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China Agrees to a North Korean Spanking

By James Gibney
January 18, 2013 5:31 PM EST

China's apparent decision not to block expanded United Nations sanctions against North Korea for its satellite-cum-missile launch last month is good, if mysterious, news. Good, because China has traditionally resisted punishing North Korea for its misdeeds, arguing that engagement is more likely to bring results. Mysterious, because its reasons for changing its mind could be manifold.

Yuriko Koike, Japan's former Minister of Defense and National Security Adviser, recently speculated that North Korea went ahead with the launch as a way of "blackmailing" its ally to support it. Because the launch right before elections in South Korea and Japan would strengthen hardliners in both countries, China would feel compelled to support North Korea in response. As Koike put it, "In Kim [Jong Un's] perverse logic, a new push for UN sanctions, and new security-conscious governments in Japan and South Korea, will strengthen North Korea's hold on Chinese foreign policy."

China's decision suggests that Kim may have miscalculated. It could also mean, though, that the Chinese are worried that North Korea is getting increasingly hard to control, and that we should gird ourselves for more bad behavior -- like, say, a third nuclear test. Its second nuclear detonation took place in May 2009 -- shortly after its April 2009 launch of a rocket had been condemned by the UN Security Council.

The sanctions currently in place could use some tightening, starting with better implementation. In that respect, China's decision to go along -- or at least not stand in the way -- represents a diplomatic victory for President Barack Obama's administration. But past experiences with the North Koreans suggest that such measures rarely yield the desired result.

(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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