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North Korea Backing Away From The Brink

Signals from North Korea have taken a decidedly different tone after Hu Jintao sent Tang Jiaxuan to Pyongyang to speak with Kim Jong Il. South Korea’s Yonhap reports that the North Korean dictator told Tang that the communist state “has no plan to conduct additional nuclear tests” after he arrived in Pyongyang to “hand down a personal message” from China’s Hu to Kim. China possibly appears to have successfully talked the North Koreans down from the ledge of confrontation. What combination of carrots and/or sticks China employed is yet to be seen. Upon his return, Tang had told Condoleezza Rice, in Beijing for talks on North Korea, that his trip to Pyongyang “not been in vain.”

In another example of an immediate change in tone, North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan told ABC News that “Kim Jong Il has been saying all along in his words that there’s no reason North Korea should remain an enemy of the United States.” When asked directly about any further nuclear tests, the foreign minister offered an indirect, “I think you can closely watch what happens.”

This welcomed development of North Korean tone moderation is tempered by the continuing differences between the Untied States and China with regard to desired outcomes for North Korea . Under no military threat from North Korea, China does not want the collapse of Kim Jong Il’s regime, at least in part for fear of an unmanageable wave of fleeing immigrants seeking a better life and opportunity in China. The United States and Japan are the constant recipients of North Korean threats and the primary targets of its missile arsenal. Within this context, the US seeks an end to the Kim regime.

These widely divergent desired outcomes are at the heart of the difficulties the United States is experiencing in her efforts to achieve a more unified implementation of the UN Security Council sanctions handed down last week. Even neighboring South Korea has balked on aspects of implementation, exemplifying that the conflict is between North Korea and the United States and clearly not with their South Korean neighbors.

Yet at the same time, the Bangkok Post reported that China has expanded its economic penalization of the NoKor regime, quoting the China Daily as saying that “Major Chinese banks stopped payments to the DPRK last week.” This suspended cash flow has put an immediate dent into the lifestyle of Kim Jong Il, and its prolonged suspension holds dire consequences on a higher level for the communist state as a whole. Potentially disastrous food and fuel shortages as a result have already been contemplated.

It is likely that the Chinese economic pressure on North Korea had much more to do with today’s sudden change of tone from the regime than any other action, UN sanctions-based or otherwise.