Now North Korea defies even China | Simon Tisdall

Kim Jong-il is blithely playing off the great powers against each other. The result is diplomatic meltdown

Having gained the world's attention by briefly waging war on South Korean territory last month, North Korea has reverted, for now, to a more familiar tactic – a war of nerves fed by vitriolic propaganda, threats and tantrums, underpinned by a policy of studied unpredictability.

Pyongyang maintained its confrontational drumbeat this week. Rodong Sinmun, the main party organ, declared enhanced US-South Korean military co-operation to be "nothing but treachery, escalating the tension … and bringing the dark clouds of a nuclear war to hang over the Korean peninsula".

And today's disclosure by South Korea that the North may have built up to four additional facilities for nuclear weapons-related uranium enrichment is unlikely to calm the febrile atmosphere. The intelligence suggests the regime is hell-bent on maximising its nuclear capabilities, notwithstanding any future disarmament talks.

In this tense game of diplomatic-military poker, South Korea is not even the North's principal adversary. Kim Jong-il is now blithely defying all the major regional actors – the US, China, Russia and Japan – while actively exploiting differences between them. It makes little difference whether his aim is recognition and security guarantees; economic and financial assistance; or the succession of his son. Kim is playing off the great powers against each other, to see what he can get out of them. The result is virtual diplomatic meltdown.

Just look at what has happened since last month's bombardment of Yeonpyeong island. China, the North's only influential ally, has come under strong US pressure to pull its supposed client into line. China's perceived failure to do so is straining relations with Washington. James Steinberg, the US deputy secretary of state, visited Beijing today carrying the message: China must do more, fast.

Resentful of such criticism, but simultaneously alarmed at the North's unruly behaviour (which it says it cannot ultimately control), China sent a top envoy, Dai Bingguo, to Pyongyang last week. In a bland statement bordering on meaninglessness, the foreign ministry claimed today the visit achieved consensus: "The two sides believe that parties should keep calm and exercise restraint, take a responsible attitude to avoid further escalation of tensions, and play a constructive role in safeguarding peace and stability on the peninsula."

China insists a resumption of the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme is the best way forward. Pyongyang would probably support this if the negotiations, broken off last year, restarted without preconditions. The US, Japan and South Korea, on the other hand, oppose rewarding Kim's "bad behaviour", and are demanding a range of prior assurances. So the impasse persists – and the North has no incentive to change its ways.

Russia, a party to the talks, is hardly doing any better. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, told his North Korean counterpart, Pak Ui-chun, yesterday that Moscow was deeply concerned by recent events. Last month's attack "deserves condemnation", he said. But then Lavrov grew placatory, agreeing that US-South Korean military exercises were inflaming tensions, a view shared by China.

For his part, Pak, unfazed by this mild reprimand, told the Russian news agency Interfax that the "hostile and confrontational policy" of the US and South Korea justified "strengthening our defence potential with a focus on nuclear deterrent forces".

Evidently worried by the North's defiant insouciance, Russia announced today it had raised the alert status of its forces in the country's far east. "Without a doubt, we have taken measures to increase the combat-readiness of our forces," a military spokesman said, adding the army was "continuing to monitor" the situation.

Differences of approach are also evident between Japan and South Korea, suspicious old enemies yet to be fully united in a common cause. In South Korea itself, the fallout from last month's attack has been damaging, prompting financial market jitters, the resignation of the army chief and the defence minister, and severe criticism of President Lee Myung-bak. If the North's aim was to sow confusion, it has succeeded – and not only in Seoul.

Two things seem clear from all of this: first, that the various parties to this crisis need to form a united front if they are to have any chance of inducing the North to behave more responsibly. Second, that at present they are incapable of doing so.

Maybe it's time for a fresh approach. Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and an experienced freelance mediator who specialised in rogue regimes under Bill Clinton, is due in Pyongyang on Thursday. In his time Richardson has dealt face-to-face with the likes of Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Sudan's Omar al-Bashir and the North Koreans. Perhaps he will have more luck than the diplomats in bringing order to chaos.


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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