SPIEGEL: Despite China and North Korea being close allies, Beijing failed to stop Kim Jong Il from conducting another nuclear test. Has China lost its influence over its former comrade in arms?
Sun Zhe: The North Koreans certainly did not listen to us. They currently don't view their relations with Beijing as a strategic priority. Their policies are completely oriented toward the Americans. There, they are playing a high-stakes game of poker.
SPIEGEL: What do the North Koreans really want?
Sun: They want to be treated as an equal partner by the US and by the other Western countries. And they absolutely want to have diplomatic relations with Washington.
SPIEGEL: And for that you have to detonate atomic bombs?
Sun: On the face of it, it indeed seems very strange. But it is a precisely calculated chess move. The North Koreans want to be noticed; they want to show something. However, with their tests, they disregarded the fact that the world is currently preoccupied with the financial crisis and swine flu.
SPIEGEL: What should Beijing's reaction be?
Sun: The stated policy of the Chinese government is to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table of the six party talks, which aim at a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons.
SPIEGEL: But that goal doesn't appear terribly realistic.
Sun: The question is whether Beijing will react to this unpleasant surprise any differently than it usually does. In the 1990s, Beijing sent secret emissaries to Pyongyang to prevent North Korea's leadership from taking any radical steps and to urge them to cooperate with the international community. When that didn't help, some stern warnings followed.
SPIEGEL: But they didn't seem to help much.
Sun: The only way to exert pressure on Pyongyang is to cut off deliveries of energy and food.
SPIEGEL: Is that what will happen now?
Sun: No. I don't think that our government will radically alter its policies toward North Korea. It is in a particularly bad position. If it goes along with international sanctions, it gives the impression that it is serving as the handmaid to American foreign policy. It won't let that happen under any circumstance.
SPIEGEL: Will China do anything to antagonize the North Koreans?
Sun: More than anything, Beijing wants to prevent Japan from using the situation in North Korea as an excuse for becoming a nuclear power itself.
SPIEGEL: Then, there would be three nuclear powers in East Asia. After this second nuclear test, many of your colleagues have been calling on the government in Beijing to confront Kim (Jong Il) a bit more aggressively.
Sun: I have also advocated an escalation in our warnings. We could summon the North Korean ambassador for a serious talk, dispatch a delegation to Pyongyang and then indicate that our food and energy deliveries are not guaranteed.
SPIEGEL: The North Koreans don't really seem all that bothered by sanctions.
Sun: Right. And that's why I think it is more important for our government to start talking with the Americans again.
SPIEGEL: To what purpose?
Sun: President Barack Obama should resume normal relations with North Korea, send some professors to Pyongyang and do something. That's the only chance for bringing North Korea to its senses. In Washington, there are more and more voices calling for a rethinking of America's policies toward North Korea. China should also work on this issue through talks with the US. We don't need hard sanctions; we need a strategy of "soft landing" for East Asia.