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WASHINGTON — North Korea’s attack on a small South Korean island Monday poses a dramatic diplomatic test for both the United States and China, according to lawmakers and defense experts.

Following the attack, congressmen on both sides of the aisle called for swift reaction to North Korea from both countries, to keep the region from destabilizing. Incoming House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said “the international community, including China, has a responsibility to do all it can to support South Korea in the face of this latest belligerence from the north.”

Senate Armed Services chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., took it a step further, calling the attack “just the latest example of North Korea’s irresponsible behavior and further evidence of its continued, reckless defiance of international norms.” He asked for the international community — also singling out China — to find a solution quickly.

Paul Stares, director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, said U.S. officials need to use the incident to press China into taking a larger role in policing North Korea.

“The country is a strategic liability to them, and an irritant to the United States,” he said. “This latest incident caused a run on the South Korean stock market, which has financial implications for China. U.S. leaders have to go to China and say, ‘This can’t be allowed to happen.’”

Stares said before the attack, South Korean and U.S. negotiators appeared leaning toward resuming six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but those plans are likely scrapped now.

That puts more pressure on China to intervene on its own, Stares said, especially in light of news this week that North Korea’s nuclear program is more advanced than previously thought.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton didn’t mention China in his lengthy discussion with reporters on the Korean peninsula incident, but did say that President Barack Obama was “outraged” and reiterated that the United States is “fully committed” to defending South Korea.

Stares said U.S. officials will spend the next few days trying to determine if the attack was a deliberate act of provocation by the North Korean government or simply a local dispute that grew out of control.

But RAND senior defense analyst Bruce Bennett, who specializes in North and South Korean military strategy, said he sees the attack as a political move by North Korean officials, including heir-apparent Kim Jong Un, and a sign of greater internal disarray among military elites than previously thought.

The military action could be an attempt to deflect attention away from that internal strife and onto an external enemy, he said.

“Any response by the United States or South Korea would galvanize the North Korean military and people,” he said. “If I were Kim Jong Il, I can’t imagine a better outcome than some low-level retaliation.”

That would threaten to destabilize the region and could send millions of North Korean refugees to the country’s border with China, a nightmare scenario for officials there, Bennett said.

Ironically, the top U.S. diplomat on North Korean issues was meeting with Chinese officials in Beijing on Tuesday to discuss better engagement on the country when the attacks occurred.

Afterward, Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy, said that both the United States and China “share the view that such conflict is very undesirable.”

“I expressed to them the desire that restraint be exercised on all sides, and I think we agree on that,” he told reporters. “We strongly believe that a multilateral, diplomatic approach is the only way to realistically resolve these problems.”

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

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