By Kim Kwang-tae
WASHINGTON, April 2 (Yonhap) -- The rare summit among leaders of South Korea, the United States and Japan has left a critical question unanswered: Whether North Korea will change its course in the face of mounting pressure.
North Korea has been told repeatedly that it can choose to give up its nuclear program and come back into the fold of the international community or face even tougher sanctions and isolation.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her U.S. and Japanese counterparts made the case once again when they held their trilateral summit -- the first in two years -- on the margins of nuclear security talks in Washington.
"I warn once again that the international community will by no means condone North Korea's provocation, and that should it choose to undertake yet another provocation, it is certain to find itself facing even tougher sanctions and isolation," Park said at the trilateral summit in Washington earlier this week, apparently referring to North Korea's possible nuclear test.
U.S. President Barack Obama also called for the international community to vigilantly enforce the U.N. sanctions imposed on the North for its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6 and a long-range rocket launch on Feb. 7.
"We are united in our efforts to deter and defend against North Korean provocations," Obama said.
They received a big boost from Chinese President Xi Jinping as he publicly pledged to "completely and fully" enforce the sanctions during his talks with Park.
Chinese support is critical in the stringent enforcement of the sanctions as it is the North's last major ally and economic benefactor.
China shares a porous 1,400-kilometer border with North Korea, creating loopholes that Pyongyang can take advantage of to skirt the sanctions.
Bruce E. Bechtol, Jr., a professor of political science at Angelo State University, said in order for the sanctions to work, a major aspect will be whether or not China actually meets the terms that it has agreed to.
This view was shared by Sue Mi Terry, a former senior CIA analyst on North Korea, who said so far Beijing seems to be sticking to its obligations.
"We will have to see how willing China is to fully implement the sanctions but thus far, there's evidence -- conflicting and incomplete but nevertheless credible -- that Beijing today is doing more than it has ever done to enforce U.N. sanctions," the expert, now a managing director for business consultancy Bower Group Asia, said.
Terry said the latest sanctions are an important and positive step forward but "we shouldn't get our hopes up for a radical reorientation of North Korea."
North Korean watchers said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is likely feeling pressure from all sides with tougher sanctions and China's apparent cooperation in doing its part to penalize the North.
Still, it remains unclear whether defiant Kim will heed mounting international pressure and change Pyongyang's calculus that has put the country on a collision course with the international community for decades.
U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert said the three leaders sent a strong signal to Kim that while the path remains open to diplomacy, there is a united front against these programs.
"I can't speculate what Kim Jong-un will or won't do," Lippert said Friday in a brief comment to Yonhap News Agency during his stay in Washington.
"But what we can do as members of the international community is work together with like-minded states to increase pressure and to offer a clear choice: You can give up your nuclear weapons and come back to the table or if you go down this path, the international community can be stronger and tougher and more resolved and that's going to end up in more sanctions and more diplomatic isolation."
On the other hand, the latest pressure may be long on rhetoric and short on results, as Kim is unlikely to drop the nuclear program seen by the North as a powerful deterrent against what it claims is Washington's hostile policy towards it.
A senior South Korean presidential official, who did not wish to be identified, declined to comment on whether sanctions and pressure could make North Korea change its behavior and refrain from carrying out another nuclear test.
North Korea has already been under U.N. sanctions for its three previous nuclear tests, with one each in 2006, 2009 and 2013, though sanctions have failed to deter North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
Reflecting the country's intransigence, in March Pyongyang launched short and medium range ballistic missiles and fired its new largest caliber multiple rocket launcher, which could target large parts of South Korea. It followed this with a surface-to-air missile launch on Friday.
Such saber rattling can be seen as a sign that the North's leadership will not easily cave into growing international pressure, and that it is ready to counter joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises taking place in and around the Korean Peninsula, with force if it has to.
"It's imperative that all of the North's neighbors stay the course to make clear that Kim will pay a significant price for his destabilizing and dangerous actions," said Terry.
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