With more nuclear tests, a demand for nuclear weapons could grow in South Korea and Japan. Moreover, if this spring’s sharp rhetoric from the Kim regime is followed by provocations against South Korea like those that occurred in 2010, South Korea could respond forcefully, and China might be drawn in.
The signs of a change are intriguing. Following the “frank” discussion of North Korea by Xi and Obama, Xi hosted a summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, without first meeting with its official North Korean ally. Instead, two senior North Korean officials subsequently visited Beijing and were scolded for the North’s behavior.
By contrast, Xi and Park issued a joint statement proclaiming the importance of faithfully implementing UN Security Council resolutions that call for sanctions against North Korea, as well as a multilateral agreement in 2005 that obliges the North to exchange its nuclear-weapons programs for economic and diplomatic benefits. Both leaders urged a resumption of the six-party talks on denuclearization, which have been suspended since 2009.
What comes next is uncertain. North Korea has tempered its rhetoric and behavior, but the Kim regime has given no indication that it is willing to give up the nuclear-weapons program that it regards as vital to its security and prestige.
In the long run, economic and social change may help to resolve the situation. China’s dilemma remains that if it pushes too fast for reform, the Kim regime may collapse.
Faced with that prospect, the US and South Korea could take steps to reassure China that they would not exploit such a situation by moving their troops through North Korea to China’s border.
In the past, when the US has suggested quiet talks to discuss contingency planning in the case of regime collapse, China has been wary of offending and weakening North Korea. However, finding a formula to talk about such contingencies may be the next step for China as it seeks to overcome its quandary.
Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate