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How do you solve a problem like North Korea?
by Staff Writers
Seoul (AFP) Feb 17, 2013


China paper blames US for N. Korea nuclear crisis
Beijing (AFP) Feb 18, 2013 - A Chinese state-run newspaper blamed Washington Monday for the North Korean nuclear crisis and another stressed Beijing's limited scope for action, six days after tensions rose with a third atomic test.

The finger-pointing came as China's foreign ministry restated its "firm opposition" to the blast but mentioned no reprisals -- a mild reply compared to the condemnation and threats of tough sanctions by the US and other nations.

Beijing has propped up Pyongyang since the 1950-53 Korean War, for fear of instability that might bring refugees into its territory, a US-led military escalation in the region or even a unified Korea with a US military presence next door.

While Washington has pressed Beijing to use its trade and aid leverage over its dependent neighbour, some in China claim the US in fact holds greater sway as it can offer North Korea its most-sought-after prize of a security guarantee.

"The United States should take the major share of blame for rising tensions on the peninsula," the China Daily said, citing a researcher from the state-affiliated Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"The US did not respect the security concerns of (North Korea) and that is the reason why the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula has not been solved," it said, paraphrasing an expert from the respected Tsinghua University.

Citing the same expert, the China Daily -- which put its story on the front page under the headline "US 'must act to ease peninsula tension'" -- accused Washington of using North Korea's nuclear pursuits as an excuse to build its regional military presence.

"Washington may not want Pyongyang's nuclear issue to be solved, because it offers an excuse for the US to deploy anti-missile systems and hold military drills in the region, which are in line with its military rebalance to East Asia," it said.

Meanwhile a Global Times editorial stressed the dilemma China faced in taking punitive steps against North Korea, which it said might both be futile and turn Pyongyang against Beijing in a split that would serve the US.

"Since Pyongyang's nuclear test has damaged China's interests, it's necessary for China to give Pyongyang a certain 'punishment'. The key problem is what the extent of this punishment should be," it said, adding: "Beijing is not an ally of Pyongyang."

"If Beijing takes a sharp turn in its attitude toward Pyongyang, it will become North Korea's top enemy, which is the desire of the US, Japan and South Korea," it said. "China must avoid this situation."

The UN Security Council has been here before... several times: debating how to punish North Korea for -- as Pyongyang would have it -- reacting to the last time it got punished.

North Korea flagged its February 12 nuclear test three weeks in advance in an official statement released by the National Defence Commission, the country's top military body.

But the countdown really began two months ago when the North launched a long-range rocket and set in motion a now-familiar chain of events that was always going to end in an underground chamber at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

The international community condemned the launch and the UN imposed sanctions, which North Korea then used as justification for conducting an atomic test.

An almost identical pattern was followed for the North's two previous nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

The UN Security Council is certain to impose fresh or tightened sanctions on Pyongyang after the latest test, but most experts agree that the sanctions route -- until now -- has been largely ineffective.

"Getting unanimous Security Council consensus on another resolution doesn't even send a signal anymore if we are designating North Korean entities or individuals that cannot be effectively sanctioned," said US academic and researcher Stephan Haggard.

"Indeed, it is worse: ritualised UN action is corrosive of our credibility because it continually paints red lines that we are forced to repaint," Haggard said.

The option of significantly upping the sanctions ante with wider and more punitive measures -- especially on financial institutions dealing with North Korea -- is restricted by China.

As Pyongyang's sole major ally and economic benefactor, China has always sheltered the North from the tough measures the United States would like to see the UN impose.

While Beijing's patience with its recalcitrant neighbour is clearly wearing very thin, it is not about to support any action that might put the North in danger of collapse.

Most analysts, therefore, argue for a strategic re-think that throws out the old North Korea playbook and looks for a realistic long-term solution.

For some, like Andrei Lankov, a North Korean expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, this means accepting the unpalatable truth that North Korea cannot be prevented from becoming a fully-fledged nuclear weapons state.

"The pipe dream of denuclearisation should be discarded; arms control is the only attainable goal," said Lankov.

"The aim should be to reach an arms control agreement which implicitly accepts North Korea's claim to being a nuclear power, while also limiting the size of its nuclear arsenal," Lankov said.

But North Korea has a long record of reneging on agreements, as Lankov himself admits, and such an approach would be vulnerable to accusations of appeasement, especially in US and South Korean domestic political circles.

One of the main challenges of North Korea's historical use of brinkmanship to earn concessions, is that it makes engagement with Pyongyang seem less like realpolitik and more like reward for provocation.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, believes a "new formulation" is necessary to break the provocation-engagement cycle.

"A strategy of engagement that does not reward the test but seeks to moderate the regime's behaviour through sustained dialogue may be most productive going forward," Albright said.

Before the North's rocket launch in December, 2013 had looked like a year full of opportunity for such a dialogue and resurrecting the six-party talks with the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

South Korea, China and Japan were undergoing leadership transitions, while US President Barack Obama was about to start his second term.

Many felt this offered the chance of a fresh start with Pyongyang, working off a blank slate, with new faces and renewed energy.

But the rocket launch and then the nuclear test have made resuming any sort of meaningful dialogue all but impossible -- at least in the short term.

For South Korean president-elect Park Geun-Hye, who takes office in a week, campaign promises of greater engagement with Pyongyang will now have to be shelved for fear of inciting the hawks in her conservative party.

In the meantime, some analysts suggest the best way forward is to ignore Pyongyang completely for a while, and focus instead on building a consensus between the main outside players.

"There are signs that China is listening more to US concerns about North Korea's nuclear provocation," said Albright.

"The goal must be the United States developing common positions with China, along with South Korea and Japan, making it harder for North Korea to play China against the United States," he added.

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