As North Korea fires off missiles like a 12-year-old fresh from family vacation with a boxful of illegal fireworks, the international community reacts with all the impotent bluster and self-righteous indignation that has become par for the course over the past few years. Were diplomatic fury a credible countermeasure, Kim Jong-il and his cadre of ever-vigilant, stone-faced generals would soon find their burgeoning missile program to have all the intimidating menace of wet bottle rockets. Sadly, though, for the international community and more importantly the Hermit Kingdom's increasingly nervous neighbors, this is not the case. Despite conducting an underground nuclear test Monday, the provocations of its' increasingly frequent missile launches, declaring its' abandonment of the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War and bellicose statements of impending war, casual observers are struck by the stunning lack of a substantive response to the latest round of North Korea's inflammatory and dangerously erratic behavior. One of those observers, a student in my upcoming International Relations course, wonders why North Korea's patron, China, hasn't reigned in their clients in Pyongyang. What we have here, as is often the case in political science and international relations, is the headlines providing us with a teachable moment. To be sure, if there is anyone that can apply substantive and meaningful pressure on Pyongyang it is Beijing. China is literally the Hermit Kingdom's lifeline, providing North Korea with food, energy, technology and trade. Accordingly, its' dependence on the Chinese is it's Achilles heel. Indeed, were the Chinese so inclined, they could quickly get the Dear Leader's attention by unilaterally exercising this leverage over Pyongyang. In light of the fact the North Koreans warned Washington and not Beijing of it's impending nuclear test, based on the culturally significant loss of face, many would not be surprised if this were to occur. However unlikely that is to happen, though, for any economic sanctions passed by the UN Security Council to have a meaningful impact, Beijing must not only be willing to acquiesce to their imposition, it must also follow on with actual compliance and enforcement. This still begs the question - Why doesn't Beijing exercise it's significant influence over Pyongyang? The answer is simplicity itself, really; it does not serve China's interests to do so. First, there is Beijing's long-standing apprehension towards internationally-sanctioned actions that infringe on a state's sovereignty. Take for instance, it's intransigence on sanctioning Khartoum for the long-running genocide in Sudan's Darfur region. Though Beijing maintains considerable economic leverage over the Sudanese government, it has consistently rebuffed calls for both unilateral penalties and international action. Why? The root of their reluctance lies in the fear that should they endorse the legitimacy of such action, that it may be used against them somewhere down the road. Perhaps not this year or even within a decade, but still, there is the fear of the long term implications and dangers such action poses to Beijing and the Communist Party. Remember, the Chinese eschew knee jerk reactions and ad hoc policy for in depth, exhaustive deliberation and evolutionary policy development. There is an emphasis on the long view, considering possibilities and ramifications decades and even a century into the future. If China accepts that states can be internationally sanctioned and punished for exercising their sovereign powers in the pursuit of what they deem to be their national interests, then the same standard could be applied to Chinese actions in the future. Whether it be oppression of religious minorities, dealing with Uygur separatists, Tibetan nationalists or the renegade province of Taiwan, Beijing will not tolerate international meddling in it's internal affairs. Not only does it jealously defend that principal, it extends it to other states through incorporation into its' foreign policy. Accordingly, there is an inherent apprehension towards punishing Pyongyang for pursuing what it views to be a critical element to it's national security; despite Beijing's uncharacteristically harsh condemnation this week and it's repeated calls for a denuclearized Korean peninsula. Another factor that stays Beijing's hand is the fact that the status quo benefits it over the long run. With Seoul, Tokyo and Washington repeatedly distracted by Pyongyang's periodic temper tantrums, it allows China to advance it's national interests outside of the spotlight's glare. When strategic planners begin to look warily at Beijing's annual double digit increases in military spending, like clockwork reactors begin to belch smoke and missiles take flight from the nettlesome northern half of the Korean peninsula. The result is China is cast as a stable and responsible regional power in contrast to it's chaotic and provocative neighbor. Similarly, North Korea is also a boon to Beijing in it's capacity as a buffer state between the Middle Kingdom and America's allies in Seoul and Tokyo. Again, China's long view comes into play. However, this time it encompasses the past as well as the future. China still considers the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the rape of Nanking as unforgivable sins and indelible stains on her honor. Both immediately prior to and during Japan's brutal Chinese aggression, it used an annexed Korea as a staging ground for troops and supplies. That memory, along with Japan serving as the jumping off point for America's projection of political and military power into the Asian continent, makes Tokyo a strategic threat. Furthermore, there is the fear that should reconciliation and reunification eventually occur on the Peninsula, the end result will be a democratic ally of Washington on China's border. Though it will admittedly take years, if not decades for economic and social integration ala the German model, Beijing views Korean reunification as a direct, long term threat to it's national security. Finally, Beijing is loath to seriously consider substantive action against Pyongyang for fear of the calamities and chaos that would accompany a collapse of the regime. Should the regime implode or falter, the potential exists for a humanitarian crisis of the first order. A collapse of authority would trigger a flood of refugees in the millions headed both south to their estranged brothers and north to their Chinese neighbors. Fearing the destabilizing effects and economic expense of massive amounts of desperate Koreans, Beijing may be compelled to deploy troops across the border, directly into Korean territory. The public rationale would be to maintain order and stability while providing aid and relief. In truth, the objective would be to establish a buffer to hold back the human wave and to keep Korean refugees in camps on Korean soil. Accordingly, Beijing sees neither regime collapse or peninsular reunification in it's national interests. Thus, for reasons both selfish and geopolitical, China is happy to maintain the status quo and endure the rants and raves of the Dear Leader and his committed cadre in Pyongyang; however unnerving and tense it may be from time to time. Same as it ever was, faithful readers. Same as it ever was. Stay tuned for further updates as events warrant and we see what breathtaking display Pyongyang has in store in it's burgeoning box of menacing missilry.