China steps up on North Korea? Time to find out

China steps up on North Korea? Time to find out

Wayward ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman may think North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is a friend for life, but apparently Beijing does not. It looks like the U.N. Security Council will unanimously pass a resolution on Thursday that will impose Chapter Seven/Article 41 sanctions (measures short of armed force) on North Korea in response to Pyongyang’s last nuclear test. I must confess that I did not expect this, but apparently even Beijing has a limit to its tolerance of North Korean provocations.

Chinese MFA officials say that the North Koreans crossed the line this time by testing their last nuke after "unprecedented" pressure from Beijing not to embarrass Xi Jinping on the eve of his assumption of power at the National People’s Congress. Senior Chinese officials are telling their South Korean counterparts that Xi Jinping has ordered an overall review of North Korea policy, and even Japanese officials are pleasantly surprised that Pyongyang has provided an excuse for strategic cooperation between Tokyo and Beijing in the midst of a tense Sino-Japanese stand-off over the Senkaku Islands.

This could fizzle, of course. China undertook a similar policy "review" after the North’s 2009 test, but within a year it was doubling trade with Pyongyang and ignoring the North’s attack on the South Korean corvette Cheonan. The North is also adept at distracting the Chinese with alternating threats and promises of new diplomatic engagement. Pyongyang has already threatened to "nullify" the armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War if the UNSC passes a sanctions resolution — the kind of sabre rattling that has made Chinese knees knock together in the past. There are also expectations in the region that Pyongyang will offer to negotiate a peace agreement, which could induce huge sighs of relief in Beijing.

The point is not to wait and see, however. Implementation by Beijing has always been the Achilles heel of past UNSC resolutions on North Korea. Rather than pat itself on the back and use the international community’s outrage as leverage to get the North back to the table (a mistake made after the 2006 and 2009 sanctions), the Obama administration should keep at China to implement the new sanctions in terms of specific actions to interdict North Korean proliferation activities and close illicit bank accounts and North Korean trading company offices in China (of which there are still visible examples).