Outrage over North Korea dissipates

Righteous anger gives way to realpolitik for North Korea's neighbors.

Some two weeks after North Korea leapt a grave military threshold to test a one kiloton nuclear device, and a week after the UN Security Council passed its strongest resolution ever on North Korea, much of the collective outrage and resolve in this region appears to be on the wane.

The initial brave tone of international brio and unity is being slowly supplanted by a strange interregnum in northeast Asia. Despite talk of a new cold war and a possible second nuclear test by North Korea, the country's neighbors are clearly shifting back toward their more measured, pre-test diplomatic approach – when national interests trumped regional security concerns.

"Everybody said this event [nuclear test] would be a paradigm shift. Is it?" says Scott Snyder of the Korea Foundation. "China and South Korea have already done a fair amount of backpedaling ... only a week after the test, we were seeing people dialing down expectations. We are in a new world that still looks a lot like the old world."

China initially called the tests a "flagrant ... disregard," and Russia called them an "extraordinary situation" – both rare uses of hard-line language.

But even before US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took a four-country, five-day visit to rally the various Asian capitals to support policy efforts to "isolate" the North, cracks were appearing in the edifice of outrage attending the Oct. 9 test. UN resolution 1718, passed on Oct. 14, called for strong sanctions. But since that time, disagreements have developed over interpretation. The US and Japan have favored a proactive "interdiction" approach to sanctions that allow for seizures on the high seas. China and South Korea favor a less intrusive "inspections" approach.

As far as North Korea's neighbors are concerned, few of the options to halt Kim Jong Il's nuclear accession seem achievable. The national interests of Japan, South Korea, and China in the future resolution of the two Koreas are quite different. Moreover, fears and tensions have risen as officials and publics in parts of Asia have, for the first time, considered a possible nuclear conflict.

China and South Korea are placing hope in the six-party talks that stalled a year ago – and during which Mr. Kim apparently reprocessed plutonium and developed a triggering mechanism for an atomic blast. But US and Japanese officials argue that while six-party talks might be useful, they are not confident that such talks carry a real solution.

Arms control experts point to both the speed with which the North has become a nuclear state and to the world community's steady psychological accommodation of a nuclear North Korea. Kim has swiftly moved from kicking out UN weapons inspectors, to reprocessing plutonium, to testing a small bomb – something inconceivable a few years ago.

A frustrated US military official in South Korea notes that the North Korean nuclear program has been continually redefined in such trivial ways that its potential harm is forgotten.

"The international community has become so inured to the escalations that today it is being played as a great victory if we can stop Korea from testing a second weapon."

Let the sunshine policy set

In the wake of a blast that has created a new geopolitics in northeast Asia, US officials expressed hopes to Seoul that it might stop its two main ongoing economic programs in North Korea. Tourist trips to Mount Kumgang in the North, and the creation of a South Korean economic park in Kaesong have been sources of cash for Kim. Yet Seoul has stated it will not suspend these activities in the North.

This Friday, South Korean foreign minister Ban Ki Moon, who is also the UN secretary-general designee, will visit Beijing to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao and China's special envoy to Pyongyang, Tang Xiajuan.

Tuesday, a Japanese Diet member who met with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei, a visitor in Pyongyang last week, said Chinese officials are pessimistic about the North. "Vice Foreign Minister Wu said that at this point, China can by no means be optimistic toward the resumption of the six-party talks or toward North Korea's nuclear abandonment," said Ichiro Aisawa, Japan's senior vice-minister for foreign affairs.

North Korea's nuclear reality check

For several years officials in Beijing and Seoul had argued that North Korea was either bluffing, or did not have the technical capability to achieve a nuclear explosion.

Yet such views have been dashed in the wake of the Oct. 9 tests. Pyongyang's nuclear program is more than 40 years old, and the nation has long been proud that it has independently developed a program.

"For the first time, Chinese leaders know that North Korea desires bombs, and that they will not stop at anything to develop," argues Shi Yinhong of People's University in Beijing. "The game has changed to a new hard policy in the North. They want missiles, and they want bombs. Pyongyang informed China right before they tested. They didn't give us a week to adjust, or to try diplomacy."

US special envoy on North Korea Christopher Hill, who is in Asia this week, has praised China's efforts in conducting financial sanctions on Pyongyang.

But the nuclear test has put China in a difficult spot. China has of late been pursuing a "reformist" policy with North Korea. It has quietly flooded the country with funds, building projects, food, fuel, and advanced aid in the areas of steel and telecommunications – all with the intent of gaining some strategic "purchase" inside North Korea while helping to keep it stable. China has also played a brokering role in the six-party talks. Chinese officials do not want to lose the position they've gained with the North by infuriating Kim, says Mr. Shi.

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