Quest for leverage on North Korea

Its missile tests on July 4 were condemned internationally, but it is threatening more.

As North Korea threatened more missile launches, the United States continued its diplomatic tack Thursday at the United Nations and in foreign capitals, in an effort to halt the isolationist Asian nation's belligerent activities.

Thursday, President Bush sought to play down differences of opinion internationally over how to proceed with North Korea. "Diplomacy takes a while, especially with a variety of partners, so we're spending time diplomatically making sure that voice is unified," he said in a press conference.

In New York, the UN Security Council considered a resolution presented by Japan and backed by the US urging North Korea to rejoin multiparty talks on its nuclear-weapons program and threatening sanctions if the program is not dismantled. But the only likely area of agreement is condemnation of North Korea's July 4 missile tests. China and Russia, both wielding veto power on the Security Council, have explicitly stated opposition to sanctions, and so the resolution's prospects appear dim.

Ultimately, analysts say, the Bush administration could wind up right where it has stood with North Korea since taking office: contemplating a limited range of options, with little prospect of success.

"No American official ... can say this publicly, but we've always known that in the short term there's not all that much the US can do," says Sung-Yoon Lee of the Korea Institute at Harvard University.

North Korea has long engaged in a pattern of survival – making threats and in return getting economic concessions from China and South Korea in the form of food, fuel, and cash. "Different nations have different national interests, and China and South Korea see it as in their interests to keep North Korea alive," says Mr. Lee.

That scenario also works against the possibility of US military action in North Korea, he adds, given the potential for massive retaliation, which could wreak havoc on South Korea and Japan.

The US has reacted in a low-key fashion, taking the missile tests seriously but not conveying a sense of panic. Analysts see the North Koreans trying to get the attention of the US and gain concessions, but the Bush administration has made it clear it won't take the bait.

"I don't think launching missiles is the way to engage conversation," John Bolton, the US ambassador to the United Nations, told the press Thursday morning.

US officials, including Mr. Bush, have pointedly noted that the largest missile tested, the Taepodong-2, failed after 42 seconds. But the president said Wednesday that hasn't diminished "my desire to solve this problem." North Korea disputes that the launch was a failure.

Stephen Bosworth, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a former US ambassador to South Korea, sees the North Koreans trying to get the US to be more "forward- leaning" in its approach – that is, more willing to engage in direct contact with North Korea, a view echoed by South Korea and China.

"China has been saying the US should be more flexible – both in the content of what we may be proposing, as well as manner in which it's conveyed to North Korea," says Mr. Bosworth, who adds he doubts the US will oblige. Still, he sees little coming out of what the US is trying to do.

"We continue to say we're going to line up international support in favor of our position, but it's not international support that's going to lead to any action. None of these guys [South Korea and China] want to impose sanctions; [the North Koreans] are already pretty heavily sanctioned. So you don't have much leverage over them."

Japan, the nation most visibly rattled by the test of at least seven missiles, announced Wednesday some limited sanctions against North Korea: It banned North Korean officials from entering Japan and blocked a North Korean trading ship from entering Japanese waters.

At the UN, Japan is seeking in the Security Council a resolution to block the transfer to North Korea of funds and technology intended for its weapons programs. Tokyo could also block cash remittances sent by Koreans in Japan to relatives in North Korea.

For the US, analysts say, a longer-term question is: Is the US more concerned about North Korea's emerging nuclear capability, or is it folding in a broader concern of whether it should seek the removal of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.

"If we're willing to live with his existence as the leader of North Korea, then the problem can be solved," says Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif. "Kim Jong Il is developing a nuclear capability only as a deterrent to keep himself in power. It's both a prestige factor for him with his military, which is a major potential source for overthrowing him, and it is a mechanism for deterring the US from attempting to overthrow him."

If the US made clear it is not seeking to oust Mr. Kim, then that could pave the way for a Libya-like solution – one in which the US persuades an enemy to give up his nuclear program and become a normal member of the global community.

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