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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

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