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Parsing the North Korean Threat

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As North Korea's enfant terrible Kim Jong-un continues to rattle nerves from Seoul and Tokyo to Wall Street and Washington, its useful to understand these essential truths about the latest in a long line of Korean peninsula crises.

For starters, North Korea's latest threat takes it place in a long line of attempts to extort aid and concessions from South Korea and the United States. Such extortion -- often successful in the past -- has become such an oft-repeated pattern that it once prompted Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to lament at having to "buy the same horse twice."

Of course, the big difference between past extortion attempts and this one is the rapid development of North Korea's missile and nuclear programs. Both programs, not coincidentally, are advancing at the same rate as Iran's.

To be clear here, neither Iran nor North Korea would have this nuclear warfare capability without China's provision of the necessary equipment, expertise, and technology. Left unchecked, this nuclear capability will threaten not just Asia but also the United States.

To be equally clear, China is the only nation with the unilateral ability to shut down North Korea's war machine -- and shut up its dictator-in-chief. China keeps North Korea (barely) afloat by providing the Kim regime with the food and fuel it needs to prevent mass starvation and total economic collapse. Withdrawal of that aid would destroy the regime; ergo, the credible threat of withdrawal of that aid would shut Kim up.

China has thus far refused to rein North Korea in for two reasons. Most obviously, it fears a unified Korean peninsula would inevitably tilt towards the coalition of Asian nations the U.S. is building to "contain" a rising China. That would leave a formidable adversary on a key border.

More subtly, China has successfully used its influence with North Korea as a bargaining chip on both economic and human rights issues. The diplomatic understanding between Beijing and Washington, developed by Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner during the first term of the Obama Administration -- is that Washington won't raise humans rights issues with China or crack down on mercantilist practices like currency manipulation if Beijing cooperates on national security issues like the nuclearization of Iran and North Korea.

The pistol shot in Sarajevo that triggered World War I should remind us that war could break out on the Korean peninsula even if that is not Kim's intention. All it might take in an atmosphere of heightened tensions is a minor skirmish that escalates into a full-scale attack. Hence, Seoul and the Pentagon must be as cool and calm as Kim and his rhetoric are hot.

The flood of Chinese troops into Korea during the 1950s Korean War should likewise remind us to tread cautiously. China entered that war because General Douglas MacArthur, in defiance of President Truman, pursued fleeing North Korea troops right up to the Chinese border. The tragedy is that what could have been a very quick and contained conflict mushroomed into a prolonged battle of superpowers.

In the final analysis, as long as China continues to feed, clothe, and arm regimes like North Korea and Iran, the world will face these kinds of destabilizing nuclear-tipped crises. This is the time for China to stand up so that North Korea (and Iran) will stand down. Once the atoms collide, there can be no winners.

Peter Navarro is a business professor at the University of California-Irvine and director of the documentary film
Death By China.