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.

Ng Han Guan/AP/File
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (r.) waves as North Korean military officers clap at a stadium in Pyongyang during a mass meeting called by the Central Committee of North Korea's ruling party in April 2012. Any efforts at diffusing the North Korean crisis through diplomacy would hinge on Kim.

Whether diplomacy may yet ease the spiraling tensions on the Korean peninsula, amid increasingly provocative steps by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, hangs on two key factors: neighboring China’s assessment of the situation and Mr. Kim’s internal standing.

Both are difficult for US diplomats to gauge, though Secretary of State John Kerry will be in Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo later this week, in part to try to enlist China’s help in bringing the tense military stare-down to a nonviolent end.

First, say some experts on the region, Mr. Kerry will need to ascertain whether China is worried enough about the potential effects of Kim’s fiery threats to lay aside its suspicions about long-term US intentions in the region – heightened by President Obama’s announced intent to “pivot” to Asia. (On Tuesday, North Korea repeated an old pledge to engulf Seoul, South Korea’s capital, in a “thermo-nuclear inferno” and warned foreigners to flee.)

As for the second factor, Kim himself, the question is whether North Korea’s young leader has, by ratcheting up tensions, reinforced his hold on domestic power to the point that he can pull back from his aggressive posture.

“I do think we’re going to see some action” from Kim – perhaps another missile test in the coming days – “and then some dialing back,” says Andrew Scobell, a senior political scientist focusing on US-China relations at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. “He’s got to be concerned about his internal control.”

The US, for its part, is looking to China to put the brakes on its troublesome ally – hence Kerry’s upcoming stop in Beijing Saturday and Mr. Obama’s phone call last week with China’s new leader, President Xi Jinping. China, though, is reluctant to pressure Pyongyang in ways that might benefit the US standing in the region, Mr. Scobell says.

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.

“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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