No country has more influence over the rogue state of North Korea than China, which provides it with food, fuel and access to vital trade routes. Yet when North Korea conducted its fifth and most powerful nuclear weapons test on Friday — underscoring once again the failure of international efforts to halt the nuclear program — Beijing's response amounted to pap.
In a statement, the Chinese foreign ministry expressed "strong opposition" to the test and reaffirmed its commitment to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. The foreign minister urged North Korea to "stop escalating" its provocative behavior and abide by U.N. resolutions that forbid nuclear tests.
Although China six months ago gave critical support for the toughest nuclear-related economic sanctions ever imposed on North Korea by the U.N. Security Council, recent reports from the border region show that trade continues and may even be booming because China has left open big loopholes. Researchers have found that the North's ability to procure components for its weapons program has actually improved.
Beijing has long resisted severe sanctions, fearing they could lead to the collapse of the North and to a unified Korean Peninsula dominated by South Korea, a U.S. ally. Some experts have suggested that Kim Jong Un, North Korea's leader, conducted the test because he had no reason to fear Chinese retaliation.
So now China's ambivalence has led to this crisis: North Korea has enough fissile material for perhaps as many as 21 nuclear bombs and, after a flurry of missile tests, is approaching the day when it can produce a warhead small enough to fit on a missile and threaten the United States as well as U.S. allies in the region.
With each advance of the North's nuclear capability, the solution to the threat gets harder and more elusive. For a long time, it was widely assumed that North Korea pursued nuclear weapons to ensure its survival as a state. Now, some experts suspect that Kim is preparing to fight and win a limited nuclear war.
It was because of this growing threat that the United States and South Korea agreed recently to deploy a U.S.-made advanced missile defense system in South Korea to protect against a North Korean attack. That decision, which has angered China, makes it harder for Americans and the Chinese to cooperate on North Korea.
On Friday, President Barack Obama called for vigorous implementation of existing sanctions and the imposition of new ones. It's hard to be optimistic. Success will depend on China's cooperation in cutting off trade to the North. That is unlikely, even though it should be obvious to Beijing that allowing North Korea's nuclear program to continue is a real threat to China and its interests in the region. The United States has its own options, like working with allies to block shipping in and out of North Korea or cutting off access to banks, but such steps would pose their own risks.
Beyond sanctions, any lasting solution will almost certainly require some kind of negotiations, though Republicans in Congress are certain to resist such a move. The Kim government issued a statement in July that some viewed as an overture for starting talks. Most experts say the only realistic goal at this point is a halt to the North's nuclear and missile testing, not an abandonment of the entire program. Since far too little has been done to contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions in the past decade, this accelerating threat will require the urgent attention of Obama's successor.