At long last, the Chinese government has inflicted a penalty on North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un for his reckless nuclear-weapons program. China will no longer import North Korean coal, at least until the end of the year.
Unfortunately, it's the ordinary North Koreans who will suffer as a result, while Kim Jong-un will not have to leave any of his palaces. And once again, Beijing has shied away from doing the one thing that would really hurt Mr. Kim – opening its border and allowing North Koreans to flee into China.
Yes, that would be a messy exodus. Beijing is no doubt averse to that, but it is probably even more alarmed at the prospect of a subsequent breakdown of the border between South Korea and North Korea. The former is an enormous economic powerhouse and an American ally with U.S. troops on its soil – North Korea serves as an important buffer for China.
If, in fact, such is Beijing's thinking, the solution could be for China's allies to reassure it that the border between North and South Korea would remain strenuously closed no matter what.
This could be the right moment to make just such an overture. Reportedly, Beijing is now very angry that Mr. Kim appears to have had his older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, assassinated.
The bizarre murder in Malaysia, apparently instigated by Kim Jong-un's agents, is a direct blow to China, and may have prompted it to expand the coal embargo.
Beijing protected and hosted Kim Jong-nam, because he favoured economic reform on the Chinese model. Now Chinese President Xi Jinping and his colleagues are stuck with Kim Jong-un. The expanded coal embargo is a sign of their growing frustration.
They are said to be aware of the better alternative – opening the border – but so far have been reluctant to go that far.
Much of this Machiavellian realpolitik is deplorable, but the bottom line is that Beijing is growing increasingly frustrated with North Korea's antics, and may be ready to change course. Until the new coal embargo, the Chinese government had procrastinated on using sanctions to punish North Korea for its nuclear adventurism. Now it has finally acted, but it needs to go farther.