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What hope for diplomacy to defuse North Korea crisis?

Any diplomatic resolution to the North Korea crisis depends upon China's priorities and Kim Jong-un himself. Here's why both are difficult to gauge as Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to travel to the region.

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Successive administrations come into the White House thinking China is the key to “solving” the North Korean problem, he says, but so far they have mostly been disappointed over how far Beijing has been willing to go to rein in the North.

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“The Chinese are more worried about what the US might do than what the North Koreans might do,” says Scobell, co-author of the book, “China’s Search for Security.” China is “worried about what North Korea is doing,” he says, but is “concerned the alternative to this might be even worse.”

What's worse, in China's view? "A nuclear-armed unified Korea aligned with the US," says David Shlapak, Scobell’s colleague at RAND.

In the heat of the North Korean crisis, Beijing has not forgotten its concerns over Obama’s “rebalancing” of US assets and priorities toward Asia, some regional analysts say. Indeed, Scobell believes that Beijing doesn’t see this latest rise in tensions as a crisis – even though China was concerned enough by North Korea’s missile launch and nuclear test this year to support a new round of international sanctions against the North.

But in the US, hopes persist that China will be willing to use its leverage as the North's dominant trade partner and lifeline. Some administration officials and analysts point to China’s Security Council vote for economic sanctions, as well as recent comments by Chinese officials, including President Xi, as evidence that Beijing has become more exasperated by Kim's destabilizing antics.

Kerry will probe such theories while in Beijing.

But even if Beijing is willing to apply pressure to Pyongyang, its influence may matter less to Kim than his own intent to consolidate his position among North Korea's elites – primarily the military. Some reports out of Pyongyang suggest that additional international sanctions, approved by the UN Security Council last month, are being felt, especially by the elites whom Kim needs behind him. The sanctions include measures against the North’s main foreign exchange bank, and bans on exporting to the North the luxury goods the regime uses to keep the elites of the country’s power structure happy.

“We do see some evidence that Chinese goods are being stopped at the border,” says Bruce Bennett, a RAND security analyst specializing in North and South Korea. If blockages of such goods destined for the North continue, that could eventually help to undermine Kim, Mr. Bennett says. But right now, he adds, “it is hard to know where the overlap is” between the effect of sanctions and “just poor [economic] performance in North Korea.” 

In the eyes of some analysts, Kim may be acting to firm up his support among the country’s elites in anticipation that sanctions will pinch harder in the near future. “Anything that negatively impacts their benefits could affect their allegiance to” Kim, says Scobell.

Interpreting Kim’s actions that way may also help explain why China, thought perhaps concerned about rising tensions, does not see the situation as a “crisis” requiring a tough diplomatic offensive.

As for how much new pressure Kerry is likely to get Beijing to apply to Kim, Scobell says, “probably not much.”

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