It is foolish to expect China to pressure North Korea enough to willingly end its program. Even if provided enormous inducements, China will only provide lip service, and will not take actions that would destabilize the North and result in a flood of refugees and a democratic, U.S.-backed state on its border. Rather, China will pressure the United States to make its own concessions, such as ceasing exercises and reversing the deployment of the THAAD missile system, in exchange for a freeze on the North’s program. These actions must be non-starters.
If the international community wants to negotiate productively with the current North Korean regime, it has no choice but to modify the pre-condition it had imposed, and accept at the outset that the DPRK has nuclear capability. Otherwise, any new negotiations will be doomed to failure.
The goal must be to arrest the brinkmanship strategies employed by both Washington and Pyongyang. Such a process necessitates recalibrating expectations, strategies and engagements through the new lens of accepting North Korea’s nuclear capabilities: a process only Beijing can facilitate and lead.
We still have a shrinking window of time in which to try (again) the diplomatic and economic approaches. The only way things would end differently is if we could get China to finally agree to exert real leverage on Kim’s regime. The Chinese would want to extract a price for doing so — which could include a combination of more of a free hand in the South China Sea, reduced U.S. engagement with South Korea, fewer military exercises in the region, weakening U.S. security guarantees to Taiwan, favorable trade relations, no secondary sanctions on Chinese businesses, and guarantees that the Korean peninsula would remain divided.
Zhu Feng of Nanjing University, declaring himself “a little more pessimistic” than his fellow panelists, said the choices are coming down to the United States intervening militarily and China abandoning the regime of Kim Jong-un in order to put the brakes on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.