The recent sanctions imposed by Washington against North Korea in response to its fourth nuclear test and subsequent ballistic missile tests impose a plethora of new punishments on Kim Jong Un. They expand the US blockade of North Korea, totally ban the export of goods there, and threaten to ban anyone who does business with large sectors of the North Korean mining, transport and financial economies from the global financial system.

The new sanction regime forces banks to freeze the assets of those that break the blockade and prohibits the export of cheap North Korean labor (often sent to China). While Beijing will resent the targetting of what is essentially North Korean slave labour, China has a central role in the effectiveness of the sanctions, Pyongyang's nuclear program, and the future of North Korea.

The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, lauded China last week for joining Washington in what is probably the toughest response North Korea has faced in 20 years. But such praise may well have been premature. Last week, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing opposed any unilateral punishments against North Korea. Indeed, some evidence suggests that Pyongyang siphoned off tens of millions of dollars through a Singaporean branch of China's biggest bank to evade the sanctions and conceal payments for arms and luxury goods for the regime.

The grim reality is that Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un decided that North Korea must have nuclear weapons, and that China has thus far decided that, as far as Beijing is concerned, the benefits of that program outweigh the costs. China has made many pledges on North Korean sanctions in the past, but has always failed to honour them and to systematically enforce its commitments. On the benefit side of the ledger, a nuclear North Korea increases the cost and improbability of any US-South Korean move against North Korea, and keeps a regime friendly to Beijing on its doorstep. Perhaps just as importantly, a nuclear North Korea impedes US power projection on the Korean peninsula and saps US diplomatic and political resources that cannot be directed to other areas such as the South China sea. Beijing deeply opposes the sanctioning of anybody using North Korean slave labour. China may be keeping the regime afloat through its provision of economic and military resources — better after all to feed North Koreans in North Korea than risk a massive refugee exodus into China if the regime collapses — and can rationally justify this as a good investment on these grounds.

But China does not, and cannot, totally control North Korea.

Front and centre on the cost side of the ledger is Beijing's concern that North Korea's nuclear tests, missile tests, sabre rattling and occasional limited uses of force will cause South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear weapons to deal with the menace that Pyongyang represents. This is the outcome that China above all seeks to avoid: memories of Japanese aggression in the second World War still loom large, and a nuclear Japan, South Korea, China, and sooner or later North Korea would present unprecedented challenges to East Asian security and stability. The prospect of China facing a number of either hostile or U.S. allied neighbouring nuclear powers would be a disaster for Beijing.

Short of this, but still deeply problematic, is that North Korea's provocations push Seoul and Tokyo deeper into Washington's embrace. For a country bent on, at minimum, increasing the costs of US influence in East Asia and/or impeding US activity in its littoral seas through anti-access and area denial capabilities and actively expanding its influence and territory, improving Washington's security relationship with Japan and South Korea is the last thing Beijing wants. Seoul and Washington have already re-initiated talks about placing US theatre high altitude and area defence systems that Beijing vehemently opposes on South Korean soil. North Korean actions have seemed so brazen that even Moscow, the last state one would currently expect to see eye-to-eye with Washington on anything, has signalled that its patience is wearing thin. 

Beijing has thus far decided that the benefits of a nuclear North Korea outweigh these costs. But as Pyongyang pushes closer to its ultimate goal of being able to target the mainland US with strategic nuclear missiles, these calculations will become harder. The regime's two obstacles have long been miniaturising a warhead to fit on an ICBM and developing the synthetic materials to ensure that it can re-enter Earth's atmosphere from its ballistic trajectory. But, while there seems good reason to assume that North Korea's fourth nuclear test was not a hydrogen bomb, more and more voices are concluding that Pyongyang is getting closer to its strategic goal.

US policy, at least under Obama and after the 'leap-day' test, has been to ignore North Korea and hope the problem will go away. Obama would be unlikely to change his policy with just 10 months of his final term left. Whoever replaces him in early 2017 will be firmly committed to display his/her resolve against any challenges from the likes of North Korea. North Korea will continue to enrich uranium and work on its warheads and missiles, leaving Beijing to face the uncomfortable trade-off outlined above with a near-nuclear North Korea, an inexperienced US president and a weary Seoul and Tokyo contemplating their own nuclear deterrent on its hands.

Sanctions are the side-show to a North Korean nuclear program that will continue to substantially challenge the uneasy stability in East Asia.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user (stephan).