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April 30, 2017

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The Trump White House has called China's bluff on North Korea

LONDON -- The Chinese government apparently worries that, as it puts it, "storm clouds are gathering" over the Korean Peninsula. If the United States and the two Koreas "let war break out, they must shoulder that historic culpability and pay the corresponding price," said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

But this Beijing warning, which implies that using force in order to prevent North Korea from becoming a full-fledged nuclear state remains unthinkable and suggests that the Chinese are merely innocent bystanders in this crisis, remains wrong at every level.

For the reality is that, far from being unthinkable, there are a variety of practical ways military force can be deployed to coerce North Korea; far from being irresponsible or "culpable," the current U.S. administration is acting with foresight by testing these options.

Either way, China is not just a mere observer or umpire at this lethal ping-pong match between the U.S. and North Korea. Beijing bears a large measure of responsibility for the present dangerous phase in this showdown and will not be able to escape its consequences.

Perpetual Insecurity

There are some tiresome, time-worn cliched arguments which constantly come up in any discussion about North Korea, and all need to be refuted.

The first is the claim — much favored by analysts in China — that the biggest problem is how to tame a trigger-happy U.S., which neither understands nor cares about North Korea's historic fears.

Nonsense. Four consecutive U.S. presidents have tried to engage with North Korea over the past three decades. If criticism can be levied at Washington, it is that successive American administrations neglected the threat by either concentrating on nuclear challenges from the Middle East, or by concocting grand concepts which merely hid lack of any action. Barack Obama's policy of "strategic patience" on North Korea was neither about patience nor about strategy.

The real problem is not American obduracy but a North Korean regime which understood — correctly, from its own perspective — that no security guarantee it can ever get from anyone will be as potent as that offered by its possession of nuclear weapons.

As Pyongyang sees it, being embraced by the world and being showered with consumer goods are just as dangerous and as potentially destabilizing to the Kim dynasty as isolation. So this is not a regime which has acquired nuclear weapons because it craves security, but one which wants to go nuclear because it believes that its survival depends on maintaining a perpetual state of insecurity.

Another myth that overshadows coherent discussion about dealing with North Korea is the argument that it is never too late to "give diplomacy a chance." In theory, that is of course correct. But as the case of North Korea indicates, the real question is when a decision must be made that diplomacy cannot work. For it is simply not true to say that wasting decades in fruitless diplomatic efforts is cost-free, since the time merely allowed Pyongyang to perfect its nuclear weapons.

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