If demography is destiny, in North Korea the guiding force is ancestry. Like his grandfather and father before him, Kim Jong-un suffers delusions of grandeur, surrounded only by frightened sycophants, coveting a place among the world’s important nations. As Pyongyang edges closer to building a working nuclear missile capable of reaching the United States, Mr. Kim must get the right response to his vow to annihilate his enemies. Tough talk from the United States and its allies is only a stopgap. The solution, short of war, lies with China.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson showed needed American steel in his three-nation Asian tour, reflecting President Trump’s spotlight on North Korea’s nuclear buildup. “Let me be very clear: This policy of strategic patience has ended,” Mr. Tillerson said in Seoul on Friday, emphasizing that all American options remain on the table, including a pre-emptive military strike. North Korea bristled, vowing to “reduce the bases of aggression and provocation to ashes … in case the United States and the South Korean puppet forces fire even a single bullet.”
Moving on to Beijing, the secretary of state told President Xi Jinping that China must take a more forceful role in reining its reckless client. Mr. Trump supplied reinforcing fire from Washington (employing a tweet instead of a howitzer). “North Korea is behaving very badly,” he said. “They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years. China has done little to help!” China has agreed to help enforce economic sanctions the United Nations have imposed on Pyongyang, and said it would work with Washington to reduce tensions over the Mr. Kim’s nuclear program.
Thumbing his nose at the grown-ups on Sunday, Mr. Kim conducted a test of a powerful, new rocket engine, an obvious act of provocation. It’s clear that it’s not enough for China to tell the United States and its allies, South Korea and Japan, to stay “cool-headed,” as Foreign Minister Wang Yi did. Nor is calling on parties to come back to the negotiating table abandoned in 2009. The Kim dynasty in its third generation has been toying with peace negotiators since the 1990s without wavering from its goal of acquiring nuclear weapons.
China, as the Asian giant and North Korea’s only ally, holds the key to settling the nuclear conundrum. But accommodating Pyongyang’s behavior may be a ploy by Beijing. By enabling its noisy neighbor to put Asia in an uproar, China has withal pursued its goal of making the South China Sea its private lake.
Mr. Trump will have to be at the top of his deal-making game when he entertains Mr. Xi at Mar-a-Largo next month. Both leaders will have a long wish list. President Trump wants relief on China’s currency manipulation and trade imbalance, both issues that struck fire during the 2016 campaign. Mr. Xi wants the United States to butt out of China’s heavy-handed dealing with Taiwan, and he needs continued access to American markets, which were worth $410.8 billion as recently as 2015. If push comes to shove, China’s overheated economy would stall without a partner in Washington.
At the negotiating table, size matters. President Obama played the timid little guy bargaining with Iran over its nuclear program, delaying but not preventing the Islamic bomb. Mr. Trump must play the superpower card to persuade China that its future will be brighter without North Korea’s intergenerational obsession with nuclear weapons.
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