After each North Korean provocation, a soothing mantra echoes through the halls of government and think-tanks in the United States.
China, it is frequently said, could solve this seemingly unsolvable problem, finally reining in North Korea, if Beijing were just properly motivated. But this oft-repeated line contains three assumptions, none of which has held up well in recent years.
It assumes that outside pressure could persuade North Korea to curtail or abandon its weapons programmes. That China has the means to bring about such pressure. And that Beijing will do so once it is properly cajoled or coerced.
Each assumption has been tested repeatedly in recent years and, time and again, has collapsed. Yet three consecutive presidents — George W Bush, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump — have invested their hopes and their strategies in China coming to the rescue.
Asked whether this were possible, even in the abstract, Professor John Delury, from Yonsei University in Seoul, answered: “No, the Chinese can’t fix this for us.”
If China complied with every American request to cut trade, it could devastate North Korea’s economy, which especially relies on Chinese fossil fuels. But repeated studies have found that sanctions, while effective at forcing small policy changes, cannot persuade a government to sign its own death warrant. North Korea sees its weapons as essential to its survival, and tests as necessary to fine-tune them.
Mr Jeffrey Lewis, who directs an East Asia programme at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, called notions that China could impose costs exceeding the benefit North Korea draws from its weapons “sad and desperate”.
Imagine, Mr Lewis said, that you are Mr Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, and China turned against you, joining your enemies in pressuring you to disarm.
“The last thing you would do in that situation is give up your independent nuclear capability,” he said. “The one thing you hold that they have no control over. You would never give that up in that situation.”
When sanctions aim at forcing internal political change, they often backfire, hardening their targets in place.
In the 1960s, the US imposed a total embargo on its neighbour and one-time ally, Cuba. Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader, ruled for half a century, even surviving the loss of Soviet support. When Americans rage at Beijing for failing to toughen sanctions, Mr Lewis said: “The Chinese response is, ‘Because they’re not going to work.’ And the data is on their side.”
North Korea may be especially resistant to such pressure.
The Chinese, Professor Delury said, “can keep reducing their already minuscule trade and investment ties to North Korea, but it will not deflect Kim Jong-un because one thing the North Korean system is especially good at is absorbing pain”.
Even a total trade ban would impose less suffering than what North Korea has already proved it can endure.
In the 1990s, when Russian subsidies disappeared, a famine killed up to 10 per cent of North Korea’s population. But North Korea neither collapsed nor sought to end the crisis by opening up to the outside world.
Overriding its calculus, then, would require imposing costs greater than destruction or famine, but short of war, which would risk a nuclear exchange. That may be a Venn diagram with no overlap.
And North Korea, unlike Cuba, has nuclear weapons, which frees it to retaliate conventionally against what Castro merely endured.
In 2010, it shelled a South Korean island, killing four. It was also accused of sinking a South Korean Navy ship that year, killing 46. Its nuclear deterrent, now strengthened, allows it to act even more aggressively.
“Let’s say there’s a famine in North Korea that kills a million people,” Mr Lewis said, imagining, though not condoning, the harshest possible Chinese action. “Do we think North Korea doesn’t haul off and sink some ships?”
China’s reticence towards North Korea is often portrayed as a matter of will. Because Beijing is technically capable of inflicting harsher pain, it would do so if it cared enough.
But when Americans look at their own options, they understand that they are useful only if they can be used. The US could flatten Pyongyang overnight. But this would spark a conflict risking millions of Korean, Japanese and American lives.
Washington declines such an option because it is unusable, not for any lack of will.
China faces similar constraints, with drastic options risking unacceptable costs. In recent years, Beijing has tried to cut off trade or impose limited sanctions. These efforts have changed little or have backfired, with North Korea instead increasing its provocations, often timed to embarrass Beijing.
In these tit-for-tats, Pyongyang is demonstrating that, though the weaker state, it has greater leverage because it is willing to accept more risk.
North Korea has also laboured to limit Beijing’s diplomatic influence. It has purged officials thought to be sympathetic to China, including Mr Kim’s own uncle in 2013. This year, it killed Mr Kim’s brother, living in exile under Chinese protection. Though Mr Kim is at times openly hostile to Beijing, he is its only option.
Beijing may simply be trapped. Each North Korean provocation risks war on China’s border. It invites an American build-up in China’s backyard. And it pushes South Korea and Japan further into American arms.
Its sticks and carrots all having failed with North Korea, China worries that increasing pressure will cut off what little influence it has.
Americans might see parallels in their country’s own troubled alliances, particularly in the Middle East.
Egypt, for instance, regularly defies American demands, knowing that Washington will always come crawling back. So does Saudi Arabia, using the threat of a rupture in the relationship to pressure the US into supporting its disastrous war in Yemen.
Mr Lewis drew a parallel, if only in the mechanics of alliance politics, with Israel.
For decades, Washington has tried to persuade, induce or coerce Israel into altering its policies towards the Palestinians.
Israeli leaders accepted American aid, ignored US demands and, in shows of calibrated defiance, often announced new settlement construction on the eve of American visits.
To the outside world, American unwillingness to impose greater pressure looks like a lack of will. When US diplomats warn that more pressure would only deepen Israel’s calculus and sacrifice American influence, they are blamed for perpetuating the conflict.
For once, Americans can lob such accusations at another power. They have an obvious appeal, portraying the North Korea problem as someone else’s to solve.
“We’re going to blame the Chinese for stabbing us in the back instead of admitting that our policy was dumb,” Mr Lewis said, calling this “classic scapegoating”.
By Max Fisher
THE NEW YORK TIMES