Paralyzed by Pyongyang

Why China Lets North Korea Wag the Dog, and How to Make It Stop

A North Korean soldier covers his ears after snowfall along the banks of the Yalu River, near the North Korean Sakchu County, December 17, 2014. Jacky Chen / Reuters

In 2003, Chinese premier Hu Jintao turned off North Korea’s oil supply for three days to signal his displeasure over North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s nuclear policy, forcing North Korean officials to sit down with Americans for talks in Beijing. The talks ultimately went nowhere, but at least Hu had taken a stand and used China’s considerable economic leverage to try to prevent a bad situation from getting dramatically worse.

Hu’s successor, Xi Jinping, has done no such thing. He has made no secret of his unhappiness with Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un, who has repeatedly and flagrantly defied United Nations resolutions on nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests. He is presumably all the unhappier because of Kim’s in-your-face sense of timing (the latest test fell on one of China’s most important holidays, the eve of the Lunar New Year). But so far, he has done nothing about it, and no one expects him to. Commentators in China have been scathing, openly calling Kim’s behavior humiliating. Sixty-six percent of Weibo users who took an online poll (which Chinese censors quickly blocked) expressed support for U.S. military action against North Korea, with only 18 percent opposed.

Xi is not known for his tolerance of opposition or disrespect, so his current deer-in-the-headlights routine on North Korea seems doubly odd. The standard explanation for his caution and reticence is that China cannot afford to do anything that might destabilize the Kim regime. Were North Korea to implode, China would face a flood of desperate refugees (most of whom would prefer to flee south to South Korea rather than north to China but cannot because of the two-and-a-half-mile-wide band of landmines, fences, and razor wire separating North and South Korea). More frightening than refugees, China might also face American military forces right on its border in a newly-united Korea. The status quo—uncomfortable as it is—seems vastly preferable from the perspective of China’s

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