North Korea's third nuclear test has put the burden on China to punish its communist ally, but Beijing is unlikely to do anything to hurt Pyongyang, Asia analysts said Tuesday.
China said it "firmly opposed" the test, but it also urged a calm response from the international community.
"Beijing will react to this latest nuclear test in the same schizophrenic way it has reacted to Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests since 2006," said John J. Tkacik Jr., director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
"It will issue some vague and meaningless remonstrance at the United Nations and call for a return to the feckless 'six-party talks,'" he said, referring to stalled negotiations involving North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States aimed at shutting down Pyongyang's nuclear program.
"There's no reason to expect China's reaction will be any different this time."
China's assessment of North Korea's stability will be a major factor in determining how Beijing responds to renewed international pressure to get tough with Pyongyang, said Scott Snyder, director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"If China believes that North Korea is stable but going in the wrong direction, then China may be more willing to cooperate with the U.S.," Mr. Snyder said.
"But if China sees [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un as having not yet consolidated his leadership, if they see weakness that could turn into instability, then it will be much more solicitous of North Korea and less willing to take the risk that any of its actions will induce instability," he said.
The Chinese reluctance to step up pressure on North Korea stems in part from a worry that it could cause the regime in Pyongyang to collapse and send thousands of refugees streaming across the border into China.
China calls for calm
The Chinese Foreign Ministry called on "all parties to respond in a cool-headed manner and persist in resolving the issue of denuclearization of the peninsula through dialogue and consultation within the context of the six-party talks."
The statement made no mention of any punitive measures for North Korea's actions. China provides much-needed aid to North Korea.
Expectations of a stronger Chinese response had been fueled by warnings in its state media that Pyongyang would pay a "heavy price" if it carried out a nuclear test.
"From what I read in the papers, the Chinese are thoroughly displeased that [North Korea] went ahead with the test, but it is anyone's guess if they will actually follow through and do anything about it," said Robert Kelley, the Vienna, Austria-based former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog.
China opposed stronger sanctions against North Korea at the U.N. Security Council, but eventually supported a resolution in January that reprimanded Pyongyang for launching a rocket in December and imposed new sanctions.
"Beijing has obstructed all previous attempts [at the Security Council], and its obstructionism has only encouraged further North Korean provocations," said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation.
China is key to an effective North Korea policy.
"The key to stemming North Korea's cycle of provocation is to seriously engage the Chinese in exercising leverage over their neighbor," said Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
The Security Council convened an emergency meeting in New York on Tuesday to cobble together a resolution that would strengthen and widen the scope of existing sanctions against North Korea.
Obama's 'failed' policy
The Obama administration's options are limited. Washington already has in place a tough sanctions regime against Pyongyang.
President Obama condemned the North Korean test as a "highly provocative act" that "undermines regional stability." He said the test violates Pyongyang's international commitments and increases the risk of proliferation.
"The danger posed by North Korea's threatening activities warrants further swift and credible action by the international community," Mr. Obama said.
Republican lawmakers said North Korea's nuclear test was proof that the U.S. policy is not working.
"Today's test is another reminder of years of failed policies to prevent North Korea's nuclear programs and proliferation," said Mr. Rogers. "We need a completely new approach to dealing with this growing national security threat."
Rep. Edward R. Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the Obama administration's North Korea policy had failed.
"The Obama administration must replace its failed North Korea policy with one that is energetic, creative and focused on crippling [the North Korean] regime's military capabilities through stringent sanctions that tackle its illicit activities and cuts off its flow of hard currency," the California Republican said.
North Korea said the nuclear test was a response to the "reckless hostility of the United States," said North Korea's Korean Central News Agency, referring to the U.S.-led U.N. sanctions.
The news agency said the test was a "first measure" and warned that North Korea could conduct a "stronger second or third measure" if the United States continues with "[its] hostility and complicates the situation."
North Korea conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
Tuesday's test was carried out using a "miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously," the news agency said.
U.S. intelligence officials assessed that the explosion yield was several kilotons.
Mr. Obama said North Korea's nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs constitute threats to U.S. national security and to international peace. He also spoke on the phone Tuesday with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, also condemned the tests. Japan, Russia, South Korea and NATO issued statements denouncing the nuclear test.
North Korea was widely expected to test a nuclear device this week because it coincides with the Feb. 16 birthday of Kim Jong-un's late father and North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il.
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