So the smart thing for China, surely, would be to let the irredeemable North rot to the point of collapse; have the South absorb it German-style, which would keep it busy for quite some time; and lure this unified Korea out of Uncle Sam's embrace into the neutrality that most Koreans in their heart of hearts have always craved. Shouldn't be too hard, really.
It might have gone that way, if the balance of various forces -- in Beijing, Pyongyang, Seoul and elsewhere -- had been even a little different. But they weren't, and now it won't. Instead, as the Korea expert Victor Cha -- of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and lately of the George W. Bush administration -- wrote recently, China has made the strategic decision that a unified Korea which is South Korea writ large, and as such a U.S. ally, goes fundamentally against its interests.
Hence Beijing's support, or as good as, over the Cheonan and the shelling. China is pursuing its own agenda on North Korea, and no one can stop it. It will tolerate some provocations, to show the Kims they can trust it not to let them down. But there is a limit, and a price or two.
First, Beijing will not pour money into a broken system. North Korea must fix itself first. That means finally embracing markets, as Deng Xiaoping first urged a much younger Kim Jong Il 30 years ago. (Imagine if the Dear Leader had heeded him then.)
Second, the roguery has to stop, if not all right away. That means no more nuclear tests, and in the long run denuclearization -- perhaps in exchange for a Chinese security guarantee.
What if the Kims won't play ball? Then China has its own Kim who will. No. 1 son Kim Jong Nam went strikingly off message last month, raining on little brother's parade by saying he was against a third generation succession. Who did he say this to? Japan's Asahi newspaper. Where did he say it? In Beijing, where evidently he still lives -- and is protected.
True, a regime so introverted, vicious, and world-historically stupid as North Korea's could yet foul up. The Kims may chafe and rattle their new cage. It could all go wrong, for China and them.
But if they have an ounce of sense, they must know the old game is up. Militant mendicancy won't cut it any more; no one will buy that old horse again. There is only China. Meanwhile their hungry subjects watch pirated South Korean DVDs, and grow restive.
Bottom line: North Korea's nomenklatura needs a sugar daddy. If you were they, on whose tender mercies would you throw yourself: Lee Myung-bak, or Xi Jinping? That's surely a no-brainer. They know how it went in Germany. Becoming China's satellite is humiliating -- but better than ceasing to exist, in whatever sense.
Finally, should the rest of us mind? We can do precious little anyway. Let the Chinese have the burden of dragging the DPRK into the 21st century; that will keep them busy. It's galling for South Korea, which claims the whole peninsula. But even in Seoul, if honest, they may breathe a sigh of relief for the poisoned chalice to fall to someone else.
And who knows? A decade or two down the line, a by-then-more-normal and half-rich North Korea may slough off the Chinese yoke and seek unification with the South. For the latter, that's a more feasible project than right now, which is a case of "one country, two planets."
So frankly, sending the USS George Washington, and all the U.N. resolutions and sanctions, and the Six Party Talks, in fact all the paraphernalia of the past decade and more, are by the by. None of it has worked, and none of it now counts. China has a plan: its own plan. Beijing may go through the motions and play along with our old game a bit, for form's sake. But the truth is, they have a new game. We shall all have to get used to it, and stop pretending.