North Korea's artillery attack on U.S. ally South Korea poses the second test in three days of Washington's vow that it will not reward what it deems bad behavior with diplomatic gestures, and underscores that U.S. options are limited without more help from China.
One of North Korea's heaviest attacks on the South since the Korean War ended in 1953 followed revelations at the weekend of a uranium enrichment facility -- a second source of atomic bomb material in Pyongyang's nuclear program.
The attack prompted China to call for a return to six-party aid-for-disarmament negotiations, a view echoed by U.S. critics of the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience" with the North.
"We've got to get back to negotiations with North Korea. But I notice that that's being ruled out at least for the moment by the White House," Donald Gregg, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, told ABC's "Good Morning America".
The White House, which until now has not wanted to be goaded into resumption of the talks, limited its reaction to condemning the attack, calling on North Korea to halt its belligerent actions and reaffirming its commitment to defend South Korea.
Victor Cha, who dealt with North Korea in the former President George W. Bush administration's National Security Council, agreed with that stance, saying it would be premature for Washington to seek negotiations with North Korea now.
"This assumes they (the North Koreans) want to talk, but I'm not at all certain that they want to talk at all," said Cha, now at Georgetown University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
In contrast with past patterns in which North Korea provoked crises to draw Washington or Seoul back to the negotiating table, this time it appears Pyongyang is "basically bent on strengthening their deterrent and showing everybody else that they are not an unstable regime as they go through this leadership transition," he added.
U.S. President Barack Obama came to office in January 2009 offering talks with North Korea, but this was met with missile launches and a nuclear test by North Korea in 2009, and this year by actions including the sinking of South Korea's Cheonan navy ship in March.
Cha said the key task for Washington now was "getting the Chinese to say the right things at the very beginning publicly" -- that the uranium program violates U.N. Security Council resolutions and the artillery attack runs afoul of the Korean War armistice.
China has yet to offer such condemnation and past evidence suggests Beijing will not be forthcoming. China has long resisted pressure from Washington to get tough on its ally.
But China, in a repeat of its stance on the sinking of the South Korean warship, avoided taking sides, calling on both Koreas to "do more to contribute to peace."
U.N. officials said the Security Council would not meet Tuesday to discuss the artillery attack and Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell questioned the effectiveness of more international sanctions on North Korea.
"It's hard to pile more sanctions upon the North than are already there," he told MSNBC television.
Cha, speaking before the artillery attack as experts debated Pyongyang's nuclear capability, said the North Korea conundrum remains exactly as he faced it in the Bush era.
"North Korea was described to me as the land of lousy options. You're never choosing between good and bad options. You're choosing between bad, worse and the worst," he said. (Additional reporting by Alister Bull and David Morgan; Editing by Frances Kerry)
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