WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has tough words for North Korea, but it's looking to China and Russia to do the heavy lifting to punish Pyongyang for its latest nuclear test.
Whether China is willing to pull away from its traditional ally is an open question given fears of raging instability that might erupt on their common border.
North Korea may have overplayed its attention-getting hand — or it may be moving its nuclear brinksmanship to a higher and more opaque level. Undeterred by international criticism since the underground nuclear explosion Monday, the North has restarted its weapons-grade nuclear power plant and fired its sixth short-range missile in two days, according to news reports.
The Obama administration's reaction to the nuclear test has been measured.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had been in touch with her Russian counterpart to press for "a quick, unified response to North Korea's provocative action," said department spokesman Ian Kelly.
Russia, once a key backer of North Korea, condemned the test. Moscow's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, also the Security Council president, said the 15-member body would begin work "quickly" on a new resolution. China said it "resolutely opposed" North Korea's test and urged Pyongyang to return to talks on ending its atomic programs.
While Russian objections to North Korean behavior were swift, direct and important symbolically, China holds the key.
Cross-border commerce and aid from China keep North Korea afloat economically. China is North Korea's biggest source of food imports, fuel aid and diplomatic support. Many of North Korea's international connections — from air transport to financial links — are routed through China or Chinese-controlled territories.
But drastically chopping its largesse, Beijing is believed to fear, could lead to nightmarish scenarios — regime collapse and a breakdown of North Korea's million-man army.
North Korea's nuclear test forced the Pentagon to scrap much of its planning for a meeting Saturday in Singapore with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his Japanese and South Korean counterparts.
"Undoubtedly, the developments in North Korea over the weekend will be a focus of that conversation," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.
Those who watch North Korea agree that the country's latest bout of saber-rattling, which started with a long-range missile test in April, grows from an ongoing leadership transition as factions jockey for position to take power from the ailing Kim Jong Il.
While Obama came to office offering to talk to North Korea about its nuclear program, the only answer has been belligerence.