WASHINGTON — North Korea is a Potemkin country. When I visited, it had an airport without airplanes, roads without cars and streets without street signs.

But even a Potemkin country can develop nuclear weapons. So the Bush administration, focused on Iraq and lacking a simple means to deter Pyongyang from an atomic path, is hoping China will pressure the North. But Beijing will act only if the United States demonstrates that doing so advances Chinese interests.

A half century ago, the newly established People’s Republic of China saved the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from defeat in the Korean War. Last year China accounted for about 70 percent of North Korea’s oil supplies.

However, the relationship between the two countries has declined over the last decade. Over the North’s strenuous objections China recognized the South in 1992 and has since developed multibillion dollar economic ties with South Korea.

Over the same period, China cut aid levels to North Korea. Tensions flared between the two governments last fall when Beijing arrested the Chinese businessman tapped by Pyongyang to head the North’s new economic development zone.

Nevertheless, Beijing could play an important role in dissuading North Korea from its nuclear course. And Washington is seeking China’s help — without great success so far, however.

After his recent visit to China, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell delicately observed that the Chinese “prefer to play their role quietly” — very quietly, it would seem.

Although Beijing likely has not, as some claim, fomented the current crisis, it is doing little to resolve the controversy. Yet it should come as no surprise that Beijing is disinclined to solve what it sees as primarily America’s problem.

China obviously has little to fear directly from a nuclear North Korea. Moreover, China, like South Korea, fears a North Korean collapse: millions of refugees swarming north, civil and military strife flowing over its borders, American influence extending to the Yalu.

Although China could apply significant economic pressure, it lacks North Korea’s full trust. Coercion probably would permanently poison Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang.

Most important, China is suspicious of Washington’s apparent determination to remain the dominant power along its borders and promote, in fact if not name, a policy of containment. North Korea’s brinkmanship has embarrassed Washington and caused tensions with its Asian allies.

Why, then, should Beijing aid Washington?

It will do so only if the U.S. convinces Beijing that it is in China’s interest to do so. One tactic would be to tell the Chinese “that by failing to support us they put their relations with us at risk,” writes Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations. That might or might not work, but only at great cost, given the many other issues, ranging from Iraq to nonproliferation to Taiwan also at stake in the relationship.

Better would be to point out the adverse consequences to China as well as America if Pyongyang does not desist. For instance, it is not in China’s interest for North Korea to destabilize the Peninsula, risking economic ties with the South and inviting U.S. military action.

Moreover, the U.S. should indicate to the North, within hearing of Beijing, that if Pyongyang develops an atomic arsenal, Washington would be disinclined to dissuade neighboring states from following suit. Even if that threat was insufficient to deter the North, it would have a salutary effect on China, which does not want to see nuclear weapons spread, especially to Japan and Taiwan.

Obviously, such a step would be controversial for all concerned. Yet the threat, combined with an appropriate package of carrots and sticks, might yield a peaceful, verifiable end to the North Korean program.

If not, it still would be better for Washington’s democratic friends to develop the means to deter North Korea rather than expect America to remain entangled in such a dangerous region. If China can be trusted with nuclear weapons, why not democratic Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo?

Indeed, such a course might merely accelerate reality. In coming years Washington is likely to grow more uncomfortable shielding its allies from an increasingly assertive China. The U.S. will fear being drawn into unnecessary wars; Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan will fear America’s refusing to be drawn in.

A spread of nuclear weapons might encourage a Chinese nuclear buildup, but even worse would be a power vacuum in which everyone is forced to rely on America in any dispute with a nuclear-armed China. What is more chilling than having to risk Los Angeles to protect Seoul, Taipei or Tokyo?

There is no easy answer to North Korea. Winning the assistance of China is critical for Washington. But that will require more than begging or threatening Beijing.

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