March 8, 2013 6:20 pm

The growing threat from North Korea

China needs to be persuaded to get Pyongyang to talk

The stand-off between North Korea and the outside world over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme has turned deadly serious. Three weeks ago, the country startled the world with another underground nuclear explosion, its third atomic test in six years. On Thursday, the UN Security Council responded to this outrageous act with a fresh raft of sanctions that puts powerful new constraints on North Korean banking, trade and travel.

That move by the UN has, in turn, triggered another outburst of anger from North Korea. The regime announced on Friday that it was nullifying all non-aggression agreements with South Korea. It also said it was prepared to launch “pre-emptive nuclear strikes” against its enemies.

Some may dismiss Pyongyang’s words as typical bluster from the beleaguered leadership. But the diplomatic landscape has worsened. The long-running six-party talks to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear programme are effectively dead. Few experts believe the regime will now give up nuclear weapons. Instead, the only hope is that the North can be pressured to engage in an armistice with the South and take measures that reduce escalating tensions.

As ever, the critical question is what role China will play. The good news is that China has been a strong participant in drawing up this week’s UN sanctions resolution, suggesting it is losing patience with its unruly neighbour. But will China implement these and previous sanctions? Many fear that Beijing will go on providing a critical economic lifeline for the North Korean regime.

US policy must challenge China further. On the one hand, Washington must persuade China that North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons capability poses a global risk, especially in the proliferation of atomic material to other states, such as Iran.

Moreover, China cannot expect South Korea and Japan to remain defenceless in the face of Pyongyang’s growing capability. These countries will want to develop ballistic missile defences with US help. That would ultimately run against China’s interests.

That said, the US needs to give China some reassurances. Washington must make clear that a diplomatic shift by China away from the North Korean regime does not run against Beijing’s regional interests. China has always feared that the collapse of the North Korean regime would lead to a strengthened US military presence across the Korean peninsula. Washington must make clear that maintaining such a military presence is not its long-term goal.

The US should also send a strong signal to Beijing that if Korea is ultimately unified, it would withdraw.

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