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North Korea missile test shows limits of U.S. leverage

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

North Korea's launch of a missile that appears capable of striking anywhere in the U.S. is an early test of the Trump administration's relationship with China, and the goodwill reinforced during President Trump's November meetings with General Secretary Xi Jinping in Beijing. But even if Xi wants to help, there are no good options.

Reality check: China doesn't actually have that much leverage with North Korea, and until the regime is interested in negotiations, even more help from China isn't going to help the U.S. solve the crisis.

North Korea does not appear interested in talks at this point. As expert Andrei Lankov has argued repeatedly:

"Pyongyang decision-makers see the ability to hit the United States as their best, and perhaps only, guarantee of long-term political survival. They are not going to stop testing until they reach that goal."

President Trump has threatened new sanctions, but so far none have been announced. And Beijing is resisting renewed calls from the administration to cut off the supply of oil to North Korea.

China has less leverage than Trump seems to believe. Xi Jinping is very unhappy with Kim Jong-un, and the special envoy he recently dispatched to Pyongyang was treated poorly and did not get a meeting with Kim.

China's main leverage point with North Korea is the supply of oil — but Beijing is wary of shutting it off out of concern that Pyongyang could turn on Beijing.

What to watch: If China does not at least reduce the oil supply to North Korea, expect the U.S. to sanction a major Chinese financial institution, such as China Merchants Bank or the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, to "punish" Chinese inaction. But that could backfire, as the anger in Beijing may lead China to halt any cooperation with the U.S. over North Korea.

The bottom line: China is not going to fix this problem. The U.S. either accepts a nuclear North Korea and sits down for negotiations once Kim is willing to talk, attempts a deterrence strategy that allows the region to live with a nuclear North Korea, or launches a pre-emptive war.

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