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After the Nuclear Test: Countering the Threat From North Korea

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China's decision in late January to back the United States in expanding UN sanctions against North Korea underscores the value of improving U.S.-China relations in President Barack Obama's second term and opens a new avenue for more effective diplomacy to counter Pyongyang's weapons programs, following its nuclear test in flagrant violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

The Obama administration would be wise to reciprocate the Chinese gesture by joining with Beijing and Seoul in a new diplomatic initiative both to punish North Korea for its nuclear test and establish a viable diplomatic track with Pyongyang.

China's willingness to expand U.S.-sponsored sanctions -- for the first time in four years -- likely had two main causes: first, deep concern that North Korea's provocative launch of a rocket and a nuclear test could spur a new arms race in Northeast Asia; and, second, a desire by incoming President Xi Jinping to mend relations with the United States.

In the past, China's reluctance to support American efforts to pressure Pyongyang has been a source of great frustration to the Obama administration. In June 2010, for example, President Obama accused President Hu Jintao of "willful blindness" for failing to recognize North Korea's misconduct.

Shortly thereafter, the U.S. followed up with extensive naval exercises off China's coast and orchestrated the surprise simultaneous surfacing of three of America's most powerful submarines -- each carrying about 150 nuclear-capable cruise missiles -- in close proximity to China, as a reminder of America's overwhelming military prowess.

Now that China has moved to align its approach toward North Korea more closely with the United States, Washington should focus on taking a new diplomatic effort to achieve significant progress on nuclear and missile issues with Pyongyang through both further sanctions and new incentives.

American experts and policymakers often acknowledge that China has more leverage and influence over North Korea than any other country. Beijing's power derives from its historical ties to Pyongyang, the proximity of Chinese military forces, extensive commercial interests in North Korea, and China's sophisticated understanding of how to deal effectively with North Korea's leaders by taking a balanced diplomatic approach of mixing sanctions and incentives.

China successfully utilized this influence in December 2010 when it persuaded North Korea not to retaliate for Seoul's military exercises in and around Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea, and prevented the outbreak of a new Korean War.

In South Korea, President-elect Park Geun-hye has also stressed the importance of a balanced diplomatic strategy toward Pyongyang which she calls "Vision Korea" -- a plan to build an inclusive economic community on the Korean peninsula. Predicated on establishing "trust and progress" with North Korea on denuclearization, Park's program would assist Pyongyang in strengthening its energy, telecom and transport infrastructure while fostering foreign investment in the country's special economic zones.

Yet many American experts and some policymakers still cannot bring themselves to recognize a basic truth about nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang even though North Korea is already the most sanctioned country on earth: sanctions by themselves do not work in changing the country's conduct; but a combination of sticks and carrots -- sanctions and incentives -- has historically proven successful in shaping North Korean policy.

In the United States, there is no shortage of proposals to further tighten the screws on Pyongyang for proceeding with nuclear and missile tests. Considerably more intellectual effort is now devoted to devising new sanctions against North Korea than to scoping out a more balanced diplomacy which could actually achieve American strategic objectives -- without risking a war on the Korean peninsula leading to a potential military confrontation between the United States and China.

The recent history of U.S.-North Korea antagonism also makes it more difficult for the United States, by itself, to deploy diplomatic incentives of any kind in negotiations with Pyongyang. To mention just one example of this hostility, Obama administration officials and many members of Congress now feel comfortable denying North Korea humanitarian food aid -- despite reports of famine sweeping parts of the country -- although that policy runs contrary to the long tradition of U.S. opposition to politicizing humanitarian assistance.

At this juncture, asserting American leadership in President Obama's second term by pursuing an effective international diplomatic strategy towards Pyongyang is essential to realize U.S. foreign policy goals. Washington should utilize China's considerable leverage by launching a new joint effort with Beijing and Seoul to curb North Korea's advanced weapons programs through diplomatic means while there is still time to do so.

Donald Gross is a senior associate at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and author of The China Fallacy: How the U.S. Can Benefit from China's Rise and Avoid Another Cold War (Bloomsbury, 2013).