By Beijing Bureau Chief
NBC News
updated 2/11/2005 6:58:23 PM ET 2005-02-11T23:58:23

North Korea’s latest statement claiming possession of nuclear weapons and “indefinitely” pulling out of the six-nation talks to resolve the nuclear impasse presents China with a diplomatic quandary at a time of increased pressure from the Bush administration, analysts say.

“It definitely presents China with a problem,” said Jin Canrong, a senior international affairs expert at China’s Renmin University, “but the first step is to find out exactly what’s the meaning behind the North Korea statement.”

China taken off guard
China, host of three rounds of six-nation talks, has played a pivotal role in coaxing Pyongyang to participate in diplomacy to solve the nuclear dispute. 

Beijing supplies some 70 percent of the food and energy aid to North Korea’s beleaguered economy, and Washington has hoped that China would use its leverage to exert greater diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang.

Earlier this month, it was reported that President Bush sent an emissary to present President Hu Jintao of China with new evidence showing Pyongyang selling uranium-based nuclear materials around the world. It was an unusual meeting seen as part of a new U.S. strategy to push Beijing to intensify pressures on North Korea.

Beijing reportedly promised to send a senior Chinese official to Pyongyang after the Chinese New Year holiday, which ends on Feb. 15.

Pyongyang's declaration about nuclear weapons clearly has taken China’s officialdom by surprise.

China’s initial reaction was brief and cautious. “China is watching the situation,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Kong Quan said, according to the official Xinhua news agency, adding that China “hopes that the [six-nation talks] can be continued.”

North Korea on the defensive
With its declaration explicitly acknowledging for the first time that it has nuclear weapons, Pyongyang has suddenly shifted the terms of the debate away from the issue of whether it has a secret uranium enrichment project in addition to a plutonium-based program, an issue about which the United States apparently has collected strong evidence. N. Korea’s arsenal

In a typical shift to offensive tactics, North Korea is clearly attempting to focus the debate on whether it has the right to exist, citing the “regime change” goal of the U.S. administration as the cause of its nuclear weapons program.

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has already manufactured nuclear weapons for its self-defense to cope with the U.S. hostile policy,” said Pyongyang’s declaration.

“We have nothing to lose,” explained a North Korean foreign affairs analyst. “The conclusion is that the second Bush administration is more interested in pursuing encirclement net against us than in a substantial solution of the nuclear issue,” the analyst said.

The analyst, who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity, cited attempts to form a so-called “government in exile” as part of a perceived strategy for a “regime change” in Pyongyang.

“The Americans don’t want to negotiate with us,” the analyst said. “They prefer the representatives of defectors who could be the shock troops in putting the ‘North Korea Freedom Act’ in force.”

“They reportedly called a secret meeting in Tokyo and organized a preparatory committee for founding a so-called  ‘government-in-exile.’ … The important thing is that every day, there are increased plots and blasphemy against our dear leader Kim Jong Il,” the analyst added.

“We will not return to the talks until the U.S. administration fundamentally changes its Korea policy,” the analyst said. “If the U.S. will refuse, then our way is clear.”

Patience could run out
For China, technically an ally of Pyongyang, the next days and weeks would be consumed by “trying to establish Pyongyang’s true intent,” said Canrong. “Our officials will try to persuade DPRK to return to the negotiating table.”

But there could be some limit to Beijing’s patience, he suggested. “It is possible, when all its efforts prove useless, that China could take a more solid and firm position,” he said.

Eric Baculinao is an NBC news producer in Beijing.

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