North Korea and China have done it again – call it the Pyongyang-Beijing two-step. Though Beijing registered 'firm opposition' to North Korea's nuclear weapons test, it is unlikely to exercise its unique leverage on North Korea to encourage change.
Jon Chol Jin/AP
First, directly defying the international community, North Korea detonates a nuclear device Feb. 12. This was its third, just weeks after its provocative long-range rocket test. Both actions, like all its previous ones, violated UN Security Council resolutions. Pyongyang said it acted because of the "reckless hostility" of the United States.
Then China plays its ritualistic role, expressing its "firm opposition" to the test while calling on "all sides" to exercise restraint. But Beijing was quick this time to neuter even its moral condemnation of the North Korean regime’s behavior. An article in the Chinese government’s official news agency cited a North Korean military leader’s “determination to fight against the hostile policies of the United States and Japan with more powerful means.”
We will see what China does about proposed United Nations sanctions, but if it follows its past practice, it will water them down while going along just enough to maintain its pretense as a responsible international player.
We can be reasonably certain, however, that Beijing will not exercise its unique leverage as North Korea’s main supplier of fuel and food. Its rationale, echoed by many in the West, is that the mere threat of pressure would trigger Pyongyang’s collapse and send a flood of refugees across the border. That argument suggests that China cares more about the North Korean regime’s survival than the regime does itself.