SHANNON, Ireland—Now the test of wills begins.
North Korea has made itself an uninvited member of the nuclear club and dared the world to kick it out.
The world's leading powers, divided over Iraq, Iran and much else, have responded with uncharacteristic speed and unanimity to bracket North Korea's Kim Jong-Il with some of the toughest sanctions imposed on any nation since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, at least on paper.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday completed a four-nation trip to Japan, South Korea, China and Russia in an effort to cement the initial outrage at North Korea's October 9 nuclear test into a durable diplomatic wall. It remains to be seen, however, whether the U.S. and the other four nations, acting together, separately or both, can persuade the unpredictable Kim to curb his nuclear appetite.
A senior official accompanying Rice was privately skeptical. "He lives in a different world from us," the official said.
The stakes are enormous.
A nuclear-armed North Korea could prompt Japan, South Korea or even Taiwan to develop their own nuclear deterrents, triggering an East Asian arms race. It would shred global nonproliferation efforts. And the cash-starved North might sell nuclear technology, material or even a weapon to others.
Kim, whose country is the most isolated on the planet and has only the nuclear card to play, is unlikely to back down soon or to return to six-nation talks whose goal is to persuade North Korea to halt its pursuit of nuclear weapons in return for a host of rewards.
"I think we'll be at this for a long while," Rice told reporters after talks in Beijing. "I can't tell you how long."
That means that the sanctions will have to stay in place for a long time, too.
Kim appears to be calculating that he can ride out the backlash from his nuclear weapons test, as India and Pakistan did after their 1998 blasts.
The key, U.S. officials acknowledge, will be China, which has sustained and sheltered North Korea since the late 1940s, sacrificing thousands of soldiers on Pyongyang's behalf in the 1950-53 Korean War.
The relationship has cooled considerably in recent years, and there are signs that Beijing's leaders may be nearing the end of their rope with Kim, who ignored China's warnings not to conduct a nuclear test.
Chinese President Hu Jintao sent a top-level delegation to Pyongyang last week to tell Kim, in essence, cut it out.
Senior U.S. officials, briefed by the Chinese on those talks and speaking only on the condition of anonymity, said that Kim didn't, as widely reported, promise not to conduct more nuclear tests. Instead, they said, the North Korean leader said he'd refrain from more tests for now if the United States didn't do anything provocative—a much flimsier pledge.
China seems unlikely to abandon North Korea overnight, although Kim himself could be a different matter. As a rising world power, China has more important things to do than prop up a capricious dictator: maintain good relations with the United States, ensure stable trade and energy supplies; and, perhaps above all, ensure that rival Japan doesn't go nuclear.
Words are extremely important in China, and U.S. officials took note when Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said at an appearance with Rice that China, like the United States, is a "stakeholder" in global affairs.
"I don't think that there is any doubt that Chinese attitudes about North Korea are evolving," Rice told reporters en route from Beijing to Moscow, her last stop. But, she said, "I don't expect that overnight you're going to have a 180 degree turn in the China-North Korea relationship. ... China also seems to be trying to use that relationship to bring about more responsible North Korean behavior."
Rice's mission to Japan, South Korea, China and Russia was a high-wire act on an extremely thin wire.
She had two contradictory objectives: persuade North Korea's neighbors to hang tough and enforce the U.N. sanctions, and assuage their fears that the U.S. wants to squeeze Kim's regime until it implodes.
At every stop, Rice insisted that she wasn't bearing a list of American demands about how to enforce the sanctions. She also strove to dispel the notion that Washington wants a Cuban Missile Crisis-style naval quarantine around North Korea.
U.S. officials traveling with Rice said that North Korean ships would be stopped and searched in international waters only if there's a specific tip that they're carrying banned cargo. Other checks will be conducted at foreign ports and borders.
The sanctions ban Pyongyang from exporting or importing nuclear- and ballistic missile-related materials; other weapons such as tanks and artillery; and luxury goods for Kim and his cronies.
Still, Rice is trying to hold together a motley coalition that may not last.
Japan is the most hawkish, seeing itself as a primary North Korean target. South Korea wants to maintain its "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the North. China fears instability in North Korea, which could send thousands more refugees fleeing across its border. Russia seems willing to cooperate with Washington, at least on this issue.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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