On a large television screen in front of Pyongyang's railway...

On a large television screen in front of Pyongyang's railway station, a North Korean state television broadcaster announces the news that North Korea conducted a nuclear test. (Feb. 12, 2013) Credit: AP

How do you control the actions of a nation whose leader doesn’t much care what the United States or anyone else thinks or does?

That’s the hellish conundrum the United States and the world face with North Korea, which conducted a nuclear weapons test Tuesday in defiance of United Nation’s resolutions, international sanctions and negotiated commitments.

The test was met with universal condemnation. President Barack Obama called it “a highly provocative act,” and urged “swift and credible action by the international community.” He also said North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs are “a threat to U.S. national security and to international peace and security.”

Calls for tough economic sanctions were the knee-jerk international response. But North Korea is already being squeezed by tough economic sanctions that were ratcheted up in January after it tested long range missiles that could one day carry nuclear warheads. And North Korea's young new leader, Kim Jong Un, doesn’t seem to care if his countrymen starve -- just like his dad before him.

So what can be done? Like it or not, that’s for China to decide.

As North Korea’s lone remaining major trading partner, China is the key to any global response. It has refused to participate in previous sanctions and, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it can veto additional sanctions if it chooses. Besides, there are few sanctions left to impose unless China joins the effort and stops supplying North Korea with oil and other commodities.

Chinese officials urged Kim Jong Un not to conduct the test, and they appear exasperated by the capricious actions of their neighbor. But China also seems more concerned about the prospect of instability and chaos in North Korea than about its nuclear weapons. So China may not be willing to cut the supply line.

Map shows location of nuclear test in North Korea.

Map shows location of nuclear test in North Korea.

It’s not easy to accept that the United States is relatively powerless to deter North Korea, particularly given the troubling possibility that it may be sharing nuclear technology with Iran, which is working to develop nukes of its own.

But the need to work with China is an opportunity.

The United States wants to rein in North Korea’s nuclear adventurism. China wants to calm the dangerous situation on its border. The two superpowers need to work together — maybe as the classic good cop, bad cop — to compel Kim Jong Un to abandon his aggressive drive to miniaturize nuclear weapons and to develop the missiles needed to deliver them around the world.  

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