SINGAPORE — Prominent analysts and former U.S. officials are downplaying prospects of tough U.N. sanctions against North Korea over last week’s nuclear test, anticipating opposition from China and Russia.
Besides having veto power in the U.N. Security Council, both nations are historical allies of North Korea and have lately expressed skepticism of the North’s purported advances in nuclear and missile technology.
“There is agreement that something more must be done, but I think Russia and China will proceed more cautiously than the U.S. would like to see,” said William S. Cohen, defense secretary in the Clinton administration who maintains contacts with officials in Beijing and Moscow.
Mr. Cohen is among current and former officials from 28 countries attending the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual conference organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
RELATED STORY: Reports: N.K. prepares long-range missile launch
He said the most important aspect of the Security Council’s response to the May 25 test should be a “unified approach,” even if China and Russia are reluctant to go as far as the other council members in terms of tough sanctions.
“I think they are prepared to adopt additional measures, but theirs is a more graduated approach. Whenever the North Koreans see a red line, they like to cross it, so I think there will be more ambiguity,” Mr. Cohen said in an interview.
“It’s much more important that they don’t understand exactly what the lines are going to be in terms of what actually happens - whether it’s on the financial side, shutting down the flow of credit going into North Korea, whether it’s putting more pressure on countries doing trade with the North Koreans,” he added.
Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said in New York last week that there was “a high degree of agreement” among council members, but “now we need to take some time to reflect on what the specific elements of the future resolution need to be.”
Both China and Russia, which share borders with the North, are worried about being overwhelmed by waves of refugees in case of instability in the reclusive state.
“The assumption is that [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-il is ready to escalate [tensions] and is looking for an excuse,” which painful U.N. sanctions would provide, said Oksana Antonenko, program director for Russia and Eurasia at IISS.
“Russia is still advocating a more cautious approach, and there is no automatic assumption that it will support stronger sanctions,” she said. Still, “it’s prepared to cooperate more than before, [because] there is a lot of good will toward the Obama administration.”
The Security Council adopted Resolution 1718 after the first North Korean nuclear test in October 2006, calling for the prevention of illicit weapons and materials from reaching the North. That meant that the country’s neighbors - South Korea, China and Russia - would have to stop and inspect ships at sea, but none of them did.
Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for non-proliferation at IISS, said that “1718 was a strong resolution, but it was never implemented.” The Chinese made it clear they weren’t going to enforce it, and the Bush administration did not put any pressure on them because the North Koreans returned to six-party nuclear talks three months later, he said.
After resisting for years, South Korea said after last week’s test that it is ready to join the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which aims to stop the trade of illegal and dangerous materials by intercepting vessels with suspicious cargo around the world.
Financial sanctions are now being mentioned as the most likely penalty in the new resolution.
“Last time the U.S. imposed financial measures, it was with help from the Chinese,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said in reference to freezing a North Korean account in a bank in Macau, a semiautonomous Chinese territory, in 2007.
“Whether as part of a resolution or a U.S.-led effort, I think China can be persuaded that it’s in its national interest to protect the integrity of its banks,” said Mr. Fitzpatrick, a former senior arms control official at the State Department.
Mr. Cohen said another development that could influence the Chinese to support tough sanctions is the potential for the North’s nuclear progress to prompt Japan to acquire is own nuclear capability. “That should worry the Chinese,” he said.
Andrew Small, an Asia analyst at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said that the Chinese view U.N. resolutions much more as “symbolic measures meant to signal” their displeasure with the North when it misbehaves than as specific sets of punishing measures.
“They intend the resolutions as signaling devices to the North Koreans, rather than something they think of implementing,” he said.
Although Beijing and Moscow are closer to Mr. Kim’s regime than anyone else, their influence is very different, analysts said.
“Russia has much less leverage over North Korea than China,” Ms. Antonenko said. “It’s clear that North Korea doesn’t consider Russia an important player.”
While Beijing and Moscow think that Pyongyang went too far with the second nuclear test, which was preceded and followed by missile tests, their assessments of the actual threat the North poses are very different from those of the U.S., Japan and South Korea.
They say the North’s capability to build and explode a nuclear device does not mean that it has an actual weapon, let alone a delivery system, questioning the sense of urgency among other countries.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Saturday that “the North Korean nuclear program at this point” does not represent “a direct military threat to the United States,” but he raised serious concerns about nuclear proliferation.
“The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States and our allies,” Mr. Gates said at the Singapore conference. “And we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such actions.”