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Sudden Impact

Beijing Dispatch

In the six months since North Korea began publicly threatening to build nuclear weapons, two of its largest trading partners-China and South Korea have largely buried their heads in the sand. When Kim Jong Il admitted last fall that North Korea was developing highly enriched uranium, a violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework with the United States, South Korean leaders were not discouraged from pursuing then-President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of engagement. At the end of this winter, North Korea threatened to unleash a war and test-fired missiles into the Sea of Japan; China complacently repeated that the problem was one for the United States to solve.

But, in recent weeks, China and South Korea increasingly have switched course and have begun supporting Washington's tougher line on North Korea. In fact, for the first time since the Bush administration came into office, a workable North Korea policy is taking shape. But this newfound regional coherence isn't due to the Bush administration's actions in Northeast Asia. It is a dividend from the war in Iraq.

Before late February, China and South Korea kept silent on, or even opposed, U.S. efforts to deal with North Korea. The Bush administration favored multilateral negotiations on Pyongyang's nuclear program involving all the powers in the region. But China spurned this effort, insisting that the only solution lay in acceding to Pyongyang's demands for direct bilateral negotiations with Washington. When pressed to help defuse the North Korea crisis, Chinese officials gave only vague assurances that they were somehow assisting the United States behind the scenes. For his part, South Korea's new president, Roh Moo Hyun, also supported Pyongyang's position on bilateral talks versus multilateral talks. Some in Roh's entourage even suggested that the United States was a greater threat to world peace.

But, since late February, while the media has focused elsewhere, the Bush administration has leveraged its Iraq policy to break the diplomatic impasse in Northeast Asia. In late February, say diplomatic sources in Beijing, Secretary of State Colin Powell told China's new leader, Hu Jintao, that many hawks in Washington believe the only solution to North Korea is regime change-if necessary, by military means. Short of that, he warned that the United States might undertake a preemptive strike against Yongbyon, a nuclear reactor capable of making weapons-grade plutonium, to prevent North Korea from building nuclear weapons.

In Beijing's mind, the Iraq war shows Powell wasn't bluffing. Diplomats in Beijing say China now believes it has only a brief window to prevent an Iraq- like war from exploding near its borders and thus has drawn closer to the U.S. position. In a recent article in Chinese-language World Affairs magazine, Zhang Liangui, a scholar close to the leadership in Beijing, wrote, "If North Korea obtains nuclear weapons, the United States would destroy ... the Kim Jong Il regime."

This new belief in Washington's willingness to launch preemptive action against North Korea has led China to move quickly. As Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said in early April, China-in an about-face-is now making a substantial effort to press North Korea to accept multilateral talks and to restrain its provocations. Indeed, diplomatic sources in Beijing say that, after Powell's meeting with Hu, the Chinese sent a high-ranking delegation to Pyongyang to pressure Kim.

And, in sharp contrast to Beijing's previous vague assurances, China has put concrete pressure on the North to come to the bargaining table. In late February, China tried to teach the North a lesson by temporarily closing a pipeline from the Daqing oil fields, which are a vital source of energy for the North. In so doing, China demonstrated that it could cut off the 500,000 tons of oil it sends to Pyongyang each year, choking North Korea's already sputtering economy.

Most important, China has lifted its objections to a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss Pyongyang's nuclear program, a discussion that could lead to further economic sanctions against Pyongyang. Though China has continued to publicly oppose sanctions, even allowing a meeting to take place is a huge step for Beijing, which had never previously acceded to sanctions against the North or against any other country. In so doing, Beijing may be signaling that it will accept sanctions against the North in the future.

According to diplomats in Beijing, China has even begun considering how to push Kim Jong Il from power. Diplomats say some Chinese officials have privately started arguing that it would be better for Beijing to undertake actions that help remove Kim and install a new government in the North committed to economic reform and regional stability, which would benefit China. Some also feel it would be better for China, rather than the United States, to oust Kim so as not to extend U.S. influence in China's backyard.

A similar turnabout is taking place in South Korea. Roh Moo Hyun now supports the U.S. rather than the North Korean position on handling the crisis, calling for Pyongyang to engage in multilateral negotiations with China, the United States, South Korea, Russia, and Japan. South Korea's leader has also recently heaped praise on the U.S.-South Korea alliance. He has even sent noncombat troops to support the U.S.-led war effort in Iraq, infuriating North Korea, which has voiced strong support for Baghdad.

Because both China and South Korea have changed their stances, a coherent Pyongyang policy is finally developing. North Korea publicly remains defiant in the face of the growing diplomatic alliance. Kim Jong Il's regime says any sanctions will amount to a declaration of war and vows to resist all demands to disarm. Ultimately, however, cooperation among all the powers in Northeast Asia may lead to the kind of breakthrough needed to prevent North Korea, which reportedly could build six nuclear weapons by next year, from continuing down the nuclear path. According to Bush administration sources, this week the United States will formally present a "four plus two" multilateral negotiating format for dealing with North Korea, involving China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea-and backed by all four. This multilateral format will put the United States in a stronger position to demand that any deal with Pyongyang include a serious and effective weapons-inspection regime and to prevent other countries in the region from cheating on any agreement made with the North. A deal restraining Pyongyang's nuclear ambition is hardly guaranteed, of course. But, while the media focuses on how the Iraq war could impact the Middle East, the war's first political aftershock is being felt much farther away in icy Northeast Asia.