Bad News, World: China Can’t Solve the North Korea Problem

Asked whether this were possible, even in the abstract, John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, answered, “No, the Chinese can’t fix this for us.”

What China Can and Cannot Do

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.

Jeffrey Lewis, who directs an East Asia program 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 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 United States imposed a total embargo on its neighbor and onetime 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.”

A Venn Diagram With No Overlap

North Korea may be especially resistant to such pressure.

The Chinese, Mr. 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 percent 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…

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