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September 21, 2017

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Papa China should dock North Korea's allowance

This time things are different.

It's odd that Greece's debt gets more attention these days than Kim Jong Il's nuclear weapons. It may be a sign that the latest North Korea crisis will be the one that brings real change in the world's relationship with Pyongyang.

The only time it's more dubious to say "this time things are different" is when characterizing a Japanese recovery. Such an argument can lead to cliche and utopian thinking.

One reason to think this Korean incident is different is China. You don't have to be a fly on the wall in Beijing to know officials there are annoyed. Kim is a giant mosquito buzzing around their heads, threatening to sting at any moment. Merely swatting him away is no longer an option as the U.S., South Korea and United Nations demand that China rein in its ally.

This is a highly complicated dynamic for Kim's sugar daddy. China's key objective is to avoid a meltdown that would send millions of refugees its way. Kim also is a convenient way to preoccupy the U.S. Better ties between Washington and Pyongyang would cost China geopolitical influence in North Asia.

The benefits of triangulation are dwindling now that Kim may have thrown one tantrum too many. It began with an alleged North Korean torpedo that, according to an international report, sank the 1,200-ton Cheonan in March, killing 46 sailors.

'Rock Solid'

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak took his case to the United Nations Security Council, halted trade with his neighbor, barred any new investment in the country and banned North Korean ships from the South's waters. Visiting Seoul on May 26, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. commitment to South Korea's security was "rock solid."

All this puts China in an awkward position. It's perhaps plausible for China to argue its interests in Sudan don't afford it great influence there. It's not possible to say the same about North Korea. It's the main benefactor of the world's most isolated regime, which relies on China for aid, food and oil.

China should threaten to turn off this flow. It was entertaining in 2006, for example, when George W. Bush's administration moved to deprive Kim of his prized luxuries. No more Rolexes, Cadillacs, iPods, Harley-Davidsons or yachts. No more fur, wagyu beef, Jet Skis, cigars or Johnnie Walker scotch. It was clearly aimed at annoying the pampered tyrant.

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