China’s Whip Hand

China holds the whip hand on North Korea. If the Chinese agreed to halt food and oil shipments to Pyongyang unless Kim Jong Il’s regime dismantled its nuclear weapons program, they could bring about the end of the program. But Beijing seems more worried about bolstering its place in the international order than about a nuclear neighbor that could funnel the deadliest weapons to terrorists and lead to proliferation across North Asia.

This week, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, said the government would not take the “strong-arm tactic” of halting economic aid to North Korea. In that case, Beijing should come up with an alternative to push North Korea back to talks with China, the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia. North Korea has boycotted the talks for nearly a year, giving it time to continue to extract plutonium and build nuclear weapons.

China’s recalcitrance gives the Bush administration a perfect record for its North Korea policy for the last year: It’s 0-2. It continues to rule out direct talks with Pyongyang, except as part of the six-nation discussions. And its plan to get China to use its leverage to bring North Korea back to the table now looks doubtful.

It’s true, as the administration says, that there’s no guarantee North Korea would live up to an agreement. But getting International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back into the country is vital. The U.S. says North Korea worked to enrich uranium even while the inspectors were there. That may be true -- though China says it’s doubtful -- but the inspectors, along with U.S. policy, kept Pyongyang from using plutonium for nuclear weapons for years. That changed when North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003, soon after expelling the inspectors.

The 20th century saw the Chinese endure colonialism, Japanese invasion and World War II, a civil war and periodic internal upheavals spearheaded by Mao Tse-tung. China required decades to recover after his death in 1976; the government killed more of its people at Tiananmen Square in 1989. But since then Beijing has become more assertive militarily and diplomatically, building up its army and navy and sending engineers and business people around the globe to deliver -- and bring back -- expertise and material that have helped fuel its booming economy.


The new century finds a country aiming to wield its influence in Asia and beyond. But great powers take on great responsibilities. It’s not enough for China to bask in its increased prosperity at home and exploit its newfound power abroad, scaring Taiwan and threatening to use its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council to veto sanctions. China need no longer worry that it is taken seriously. It is. Now it needs to act that way, including pressuring North Korea to yield on its nuclear weapons plans.