PYONGYANG is again at the center of an international crisis. As a retaliation to the UN Security Council's presidential statement issued on Monday condemning North Korea's April 5 rocket launch, demanding an end to further launches, and calling for expanded sanctions, Pyongyang threatened to boycott the six-party talks and give up disarmament agreements, recover disabled nuclear facilities, resume plutonium production, and take all measures to increase its nuclear deterrence. Once again, Pyongyang is playing the tit-for-tat strategy to prepare for a larger bargaining chip in a new round of nuclear negotiation.
Tokyo and Washington are pushing for tighter sanctions. Beijing, by contrast, is urging caution. China is concerned that more pressure or sanctions would run counter to efforts to achieve North Korean denuclearization.
If Pyongyang does not get cooperation from the United States, it may play other cards, including further tests on its long-range missiles or even another nuclear explosion. If North Korea resumes the production of fissile materials, some worry that it could sell surplus stocks to Tehran or another customer who makes the highest bid. Therefore, it is imperative that negotiations resume immediately on denuclearization.
The technical success or failure of the recent rocket launch will become clear in time. What is beyond dispute is North Korea's intention: to grab the attention of the United States while the Obama administration adjusts its policy toward Pyongyang and its top priorities are elsewhere. By escalating tension, North Korea hopes to increase its leverage.
What North Korea really wants is direct talks with the United States in order to obtain a reliable security assurance. The most tangible assurance the United States can provide is to normalize relations as a first step toward integrating North Korea into the international community. Indeed, Pyongyang has repeatedly said it will abandon its nuclear program if, and only if, the United States gives up its "hostile policy."
Beijing supports North Korean denuclearization and is unhappy about Pyongyang's rocket launch. China has delivered a clear message to Pyongyang: Nuclear weapons are not in your long-term national security or economic interests. Given that North Korea has limited resources, economic advancement depends on Pyongyang opening its doors to the international community, and especially to foreign investment, trade, and aid from neighboring South Korea and Japan.
China's interests in resolving this crisis are clear: It is concerned that the rocket launch will strengthen the US-Japan military alliance and provide a pretext for Japan to accelerate deployment of a joint US-Japanese missile defense shield, which could be used to negate China's deterrent. Some in China are also worried that such a launch could lead to a new arms race of long-range missiles and undermine regional stability. Beijing's bottom line is that war on the Korean peninsula and an abrupt collapse of the Kim Jong-Il regime must be avoided because both could create massive refugee flows into China and possibly put US troops at China's border.
The good news is that disablement of Yongbyon nuclear facilities has been nearly completed. However, those disablement steps could be reversed relatively quickly. More permanent steps are needed, including the dismantling and decommissioning of those nuclear facilities. North Korea will not take such steps without something in return. In addition to economic and energy assistance, Washington should take steps toward normalizing relations with Pyongyang, including establishing a liaison office and relaxing sanctions. Finally, to get to full normalization with Washington, Pyongyang should agree to a treaty ending the development of its long-range missiles and to ending the export of missiles and missile technology. To jump-start such a move, Washington should appoint a special envoy to visit Pyongyang to help break the ice.
From China's perspective, the first step should be taken by the side with the least to lose. This is not North Korea; as long as Pyongyang sees its nuclear weapons as the key to regime survival, it can't afford to give them up. Washington, however, can show more strategic flexibility. Washington should take the first step.
Dr. Hui Zhang is a research associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.