North Korea’s Powerful Weakness

China is beginning to lose patience with North Korea. But it continues to face a dilemma: comprehensive economic and social reform may help to resolve the nuclear issue in the long run, but pushing too fast for such reform could cause the already-fragile Kim regime to collapse, bringing potential for chaos on China's border.

CAMBRIDGE – When US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for their “shirt-sleeves summit” in California last month, North Korea was a major topic of conversation. The subject was not new, but the tone was.

More than two decades ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency caught North Korea violating its safeguards agreement and reprocessing plutonium. After the North renounced the subsequent Agreed Framework, negotiated by President Bill Clinton’s administration, in 2003, it expelled IAEA inspectors, withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has since detonated three nuclear devices and conducted a variety of missile tests.

During those two decades, American and Chinese officials frequently discussed North Korea’s behavior, both privately and in public meetings. The Chinese consistently said that they did not want North Korea to develop nuclear weapons, but claimed that they had limited influence over the regime, despite being its major supplier of food and fuel. The result was a somewhat scripted exchange in which China and the US would accomplish little more than professing denuclearization as a shared goal.

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