According to the lede in today’s Times, China has ruled out using economic sanctions against North Korea to pressure it to return to the six-party talks. This means that the one really viable tool the US might have had against North Korea is off the table.
As the article continues, though, it suggests that pretty much every part of the current situation is ambiguous. Are the North Koreans planning to test a nuclear weapon? No one is sure what the satellite pictures indicate, nor whether the North Koreans are bluffing. Has China really ruled out cuts to its oil and food shipments to North Korea, which are pretty much all that is keeping the regime afloat? Some officials think the Chinese may be making sanguine statements in public but privately telling the North Koreans a different story. What does it all mean? No one knows.
I can understand China’s position. They’ve already got a problematic trickle of refugees coming across their border with North Korea, and a regime collapse could turn that into a massive wave. Nor is China entirely certain of its own ethnic Koreans living in Manchuria, whom the Chinese fear could develop separatist ambitions. For China, nail-biting stability is perhaps preferable to the chaos that might be triggered if the North Korean regime is substantially weakened.
Still, if China is unwilling to cut off supplies, then there is essentially nothing the rest of the world can do with North Korea except wait and cajole, or else go to war. So far, fortunately, no one seems to be leaning toward the latter option, which would be disastrous on a scale the West hasn’t had to deal with since the Second World War.