updated 7/20/2006 8:22:35 AM ET 2006-07-20T12:22:35

Two weeks ago, North Korea test-fired seven missiles, an act of defiance seen as an attempt to put itself on top of the world's agenda.

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As a U.S. official prepared for a Senate hearing examining North Korea on Thursday, the reclusive, communist-led country has been largely brushed aside by violence in the Middle East.

The testimony by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the lead U.S. envoy at stalled six-nation North Korean disarmament talks, comes as Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas continue to clash.

Since the missile launches, which included one that could reach parts of the United States, little headway has been made toward getting the North to return to the talks on its self-announced nuclear weapons production program. North Korea has boycotted the negotiations since November, angry at U.S. sanctions for alleged counterfeiting and money laundering.

On Saturday, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution criticizing the North's missile tests and banning all U.N. member states from trading with Pyongyang in missile-related technology. The North has since rejected the resolution, warning of further repercussions.

Spurring on the Chinese
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., is hoping the launches could spur China toward taking a stronger position against North Korea that could bolster efforts to lure the North back to the talks involving the Koreas, China, the United States, Russia and Japan.

Lugar said in prepared remarks that continuing North Korean provocation could lead to Japan, the United States and other nations strengthening their armed forces in East Asia, which China would consider a major impediment to continuing its booming trade in the region.

China is North Korea's major ally, supplying energy and food to its neighbor. Beijing has been seen by some as tentative on confronting Pyongyang because of worries that a collapsed North Korea would lead to a flood of refugees streaming into more prosperous China.

"The missile launches underscored that North Korea has its own agenda, distinct from Beijing's long-term interests," Lugar said. "China wants to avoid instability on its borders, but few acts could have been more destabilizing than the missile tests."

Shifting focus from the weapons
On Wednesday, six North Korean refugees visited Washington. Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas urged the world to pay as much attention to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's human rights violations as to his government's missile launches.

"If we focus only on containing weapons programs, we will not solve the root of the problem, which is the regime itself," Brownback told reporters as the refugees stood at his side wearing baseball hats and dark glasses to conceal their identities.

"If security is the only topic of conversation, we hold ourselves hostage to a brutal dictator's periodic demands for attention. Instead, we should set our eyes on the goal of democratic reform," he said.

The refugees, who arrived in May, were the first since President Bush signed a 2004 law meant to make it easier for North Koreans to apply for refugee status.

Joseph, a 31-year-old who looks years older, described his torture in North Korean prisons: His fingers were broken with pliers, his back whipped with leather strips.

"This is one of the normally occurring events," he said through an interpreter. "There are many atrocities in North Korea that you cannot even imagine under the heavens."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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