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With little leverage, U.S. looks to China on N.Korea

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Facing another North Korean nuclear test, the United States is once again in the unhappy position of looking to China to pressure Pyongyang despite Beijing’s concerns about instability in the hermit kingdom.

The North’s second test, estimated to be 20 times more powerful than its first in 2006, forces the United States to acknowledge that its leverage over the poor, secretive and unpredictable state is at best limited.

Analysts of U.S. policy toward Pyongyang, including several who have dealt with the problem themselves at the White House, say U.S. President Barack Obama and his aides have little choice but to try to enlist Beijing’s influence on Pyongyang.

That may be difficult at a time when Washington already needs Beijing’s help to grapple with other major challenges such as climate change and the global financial crisis.

“The administration is going to have to find ways to make China uncomfortable again,” said Michael Green, a White House national security council official who dealt with North Korea under former U.S. President George W. Bush.

“The reality is that to put pressure on North Korea they have to put pressure on China,” Green, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, added.

It may be even harder to secure Chinese pressure because Beijing’s traditional concerns about a collapse of the North Korean state and a flood of refugees across its border have been accentuated by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s ill health and the resulting jockeying to succeed him.

Analysts believe that Kim, thought to be recovering from a serious illness, has picked his third and youngest known son, Kim Jong-un, to succeed him in what is often called the world’s most secretive state.


“It’s a very complicated situation for the Chinese,” said Dennis Wilder, who was the national security council official who handled the North Korea account at the White House until Obama came into office in January.

“In many ways, I think the Chinese have let Kim know by their careful reaction, their restrained reaction to all his provocations that they understand that he is in the process of consolidating the position of his son and that they are agreeable to that because of stability reasons,” said Wilder, now at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

“The question now is will they see that giving him some room is allowing him to create a potentially game-changing situation in northeast Asia,” he added, saying that a durably nuclear North Korea could ignite an arms race among Japan, South Korea, China and possibly even Taiwan.

Of the four, only China now possesses nuclear weapons.

Analysts said beyond securing his own succession, Kim’s aim may be have North Korea treated permanently as a nuclear weapons state and to return to talks to discuss only limiting -- but not eliminating -- kits nuclear capability.

“What he is doing now is trying to set things up so that when the North goes back to the table ... it’s about arms control, not about denuclearization,’ Wilder said.


One way to pressure North Korea would be to conduct fresh exercises of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a multilateral Bush administration effort chiefly aimed at North Korea to interdict shipments of suspect materials.

Another would be for the Obama administration to revive financial sanctions of the sort the Bush deployed to freeze North Korean funds in the Macao-based Banco Delta Asia bank, only to return eventually return the money.

A third may be to fully implement U.N. Security Council resolution 1718 which called, among other things, for the cut off of trade in luxury goods to North Korea and a range of other sanctions designed to hit the regime and its allies.

But the key to reining in North Korea, analysts stressed, is China with its long border, extensive trade and provision of key items -- including fuel -- to North Korea.

“This is like dealing with a really tough mafioso who’s got a pretty good set of cards even though he’s a little teeny guy surrounded by giants,” said Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

“Our best hope would be ... over some period of time to manage a strategic conversation that would lead the Chinese to conclude that this was unacceptable for Chinese national interest, not a favor to the United States,” Allison added.

“So far, that hasn’t penetrated their strategic thinking as far as I can tell,” he added.