Officials say North Korea test-fired three missiles in the East Sea on
Monday. The tests come as President Obama and other world leaders are gathered in neighboring China for a G-20 summit. USA TODAY NETWORK
WASHINGTON — The one country in the world that has the leverage to turn North Korea away from developing nuclear weapons seems unwilling to take that step.
China is North Korea's neighbor, protector, chief trading partner and economic lifeline. And though it condemned North Korea's nuclear weapons test on Friday — and agreed to sanctions in response to a test in January — the Beijing government shows no signs that it will actually crack down on the communist nation.
For the international community to convince North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that nuclear weapons will lead to risk, “he needs to face a risk,” said Scott Snyder, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.
That risk can only come from its giant neighbor, which views North Korea as a necessary buffer between its border and U.S. ally South Korea, where nearly 30,000 American troops are stationed.
“China does not want to put in motion instability (in North Korea) that would advantage the United States,” Snyder said. “Their first priority is to maintain stability on their border. That means they’re unwilling to put North Korea’s survival at risk.”
North Korea already faces a series of international sanctions, but they lack bite because the country is so isolated from international trade and finance.
While the U.S. government says sanctions work, a recent analysis by John Park of Harvard University and Jim Walsh of MIT concluded that sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council “have not worked, and that in some ways, the sanctions have had the net effect of actually improving (North Korean) procurement capabilities.”
One effect of sanctions is that North Korean trade with nations other than China has come to a virtual halt. But China allows numerous state-run companies from North Korea to operate on its soil and those have learned to adapt, Park and Walsh wrote in their study, “Stopping North Korea, Inc.: Sanctions Effectiveness and Unintended Consequences.”
The North Korean managers in charge of these companies have hired better Chinese middlemen, moved to China to improve their effectiveness and expanded their nuclear procurement operations in Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and North Korean embassies around the world, the study found.
Some analysts, such as Gordon Chang, author of Nuclear Showdown; North Korea Takes on the World, urge the U.S. to impose sanctions on Chinese companies that aid North Korea's nuclear program.
“The most important thing is imposing costs on China,” Chang said. “It would work to our disadvantage, but we have to remember that North Korea is quickly developing a nuclear capability to put nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles that can reach the continental United States.”
Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., says part of the problem is that China’s government doesn’t control everything that’s happening on its soil. Corruption is rife, and midlevel and local officials may turn a blind eye or profit from illegal transactions.
Residents look up at a big screen TV in front of Pyongyang railway station showing television presenter Ri Chun-Hee officially announcing that the country successfully tested a nuclear warhead earlier in the day on Sept. 9, 2016. North Korea has successfully tested a nuclear warhead, it said which said the "maniacal recklessness" of young ruler Kim Jong-Un would lead to self-destruction. Kim Won-Jin, AFP/Getty Images
A North Korean man gulps down a glass of draft beer during a beer drinking competition held Aug. 12, 2016 in Pyongyang. This competition was held during a beer festival along the Taedong River in the North Korean capital. Kim Kwang Hyon, AP
A surface-to-surface medium long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-10, also known by the name of Musudan missile, being launched at an undisclosed location, North Korea. According to South Korea and Japan's officials, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile off its east coast early Aug 3, 2016. KCNA, via European Pressphoto Agency
North Korean soldiers peep into a conference room in the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission Conference Building during a ceremony marking the 63rd anniversary of the signing of the Korean War ceasefire armistice agreement at the truce village of Panmunjom, South Korea. Kim Hong-Ji, AP
Military personnel stand during a rally at Kim Il Sung Square July 2, 2016, in Pyongyang. They were celebrating the new title of chairman of the new State Affairs Commission given to leader Kim Jong Un at a meeting of its national parliament. Kim Kwang Hyon, AP
A missile is fired during a drill by Hwasong artillery units of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army, photo released on July 21, 2016 . North Korea said its latest ballistic missile tests trialled detonation devices for possible nuclear strikes on US targets in South Korea and were personally monitored by supreme leader Kim Jong-Un. KCNA, AFP/Getty Images
A metro employee on board the newest cars at the Puhung metro station in Pyongyang, April, 13, 2016. They have one of the deepest metros in the world consisting of two lines with these recently added new cars. Franck Robichon, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
A live-shell firing drill by artillery sub-units under large combined units of the North Korean Army, is shown in this undated photo, under the simulated conditions of beating back enemy forces conducting a surprise night landing. The photo was released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on April 12, 2016. KCNA via AFP/Getty Images
Kim Jong Un, left, Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army, issues an order to conduct the ground jet test of a new type high-power engine of inter-continental ballistic rocket and comes to the Sohae Space Center to guide the test. KCNA via EPA
A rocket is displayed during the Immortal Flower Festival 'Kimilsungia' in Pyongyang, North Korea on April 13, 2016. The country is preparing to mark the 'Day of the Sun' celebrating the day of birth of the country's founder, Kim Il-Sung. on April 15. Franck Robichon, EPA
An image of the operation of a new type large-caliber multiple rocket launching system at an undisclosed location in North Korea is released from KCNA on March 24, 2016. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has claimed an "historic" advance in the country's nuclear strike capability with the successful test of a solid-fuel rocket engine, state media said. KCNA via AFP/Getty Images
A large mosaic representing Kim Il-Sung, left, and Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang suburbs, North Korea is shown on April 12, 2016. An ethnic Korean U.S. citizen was sentenced to 10 years in jail for espionage. Franck Robichon, EPA
Newly manufactured shoes are seen at Wonsan Shoes Factory in the Kangwon Province, March 14, 2016. North Koreans are being mobilized en masse to boost production and demonstrate their loyalty to leader Kim Jong Un in a 70-day campaign aimed at wiping out "indolence and slackness." To show their loyalty, workers are putting in extra hours to boost production in everything from coal mining to fisheries. Kim Kwang Hyon, AP
This undated photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on April 2, 2016 shows a missile test of a new-type anti-air guided weapon system at an unknown location. KCNA, AFP/Getty Images
A man rides his bicycle in front of a portion of the Great Wall on Hwanggumpyong Island, which is located in the middle of the Yalu River between the North Korean town of Sinuiju and the Chinese town of Dandong, on Feb. 9, 2016. Johannes Eisele, AFP/Getty Images
A North Korean soldier smokes a cigarette on the banks of the Yalu River in the North Korean town of Sinuiju, in an image taken from across the river in the Chinese border town of Dandong Feb. 8, 2016. Johannes Eisele, AFP/Getty Images
North Korean veterans gather before the start of a parade in Pyongyang, North Korea. Leader Kim Jong Un declared that his country was ready to stand up to any threat posed by the United States as he spoke at a lavish military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the North's ruling party and trumpet his third-generation leadership on Oct. 10, 2015. Maye-E Wong, AP
North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un watches a military firing contest in a photo released Jan. 5, 2016. Reports did not specify when Kim viewed the contest, but it is presumed to be his first military-related field guidance of 2016. Rodong Sinmun via European Pressphoto Agency
Hyeon Soo Lim, pastor of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto, is escorted to his sentencing in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Dec. 16, 2015. North Korea's Supreme Court sentenced him to life in prison with hard labor for what it called crimes against the state. Jon Chol Jin, AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, accompanied by commanding officers of the Korean People's Army, visit the Kumsusan Palace where his father, Kim Jong-Il, lies, on Dec 17, 2015. Korean Central News Agency via AFP/Getty Images
This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 14, 2015, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un inspecting the construction site of the Paektusan Hero Youth power station in Ryanggaung province. KCNA via AFP/Getty Images
A picture released by the Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling North Korean Workers Party, on Sept. 8, 2015, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center front, and Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, second from right, a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba and first vice-president of the Council of State, watching an art performance by the Moranbong Band and the State Merited Chorus in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Sept. 7, 2015. Bermudez led a Cuban delegation to North Korea to mark the 55th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between North Korea and Cuba. Rodong Sinmun, European Pressphoto Agency
This undated photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Sept. 5, 2015, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, at the Sinuiju Measuring Instrument Factory in North Pyongan Province. KCNA via AFP/Getty Images
Portaits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il glow on the facade of a building as the Juche Tower, top left, one of the city's landmarks, is seen in the background at dawn in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Aug. 19, 2015. Dita Alangkara, AP
This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Aug. 18, 2015, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, second from left, visiting the Taedonggang Combined Fruit Farm in Pyongyang. KCNA via AFP/Getty Images
People line up Aug. 16, 2015, at kiosk in Pyongyang, North Korea. Street stalls that offer North Koreans a place to spend -- or make -- money on everything from snow cones to DVDs are flourishing in Pyongyang and other North Korean cities, modest but growing forms of private commerce in a country where capitalism is officially anathema. Dita Alangkara, AP
A newlywed couple pose, during a photo shoot on Sijung Ho beach in North Korea, on Aug. 18, 2015. The couple gathered with their friends and family members to have their pictures taken after their wedding ceremony. Dita Alangkara, AP
People dance during the celebration of the Liberation Day as the portrait of North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il are seen in the background at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Aug. 15, 2015. Thousands of people take part in the celebration that commemorates the 17th anniversary of the liberation of the Koreas from Japanese colonial rule. Dita Alangkara, AP
North Koreans bow in front of bronze statues of the late leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at Munsu Hill, July 27, 2015, in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Koreans gathered to offer flowers and pay their respects to their late leaders as part of celebrations for the 62nd anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War. Wong Maye-E, AP
Staff wait at the check-in counters of the new international airport terminal building at Pyongyang airport, July 1, 2015, in Pyongyang, North Korea. The unveiling underscores an effort to attract more tourists and to spruce up the country ahead of the celebration of a major anniversary of the founding of its ruling Worker's Party in October this year. Kim Kwang Hyon, AP
An Air Koryo plane sits on the tarmac in front of the new Pyongyang International Airport terminal building, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Air Koryo is the only carrier to have been awarded just one star in rankings released recently by the UK-based SkyTrax consultancy agency. Wong Maye-E, AP
Men and women pump their fists in the air and chant "defend!" as they carry propaganda slogans calling for reunification of their country during the "Pyongyang Mass Rally on the Day of the Struggle Against the U.S.," attended by approximately 100,000 North Koreans to mark the 65th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War at the Kim Il Sung stadium, Thursday, June 25, 2015, in Pyongyang, North Korea. The month of June in North Korea is known as the "Struggle Against U.S. Imperialism Month" and it's a time for North Koreans to swarm to war museums, mobilize for gatherings denouncing the evils of the United States and join in a general, nationwide whipping up of the anti-American sentiment. Wong Maye-E, AP
A farmer stands in front of a field June 24, 2015, in South Hwanghae, North Korea. There has been almost no rain in this part of the country, according to farmers and local officials interviewed by the Associated Press. While the situation in the area that the AP visited looks grim, it is unclear how severe the drought is in the rest of the country. Wong Maye-E, AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, center, visits the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on April 15 to celebrate the 103rd birthday of his grandfather, the late president Kim Il-Sung, in Pyongyang. KCNA, AFP/Getty Images
Soldiers and citizens rally at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, to protest a United Nations resolution condemning their country's human rights record Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014. Protesters at the rally Tuesday on the square carried banners praising their leaders and condemning the United States. The banner in the center reads: "Let's defend with our lives the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea headed by supreme leader Kim Jong Un." Jon Chol Jin, AP
North Koreans gather in front of a portrait of their late leader Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il, right, paying respects to their late leader Kim Jong Il, to mark the third anniversary of his death, Wednesday Dec. 17 at Pyong Chon District in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea marked the end of a three-year mourning period for the late leader Kim Jong Il on Wednesday, opening the way for his son, Kim Jong Un, to put a more personal stamp on the way the country is run. Kim Kwang Hyon, AP
This picture taken by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on December 17 shows North Korean people offering prayers before portraits of late leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang for the third anniversary of late leader Kim Jong-Il. Korean News Service via, AFP/Getty Images
This handout picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on December 9, 2014 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un holding up a boy as he joins a photo session with the participants in the second meeting of Korean People's Army exemplary servicemen's families in Pyongyang. Korean News Service via, AFP/Getty Images
An undated picture from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on December 5, 2014 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un inspecting the new year combat and political drill of the Korean People's Army Korean News Service via, AFP/Getty Images
Women sweep around the statues of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sun, left, and Jong Il on the eve of the second anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il on Dec. 16 in Pyongyang. David Guttenfelder, AP
Jang Song-thaek is escorted in court on Dec. 12. The uncle of leader Kim Jong Un was executed after a shocking purge, with the state branding the once-powerful man a "traitor." Yonhap via AFP/Getty Images
Thousands of people hold up colored squares as they create a giant North Korean flag as they celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice during a performance at the Rungnado May Day Stadium on July 26 in Pyongyang. Ed Jones, AFP/Getty Images
People hold colored material as they watch for their cue during a performance. One hundred thousand people created a synchronized socialist-realist performance in a 90 minute display of gymnastics, dance and acrobatics. Ed Jones, AFP/Getty Images
“The Chinese don’t see this as a top priority for the United States,” Glaser said. “They will treat the nuclear issue as a top priority when the U.S. does.”
The Chinese acted quickly last year when President Obama sent a message to Chinese President Xi Jinping that computer hacking and intellectual property theft were top issues that threatened the U.S.-China relationship.
“When that message is issued, the Chinese stand up and listen,” she said.
If the Chinese think the U.S. is going to resort to force or adopt a strategy to overthrow North Korea's leader, “the Chinese would react pretty quickly,” Glaser said. “What threatens them is not the nuclear program but the reaction to the nuclear weapons program, particularly from the United States.”