Rice's North Korea Sanctions Mission Is No Slam-Dunk

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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice briefs the media on her upcoming trip to Asia October 16, 2006

The very fact that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has had to emphasize that she's sure China will actually implement sanctions against North Korea because Beijing voted for them hints at the doubt and discord that persists over the international community's next move. Rice arrives in China Friday for what promise to be difficult talks on how to implement U.N. sanctions against the looming backdrop of a possible second nuclear test by North Korea. A foretaste of those difficulties may have come during her talks with South Korean leaders in Seoul, who appear to have maintained their refusal to heed Washington's calls to join the U.S.-led effort to intercept and search North Korean vessels suspected of carrying prohibited cargoes, and to cut South Korea's economic ties to tourism and industrial projects in North Korea that earn valuable foreign exchange for the regime. Rice is visiting Japan, South Korea, China and Russia in the hope of isolating North Korea as punishment for its nuclear test. But despite the unanimous adoption by the Security Council of a package of sanctions largely targeting trade related to North Korea's weapons program, clear differences remain over the broader strategic question of how to deal with Pyongyang.

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Beijing certainly supported the Security Council resolution and the principle of punishing North Korea for crossing a red line by testing a nuclear weapon. And on Thursday it sent former Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan — who met last week with President Bush — to warn North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il against any further nuclear testing. Earlier, a commentary in the official People's Daily newspaper warned that if North Korea tested again, China would consider cutting off the grain and oil supplies not covered by the U.N. resolution, but upon which North Korea's survival is heavily dependent. As the country responsible for almost 40% of North Korea's trade and most of its energy supplies, China is certainly in a position to exact a heavy price for any further nuclear provocation.

But that doesn't mean Beijing is on the same page as Washington over how to handle the crisis. Where Secretary Rice defines the meaning of the sanctions as the international community moving to "collectively isolate" North Korea, Beijing appears to have something quite different in mind. "Sanctions are the signal, not the goal," said a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman on Thursday, in a statement that appeared to criticize the U.S. for seeking to "expand" the sanctions from those adopted by the Security Council. Some reported inspection of truck traffic at the border aside, it's pretty much business as usual between China and North Korea. "We need to make North Korea realize it will pay a high price [for testing nuclear weapons]," said Wu Bangguo, deputy leader of China's ruling Communist Party on Monday. But, he added, "We cannot force North Korea into a tight corner."

Not only do China and South Korea oppose any steps that will threaten the stability of the regime for fear of the chaos that its collapse could bring, they also know that the sanctions adopted by the Security Council are unlikely to alter the behavior of the regime in Pyongyang. Instead, they fear that Pyongyang may up the ante with further provocations. China's goal, to be pursued both through sanctions and negotiations, is to secure the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula — and to do that, they believe it is necessary to integrate North Korea in exchange for modifying its behavior, rather than to isolate it.

A second commentary in the People's Daily spells out China's thinking on the Security Council resolution and its implementation: "Due to the efforts of China and other related nations, the resolution voices the condemnations of the entire international community for the DPRK [North Korea] nuclear test on the one hand and, on the other, dispels the possibility for the use of force against DPRK and restrains from imposing all-round sanctions against the nation." It suggests that the measures could be revoked if North Korea shows restraint and agrees to return to the six-party negotiations over its nuclear program, and emphasizes the importance of backing the sanctions resolution with intensified diplomacy: "The resolution is more balanced with a prevalent possibility for international community to go on intensifying consultations and close coordination, and to work for sober-minded responses, so as to resort to political channels and resume the six-party talks as early as possible through diplomatic effort."

There is also a clearly stated view among some Chinese foreign policy analysts that U.S. financial sanctions over the past year, and its refusal to offer Pyongyang security guarantees, played a role in provoking North Korea's test. Whatever the merits and demerits of this argument, there's clearly a current in Beijing sharply critical of the U.S. handling of the diplomatic process over the past three years. So, when Condi Rice comes calling and asks what China is going to do to make the sanctions work, she may also find officials in Beijing responding with their own question, asking what the U.S. is going to do to make the diplomacy work.