China finally weighs in on North Korean menace: The Nation

North Korean soldiers patrol next to the border fence near the town of Sinuiju across from the Chinese border town of Dandong, on Feb 10, 2016.
North Korean soldiers patrol next to the border fence near the town of Sinuiju across from the Chinese border town of Dandong, on Feb 10, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

In its editorial on Mar 11, the paper encourages Beijing, which is now on board for UN sanctions, to use its weight to force President Kim Jong Un back to the negotiating table.

After initially rejecting Washington's call for tougher sanctions in response to North Korea's claim to have tested a hydrogen bomb in January, China finally relented last week.

Beijing has been initially reluctant to ratchet up the pressure out of concern it would further destabilise its neighbour.

But this past week it changed its mind and made unanimous a UN Security Council vote to impose the toughest sanctions thus far on the regime of Kim Jong-un.

Exactly what prompted the decision to endorse the sanctions remains unclear.

China is, after all, not known for bowing to foreign pressure.

But two recent developments offer a hint.

First, South Korea decided to deploy a US-made missile-defence system, which Beijing perceives as a threat to its national security. Secondly, the US Congress has approved sanctions that could punish Chinese firms for doing business with North Korea.

It's a safe bet that these two events forced Beijing to reconsider its relationship with Pyongyang. The UN sanctions stipulate that all cargo entering or leaving North Korea is to be inspected, with bans in place on the importing of any arms, aviation fuel and a slew of luxury items.

This last prohibition appears to be aimed at antagonising the leadership in Pyongyang, given numerous reports of their penchant for lavish lifestyles.

Regardless of the intent behind any of these restrictions, unless they're rigidly enforced, they remain - like any sanctions imposed by the Security Council - only as valuable as the paper on which they're printed.

It is impossible to predict how serious the government of President Xi Jinping will be in enforcing the UN resolution from its end. It is clear, though, that Beijing wouldn't have acceded to the resolution without some benefit accruing.

In fact, China's ambassador to the UN raised the issue of an American missile-defence system being installed in South Korea.

He even managed to secure a postponement in negotiations on the deal.

Delayed it might be, but the missile system still represents a convenient card to use against the Chinese should the necessity arise.

Hope prevails against gusts of pessimism that the Security Council sanctions might alter North Korea's trenchant misbehaviour.

History, unfortunately, is on pessimism's side, demonstrating that North Korea has never been receptive or responsive to the rest of the world's concerns.

The only country it listens to is China, its patron in politics and its largest trading partner.

Thus much depends on China.

If it lives up to the obligations of the UN resolution, North Korea is sure to feel the pressure of global opinion.

Even Beijing, a sop to dictators everywhere, can surely see by now that North Korea's military actions could lead to a nuclear-arms race in the region.

Such an outcome would serves no one's best interests - not China's or Japan's or South Korea's, and certainly not North Korea's.

And, while China hopefully rises to the task, it's time for the United States, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas to rejoin it at the negotiating table and resume talks that collapsed in 2009.

Beijing might not be able to specifically tell Kim Jong-un what to do, but it has the clout to nudge him to the table.

China appears to have got off on the right foot.

This past week, in line with the UN mandate, it barred a North Korean cargo freighter from berthing at its ports.

If it can remain consistent in the enforcement of the Security Council limitations, there is indeed hope that the situation on the Korean Peninsula can be turned around.

* The Nation is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 newspapers.