Monday, July 13, 2009

China Gets Tough on North Korea

North Korea's best friend -- if the hermetic, authoritarian, communist state can be said to have any friends -- is giving it the cold shoulder. Bloomberg reports that China will, for the first time, agree to punish North Korean leaders in retaliation for Pyongyang's refusal to accept United Nations resolutions on nuclear tests and missile launches.

China has long defended North Korea, perhaps less out of ideological comradeship than out of what is believed to be a desire to keep a unified and likely pro-Western Korea off its borders. But that loyalty has cost the leadership in Beijing. "The failure to develop a consensus in the Chinese capital to use its leverage over North Korea has permitted [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong Il to repeatedly defy Beijing and the embarrass it," Gordon G. Chang told The Commonwealth Club on May 25, 2007. [Listen to audio of Chang's speech.]

Chang, author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World and columnist for, urged the West to make nuclear proliferation "a litmus test of our relations" with China. "The West has been patiently engaging the Chinese for decades, and now it's time for them to act responsibly."

So what has changed in Beijing? Some observers say that North Korea's recent nuclear detonations and missile tests, reportedly designed to bolster at-home support for Kim Jong Il's youngest son and chosen successor, embarrassed China so much it had to take action. But Leif-Eric Easley writes in the Christian Science Monitor that China's rapid development has led it to diverge from North Korea, its economic model taking it closer to Japan, the United States, and South Korea than to North Korea.

Whatever the reason, China's most recent move to help punish its client state is likely to have significant impact in Pyongyang.


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