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China can't fix North Korea, so don't ask it to try.

As the North Korea crisis spirals into its second week, and seemingly out of control, many American policymakers and pundits agree on one thing: China needs to do something about Pyongyang. “China is not behaving as a responsible world power,” Senator John McCain told CNN.  “They could bring the North Korean economy to their knees if they wanted to.”  State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley  echoed that sentiment, saying that “China does have influence with North Korea and we would hope and expect that China will use that influence.”

But in reality, China’s leverage over North Korea is far more limited than it often appears. China’s strategy has been to demonstrate to Kim Jong Il that he could copy Beijing’s economic reforms without losing his grip on political power, while simultaneously using multilateral talks—and occasional demonstrations of Chinese pressure—to show other countries that Beijing is committed to a peaceful resolution of the Korean crisis.

Yet none of these strategies is working for Beijing. It has failed to convince Kim to copy its modernizing reforms, and it has failed to convince the outside world it is taking any meaningful steps to pressure Pyongyang. Instead, like nearly everyone else, China is getting played by the wily North, while taking fire from the world for its failures.

For years now, Beijing has been trying to get Kim Jong Il to copy some of its economic reforms—a strategy it has also used when dealing with the Burmese junta and other autocratic regimes. It has hosted Kim for visits to booming Shanghai and parts of southern China, where he could marvel at the pace of growth. Its officials have stressed to Kim, in private, that if he initiated economic reforms he might actually improve the stability of the North. And at times, Kim has appeared ready to adopt some of their recommendations: Earlier in the 2000s, Kim seemed to allow greater economic openness. Private markets sprang up across North Korea; products were more or less openly imported from China; and many Chinese merchants began crossing into North Korea to make significant fortunes.

While prodding Kim, China has taken pains not to push too hard. It pointedly did not criticize North Korea for sinking a South Korean naval vessel earlier this year, which killed more than 40 sailors.   And it has tried to water down U.N. resolutions sanctioning Pyongyang, while deflecting criticism of the North by highlighting Washington and Seoul’s military maneuvers off the coast of Korea. Beijing has also continued to deliver lifelines of fuel and food aid to the North,  which have helped preserve Kim’s regime, since much of the food likely went to the military.

China’s concerns are, of course, that an implosion of the Kim regime would lead to a refugee outflow into the People’s Republic and a movement of American troops up to the Chinese border. Beijing also always wants to defend the principle of sovereignty in international affairs, since it does not want other countries criticizing China’s own rights abuses.

But over time, China’s lack of real influence has become clearer and clearer, no matter what Crowley or McCain might think. Rather than exerting leverage, China has been played for a fool, revealing that China is not yet ready for the great power status to which it aspires. Over and over, Kim has apparently offered just enough reforms to convince China that he might be on the road to real change, but then pulled back after winning new tranches of aid, embarrassing Beijing yet again. And when China uses its diplomatic leverage to defend Pyongyang at the United Nations, or in the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program, held in Beijing,  Pyongyang often seems to go out of its way to embarrass its benefactor.

Indeed, after initially allowing some economic openness, in recent years Kim has slammed the door on reforms, cracking down on private markets and forcing North Koreans and even foreign merchants operating in the country to convert their foreign currencies to the worthless North Korean won, costing them huge sums of money.   (An obvious slap in the face to China.) Kim also seems to have kept China in the dark about many of the details of his nuclear program, so that Beijing winds up embarrassed when the United States uncovers them, as when Kim recently revealed his highly enriched uranium program to visiting American scientists. In the recently released Wikileaks cables, Chinese officials come off as uninformed about the state of the uranium program, telling their American counterparts it was only “in an initial phase.”  In another cable, Chinese officials’ knowledge of plans for North Korean succession appears minimal.  In yet another, a Chinese ambassador admits to his American counterpart that their efforts to pressure North Korea to negotiate with the rest of the world “had had no effect.”  

China can at least take solace in the fact that it has plenty of company. For nearly two decades, North Korea has pulled the same kind of games with South Korea, Japan, and the United States—agreeing to halt and open up its nuclear program, or at least to discuss it at multilateral forums, in exchange for economic and food aid. Foreign officials would trumpet these breakthroughs as signs that, with the right incentives, North Korea would change, and would potentially give up its nukes. Jimmy Carter is still writing op-eds and giving talks  about the deal he made back in 1994,   which fell apart when it became obvious that Pyongyang had simply ignored its promises in the agreement and continued with a clandestine nuclear program. A decade later, the Bush administration touted their six-party talks, including North Korea, as a sign that Pyongyang was willing to discuss its nuclear program, to come to the table and potentially give up the nukes, for the right incentives. But again Pyongyang flouted the deal, and instead it has now built an enriched uranium program. By this point, it should be obvious that Pyongyang has no interest in disarmament.

Ultimately, the only real leverage China has is to force the whole North Korean system to collapse, since attempts to use subtle pressure have allowed Kim to take advantage of Beijing. A total Chinese withdrawal of food and fuel aid might indeed trigger instability in the North, which has virtually no other trading partners —at least for legal exports—now that South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak has shut down much of the commerce which existed under his predecessor’s “sunshine policy.”   (The North also specializes in exporting counterfeit currency, nuclear expertise, missiles, etc.) China has long feared the implications of using the only real leverage it has, but as the Wikileaks cables reveal, perhaps Kim Jong Il has finally played Beijing one time too many. In another tranche of the cables, Chinese officials admit that they are now willing to see North and South Korea reunited,  and that Beijing is not looking to prop up Pyongyang after Kim Jong Il, who is reportedly very ill,   passes away.  As one Chinese commentator recently wrote in the prominent online publication Caijing,  “Why do we still help North Korea?”  Because if China keeps helping Pyongyang, it’s only going to get fooled again. 

Joshua Kurlantzick is a special correspondent for The New Republic and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thanks also to Elizabeth Economy.

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