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The Chinese Road to Pyongyang

NEW YORK – Kim Jong Il’s visit to China this week was a gentle reminder that the road to Pyongyang leads through Beijing. China is the only power that has remained engaged with North Korea, through many ups and downs, whereas Russia, Japan, the United States, and South Korea have all come and gone.

By keeping a door open to North Korea’s leaders, China is making a substantial contribution to regional peace. This is bold diplomacy – for which China is given little credit – at a highly sensitive moment.

Nevertheless, China’s “leverage” over North Korea is in part illusory. Kim’s visit should be evaluated in terms of Chinese-North Korean relations as they are, rather than as others might wish them to be. Doing so reveals the role left to America and South Korea to engage the North in order to revive the denuclearization process and repair inter-Korean relations.

Three widespread misconceptions distorted the coverage of Kim’s visit to China. The first misconception is that he desperately sought Chinese aid to prop up his regime in the face of seething discontent after botched currency reforms. But, although North Korea’s latest economic travails have shaken the leadership, the regime has weathered worse. And the economic relationship between China and North Korea is driven as much by material interests and economic factors as it is by concerns over geopolitical stability.