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It's Not About North Korea

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In the international scheme of things, North Korea is undoubtedly the proverbial problem child lashing out to capture the parents' attention. And as with most miscreant children, the crux of the problem is not so much the child as it is the enabling parent -- which in this case is surely China. The aftermath of the Hermit Kingdom's nuke test this week (and now two more missile launches) saw theories aplenty as to Kim Jong-Il's motives and intent, as if solving that puzzle will solve the problem itself. But as more senior US diplomats now reluctantly acknowledge, altering China's posture (namely, its seemingly unconditional economic ambitions) must be a prerequisite for realizing any real improvement in North Korea. Indeed, China's prompt criticism of the North Koreans this time around, departing from its precedent of remaining mum, bodes well. But, the now-pertinent question is whether action will follow words.

Thus China is the variable to watch in this geopolitical equation, not North Korea.

China, despite its size and complexity, has a problem with tunnel-vision. Business and politics often remain mutually exclusive because, in post-Deng China, GDP growth trumps all -- business is business. And for their part, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are loyal guardians of this controversial legacy, which has on occasion been the subject of international obloquy, especially in cases like Darfur. China sees a nuke-armed Kim Jong-Il not as a geopolitical time bomb (literally and figuratively) but, rather, as the bubblegum in the dam holding back millions of potential starving refugees who could flood the border during a political shift. Moreover, China is far and away North Korea's biggest trade partner, accounting for $2.8 billion last year.

North Korea's acts of brinksmanship -- such as when it test-fires Taepodong-2 missiles across Japan's bow or conducts test nuclear detonations -- are perennially met by the United States and China with an uncoordinated, de facto 'good-cop-bad-cop' routine. The problem with this, however, is the "uncoordinated" part. The 'good cop' in this scenario is more like the problem child's 'good parent' who constantly undermines punitive action by the stricter party, rather than a classic 'good cop' who tricks the perp into dropping his guard. The obvious result is that the child becomes a miserable brat who knows just which buttons to push and still get away with it.

Compounding this problematic situation further is China's increased international clout, stemming from the financial crisis. The United States is no longer in any position to issue ex cathedra demands to the PRC, given that China owns $700 billion in US treasury bonds and is a necessary player in addressing climate change. This fact is highlighted in both Secretary of State Clinton's and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's unwillingness to speak out on Chinese human rights offenses, despite that both women have been abundantly vocal on these issues in the past.

Moreover, China is speaking out more and more on a global scale to solidify its newfound prestige. Chinese officials have called for a new international reserve currency, and its $586 billion domestic stimulus package -- which proportionally exceeds even the Obama administration's $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- sets an impressive example by any measure.

Although many news sources are emphasizing North Korea's recent nuclear test as a "3:00 A.M." moment for President Obama, it is just as much the case for China as it grows into its nascent international role. Western Nations, Japan and South Korea will call for increased UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea; and more diligent participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative (a global co-op instituted under the Bush administration after a North Korean vessel was found transporting Scud missiles to Yemen), much to the North Koreans' chagrin. These are all vitally important efforts that have been stymied in the past by Russia, and more notably China, but that must be addressed eventually from a global security standpoint. China needs to be convinced that these measures do indeed align with its interests.

Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass, speaking on MSNBC's Morning Joe Tuesday, intimated that China would have to be 'scared' into changing its position. Or in other words, if the US and other regional players choose to escalate their actions against North Korea, China may eventually be forced to get on board, lest the regional strife spill over or affect them economically. China, through its tunnel vision, will not take the necessary action against North Korea until such action makes business sense.

Altering China's diplomatic position towards North Korea would yield dividends far beyond the scope of the current mess. For one, Chinese diplomacy will play an integral role in the case of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two US journalists working for Al Gore who were detained in North Korea and will stand trial June 4 for "their suspected hostile acts." Given Kim's belligerence this week, Ling and Lee's prospects for freedom appear ever more dismal. Analogous to the Roxana Saberi case in Iran, the North Koreans will surely not let their political hostage situation go to waste.

As North Korea closes itself off to the outside world even more -- as indicated by its recent cancellation of the Kaesong industrial zone deal with South Korea -- China's unique role as an interlocutor will become even more necessary. Whether it will continue to act as the coddling parent seems more pertinent now than any other temper tantrums from the Hermit King. Indeed, North Korea's actions this week are actually the only non-variables in this entire equation.

Around the Web

The China-North Korea Relationship - Council on Foreign Relations

International Crisis Group - China and North Korea: Comrades Forever?

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