President Trump has repeatedly claimed that China holds the keys to controlling North Korea’s increasingly belligerent behavior, specifically Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear and ballistic missile tests. Former chief strategist to the president Steve Bannon, in an interview with “60 Minutes” over the weekend, reiterated that the path to controlling Pyongyang runs through Beijing. But increasing, it’s looking as though outsized reliance on China to reign in its feisty neighbor may be a fool’s errand. And anyway, China probably has no interest in pushing North Korea to the breaking point.
Some now believe that North Korea may be just a few years away from fielding nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles capable of striking all of South Korea, Japan, and China — as well as most if not all of Russia and most of the U.S. At that point Kim will have closed the nuclear circle and have achieved what his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, and father, Kim Jong-il, set in motion. Any attempts to dislodge him from power, said to be one of his biggest fears, would come at a horrific, impossible-to-bear cost.
At present, analysts estimate that 85-90 percent of North Korean exports go to China. Similarly, North Korea imports about 80-85 percent of goods for its daily needs from China. So on the surface, it looks like China has all the economic leverage it needs to control North Korea. But over the course of the last half-dozen years, since current leader Kim Jong-un came to power, relations with Beijing have chilled considerably from their hey day when the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong proclaimed the two countries’ as “close as lips and teeth.” For one, Kim has never visited Bejing. Also, other high-level meetings between North Korean and Chinese officials have been sporadic and sparse. Finally, in spite of Chinese warnings, North Korea continues to provoke — South Korea, the U.S., and Japan — with ballistic missile tests and nuclear weapons development.
Add deteriorating relations to the belief among analysts that China simply has no desire to reign in North Korea and it becomes clear why Beijing may no longer hold the right cards anymore to control North Korean behavior.
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