United Nations -- Another nuclear test, missiles and threats from North Korea and the world is waiting for the Obama administration's reaction. But unless China takes firm steps, action from Washington can fall flat.
The first stop, before any bilateral action, is the U.N. Security Council, which reflects the national positions of its key members (the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France). Japan has a seat on the council this year and South Korea is involved in talks.
But diplomats said no action was expected this week and doubted a draft resolution would even be circulated. China, which is said to have agreed in principle to sanctions, has no instructions yet and is sending various proposals back to Beijing. The suggested list includes tightening sanctions imposed in October 2006 (resolution 1718) but never really enforced. Three Pyongyang firms (Korea Mining Development Trading Corp., Korea Ryonbong General Corp. and Tanchon Commercial Bank) are on a U.N. blacklist and more may be added. Some nations also want embargoes on Pyongyang's banking ties as well as flight restrictions and travel bans on designated officials.
North Korea is seemingly eager to attract US attention on national holidays. The 2006 test of its long-range Taepodong-2 missile came on July 4 and a second -- and this time successful -- underground nuclear test was on Monday, Memorial Day. But not everything happens on a holiday. On April 5, the North Koreans fired a three stage rocket from the Musudan-ri launch site in the northeast that they said was a communication satellite while the United States says the launch was a practice session for launching a nuclear warhead.
Since Memorial Day, the threats have mounted -- from restarting a closed nuclear reactor to warning South Korea of a military response if any of its vessels were searched. The United States has created the Proliferation Security Initiative, aimed at stopping ships that carry nuclear materials or other weapons of mass destruction. South Korea on Tuesday said it would join the PSI, which is permitted under the 2006 Security Council resolution. China is said to be reluctant to engage in such searches but its cooperation is needed, at minimum, to stop some of the weapons-related supplies from reaching or leaving its Korean neighbor.
China delivers fuel and food to North Korea and an estimated 80 percent of its consumer goods are made in China. While experts believe Beijing does not want its neighbor to have nuclear weapons, it also fears a collapse of the regime if there is too much pressure, driving more refugees over the border.
As John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told Fox News last month. "The problem for China is they're afraid if they apply to much pressure to North Korea, they'll collapse the regime entirely. There'll be reunification of the Korean peninsula, and they'll see American forces on the Yalu River. They didn't like that movie in 1950. They don't like it any better today."
Russia, which usually backs China on North Korea, appeared tougher than Beijing. Its U.N. ambassador, Vitali Churkin, this month's Security Council president, called the North's action "very serious" and in need of "a strong response." Officials in Moscow, talking to national news agencies, say Russia was talking precautionary security measures, fearing tensions could escalate to war.
Any U.N. Security Council resolution is bound to insist that North Korea rejoin the stalled six-power talks. But at this point the dialogue among China, the United States, Russia, Japan and North and South Korea has not impressed Pyongyang.
In Beijing, Xu Guangyu, a nuclear expert on the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, told Reuters: "North Korea's strategic objective has not changed. That objective is to win the attention of the Obama administration, to push the North Korea issue up the agenda."
"And China's goal is to ensure that the six-party talks process does not fall apart," Xu said.
The Obama administration's strategy is not clear on specifics. Nor has the president or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reacted with bombast as allies are being contacted on the next steps. Unclear also is whether there is a leadership battle in North Korea that may have prompted the latest provocations.
The Bush administration at first called North Korea part of an "axis of evil" and allowed a deal to lapse that closed nuclear reactors. It then offered concessions and entered six-party talks. But Pyongyang broke them off, saying parts of the deal had not been fulfilled.
Joel Wit, a former career foreign service officer now at Johns Hopkins University, says North Korea has hardened its position, especially since Monday's nuclear test was the first successful one.
"At the end of the Clinton Administration, North Korea was seriously interested in becoming a partner of the United States. It's hard for most people to understand, but that was the case," Wit told PBS' Newshour with Jim Lehrer.
"Today, North Korea is not interested in that anymore, and that makes it sound even harder to deal with them. And it will be. But we have no alternative, because if we sit back and let them stew in their juices, six months from now, the situation is going to be a lot worse than it is today," Wit said. "We need a combination of steps at the United Nations, bilateral sanctions against North Korea, but we also need to get back to the negotiating table and talk to North Korea and probe for possible ways that we can get ourselves out of this mess."
But none of this can succeed without China.