- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2006

It has been portrayed as a direct challenge to the United States, but North Korea’s Fourth of July long-range missile launch could prove an even more difficult diplomatic and strategic headache for the North’s closest neighbors: China and South Korea.

Beijing and Seoul have been noticeably more restrained in their initial responses to the missile launch, but both might feel new pressure to adopt a harder line favored by the United States and Japan, regional analysts said this week.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, in a phone conversation with President Bush yesterday, said Beijing was “deeply concerned” about the North’s act, but he was vague about sanctions or other punitive action against Pyongyang.

“Under such a complicated situation, it is highly necessary for all the related parties to keep clam and show restraint,” Mr. Hu told Mr. Bush, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

After first denouncing the missile launch as an “unwise, provocative act,” the office of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun called for “patient dialogue” — a far cry from the unequivocal denunciations coming from Washington and Tokyo.

“Pressuring North Korea and creating tensions are not helpful in the resolution of this issue,” Mr. Roh’s office said. “We should resolve the issue in a way that would not create tensions on the Korean Peninsula.”

South Korean officials said aid programs to the North are “under review” and could be called off or delayed. But no formal decision has been made. Lee Kwan-sei, South Korean assistant minister of unification, told reporters in Seoul that a 200,000-ton fertilizer shipment to the North approved in April will go forward.

China, host of the stalled six-party talks on the Korean nuclear standoff, fears an implosion of the North’s impoverished regime almost as much as it does Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Mr. Roh has pursued relentlessly a policy of engagement and integration with the North begun by his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, even as the military crisis has deepened.

Crucial moment

Analysts Todd M. Walters and Nicholas Kenney of the Power and Interest News Report (PINR), which focuses on geostrategic issues, wrote in May that only Japan and the United States “have any sense of urgency” in confronting North Korea to stop its nuclear programs. The six-party talks — which involve North and South Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia and China — have been on hold since November.

A new PINR report on the North’s missile launch said the coming days “will be critical to assess changes in the power balance in this festering East Asian conflict.”

“If Beijing does not take significant action against Pyongyang, it will demonstrate that Beijing will maintain its status quo toward North Korea,” the report said. “If Seoul refrains from harshly criticizing Pyongyang, it will demonstrate that it does not see the missile tests as a significant threat to its interests and will continue to pursue its policy of increasing economic ties with the North.”

U.S. officials have tried to stress the unity of the international coalition against the North’s missile tests.

Asked about Beijing’s mild first reaction, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday, “Everybody’s not going to use the same words, but certainly China understands that this was a provocative, unacceptable action.”

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the department’s point man on Asian issues, has been dispatched to meet his counterparts in China, South Korea and Japan to discuss the next steps and whether to revive the six-party talks. Mr. Hill arrives in Beijing today.

The reluctance of China and South Korea to back a stronger line against North Korea has continually frustrated those in the Bush administration seeking to isolate and punish Pyongyang for its nuclear programs, its foot-dragging at the six-party talks and its decision to fire missiles in defiance of regional powers.

“The United States and Japan are well-coordinated in their policy toward the North,” said Kurt Campbell, head of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “but they haven’t been able to threaten new sanctions because China and South Korea won’t go along.”

Diplomats said both South Korea and China have a ready opportunity in the coming days to signal their unhappiness with the North if they choose to do so.

North and South Korean officials are scheduled to meet next week in the South Korean city of Pusan for the latest round of Cabinet-level talks on eventual reunification, the latest bilateral gathering springing from Seoul’s “Sunshine Policy” begun in 2000. Officials in Seoul said the talks, which begin Tuesday, will proceed as planned, as will a series of showcase joint ventures between North and South.

And Chinese Vice Prime Minister Hui Liangyu is set to visit Pyongyang next week on a previously scheduled trip to mark the 45th anniversary of the Sino-North Korean friendship treaty. China said the trip will proceed but revealed that Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei — the regime’s point man in the nuclear talks — has been added to the delegation.

Mixed opinion

The North’s missile launch poses acute political problems for Mr. Roh, who has a 20 percent approval rating in the most recent polls with a year left in his term. The conservative opposition and leading South Korean newspapers have hammered the government for its conciliatory stance toward the North.

“South Korea has cowed to North Korea since the Kim Dae-jung administration took in over 1998,” Lee Jung-hyun, a spokesman for the conservative Grand National Party, the leading opposition party, told reporters in Seoul yesterday. “It’s time we took a firmer stance and begin considering economic sanctions if necessary.”

But the surveys also show that the younger generation of Korean voters — key to Mr. Roh’s 2002 election — strongly oppose the more forceful line against the North favored by many in Washington and Tokyo. Nearly half of the 1,000 South Koreans ages 18 to 23 polled said Seoul should side with North Korea if the United States launches a unilateral military strike on the North’s nuclear sites.

Nearly 40 percent said the South’s most important relationship was with China, while the United States and North Korea finished in a virtual tie for second at 18 percent.

Further complicating U.S. diplomatic efforts in the North Korea crisis are the deepening tensions in recent months among Japan, China and South Korea, fed both by long-standing historical grievances and territorial disputes and by new rivalries as Beijing and Seoul challenge Tokyo’s longtime economic superiority in the region.

“The economic rise of China, generational shifts in South Korea and the waning of Japan’s economic dominance have spurred xenophobia that occasionally spills over into violence,” the International Crisis Group warned in a survey released late last year.

Despite the North Korean nuclear standoff and other challenges, “Northeast Asia remains one of the [world’s] least integrated regions, with no effective institutions to address common political and security problems,” the Brussels-based think tank noted.

U.S.-Japan relations have grown increasingly warm, symbolized by the colorful visit by Mr. Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion last week.

By contrast, Mr. Hu’s trip to Washington in April was a brief and scripted affair, marred by a number of protocol gaffes. Mr. Roh and Mr. Bush also have failed to establish a personal rapport.

Whether the North Korean missile launch will stiffen Chinese and South Korean resolve to confront Pyongyang could prove critical to U.S. hopes for a diplomatic end to the crisis, Mr. Walter and Mr. Kenney said.

They note that “North Korea is unlikely to alter significantly its objectives or tactics in the near term as long as it can continue to rely on China and South Korea for economic support.”

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