Is North Korea Losing China?

DENVER – For most countries, the spectacular failure of a rocket launch would mean a return to the drawing board, or at least some introspection aimed at figuring out what went wrong. But that does not appear to be the case in North Korea, where the flubbed launch of its long-range Unha-3 rocket has merely set the stage for a new level of defiance: the detonation of yet another nuclear device, perhaps bigger than in the past.

The world, it seems, must be shown that North Korean scientists, despite their dearth of success in producing food, have mastered how to produce a weapon of mass destruction. And such a demonstration might well be needed to confer legitimacy on the newly installed third-generation leader, Kim Jong-un, a boy-dictator whose only accomplishment to date has been to prove on television that he can ride a horse, and that he appears to know how to read.

There used to be a measure of sympathy in Asia for the plucky North Koreans and their systematic defiance of the United States and the rest of the international community. But those days are over. As the unanimous adoption of a United Nations Security Council statement on April 16 suggests, no one, including the Chinese, is trying the make the case any more for nuance in dealing with the North.

The Chinese, in particular, appear to have lost patience. Reportedly, in the run-up to the rocket launch, the North Koreans refused to respond to China’s pleas that they stand down. The Chinese have had centuries of experience dealing with problems on the Korean Peninsula, the most difficult of imperial China’s tributary small neighbors, but not even receiving a reply to their communications was a new insult.