A North Korean flag flies over boats in a Chinese shipyard along the Yalu River bordering the North Korea town of Sinuiju, in the Hailong village of Dandong, Liaoning Province, China. (How HweE Young/EPA)

Note: From time to time, The Fact Checker writes an analytical look at politics or diplomacy, rather than a traditional “fact check,” based on his experience in covering Washington and diplomacy. This is one of those columns.

“China’s leaders issued thinly veiled rebukes to North Korea for raising regional tensions, with the president saying no country should throw the world into chaos and the foreign minister warning that Beijing would not allow mischief on its doorstep.”

Reuters , April 8, 2013

“The Obama administration, detecting what it sees as a shift in decades of Chinese support for North Korea, is pressuring China’s new president, Xi Jinping, to crack down on the regime in Pyongyang or face a heightened American military presence in its region.”

The New York Times , April 6, 2013

The Holy Grail in North Korea diplomacy is getting China to put pressure on its long-time protege.

Perhaps the stars have finally aligned with a new Chinese president and young and untested North Korean leader. But recent history suggests that, once again, any Chinese movement will be frustratingly too incremental for U.S. officials — even though, in theory, China should have important leverage as North Korea’s biggest trading partner.

An interesting analysis by the Congressional Research Service shows that trade between China and North Korea almost doubled in the years immediately after its first nuclear test in 2006.

The Fact Checker closely covered diplomacy with North Korea during the Bush administration and the early days of the Obama administration. U.S. officials often expressed the hope that, this time, China would begin to take action against North Korea. But after a brief glimmer of success, the Chinese reverted to a favorite script — urging the United States to show “more flexibility” in negotiations.

As the Times article referenced above noted, “China has a history of frustrating the United States in its dealings with North Korea.”

In March 2003, for instance, unnamed diplomats in Asia were quoted in news reports as saying that China had shut down its pipeline for three days, supposedly to convince North Korea to attend three-nation talks in Beijing. The message was supposedly “get straight.”

But U.S. officials later came to doubt that the reported shutdown was related to nuclear diplomacy. Indeed, it soon came to light that China frequently ensured North Korea’s participation at nuclear talks by providing gifts — such as a new glass factory — rather than through coercive diplomacy.

In 2005, Chinese officials shot down a direct request from the United States to cut off North Korea’s supply of oil as a way of pressuring the government in Pyongyang to return to talks. A Chinese official archly noted that the U.S. had made a similar request in 2003. An article in The Washington Post noted:

With relations between Washington and Pyongyang at a nadir — North Korea labeled President Bush a “half-baked man” and a “philistine” last weekend — U.S. officials have increasingly turned to China to help bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. But China’s apparent reluctance to put additional pressure on Pyongyang, even though Chinese officials regularly complain about North Korean behavior, has deeply frustrated U.S. officials.

But then, after North Korea tested a nuclear device in 2006, U.S. officials once again said they sensed that China’s position had changed.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters that it was “very unusual and quite significant” that China, which has traditionally considered sanctions to be a violation of national sovereignty, supported a tough U.N. Security Council resolution punishing North Korea. “Thirty years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to get a Security Council resolution on North Korea, and when you get one it’s Chapter 7 [which calls for mandatory decisions], it’s 15 to 0 and China’s at the center of it. Not bad for a couple years’ work.”

A Washington Post article continued:

Rice acknowledged that it was still unclear how hard the Chinese government would push North Korea, although she said China’s views on the issue were “evolving.” She said China had concerns about North Korea’s stability and the prospect of a mass influx of refugees if the government collapses. And though China has always valued the status quo, Rice said: “I don’t think that they are making a lot of assumptions about the status quo.”

China is very concerned, for example, that Japan might decide to build a nuclear arsenal in response to North Korea’s test. The Japanese government has ruled that out for now. But when Rice visited Tokyo on her first stop, officials there wanted to focus almost exclusively on receiving firm assurances that Japan is still protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The test “had set off a lot of questions that the Japanese were asking about their own security posture,” Rice said.

But in her diplomatic memoir “No Higher Honor,” Rice’s tone was more nuanced, conceding that China’s concern about the possible collapse of the North Korean government was a serious restraint on efforts by U.S. diplomats to get China to put more pressure on North Korea. She wrote:

The punitive measures that were put in place undoubtedly helped spur the North toward sporadic cooperation. Still, the imposition of sanctions in the absence of a willingness to negotiate seriously serves only to isolate the United States from its allies. Maintaining a coalition against Kim Jong Il required us to keep the onus for recalcitrance on the North. And in truth, without concerted actions from others, American unilateral penalties were unlikely to being an end to North Korea’s ambitions. In the final analysis, Beijing was willing to go only so far in pressuring the North. While a nuclear North Korea was unwelcome, the collapse of Kim’s regime was thought to be worse given that the resulting instability could spill over into bordering Chinese territories. That concern, which heightened after Kim’s stroke in 2008, was a serious constraint.

Note Rice’s careful language — that the Chinese believed the collapse of the Stalinist regime would be “worse” than a nuclear-armed North Korea. That’s a heavy burden for U.S. diplomacy to overcome.

And, in the final months of the Bush administration, U.S. officials demonstrated the extreme flexibility demanded by China – even removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2008 in exchange for only verbal assurances that North Korea had promised it would later commit to writing. (Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama at the time praised the decision.)

But once the deal was done, North Korea pocketed the concessions and reneged on the agreement. No serious talks on ending Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions have taken place since then — and China’s trade with North Korea has continued to grow.

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