Review & Outlook

China’s North Korean Backfire

Seoul deploys new U.S. defenses as Beijing won’t stop its client.


Groundhog Day was last week, but North Korea’s ballistic-missile test on Sunday may have you feeling you’ve seen this one before. First the weeks of rumors, then the launch, next the emergency session at the United Nations—and then nothing. The pattern will continue until the U.S. stops running its North Korea policy through Beijing.

Chinese leaders are supposed to be piqued by Kim Jong Un’s rogue behavior, but they’re as unwilling as ever to impose serious sanctions or cut supplies of fuel, arms, luxury goods and other Kim needs. They also don’t seem too worried that this latest test, which U.S. sources say put a satellite in orbit, means the North is closer to being able to hit the U.S. with a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile.

Not that the Obama Administration seems all that serious either. Though President Obama calls North Korea “the most sanctioned” nation on Earth, he’s wrong. The U.S. lists Iran and Burma as countries of primary money-laundering concern, a designation it doesn’t apply to Pyongyang despite its counterfeit-currency racket. The U.S. has applied harsher human-rights sanctions against Congo and Zimbabwe, never mind the tens of thousands of political prisoners in Pyongyang’s labor camps.

Treasury Department officials have argued for stronger measures, on the model of the highly effective sanctions the U.S. imposed on Macau’s Banco Delta Asia in 2005 that forced banks to suspend business with Pyongyang. But National Security Adviser Susan Rice has opposed the move for fear of upsetting U.S. relations with Beijing.

The House last month overwhelmingly passed the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, mandating action against entities and individuals tied to illicit weapons programs, luxury-goods imports, counterfeiting and drug trafficking. The White House has hinted that it doesn’t oppose the bill, and the President might sign it if it passes the Senate. But the bill’s effectiveness depends on the Administration’s willingness to squeeze North Korean financing by punishing the Chinese banks through which the Kim regime moves its money.

The good news is that the launch has finally prompted South Korea to agree to deploy the U.S.-built Thaad missile-defense system, which is a significant upgrade from current anti-missile batteries and will integrate with U.S. and Japanese defenses in the region. Seoul had been reluctant to deploy Thaad because China opposes it. But this is a good example of how Beijing’s refusal to control its client state is backfiring on its strategic goal of pushing the U.S. out of East Asia.

China isn’t likely to squeeze its client unless it sees the U.S. and its allies doing more to isolate the North on their own. Such a policy would seek to end the regime through sweeping financial sanctions that prevent the Kim family from financing the tools of their tyranny, from weapons to whiskeys, and that impose stiff penalties on their enablers abroad. The strategy of begging China has been a failure.

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