Residents of Dandong, China, a city that faces North Korea across the Yalu River, had a running joke about their neighbor's decrepit technology last summer. If North Korea aimed an intercontinental missile at the United States, they said, it would probably hit downtown Beijing.
They were right about the failure: When Kim Jong Il did test his long-range Taepodong 2 in July, it plunged into the Sea of Japan. The North Korean leader has been far more effective in rattling Dandong-and the region-with his claim of an underground nuclear test.
A diplomatic frenzy has followed in the weeks after North Korea's Oct. 9 explosion. The United Nations slapped new sanctions on the nation, banning luxury goods and military equipment going there. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also did a quick spin of capitals, visiting South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia to whip up enthusiasm for sanctions and six-party talks.
Only two of those nations, however, hold serious sway over Kim's regime: China and South Korea. Aid and trade from the two bordering neighbors help prop up Pyongyang. Already, China has shown a shift in policy by openly signaling its anger with the North.
But only time will tell how far Beijing and Seoul will pressure Kim to disarm. Neither wants a nuclear Korean peninsula, but nor do they want to destabilize the North so far it collapses and sends a flood of refugees and economic woes across their borders.
In Dandong, the nuclear test brought some quick changes, according to Roy Browning, the city's sole American businessman. More People's Liberation Army soldiers are patrolling the area, and authorities have begun inspecting cargo, in line with new sanctions.
Chinese businesses are now wary of North Korea, slowing their cross-river dealings since the summer. "Before there was pretty much a steady stream," Browning said, "but now it's down to one once in a while."
Dandong's corridor accounts for 80 percent of China's trade with North Korea, which reaches $1.5 billion a year. Traders in the rapidly growing city may hardly blink if their business with North Koreans dwindles, but the Pyongyang regime will feel the squeeze. Trade with China amounts to half of North Korea's total.
With that kind of impact in mind, Beijing authorities in late October told China's four main banks to halt transactions with the North, sealing off its main conduit to the international financial system. Though the exact volume of transactions is unclear, analysts say it is substantial, and this action will hurt Pyongyang.
The move is similar to a damaging one the United States took last year, when it warned U.S. financial institutions against doing business with a Macau bank that held poorly monitored North Korean accounts. The warning scared banks around the world from dealing with Pyongyang, leaving Kim infuriated and with narrow access to funds.
Nonetheless, these early Chinese moves may not signal a full shift against North Korea. Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics, said China often follows dual action: Officials water down multilateral efforts-including the sanctions in UN Security Council Resolution 1718-while quietly pursuing their own bilateral policy.
The banking decision is one example, but China has so far said it will not cut off food aid or its crucial oil shipments. Losing the oil, which accounts for 90 percent of North Korea's supply, would trigger a swift economic collapse. "The Chinese in their public statements have been far more critical than they have been in the past," Noland said. "[But] it's hard to sort out the real Chinese policy."
China also enjoys having North Korea as a buffer state, and would rather not have on its doorstep the U.S.-friendly nation that Korean reunification might bring. Nor does Beijing want Pyongyang to overstep and cause a repeat of 1998, when North Korean missile tests spurred South Korea and Japan to cooperate strongly, Noland said: "When the proxy starts doing things against their long-term interest, it's time to rein them in."
While China is calibrating its reaction, South Korea has been discombobulated. On Oct. 23, the nation's defense minister offered his resignation over the test, followed two days later by that of the reunification minister's. Seoul months ago halted 500,000 tons of food aid to the North, but restored it partially after North Korean floods.
Despite Rice's urging, President Roh Moo Hyun's administration is shying away from tough sanctions. Officials have balked at actively participating in the Proliferation Security Initiative, a Washington-led effort that interdicts ships suspected of carrying WMD-related material.
Seoul is also not limiting activities of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a cooperative manufacturing site of 13 South Korean companies that employs thousands of North Koreans. Most of their $57 monthly paychecks go to the Korean Workers Party, some Seoul officials have said, bolstering Kim.
For eight years, Seoul has pursued "Sunshine Policy" engagement with the North. Conservatives blame Roh for the latest setbacks, but his government is now locked in "engagement for engagement's sake," Noland said, and the policy is unlikely to change.
In the meantime, North Korean motives are ever inscrutable. South of the Yalu River, the military uses a border fence and a dusty highway with surveillance posts and stone-lined bunkers to watch China more closely. North of the river, some Dandong residents poke fun at the staring North Korean soldiers, but both sides are uneasy.
North Korea's nuclear crises may come and go, but one nightmare is ever-present: the plight of the nation's refugees in China. Philip Buck knows about them firsthand. For 10 years, the 65-year-old Rev. Buck has helped more than 1,000 North Koreans flee through China to countries where they can win asylum. The underground railroad is necessary because China repatriates the refugees it captures, who often return to executions or prison camps for leaving North Korea.
In May 2005, Chinese authorities arrested Buck in Yanji, Jilin Province, for helping North Koreans cross into Mongolia. With pressure from Washington and advocacy groups, they released him this August after a 15-month detention. He spoke about his experience publicly for the first time Oct. 20 on Capitol Hill.
In Yanji, Buck gave instructions by cell phone to a group of 14 North Koreans trekking into Mongolia. An informant tipped off the police, and only four made it to safety. Police arrested the other 10 and Buck within two days.
While officers interrogated Buck about how he organized the escape, he shot back with questions of his own, worried about the 10. He heard that upon her arrest, one woman in the group drew out a concealed knife and tried to commit suicide by slitting her wrists. For her, death was better than going home.
She survived, and Chinese officials sent her back with the rest of the group, made up of three men, six women, and one boy. Though Buck knows some are alive, he suspects they will die in prison from starvation or torture. The boy had already suffered much in China: When Buck met him, traffickers had sold his mother into slavery.
By contrast, Buck's prison stay was relatively mild. He said he suffered no ill treatment and had his own bed. At 6 a.m. every morning he exercised, running and jumping on the spot while shouting four phrases over and over that roused fellow inmates: "God-I believe-Amen-Hallelujah." It was shorthand for "I'm calling my Father and I believe God will release me today."
Release came Aug. 21, when the Chinese deported the Korean-born Buck back to the United States. He thinks the West can only solve North Korea's nuclear threat by forcing the fall of Kim Jong Il's regime-and then helping China and South Korea cope with an influx of refugees.
Buck cannot return to China, he says, but he has no intention of ceasing his refugee work. Spurring him on are thoughts of the 10 who never made it. He told WORLD, "I feel guilty, but they're the same as me and they're human beings. They didn't commit any crime. . . . I wanted to go to [North Korea] and die for them."