Despair is dangerous in diplomacy. But North Korea's latest actions are making much of Asia hopeless. Only China, long reluctant to flex its diplomatic muscles, now has the power to find a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear problem. But the question everyone from Tokyo to Seoul and from Washington to Moscow is asking is this: will China act in time?
China's influence on North Korea is uniquely powerful. China is keeping its increasingly desperate neighbor on life support by providing most of the non-food aid and energy that North Korea receives from abroad. But to prevent North Korea from realizing a fait accompli in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, China must do more than mediate between North Korea and the US, the role it has so far played. Instead, it must now prompt North Korea to halt its nuclear development activities and return to the six-party talks with America, Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea that broke up weeks ago.
Recent developments indicate that North Korea's nuclear threat is becoming more serious by the day. Two weeks ago, North Korea declared that in June it successfully reprocessed some 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods and now possesses "nuclear deterrence," suggesting that Kim Jong Il's regime may actually be making atomic bombs.
Not only does North Korea show little interest in holding another session of the six-party talks that the Bush administration and the other participants are calling for; it now wants to ban the Japanese from participating. Kim accuses Japan of introducing unnecessary obstacles and complications into resolution of the nuclear question by raising the sensitive issue of North Korea's abduction of Japanese citizens.