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A series of meetings last week among the foreign ministers of the United States, Japan, South Korea and China were significant for helping the four nations confirm their mutual cooperation in implementing sanctions against North Korea following its first nuclear-weapons test Oct. 9.

As North Korea’s nuclear weapons program poses a threat to peace and stability in this region, the four nations appear to be dealing with North Korea in a resolute and unified manner. Their meetings bore a clear message to Pyongyang that further provocation will lead to a further tightening of sanctions.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing agreed on the need for close cooperation to prevent a second nuclear test by the North and called on that country to return unconditionally to the six-party talks — involving the United States, China, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas — on the North’s nuclear weapons program.

The meeting between Ms. Rice and Mr. Li followed Ms. Rice’s earlier meetings with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso and South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon. The three agreed to cooperate on implementing the resolution unanimously adopted by the United Nations Security Council on Oct. 14. The resolution demands that North Korea refrain from carrying out another nuclear test and return to the six-party talks. It calls for a ban on trade with the North of any materials that could be used for the production of missiles and weapons of mass destruction including nuclear weapons.

It also calls on U.N. member nations to inspect cargo headed to and from North Korea that is suspected of containing materials related to nuclear weapons or other WMD.

It is noteworthy that China, Pyongyang’s traditional ally and largest trading partner and aid supplier, is now taking a tough stance toward its reclusive neighbor. At a joint news conference with Ms. Rice, Mr. Li said China will fulfill its obligation under the resolution. He said, “As a member of the United Nations and a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, China will, as always, continue to implement our relevant international obligations.”

Although he did not specifically mention the cargo inspection issue, Ms. Rice, who also met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, said she was convinced that the Chinese leaders were determined not to allow illicit materials to cross the land border between China and North Korea.

President Hu earlier told Ms. Chikage Ogi, president of Japan’s Upper House, that he regrets that North Korea went ahead with the nuclear-bomb test in defiance of China’s warnings not to do so. He said, “We need to make the country aware of the strong reactions from the international community” against its nuclear test. At the same time, he called for coolheadedness in dealing with the problem.

China is wary of the possibility that too much pressure on North Korea will lead to a collapse of the Pyongyang regime and an exodus of refugees. But there are reports that China appears to be carrying out inspections of cargo entering and leaving North Korea along the two countries’ land border.

Chinese banks have stopped financial transactions with the North under government orders, and China has stopped air services between the two countries. These developments represent a sea change in China’s attitude, which had been one of reluctance to take a harsh approach to North Korea.

While China appears to be moving toward increasing its pressure on North Korea, it’s still not completely clear how South Korea plans to treat its flagship joint business ventures with North Korea — the Kaesong industrial park and the Mount Kumgang tourist resort — despite Seoul’s declared commitment to the sanctions. There have been suspicions that North Korea might have used money generated from those projects for developing nuclear weapons. It is hoped that South Korea will not send a wrong signal to Pyongyang.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il reportedly told Mr. Tang Jiaxuan, a special envoy of Chinese President Hu, that his country will not conduct a second nuclear-bomb test and expressed regret that the North’s Oct. 9 nuclear test had placed China in a difficult position. There was also a report that the North Korean leader told the Chinese official that Pyongyang would return to the stalled six-party talks.

Whether those reports are true remains to be seen. If past dealings with Pyongyang are any indication, however, one would be inclined to view them as another tactic to try to strengthen Pyongyang’s bargaining position. An unequivocal qualifier is needed for such statements to convince the international community of Pyongyang’s sincerity.

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