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Each party has its angle on N. Korea

A look at how nations in the six-party talks in Beijing this week differ in their approach to North Korea and its alleged nuclear weapons program. By Kari Huus.
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The unpredictable and secretive Kim regime in North Korea has long been a minefield for international relations in the region. And it became even more explosive Thursday with the rogue state’s reported declaration that it has and plans to test nuclear weapons. But as six nations meet in Beijing this week in an attempt to calm the latest tensions on the Korean Peninsula, old assumptions and attitudes are changing. In particular, there’s a shift in the role that China is playing. Here’s a look at the nations around the table.

Beijing fought alongside the Korean communists in the 1950-53 war, losing at least 340,000 of its own soldiers in the conflict. It is technically still bound to Pyongyang by a mutual defense agreement.

But the relationship between the long-time comrades has cooled throughout the last two decades as Beijing pursued economic reforms. That its marketplace mentality had eclipsed ideology became crystal clear when China established diplomatic ties with South Korea in 1992. By 2002, the two countries had a $40 billion trade relationship.

Finding itself in the middle of the current crisis, China is demonstrating new diplomatic finesse.

“The body language that the Chinese have adopted … has put their diplomacy in uncharted territory,” says Jonathan Pollack, an Asia specialist at the U.S. Naval War College. “They are doing things in a visible way that they have never done before.”

Notably, Beijing backed down from its long-held position that the nuclear issue was a problem between North Korea and the United States that they should solve on their own. Now, not only has China dropped its opposition to multilateral talks, but it has orchestrated them to take place in Beijing.

While chiding the United States for taking an overly aggressive approach to Pyongyang, Beijing has also warned North Korea that it has limited patience for its rogue behavior. Early this year, in a show of the trouble it could cause North Korea, China briefly shut down the oil pipeline carrying supplies to its neighbor. China provides an estimated 70 percent of the North’s fuel oil and food aid.

Despite lingering loyalty to North Korea, China has powerful reasons to dissuade it from pursuing nuclear status. China wants to be sure that World War II enemy Japan does not have North Korea as an excuse to rebuild an aggressive military. It wants to be sure that the United States does not have cause to attack North Korea, which could potentially create an American beachhead on its border. And Beijing wants to discourage any plans that could cause a collapse in North Korea, potentially sending a flood of refugees across its border.

If talks fail to move toward a resolution of the U.S.-North Korea standoff, all players will be looking to China to play an even greater role — using its oil and food aid for leverage. So far, Beijing has resisted this approach, but that could change.

“If their backs are up against the wall and it looks like North Korea is going nuclear, I could imagine China pulling out all the stops to get them to back down,” says Eric Heginbotham, a senior research fellow and Korea specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The consensus in Washington is that they may do something, and it may be decisive, but not until the last minute.”

South Korea rift with Washington
North Korea’s face-off with the United States over its apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons has only highlighted the gaping differences between Washington and Seoul, even leading some to question the two nations’ security relationship dating to the end of the Korean War. Today, some 37,000 U.S. troops are stationed alongside South Korean troops as a deterrent to aggression from the North.

Not long after President Bush came into office, so did South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who adopted the “Sunshine policy” toward North Korea that was launched by his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung. The premise of this policy is that engagement and aid will eventually ease North Korea out of its poverty and isolation, allowing for peaceful reunification of the peninsula. On the flip side, it is a gamble that growing ties will quell temptation on the part of North Korea to attack the South.

That policy, along with rising anti-Americanism helped propel him into power — and frustrated the Bush administration, which had included North Korea in its “axis of evil” with Iran and Iraq.

The current nuclear crisis has “contributed to worsening U.S.-South Korea relations, because we have such different perspectives on North Korea,” says Robert Dujarric, a research fellow at the Hudson Institution in Washington, D.C.

After some diplomatic turbulence, Roh has reaffirmed the importance of the security arrangement, but he remains under continuous pressure from his constituents not to cave in to U.S. demands. Meanwhile, the United States decided to redeploy its troops farther from the line of fire in South Korea.

Thus South Korea has not increased aid to North Korea, but also agreed to cut off what is believed to be substantial food, fertilizer and other shipments. Cross-border projects including rail links have inched ahead despite the tensions.

As this week’s talks go on, South Korea is also somewhat paralyzed by a political crisis, not only on the North Korea issue, but by deepening economic woes. Roh is rapidly losing popularity.

Japan's rising anxiety
Since the end of World War II, Japan has lived under a pacifist constitution, with a strong U.S. presence to ensure its security. Today, there are about 53,000 U.S. troops on Japanese soil.

On North Korea, Japan had throughout the 1990s, been making moves to reconcile with North Korea, and was on the verge of reestablishing diplomatic ties when the current crisis erupted in October 2002. The notion of a nuclear-armed North Korea is alarming in Tokyo, particularly because Pyongyang has missiles that could easily hit Japan — as demonstrated in 1998, when it test-fired a Taepo-dong missile right over Japanese territory.

The current crisis on the Korean peninsula has stirred debate in Japan. “It has strengthened the hand of those in the government who argue for a strong U.S.-Japan alliance,” says Heginbotham. He says Japan’s move to support the United States in Iraq with troops, despite substantial domestic opposition to that war, was actually about tensions in Asia. “It was sold as insurance that the United States would not abandon them in face of crisis with North Korea. They are cooperating with us on the security front, but not because they think like we do, and not because they are changing their fundamental sense of security.”

While Japan’s domestic spending on the military has hardly budged — it remains around 1 percent of the GDP — the debate over expanding the role of the military in Japan has heated up — raising a red flag for those who recall Japan’s devastating World War II occupation of Asia.

“There’s a right wing in Japan that wants to use (North Korea) as an excuse to rearm,” says Clark Sorenson, a Korea expert at the University of Washington. “In the past, Japan hasn’t had a military threat that the United States was not able to handle.”

Meanwhile, as elections approach, the Japanese administration is under pressure to raise another emotionally explosive issue — Japanese who were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and raised to work in North Korean intelligence. The revelation last year that these kidnappings had in fact taken place — as had long been whispered in Japan — infuriated the Japanese public, scotching the possibility of official relations, as well as a massive aid package Japan had planned.

Some of the abductees, now adults, have been allowed to visit Japan but their families are unable to join them, and some have gone unaccounted, and are presumed dead. Japan may raise the issue on the sidelines of the talks, even though North Korea has signaled there is nothing to discuss, and that raising this issue could undermine the talks.

Russia's moral support
Russia, which is about the closest North Korea has to a friend, will have a rare chance to wield some of the old international clout it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union 11 years ago.

And it may even help Russia to improve ties with the United States, put to the test this year by differences over Iraq and Iran — two other members of the Bush administration’s “axis of evil.”

Russia’s presence — reflecting privileged ties it has forged with the secretive North Koreans since President Vladimir Putin came to power — will be a counterweight for Pyongyang at the table where otherwise it will be outgunned.

“North Korea sees Russia as probably the only neighboring great power that understands its position as it perceives it,” said Alexander Pikayev of the Carnegie endowment think-tank in Moscow. “With Russia there, North Korea can count on at least one friendly face at the negotiating table.”

Russia, though, will not pull any punches when it tells Pyongyang to shelve ideas of developing a nuclear weapon and to get back into the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It has expressed horror at the thought of its small and unpredictable Stalinist neighbor holding a nuclear weapon.

That would introduce a wild card for Russian military planners and complicate Moscow’s prized ties with Washington.

It would also doom Russia’s hopes of economic growth and breathing life into its depressed Far Eastern regions.

Reuters contributed to this story.