China can’t control North Korea so stop asking it to try

But over time, China’s lack of real influence has become clearer and clearer, no matter what Crowley or McCain might think. Rather than exerting leverage, China has been played for a fool, revealing that China is not yet ready for the great power status to which it aspires. Over and over, Kim has apparently offered just enough reforms to convince China that he might be on the road to real change, but then pulled back after winning new tranches of aid, embarrassing Beijing yet again. And when China uses its diplomatic leverage to defend Pyongyang at the United Nations, or in the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, held in Beijing, Pyongyang often seems to go out of its way to embarrass its benefactor…

Ultimately, the only real leverage China has is to force the whole North Korean system to collapse, since attempts to use subtle pressure have allowed Kim to take advantage of Beijing. A total Chinese withdrawal of food and fuel aid might indeed trigger instability in the North, which has virtually no other trading partners —at least for legal exports—now that South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak has shut down much of the commerce which existed under his predecessor’s “sunshine policy.” (The North also specializes in exporting counterfeit currency, nuclear expertise, missiles, etc.) China has long feared the implications of using the only real leverage it has, but as the Wikileaks cables reveal, perhaps Kim Jong Il has finally played Beijing one time too many. In another tranche of the cables, Chinese officials admit that they are now willing to see North and South Korea reunited, and that Beijing is not looking to prop up Pyongyang after Kim Jong Il, who is reportedly very ill, passes away. As one Chinese commentator recently wrote in the prominent online publication Caijing, “Why do we still help North Korea?” Because if China keeps helping Pyongyang, it’s only going to get fooled again.