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North Korea mystery deepens

  • South Korea, U.S. have blamed North Korea for the sinking of a naval ship
  • Fareed Zakaria North Korea's actions seem inexplicable and, therefore, dangerous
  • He says China has pushed for its client state, North Korea, to avoid disruptive actions
  • Zakaria: Incident brings into question China's ability to conduct effective foreign policy

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN U.S. on Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET and CNN International at 2 and 10 p.m. Central European Time / 5 p.m. Abu Dhabi / 9 p.m. Hong Kong.

New York (CNN) -- The rising tension over the sinking of a South Korean warship is particularly dangerous because the intentions and actions of North Korea's leadership appear more mysterious than ever, says analyst Fareed Zakaria.

The South Korean government has accused the North of firing a torpedo at the ship, killing 46 sailors, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has backed South Korea's call for North Korea "to come forward with the facts regarding this act of aggression and, above all, stop its belligerence and threatening behavior." North Korea, responding to an anti-submarine exercise by South Korea, warned Thursday it would meet "confrontation with confrontation" and war with "all-out war."

Zakaria told CNN, referring to the North Koreans, "What's striking is that this was probably the most provocative thing that they have done in at least a decade, and yet it remains somewhat inexplicable."

The author and host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS," spoke to CNN Tuesday. Here is an edited transcript:

CNN: What was behind the attack on the South Korean warship?

Fareed Zakaria: The truth is that North Korea is such a strange and strangely governed place that no one really knows. There are some reports that they were trying to manufacture a crisis, there are some reports that it might be factionalism within North Korea, but the truth of the matter is that no one really knows. ...

CNN: How dangerous is this confrontation?

Zakaria: It's dangerous because it suggests that North Korea is acting in an unpredictable way. So far, North Korea has acted in repressive ways and aggressive ways and ways that we don't like -- but by and large you could understand the thought process behind it, which has often been one of blackmail, essentially -- that the North Koreans would make trouble, go down the nuclear path and rattle the cage, and in return would expect to be bought off. And that cycle is one that they have played out over a decade now.

What's strange about this is that it's not entirely clear what the purpose behind it is. This is genuinely irrational since I can't put together the logical process by which they would have arrived at this decision. And that's troubling because they are a nuclear-powered nation, they are in the middle of a very tense geopolitical situation with South Korea, China, Japan and the United States all having stakes in the stability of north Asia.

CNN: Hillary Clinton has been very outspoken in urging North Korea to reveal what it knows about the sinking of the warship. Do you think she's taking the right stance on this?

Zakaria: I think she is, because the behavior does seem to cross a line, and the North Koreans have to understand that it is not business as usual after they do something like this. What has been particularly productive has been to see that the United States and South Korea are entirely on the same side on this.

In the past, there has been considerable tension between South Korea and the United States on how to handle North Korea. While, broadly speaking, both countries have seen it as a problem, there have been times South Korea wanted a much softer policy than Washington has wanted and that has caused its own complications. In this case, the United States and South Korea are united in wanting to send North Korea a very strong signal that they really have crossed a line here.

CNN: And what about the role that China is playing?

Zakaria: That, to me, is the greatest mystery of this whole puzzle. So China is the country that everyone understands has the most influence with North Korea. It supplies North Korea with most of its energy, a very large amount of its food, and probably other forms of aid which it's a little less easy for outsiders to know about.

The Chinese have been pretty straight, as far as we can tell, with the North Koreans in saying that they really wanted one thing out of them which was some degree of stability and predictability. "Just don't rock the boat" seems to have been the Chinese mantra. And in return for that, we will not press too hard for the denuclearization of North Korea, we will not try regime change and we will protect you in the Security Council...

And here we are with North Korea doing something that seems highly unlikely to have been sanctioned by the Chinese. It clearly made the Chinese uncomfortable, and it raises important questions about what the nature of that relationship is, and frankly about Chinese foreign policy more broadly.

CNN: Is there a connection between's China's call for moderation in dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue and in dealing with the North Korea issue?

Zakaria: The Chinese basic view, whether of North Korea or Iran, is don't rock the boat, don't do anything that would cause disruption, or unpredictable change, because the way the Chinese see it, they're managing the world's most fast-moving but complicated economy. The last thing they need is some kind of abrupt change.

But here's the dilemma. If China is going to play a larger role in the region, in Asia, what does it say when the country they have the maximum influence on -- they have really one vassal state and that is North Korea -- and if they can't get the North Koreans to toe the line on what is a very reasonable request, what does it say about China's ability to conceive of a foreign policy, enact it, and contribute to regional stability? And I'm not talking about Chinese intentions, which may be perfectly fine.

But is China able to exert itself in foreign policy terms? Does it have the capacity, does it have the diplomatic skills? What is going on in that relationship between China and North Korea and why has it clearly not worked out the way the Chinese would have liked? The Chinese cannot be happy about what's happened here and it will be very interesting to see what they do about it.