Every once in a while the left-wing elites at The New York Times experience a spasm of moral clarity. “North Korea stains the record of President Obama, who took office promising to make ridding the world of nuclear weapons a priority,” its editors sheepishly admitted this week, following North Korea’s claim to testing a hydrogen bomb. “Its actions are a humiliation for President Xi Jinping of China, North Korea’s only ally, largest trading partner and economic lifeline for food and oil.”
Right on both counts.
North Korea’s belligerence has bedeviled both Republican and Democratic administrations. President Clinton’s naive 1994 treaty to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program merely gave the regime diplomatic cover to develop it. During the Bush administration, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and conducted its first nuclear weapons test.
Yet Pyongyang has ratcheted up its aggressive behavior during the Obama years. Here’s a sampling: In 2009 North Korea staged its second illegal nuclear test. In 2010 the regime sank a South Korean warship, in an unprovoked attack, killing 46 seamen. In 2012 the government tested a long-range Taepodong-2 missile; the test failed. Later that year, it announced it had missiles that could hit the U.S. mainland. In 2013 the regime staged its third nuclear test, said to be more powerful than the 2009 test. Later that year, over the course of a weekend, North Korea launched four short-range missiles. In 2014 the regime test-fired two medium-range ballistic missiles for the first time in five years.
The regime’s latest act of nuclear brinkmanship has triggered the predictable round of international criticism. Even White House press secretary Josh Earnest, who has a complicated relationship with the truth, confessed: “The fact that we see provocative acts from North Korea is an indication we are not getting the results we’d like to see yet.”
The Chinese seem increasingly frustrated with North Korean behavior. China “firmly opposes” the nuclear test, according to Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry. “China is steadfast in its position that the Korean Peninsula should be denuclearized and nuclear proliferation should be prevented to maintain peace and stability in Northeast Asia…We strongly urge the DPRK to honor its commitment to denuclearization, and to cease any action that may deteriorate the situation.”
But that’s not going to happen—thanks largely to China, North Korea’s perennial patron.
Beijing continues its role as the geo-political savior of North Korea, providing the regime with much of its food, arms, and energy. According to UNICEF, a quarter of its population—about six million people—do not have enough to eat. Without Chinese support, the economically decrepit North Korea would be pushed over the brink of starvation.
There are deep, historic ties between these two communist states. When, in 1950, North Korea invaded the South (the Republic of Korea), it was driven back by American and U.N. forces. As U.S. troops pushed into North Korea, Beijing came to the rescue: the Chinese launched a massive, surprise offensive that kept the North Korean military alive. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers perished in the Korean War, including the son of Chinese leader Mao Zedong, killed in a U.N. napalm strike and buried in Pyongyang. The leaders in Beijing also crave stability, and have viewed North Korea as a buffer between China and U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and Japan.
But the regime of Kim Jon Un, and his psychotic cult of personality, is anything but stable. China has propped up its Frankenstein monster for nearly seventy years, and can no longer control it.
What force on earth could change North Korea’s behavior, or cause it to give up its nuclear program? Will China finally act to bring the monster to heel? The oracles at The New York Times, in the same editorial, offer this counsel: “China is understandably concerned that really tough economic penalties would cause people to flee North Korea for China,” they write. “But even smaller gestures like preventing Mr. Kim and his friends from importing whiskey and other luxury goods might have an impact.”
No more whiskey and caviar—yes, this will bring the nuclear-armed narcissist to his knees. As suggested above, the editors at the Times exhibited a spasm of moral clarity by chastising the White House and China for their failed policies toward Pyongyang. The thing about spasms, though, is that they don’t last very long.
Joseph Loconte is an Associate Professor of History at the King’s College in New York City and a senior editor at Providence. His most recent book is A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.
Photo Credit: via (stephen) on Flickr. North Korea—Pyongyang, Arirang (Mass Games)