Trying to Put the Squeeze on North Korea

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President Bush speaks during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006.

It might have been expected that, three days after North Korea announced a nuclear test in defiance of the international community, the rogue regime would be suffering harsh consequences. Not yet, anyway. The U.N. Security Council appears divided as to just how harsh those consequences ought to be. What's more, the Bush Administration's strenuous assurances that it has no plans to attack North Korea — even as it defends its continued refusal to talk directly to the regime in Pyongyang — are pointers to some of the difficulties facing Washington's efforts to put the squeeze on Pyongyang.

The Security Council appears unlikely to pass a sanctions resolution before the end of this week. The Council appears unanimous in condemning North Korea, and in the belief that the regime must pay a price for crossing a red line. But veto-wielding Council members such as Russia and China, as well as South Korea, want to ensure that any U.N. response advances, rather than retards, a plausible scenario for resolving the crisis — and the only endgame they're prepared to countenance is a return to the negotiating table.

"We condemn this [nuclear test]," Russia's President Vladimir Putin told a German newspaper Wednesday, "but we must not break off the process of talks." And China, while joining the call for its longtime friend and neighbor to face sanctions as punishment for its transgression, nonetheless added that such sanctions would have to be "appropriate" and "prudent." Added a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman: "The only way to resolve this issue is to get all the parties back to the negotiating table."

China and South Korea — nations that North Korea depends on for vital food and energy supplies — have traditionally opposed sanctions that would put the squeeze on the regime, for fear that its collapse would send millions of refugees across their borders, and that a sense of mortal danger would likely provoke the heavily armed North Korean regime to lash out militarily. There is also a fear that proposed measures such as the interdiction of all shipping in and out of North Korean ports might actually escalate the confrontation. Its track record suggests that North Korea tends to respond to pressure by raising the ante rather than by folding.

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