea

Prepared by: CFR.org Staff
Updated October 19, 2006

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The pressure on North Korea to stop its nuclear proliferation continues to build though Pyongyang appears unwilling to change its behavior. As a Chinese envoy who met with Kim Jong-Il called for restraint (BBC), U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged South Korea to join in enforcing sanctions laid out in UN Resolution 1718. Her remarks after her talks in Seoul with President Roh Moo Hyun suggested no firm commitments from South Korea (Korea Times), which has doggedly pursued a policy of engagement from the North in spite of last weekend's rogue nuclear blast.

Specifically, Rice wants South Korea to inspect northbound cargo, and to join the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative aimed at preventing the trade in weapons of mass destruction or their components. Pressure within South Korea for a more forceful reaction also has increased, with the authoritative and generally sober Chosun Ilbo asking in an editorial, “Has the Government Lost Its Marbles?” Rice remains upbeat and insists Pyongyang’s decision to test a nuclear weapon is “reversible.” However, a senior North Korean official has said a second nuclear test "is natural" (ABC).

Such an act would likely worsen the ailing China-North Korea relationship. The Chinese diplomatic visit to Pyongyang comes at a time when Beijing feels "a great deal of anger personally at Kim and the Korean military," says CFR Senior Fellow Adam Segal in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman. The blog North Korea Zone says the October 9 test was a play for Chinese attention; Pyongyang feels wounded over Beijing’s blossoming "romance" with South Korea in which China sees the Kim Jong-Il regime as “at best an inconvenience and irritant and at worst a dangerous, disruptive force.”

Experts say China alone has the leverage necessary to prevent further testing and, possibly, to convince Pyongyang to reverse its decision to go nuclear. Some reports suggest China may take drastic measures (NYT) if a second test occurs, including reducing oil exports, North Korea's only reliable source of energy. China's willingness to play hardball, however, remains uncertain. While Beijing accepted the Security Council resolution (TIME) citing Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which can have military implications, Beijing’s interests are hardly in lockstep with Washington’s—a point Rice readily concedes. “China has its own interest. We have [our] own interest, but they are certainly coincident,” she told reporters en route. While many in the United States (Slate) and elsewhere (The Australian) have heaped blame on China for a previously lenient approach to the North Koreans, others cite Chinese and South Korean fears of a “nuclear East Germany” scenario whereby the North collapses in chaos and millions of starving refugees stream across their borders (Reuters).

The first stop on Rice's trip was in Japan Wednesday, where talks with the government of new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe touched upon a topic which only recently would have been unthinkable—a Japanese compulsion to match North Korea’s nuclear status (TIME). Foreign Minister Taro Aso has urged an open public debate over Japan going nuclear, though he told Rice he personally opposed the idea (BBC). The prospect of Japan—or even South Korea—going nuclear after North Korea’s tests (Star-Ledger), is examined by CFR.org’s Michael Moran.

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