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Originally published Monday, May 24, 2010 at 4:02 PM

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North Korea makes everyone nervous, including China

Another episode of violence by North Korea might pass as another crazy provocation — one of many. Diplomatic restraint is called for in the interest of long-term peace and stability.

NORTH Korea has so little in the way of an economy or political legitimacy, its paroxysms of violence directed against South Korea are virtually a national industry.

The whacko regime in Pyongyang has used provocations in the past to leverage aid and assistance. Hard to imagine the March sinking of a South Korean naval vessel could be such a tactic, but one cannot be sure.

An international panel concluded the Cheonan was blasted in two by North Korea torpedoes. Debris was recovered with verifiable identifications. Responsibility is clear, but what happens next is vague, as it always has been.

The United States and South Korea announced Monday they would conduct joint anti-submarine exercises. South Korea said it would halt trade with the North, which is in constant need of hard currency and consumer goods.

For all of the fearful talk about warfare on the peninsula, a giant industrial complex across the border in North Korea will remain open. In a handful of years, the joint venture at Kaesong has grown to 42,000 North Korean workers at 110 South Korean companies.

Such a parsing of diplomatic outrage suggests the key players see the attack — even with the loss of 46 lives — as an episodic event to be managed.

South Korea can take its grievances to the United Nations, but it eventually runs into China's veto power over any U.N. action it sees as complicating its political and economic life, and those of its North Korean neighbor.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is ailing, and trying to finesse a shift of power to his son. The military is a significant player. The move is taking place in what Rich Ellings, president of The National Bureau of Asian Research in Seattle, describes as the first Communist monarchy, a dynastic tradition.

China's role is pivotal. A prospering, modernizing nation does not want to live next to a belligerent neighbor, but China also has a basic stake in keeping North Korea as a buffer between democratic South Korea.

For all of the communiqués out of South Korea and the U.S., China is the influential player to watch.

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