Back Where We Started on North Korea's Nukes

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After five days of diplomatic wrangling at the U.N., not much has changed as a result of North Korea's nuclear "test." The Security Council finally voted on Saturday to impose sanctions on North Korea for testing a nuclear weapon. But the reason it took the Security Council this long to respond to last Monday's blast is that sharp disagreements persist among the major players over the strength of those sanctions, how they should be implemented, and what should happen next.

The U.S. and Japan have taken the lead in pushing for tough measures that would squeeze North Korea by enforcing a wide-ranging embargo, requiring that shipping entering and leaving North Korean waters be subject to search under threat of force. Japan has already instituted tough measures curbing trade and travel, and Washington and Tokyo pushed for the Security Council to pass a resolution under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which allows for decisions to be backed by the threat or use of force in response to threats to global security.

But Russia and China pushed back hard, warning that "extreme sanctions" would only exacerbate the crisis. China's U.N. ambassador made clear that Beijing sees interdicting North Korean shipping, for example, as likely to raise the danger of a military response from Pyongyang, sending the confrontation potentially spiraling out of control. For China and Russia, the endgame remains restoring the six-party talks and persuading North Korea to give up nuclear weapons in exchange for political, economic and security incentives. Moscow and Beijing — as well as South Korea — agree that North Korea must be punished for its flagrant disregard of Security Council demands that it refrain from nuclear testing. But they don't believe sanctions will force North Korea to change course, and fear that the more pressure they bring to bear on Pyongyang, the more likely the regime is to escalate the crisis.

So, the resolution that was finally adopted was necessarily a compromise between different views of how the North Korean nuclear crisis is to be resolved. And the focus of the main players will now shift to what comes after the U.N. vote. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to travel to Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul to rally support for a vigorous implementation of the sanctions resolution. Russia, China and South Korea will be looking for ways to restart the six-party process — a process they believe requires direct negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea, and a readiness to offer Pyongyang security guarantees if it verifiably disarms. And the the stalemate over North Korea's weapons program will most likely continue.