Like clockwork, just days after another North Korean provocation, the press begins reporting that this time, China is upset, for real, no kidding. The story at the moment is from the New York Times, headlined “Chinese Annoyance With North Korea Bubbles to the Surface,” asserting that an article critical of Pyongyang written by a retired, once-influential army general might represent a deeper current of thought in China about the dangers of continuing to support the Kim regime. In a country of 1.3 billion people, it would be shocking if there weren’t divergent views on just about everything, and even surprising if a few of those didn’t make their way into the state-controlled press. Yet this is a long way from saying that China is thinking of cutting North Korea loose, pulling the life support that has kept the Kim government alive as it continues to destroy what little remains of the country’s economy and comes ever closer to a miscalculation that could ignite conflict on the Korean peninsula.
To give a bit of perspective on how Western reporters and officials continue to hope for something that just ain’t happening, a few headlines from recent years: “China Frustration With North Korea Offers Hope for U.S.” appeared in June 2013, and a few months before that it was “China’s Anger at North Korea Overcomes Worry About U.S. Stealth Flights,” while “China’s Anger at North Korea Test Signals Shift” came out way back in May 2009. Those are just a few of the pieces asserting that ties were cooling between Beijing and Pyongyang and that Washington could soon see a major shift in China’s attitude.
The hope each time, fed by ever-optimistic U.S. government officials, who would regularly share the same sentiments in off-the-record meetings in Washington, was that maybe now we could turn to Beijing to start putting real pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear program, curb its missile launches, and in general stop acting crazy. That is why we still see stories such as “U.S. Approaches China in Effort to Respond to North Korean Hacking,” in which a “senior U.S. official” states that “we have discussed this issue with the Chinese to share information, express our concerns about this attack, and to ask for their cooperation.”
If such senior U.S. officials are playing a psy-ops game, and maybe sending some unsettling threats to Pyongyang through Chinese intermediaries — such as “We’re going to empty your bank accounts” — then we should applaud their Machiavellian finesse. However, if they are talking to Beijing with a straight face, which is more likely the case, then they are living in some version of the Matrix, where they have not yet taken the red pill. Maybe a simpler analogy is Lucy and the football. Normally, it’s the North Koreans who pull the football away from our negotiators, but in this case, we’re setting the ball up ourselves and all but asking the Chinese to yank it away as we hurtle down the field of international cooperation at full speed. I mean, if you’re Chinese president Xi Jinping, or his underlings, what else are you going to say to the gullible Americans but “Of course we hear your pain, and believe me, we are here to help”?
That is not to say the Chinese aren’t worried by just how insane Kim Jong-un may well be, seeing that he pulled a Godfather-style family dinner on his uncle last year — an uncle who just happened to be until that moment the power behind the throne and China’s main conduit into the Bizarro world of North Korea. But the bigger picture hasn’t changed. Beijing is essentially receiving an in-kind donation from the United States thanks to the stalemate with North Korea: tens of thousands of U.S. troops tied down every year on the Korean peninsula, costing us millions of dollars and requiring thousands of hours of government work on all levels. It’s a waste of resources that Beijing could hardly hope to get us to do otherwise. The Chinese have no incentive to help us “solve” the North Korean problem, since that would release a not insignificant amount of U.S. strength to focus on China’s own moves to extend their control through much of Asia’s strategic waters.
Actually, I don’t think American officials are that desperate, self-delusional, or amateurish. However, they cannot break out of their dialogue dependency trap, either with North Korea, which has led to two decades of broken agreements, or with China, where they cannot but think that keeping open the lines of communication somehow gets us closer to our goals. If so, then the hundreds (thousands?) of man-hours of chitchat with our Chinese friends should have resulted in a North Korea that is busy stuffing Christmas sack with toys for tots and, oh, closing down its concentration camps and turning off the thousands of nuclear centrifuges spinning 24/7 making little juche nukes.
No, as attractive as the prospect of engaging in meaningful diplomatic dialogue with our Chinese partners is, the signal we send is one of being both helpless and clueless: helpless in that we have no North Korea policy in Year Six of the Obama administration (which may almost be better than the disaster of the Bush years) and clueless in that we somehow think that we’re showing just how responsible we are by diplomatically engaging North Korea’s major supporter, which has no interest in any type of lessening of tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.
The problem is that North Korea has just opened up a whole new, and much more dangerous, chapter in state-sponsored terrorism. American companies are at direct risk, self-censorship has already been adopted, and there is still no American response, as we seem to have been caught with our pants down once again. That augurs for a lot more cyber terrorism in the coming years while we are busy paying courtesy calls on our Chinese friends who are, this time, really, really angry with North Korea. Trust us.
— Michael Auslin is a frequent contributor to National Review Online.