The fires of the Middle East must not be allowed to distract the world's attention from the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear ambitions, which it demonstrated by its recent test of a long-range missile. Yet that is what appears to be happening.
In the middle of this month, the G8 summit in St. Petersburg ended by calling on North Korea to stop its missile tests and to abandon its nuclear weapons program. This followed a UN Security Council resolution that condemned North Korea's missile launches on July 5, demanded that it return to the negotiating table, and required UN members to prevent the import and export of any material or money related to North Korea's missile or unconventional weapons programs.
Chinese President Hu Jintao (
During its first term, the administration of US President George W. Bush hoped that it could solve the North Korean nuclear problem through regime change. The hope was that isolation and sanctions would topple Kim Jong-il's dictatorship. But the regime proved resistant, and the Bush administration agreed to enter into six-party talks with China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas.
Last September it appeared momentarily that the talks had produced a rough agreement that North Korea would forgo its nuclear program in return for security guarantees and removal of sanctions. But the loosely worded accord soon collapsed, and North Korea refused to return to the talks until the US stopped shutting down bank accounts suspected of counterfeiting and laundering money for Kim's regime.
Diplomacy remained stalled until North Korea launched a series of missiles into the Sea of Japan this month. Japan called for UN Security Council sanctions, and after 10 days of wrangling, all five permanent members agreed on a resolution condemning North Korea's actions.
Why did North Korea risk taking actions that defied China, its main benefactor, and brought about the UN resolution? In part, it acted because it saw the great powers offering Iran an interesting package of incentives to give up its nuclear enrichment program, while North Korea was being relegated to a diplomatic side track. But it also acted because taking such risks has proven successful in the past, and here, Kim probably believed the risks were low.
Kim knows that the five other countries in the six-party talks are divided. While all five want a non-nuclear North Korea, China and South Korea place a higher priority on the stability of the North Korean regime than the US and Japan do.
South Korean public opinion is split on how to handle the North, but the majority fear that a sudden collapse would have catastrophic effects on the South's economy. Many in the younger generation have no direct memories of the Korean War. Thus, South Korea's "sunshine policy" of economic engagement with the North commands majority approval.
Similarly, China, with its focus on economic growth, fears that a collapse of the North Korean regime would threaten stability on its borders. Thus, while China has occasionally pressed North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, it has been unwilling to exercise its economic leverage to a point that threatens the regime.