Bush's Trust in China's Bite

Chinese leaders used to say North Korea and China were "as close as lips and teeth."

Well, a few sharp nibbles by China on Kim Jong Il's labium in recent weeks have persuaded North Korea's "Dear Leader" to compromise a bit in his nuclear blackmail of Washington.

Mr. Kim, whose regime relies on oil and food from China, was forced by Beijing to back off from his demand for bilateral talks with the United States. Instead, North Korea agreed to sit at a six-sided negotiating table with Japan, South Korea, China, Russia - and with the US, as just one among many.

Joining such multilateral talks is a tacit admission by Kim that the international community first wants him to give up his nuclear-weapons program before he gains any economic or security benefits. He had hoped simply for a US promise not to launch a preemptive attack on his nuclear facilities or on his regime.

China's new pressure means it finally woke up to two threats: (1) North Korea was close to becoming a maker and exporter of nuclear bombs; (2) President Bush appeared ready to isolate North Korea's economy and force a regime change to keep it from becoming that threat.

But how much can Mr. Bush count on China to continue to use its leverage during the talks - and in any inspection and dismantling of North Korea's facilities?

Given North Korea's past deceits and dodges, and the urgency of stopping its nuclear program within months, China will need to exercise some heavy lip-biting. Its economy and its emergence on the world stage (Olympics in 2008), plus its fear that Japan might use this crisis to set up missile defenses or go nuclear itself, could mean China is ready to tough it out.

Bush, for now, trusts that China can deliver Kim, but only as long as the US remains serious about ending the North's potential threat one way or another. For now, the US and China are as close as lips and teeth.

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