Beijing could bring North Korea into line tomorrow—if it really wanted to.
Conventional wisdom says that if U.N. sanctions don't work, there is nothing to be done about North Korea's nuclear weapons—short of firebombing Pyongyang, thereby ensuring the obliteration of Seoul. Yet the problem of nuclear North Korea is not actually unsolvable, provided a certain very large superpower wants to solve it. There is one significant country, after all, that has the military, economic, and political power not only to pressure North Korea to discard its bomb but to topple its regime altogether.
That very large superpower is, of course, China. Despite recent expressions of shock and horror—the Chinese government claimed last week to be "totally opposed" to the North Korean bomb—China still has more ways to influence North Korea than any other member of the U.N. Security Council. For that matter, China has more ways to influence North Korea than all the members of the Security Council (and indeed the General Assembly) put together. Should China's leaders want to see the North Korean regime fall, after all, they don't need to play around with sanctions or blockades. Instead, they could cut off energy supplies to Pyongyang. Or food deliveries to Pyongyang. Or end all trade with Pyongyang.
Or, to make things even quicker and simpler, China could deploy the same tactic that once upon a time led to the collapse of East Germany: Instead of closing the 800-mile Chinese-North Korean border to goods, the Chinese could open it to people. According to U.S. government estimates, between 10,000 and 30,000 North Korean refugees have slipped across the border in recent years and now live illegally in China. According to some independent estimates, that number is closer to 300,000. Whatever the correct figure, it's clear that a lot more would join them if the Chinese weren't so vigilant about sending North Korean refugees back to face torture and imprisonment. Just this past week, while no one was paying much attention, China increased that vigilance, adding new barbed-wire fences and even deporting some local residents from the border region. One Chinese official apparently told a Hong Kong newspaper that the regime is girding itself to repulse a possible influx of 500,000 refugees. Were such a number really to flee, it could provoke the collapse of the regime.
But if it is within China's power to rescue or destroy Kim Jong-il, then how, exactly, did North Korea's nuclear-weapons program become in any sense the responsibility of the United States? Unlike Beijing, Washington has no diplomatic levers it can use in North Korea, no trade relations of any significance, and certainly no shared border. Yet the United States has been leading the effort to persuade the Security Council—of which China is a permanent member—to impose weak sanctions that probably won't have any impact at all.
I am, of course, playing devil's advocate here: I realize that the United States has long-standing obligations to Japan and that our half-century-plus presence on the Korean Peninsula has placed us at the center of this discussion. I understand our moral obligation to the South Koreans, too, even though many of them ceased to be grateful for our help a long time ago. At the same time, it still seems very odd that American diplomats have to shoulder the burden of a problem that they cannot solve—and odder still that they must do so on behalf of the one country that could solve it.
For not only is China the country with the most influence over North Korea, China also is, along with South Korea and Japan, one of the countries most under threat from North Korean nukes. After all, it is China, not the United States, that will be at the center of the new Asian arms race if Japan and South Korea feel compelled to get the bomb. It is China, not the United States, that would feel the effects of fallout if North Korea actually used its weapons. Although it isn't clear whether North Korean missiles can reach Hawaii, it's obvious that Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong are well within range. So, shouldn't this be China's problem, not ours?
It's not as if our involvement is without drawbacks or without implications for other American interests. Somehow or other, North Korea's acquisition of nukes has come to look like a U.S. diplomatic failure. Somehow or other, it is the Bush administration that is being blamed around the world for the latest explosion, not China, which props up the North Korean regime. Somehow or other, it's beginning to seem like another illustration of American impotence. It clearly isn't possible at this point to get up and walk away from this or any other nonproliferation issue. But next time, if there is a next time, maybe we should focus on pushing nonproliferation in countries or regions where we've got some leverage—a chance to influence the argument at the very least.
Cartoon by Jack Ohman. Photograph of Kim Jong-il on Slate's home page courtesy of Getty Images.