North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

Thinking outside the box is the refrain that likely guides the action of China and the United States as they try to stop North Korea’s military ambitions, all the more so after Pyongyang conducted its sixth nuclear test on Sunday.

Sanctions and diplomacy are not working against the North Korean regime. Instead, the secretive Asian nation continues to test and fine-tune its weapons at an ever faster pace, even if it is still not clear whether it has really produced a nuclear device that can be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

To end the current deadlock, and put a stop to a dangerous spiral of military escalation in Northeast Asia, Beijing and Washington have to find a “creative” way to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. The decapitation of the Korean leadership through a coordinated effort between them could suit the interests of the two global powers. However, the operation should come with a caveat – that the new government in North Korea remains in the Chinese orbit.

Chinese patience is not unlimited

China is North Korea’s only friend and by far its largest trading partner. But the brinkmanship policy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is increasingly irritating the Chinese dragon. As a result, Beijing is enforcing with more commitment the sanctions that the United Nations Security Council has approved to tackle Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile activities.

Despite China’s fresh cooperation in supporting penalties against North Korea, Chinese leaders continue to say that sanctions alone do not work with Kim and that the US should help de-escalate tensions in the region in return for diplomatic overtures from Pyongyang.

Chinese leaders fear that the imposition of new penalizing restrictions, such as the total ban of oil and gas export to North Korea, would bring about the collapse of Kim’s regime. For China, this would mean the loss of a buffer between its northeastern provinces and South Korea – where about 28,000 US troops are stationed – as well as the possible arrival of millions of North Korean refugees at its borders.

The diplomatic path proposed by China (and Russia) appears more logical than the prospect of a preventive military intervention by Washington. At this point, however, the question is whether Kim is willing to return to the diplomatic table. The impression is that he wants to develop his nuclear and missile deterrent ahead of any possible negotiations.

Faced with the choice between the recognition of a nuclearized North Korea and the traumatic demise of Kim’s rule, Beijing would opt for the first scenario, provided Pyongyang turned out to be a “predictable” actor. That is not the case at the moment. It seems that Kim is challenging his Chinese patron by testing nuclear devices and ballistic missiles in coincidence with Beijing’s important diplomatic and international meetings.

The risk-taking strategy of the North Korean leader is accelerating the militarization of East Asia, but also risks destabilizing China’s domestic order, as Pyongyang’s nuclear tests could eventually turn into a threat for Chinese people living near the Sino-North Korean border. This is a situation that Beijing cannot accept, notably at a time when it is focused on a delicate political and economic transition and is dealing with geopolitical problems in the China Seas and the Himalayas.

Grand bargain

Apart from the formation of a new government aligned with China in Pyongyang, the grand bargain between Beijing and Washington on North Korea should include the permanent denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the pledge that reunification between the North and the South will be postponed for a number of years, a joint plan to handle a possible refugee crisis at the Chinese and South Korean borders with the Hermit Kingdom, and Washington’s commitment to removing its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors from South Korea.

It would be a “give-and-take” arrangement that only aims to bring back stability in the region. Undoubtedly, it smells of Europe’s ancien régime, when the diplomacies of European powers redrew the geopolitical map of the globe in the 1700s and 1800s at the expense of smaller or weaker actors. For instance, South Korea and Russia could turn their noses up at its realization. In particular, Seoul might view it as a limitation of sovereignty, given that it should freeze the process of reunification with the North.

Nonetheless, a negotiated and piloted decapitation/change of the North Korean leadership could prove to be a far more rational option for China and the US than sanctions or ineffective diplomacy, let alone all-out war – and that goes for all other regional players as well.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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