HONG KONG — North Korea’s surprise announcement last week that it possesses nuclear weapons and would indefinitely boycott the six-party talks immensely complicates the Korean nuclear problem and puts additional pressure on China as host of the multilateral talks to get them started again.

In a statement issued Feb. 10, Pyongyang accused the United States of having a policy of “regime change” in North Korea, asserting that Washington had rejected North Korea’s proposal for peaceful coexistence.

It is vital at this point for the five other parties to the six-party talks — the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea — to remain united. It is important not to overreact. For one thing, North Korea has not said it will no longer take part in the talks. What it said was that it would “indefinitely” suspend its participation until such time as Pyongyang feels it has reason “to expect positive results from the talks.”

North Korea had said its attitude would depend on the Korea policy adopted by the second Bush administration. Interestingly, on Jan. 14, less than a week before Bush’s inauguration, North Korea announced that it had decided to “resume the six-way talks” and “respect and treat the United States as a friend” unless Washington “slanders” the North Korean system and “interferes in its internal affairs.”

From last the Feb. 10 announcement, it would appear that North Korea feels that it has been “slandered” by U.S. President George W. Bush and his new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. While Bush did not mention North Korea in his inaugural address, the speech did contain tough language about “ending tyranny” in the world. And at her confirmation hearings, Rice called North Korea an “outpost of tyranny.” Putting the two statements together, North Korea may well have concluded that Washington’s goal was, indeed, regime change rather than peaceful coexistence.

The North Korean announcement clearly took Beijing by surprise. However, in a telephone conversation Feb. 12, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing told Rice that China would “stay in touch with all relevant parties and strive to make the situation develop in a positive direction so that the six-party talks could be resumed as soon as possible.”

China’s annoyance is evident, with the official media allowing numerous critical comments of North Korea to appear in public. But Beijing is in a dilemma. While China and North Korea were allies during the Korean War, fighting side by side against American and other United Nations troops, Beijing now sees its interests lying in better relations with the U.S. and the developed world and does not want to be dragged into another war on the Korean Peninsula.

A recent development suggests that the need for action may well be urgent. The U.S. possesses technical evidence that suggests that North Korea is already actively engaged in proliferating nuclear materials. China appears to be taking this seriously, with Chinese President Hu Jintao himself receiving the American specialist sent to present evidence to leaders in China, South Korea and Japan.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, China in 2003 even studied the possibility of launching a preemptive strike on North Korea to halt a strike by Pyongyang on South Korea, but the Chinese military reported that it could not reach the Demilitarized Zone quickly enough.

In theory, China is in a position to put pressure on Pyongyang, since it is a big provider of food and fuel to North Korea, but threatening to cut that off could worsen the situation. For one thing, China does not want to see the collapse of the North Korean regime, which would result in its border areas being inundated by refugees.

But if the nuclear issue is prolonged — or, worse, aggravated by a North Korean nuclear test — then it is conceivable that the U.S. would bring the issue before the U.N. Security Council. In that event, China would face the choice of either vetoing an American proposal for sanctions or joining Washington in a move against a fellow socialist state.

That is a nightmare scenario that Beijing no doubt wants to avoid, which is why it is likely to work very hard indeed to get the six-party talks restarted, if not by threatening to withhold aid then by offering to provide more assistance to North Korea.

At this point, there is little that other countries — except the U.S. — can do. Washington can help immensely by agreeing to a step-by-step approach whereby North Korean benefits economically as it gradually disarms. Insisting on complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament first will only strengthen Pyongyang’s suspicions that Washington really wants regime change.

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