China sent a delegation to Pyongyang to solve the missile crisis, and after three days they solved the problem right?

Wrong.

The top US envoy on North Korea said that a crucial Chinese mission to Pyongyang to resolve the missile crisis had failed and that world powers now had to “regroup” before taking the next step.

The news delivers another setback to hopes that China — considered to have the most influence over the hermetic Stalinist state — might still be able to convince its neighbor to take a more conciliatory stance.

US envoy Christopher Hill said he himself would now return from his crisis tour of Asia to report to US President George W. Bush.

“Frankly we don’t see any progress,” the assistant secretary of state told the US network CNN from Beijing after being briefed on the mission by the Chinese.

Either China is playing a very deep game, or its influence in Pyongyang isn’t what it once was. Neither is a particularly comforting thought.

Hill says it’s time for the major involved powers to “regroup,” which assumes there’s a group. Reality is, there are two major factions and a pivot–the US and Japan on one side, China and Russia on the other, with South Korea as the pivot. The US and Japan want a UNSC resolution with teeth that could, after a few steps, lead to serious sanctions and/or military action. China and Russia want far less than that, basically a slap on the wrist. South Korea just doesn’t want artillery shells raining down on Seoul.

China and Russia are not only not supporting the Japanese resolution, they have introduced a competing one:

China and Russia introduced a resolution Wednesday deploring North Korea’s missile tests but dropping language from a rival proposal that could have led to military action against Pyongyang.

Japan and the United States welcomed the draft but said it had major deficiencies and they would still press for a Security Council vote on their resolution — though no date has been set.

The Japanese resolution’s supporters have delayed a vote to wait for the outcome of a high-level Chinese visit to North Korea which began on Monday.

That delegation is expected to finish up Friday.

China has confirmed it will veto the Japanese resolution if it’s put to a vote with its present language intact, an act that may reflect inter-Asian rivalry as much as anything else. But it’s one of those decisions that protects a dangerous rogue state until the free world can no longer tolerate that state’s actions and presence. In other words, it’s a very bad decision, which may paralyze the UN and lead directly to war.

China’s actions may also reflect fear: China does not want to vote for a resolution that may eventually draw both Japan and the United States into military strikes against its client on the Korean peninsula, and does not want the humanitarian crisis that will accompany that action of Kim is toppled. But that seems shortsighted; as the North Korea crisis drags on, Japan will keep edging toward re-arming, and the US will encourage that.

Russia seems to be doing what it can to complicate our lives, with a bank shot on Japan. World War II only officially ended between Russia and Japan a few years ago, and the two have been rivals for a hundred years. Japan emerged as a world power by defeating Russia in 1905. So much for seeing good in Putin’s soul.

The Bush administration is playing a very soft game right now, expressing pleasure that Russia and China have come up with a resolution even if it’s not satisfactory, and not pushing too hard for progress out of the Chinese delegation in Pyongyang. The truth is, and this is something most liberals need to get their heads around, the US has very few cards to play regardless of the administration’s politics. We aren’t North Korea’s chief benefactor, and we aren’t in its direct line of fire. North Korea isn’t really even our fight, at least insofar as its ability to strike us directly is quite limited. North Korea is chiefly a threat to South Korea and Japan; they’re our allies, and that’s the main reason we’ve been so deeply involved over the decades. Secondarily, we’re involved because North Korea will trade its nuclear and missile technology to anyone willing to pay for it, and that’s a risk we can’t let linger unattended. Hence, the PSI. The Chinese and Russian resolution does at least hint at support for that, though neither is officially a member and China has rattled against it a time or two.

Because we’re not North Korea’s most immediate target and have little contact with it, and because the other players include major powers, the Bush administration can’t compel anyone to do anything. No American administration could. We can work with our closest relevant ally, Japan, which isn’t satisfied at all with the current state of play:

Japan’s U.N. ambassador, Kenzo Oshima, the chief sponsor of that resolution, said the Chinese and Russian draft does not go far enough. “A quick glance at the text shows that there are very serious gaps on very important issues,” he said. “So we will study the text, but I believe it is going to be very difficult for us to accept that as it is.”

We can try to persuade China and Russia, but that’s only going to go so far. They tried to save Saddam from us, failed, and still resent it:

The effort to forge a unified response to North Korea’s tests has been complicated by the lingering resentment over the U.S. decision to go to war against Iraq without explicit Security Council resolution. Chinese and Russian diplomats have repeatedly noted that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has influenced their decisions not to support tough resolutions on Iran and North Korea.

That’s an excuse. Irresponsible powers China and Russia simply find states like North Korea too useful to let us destroy them, even when they slip their leashes and threaten the entire neighborhood. But in trying to save Pyongyang, they may be reprising the role that they and France played in 2002 and 2003. By giving Saddam a reason to think they would stop us at the UNSC, they all but guaranteed that he would not cooperate fully, which in turn guaranteed war.

But this is a war the US neither needs nor wants at the moment. Radical Islam is our primary threat and focus. Hence, if things continue on their present course arming Japan will become a popular counter to North Korea and a possible lever with which to move China and Russia, both of which historically fear a strong Japan. And with good reason: Japan tends to crush both in direct combat. The world has changed greatly since the last time Japan put troops on the Asian mainland, but for all their ideological turnover China and Russia really haven’t changed all that much while Japan has changed for the better. Both China and Russia tend to put disorganized rabble on the battlefield and neither have a great history of military leadership, while Japan would bring its legendary organization and skill to any fight. That it has been training with the US military for 60 years won’t slow Japan’s rise, either.

The Bush adminstration is right to pursue a unified strategy among the major players. But being right doesn’t always translate into getting things to go your way. We want peace and an end to the threat. If China and Russia insist on protecting Kim, we may get the latter at the expense of the former.