Its been a game of nuclear blackmail ever since Kim Jong-Il first discovered that having nuclear weapons is a great way of pressuring the international community, South Korea and the United States to throw a lifeline to his ill-fated regime. The usual course of action: Do something truly terrifying, like say test a nuclear device, or fire a missile over Japan, or sink a South Korean frigate or go right at shelling South Korean villages. Surely, every single one of these actions would be an act of war. But since we are technically and legally at war with North Korea anyway, we are willing to pay them off to not do something too provocative (and did so since 1994, handing North Korea aid worth close to a billion dollar or when the United States gave Kim access to his 25 million bank account). So we pay them off to please not hurt anyone. Or at least not all the time. Or at least give us some breathing space in between to figure out what to do.
So what do we do? Not much really, but on this Sunday's State of the Union Senator John McCain made the one remark you'll have heard a thousand times. That the key to North Korea is China. Well, I have a hard time believing that. If China really had any leverage on North Korea they would have made use of it by now. Remember that it was China that supported the IAEA's referral of North Korea to the United Nations Security Council to send a strong message to Kim Jong-Il, at the risk of offending or at least antagonising allies such as Burma or the Sudan. They did so because loosing Beijing is probably the only thing we still can do to frighten North Korea. I might stress a point I've made earlier on this blog: China is pissed off with North Korea. When I visited Beijing last year, members of the Chinese security establishment pointed out that North Korea was behaving like a brattish school child that simply doesn't know how to behave itself. But it struck me that they had no idea on how to bring North Korea to terms with the international community, they were hoping for some sort of reform but had no plan B. So for all the talk we might hear on how China could be helpful, it might be worthwhile to remember that we should not overestimate the influence and leverage that China really holds on North Korea. It isn't that much really. And we should not give in to the illusion that just because China might be a rising superpower it also knows how to deal with Kim Jong-Il.