Barring such a miracle, the status quo, as Wang argued, is untenable. North Korea is on the brink of a nuclear breakout. With its recent advances, the Kim Jong Un regime may acquire a large number of powerful nuclear warheads and the long-range missiles to deliver them, posing a direct threat to America. A burgeoning nuclear arsenal would also tempt a cash-starved North Korea to proliferate nuclear materials and missiles in exchange for foreign currency.
Such developments would force the United States and its regional allies, Japan and South Korea, to beef up their deterrence and even consider pre-emptive strikes to defang Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. The military deployment required for such efforts, such as the recent installation of Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an advanced anti-missile system, will raise fears in China. Beijing, as is widely reported in the Chinese press, believes that the United States wants to use the brewing crisis on the Korean peninsula as a pretext to introduce capabilities that will make the Chinese military more vulnerable. As a result, China regards the U.S. response, not North Korean provocations, as the primary threat to its security. This underlying dynamic could eventually spark a collision between China and the United States.
If Beijing’s current policy risks such a disaster, the alternatives are hardly more palatable. China may be tempted to increase its aid to North Korea in hopes of bribing Kim Jong Un to slow his nuclear and missile programs. But the chances of success for such a strategy are slim. Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are at an all-time low, with the Chinese and the North Koreans barely on speaking terms. And an increase in Chinese support would risk violating UN sanctions. The Kim regime would also view such an about face by Beijing as an acknowledgement that its policy of penalizing Pyongyang for its provocations was wrong headed, and fresh Chinese aid as compensation for its mistake. In any case, North Korea has a track record of taking Chinese aid without moderating its behavior. The Kim dynasty knows perfectly well that China values North Korea as a strategic buffer so much that it simply cannot afford to lose it.
Another alternative would be a complete reversal of China’s current stance. Under this scenario, rather than keeping North Korea on life support, China would work with the United States to force Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear ambitions. This revolutionary shift in policy would require that Beijing demonstrate it is prepared to tolerate the collapse of the Kim dynasty, whatever the costs or consequences.
In practical terms, executing such a policy would necessitate strategic trust between China and the United States. Both sides would have to engage in a serious dialogue on the endgame in North Korea. Negotiations over that endgame would include the restoration of peace and security in the event of the Kim regime’s collapse. North Korea’s nuclear weapons and materials would have to be secured through a combined American, Chinese, and South Korean effort. This would require joint planning over issues such as demarcation lines, temporary settlement of refugees, and disposal of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.