Senators John McCain and Al Franken are right. North Korea murdered Otto Warmbier, the 22-year old University of Virginia student sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel and shipped home last week with a fatal brain injury. It doesn’t matter whether or not the North Korean government killed Otto on purpose. Under American law, if you even accidentally kill someone during the commission of a serious crime, you will be charged with felony murder. If enslaving a tourist for a minor infraction he may not have even committed isn’t a felony, we might as well drop the word from our vocabulary and laws.

American officials met with a Chinese government delegation in Washington this week to discuss the burgeoning missile crisis on the Korean Peninsula with Warmbier’s grotesque treatment at the hands of North Korea’s Caligula added to the list of American grievances. We air those grievances to China because it’s the only country with any serious leverage over North Korea short of gunboat diplomacy.

China is North Korea’s largest trade partner—virtually its only trade partner. North Korea is so isolated from the rest of the world that China can exert a significant amount of economic pressure, but it can only work if it hurts “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-Un and his inner circle. The regime has already proven itself staggeringly indifferent to widespread human suffering inside its borders. Hundreds of thousands of people starved to death in the 1990s, and hundreds of thousands more toil away in Stalinist-style slave labor camps where 25 percent of the population dies every year.

The Chinese tend to oppose crippling sanctions, however, not because they value their trade deals with Pyongyang –they don’t—but because they think the status quo is just peachy. They don’t want a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula for obvious reasons (look at a map), but they want to maintain a strident and bellicose anti-American regime there as long as possible. If they could have their way, they’d freeze Korea’s politics in amber forever.

Sure, Pyongyang is a pain. Worse, though, from Beijing’s point of view, is Korea going the way of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with pro-Western unification following a collapse on the communist side. China is the natural hegemon in East Asia. Having a virulently anti-Western, anti-Japanese and anti-South Korean sore in the region keeps China’s competitors preoccupied and in check. Beijing has leverage over Pyongyang at the moment, but if the Kim dynasty falls, Pyongyang may not be the capital of anything any longer.

The Chinese likewise don’t want a substantial portion of North Korea’s 25 million people surging over the border if the regime collapses and isn’t replaced at once by something stable. And let’s not kid ourselves. A post-communist North Korea would barely resemble post-communist East Germany. Compared to North Korea, East Germany circa 1989 was practically Switzerland. Even post-Saddam Iraq and post-Qaddafi Libya were more advanced than North Korea is now.

And the Chinese government doesn’t give a flying fork about human rights abuses there or anywhere else. Its own human rights record is plenty dismal enough. The only reason Otto Warmbier’s death even registers is because it’s prompting the United States to ratchet up pressure on China to ratchet up its own pressure on North Korea.

Last month, my colleague Gordon Chang showed that Beijing is still protecting its client from the United States and the rest of the world. In late May, Chinese fighter jets intercepted an American WC-135 plane in international airspace “sniffing” for radiation following a possible North Korean nuclear test. “The incident,” he wrote here at World Affairs, “is totally in keeping with China’s long history of insincerity characterized by empty, false, feigned, and betrayed promises to rein in the Kim regime.”

He also argues that the Chinese government’s deportation of asylum-seeking North Korean refugees as “economic migrants” violates the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention which it has agreed to. These people aren’t economic migrants, nor would they put the least bit of strain on China’s economy. They want the Chinese to deport them—to South Korea rather than back to the North where they will be imprisoned or executed.

Why won’t Beijing ship them to Seoul? Simple. China’s rulers want North Korea’s would-be refugees to stay right where they are. A critical mass of them could pose an existential threat to their client. Both governments understand this perfectly well. After all, on the rare occasions when Beijing is sufficiently disgruntled with Pyongyang, it does allow refugees to pass through its territory to Seoul.

While China is potentially part of the solution, it’s still part of the problem. Short of extraordinary American pressure, that’s not going to change.  

World Affairs Journal