- - Tuesday, November 26, 2019

As China goes, so goes North Korea. It’s an obvious takeaway from the recent contentious behavior of the Asian giant that is imitated by its junior partner. Satirist Mark Twain once said, “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” Based on his thorny dealings with the troublesome duo, President Trump would likely say the same about a bad example.

The People’s Republic of China is engaged in a game of feigns and jabs over trade and human rights with the United States. The task falls on Mr. Trump to meet the extraordinary challenge of threading the needle between the need for respectful negotiations essential to finalizing a pending trade pact and the expectation that he deliver blunt criticism of the mainland’s intrusion into Hong Kong’s longstanding autonomy.

Likewise, the president’s bargaining skills are taxed to the max by North Korea’s on-again, off-again interest in trading its nuclear armaments for commitments of economic development that could end the poverty wrought by its self-imposed isolation.

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A U.S.-China trade agreement showed renewed promise last Thursday when Chinese Vice Premier Liu He reportedly invited U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to Beijing for a new round of talks regarding the first phase of the proposed pact. So far, U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods total $550 billion, with more slated to take effect Dec. 15.

It’s likely no coincidence that China’s invitation came just as the U.S. House and Senate passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would authorize U.S. economic sanctions against Chinese officials and link trade relations with a review of China’s human rights record. Bristling at a move viewed as U.S. encroachment, China vowed to respond with “strong countermeasures.”

With a deal hanging in the balance, Mr. Trump said Friday that he may veto the act in order to avoid an impasse at the trade bargaining table. “I stand with freedom, I stand with all of the things that I want to do, but we are also in the process of making one of the largest trade deals in history,” he told Fox News in a Friday interview.

Watching from his provincial redoubt of Pyongyang, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has witnessed the negotiating style employed by his ancestral cousins. In similar fashion, the youthful leader models Mao Zedong in dress and hairstyle while alternately extending an open hand and a clenched fist toward Mr. Trump in their multi-year mediation over denuclearization.

In a show of good faith, Mr. Kim blew up a nuclear test site in May 2018, but then shut down a U.S.-North Korean summit in Hanoi earlier this year over Mr. Trump’s refusal to lift a raft of U.S. sanctions.

The U.S. president has recently attempted to kick-start languishing talks, ordering the postponement of planned U.S.-South Korean military exercises as a good-will gesture. Sensing weakness from Washington, the North has upped the price for an end to the stalemate: “The U.S. tries to make a good impression as if it contributes to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, describing the suspension as ‘consideration for and concession’ to someone,” read a statement from the Korean Central News Agency. “But we demand that the U.S. drop out of the drill or stop it once and for all.”

Hurling bold demands at the White House demonstrates that Mr. Kim’s tutorials in Beijing have yielded a certain mastery of the diplomatic arts but, as English poet Alexander Pope observed, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

Mr. Kim should have already understood the fact that while Mr. Trump has shown him the face of friendship, the same U.S. Navy task force that brought him to the bargaining table once can do so again.

Moreover, the passions of oppression’s enemies are currently rising, to North Korea’s detriment. The parents of Otto Warmbier, a U.S. college student who died in 2017 following horrific mistreatment in a North Korean prison for the mistake of swiping a poster, are marshaling a campaign to shut down illegal North Korean businesses around the world in retribution for its refusal to halt human rights abuses.

Playing hard to get with Mr. Trump is clearly intentional on the part of China and its acolyte North Korea. But they may be playing the long game on a short field. When time runs out, laggards get left out

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