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Conflicting responses by world leaders on North Korea highlight fundamental divide

Key Points
  • Conflicting responses by world leaders to North Korea point to a wider clash in diplomatic approaches by the East and the West.
  • Western leaders have called for more sanctions against the closed state, while their Eastern counterparts have said such moves would prove ineffective.
US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) arrive prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 8, 2017.
Saul Loeb | Contributor | Getty Images

The conflicting responses by world leaders to escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula have underlined a fundamental divide in the diplomatic strategies of the East and the West.

Western leaders have this week espoused ramping up sanctions on North Korea in an effort to increase pressure on the closed state. Meanwhile, neighboring nations in the East have advocated maintaining the status quo, arguing that isolation tactics will do little to overthrow the country's despotic regime.

The U.S.'s ambassador to the United Nations said Monday that North Korea is "begging for war" after it launched its sixth and largest nuclear missile test Sunday.

Nikki Haley said at a UN meeting that incremental measures in place since 2006 had proved ineffective and called for the "strongest sanctions" in order to resolve provocations without military actions.

Nikki Haley, United States ambassador to the United Nations.
Getty Images

Haley's comments were preceded by European Council President Donald Tusk on Sunday, when he called on the UN to adopt further sanctions, and subsequently followed by European state leaders. British Prime Minister Theresa May advocated "tougher action" Monday, including increasing existing sanctions, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday that more sanctions were "urgently required. " The latter said she would meet this weekend with her EU peers to urge their support.

This shared stance stands at odds with comments made by some of the East's most powerful leaders, whose support is needed for allied nations to strike a united diplomatic approach.

President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that while Russia opposed North Korea's actions, imposing sanctions would be "useless and ineffective, " adding that North Korean President Kim Jong Un would rather see his people starve than have his regime overthrown. His comments came as China's foreign ministry released a statement saying that "sanctions alone are no way out for the North Korea issue."

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Dmitri Lovetsky | Reuters

The clash is somewhat unsurprising given Russia's experience of sanctions and China's close economic ties with North Korea. Trade barriers imposed on Russia by the EU and the U.S. have done little to improve international relations over recent years; while neighbouring China is a beneficiary of the regime, supplying four-fifths of the North's imports.

"For China, the real ultimate goal here is stability on the Korean peninsula, which will mean stability economically and domestically for China," Dr Heather Williams, lecturer in defence studies at King's College London, told CNBC Tuesday. "So, they think that they're acting rationally."

"From where we're sitting, it might seem … like they're (the Chinese) doing enough. But for them, given that that's their ultimate objective, for them it does seem rational."

International leaders have been generally united in their aims of avoiding military action against the state, given its growing nuclear capabilities. The regime's test on Sunday triggered a magnitude 6.3 tremor and was more powerful than the bombs dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Analysts have noted that President Jong Un's sabre-rattling is an attempt at regime preservation, rather than aiming to strike an all-out war.

This undated picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 3, 2017 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) looking at a metal casing with two bulges at an undisclosed location.
STR | Getty Images

"From North Korea's perspective its nuclear program is the ultimate tool for regime security," Williams noted.

Sunday's missile launch was North Korea's sixth in a series of provocations. The closed state claimed it was an advanced hydrogen bomb, though experts are yet to confirm this.

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