The allies then should present the proposal to the PRC, requesting its full backing in renewed six-party talks. That means successively encouraging, threatening and sanctioning Pyongyang if it does not agree to a proposal which China views as fair. No more awarding Beijing brownie points for getting the North to the table. What would count is getting—and implementing— a meaningful agreement.
Equally important, Washington, South Korea and Japan should make the case that the present situation is volatile and could lead to just the chaos and violence which Beijing currently fears. Indeed, the Kim regime has created a situation where war could easily erupt from a simple miscalculation or mistake.
The three allies also should promise to aid in the care of any refugees. (Any problem would be concentrated in China’s border provinces; the North’s entire population of 23 million comes to less than two percent of the PRC’ s 1.3 billion.) International agencies, like the United Nations, could make a similar commitment.
Moreover, the three governments should engage Russia and indicate that they are prepared to accept Chinese military action in the North should the DPRK state collapse. Interested parties should discuss possible contingencies and respective responsibilities now, to avoid potentially dangerous confrontations in the midst of chaos and conflict.
The United States and the ROK should pledge not to take geopolitical advantage of China. In the event of reunification the “mutual-defense treaty” would be terminated and American troops would go home. The alliance would not be used to contain Beijing.
Washington should encourage China’s other neighbors to lobby Beijing to act as the responsible power which it says it intends to become. Working to defuse the North Korean bomb, both literal and figurative, would ease regional concern over the PRC’s increased assertiveness.
Finally, the United States should privately indicate that it has no intention of remaining forever at nuclear risk in Northeast Asia. The prospect of the North continuing to expand its atomic arsenal would force Washington to reconsider its opposition to South Korea’s and Japan’s acquisition of countervailing weapons. China then would have to deal with the consequences.
Beijing could still say no to Washington. But the effort must be made. The road to Pyongyang runs imperfectly through Beijing. Enlisting the PRC’ s aid in confronting the North will not be easy, but this strategy still offers a better chance of success than any other policy. And the price of failure would be high. The Korean peninsula has reemerged as the most likely fuse for the next big war.