But whether Sino-U.S. cooperation is close or strained, China’s position is critical in dealing with North Korea. As a United Nations Permanent Five Security Council member, any UN effort to do more than exhort North Korea to behave must include China. UN Security Council Resolution 1718 is a positive example, enacted with U.S. leadership and reflecting intense Chinese unhappiness about the nuclear tests. The resolution includes serious sanctions, but it has not been effectively enforced.
China is the key to any kind of sanctions regime on North Korea—geographically with its long border as well as politically. Without active Chinese support no such efforts will work.
So North Korea and its nuclear weapons are a broadly shared regional and nonproliferation concern, yet our partners implicitly constrain what the United States can do. Military action—if only given the damage likely to our South Korean ally—is a poor choice. Our past practice of always repeating that “all options remain on the table” never frightened the North Koreans, but it gave them something they could claim was “hostility.” And it did alarm and frighten our allies.
Diplomacy is not the same as accommodation. The very process assures that acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state is not a fait accompli, nor is it seen as such. The United States can take note of North Korean weapons and it can also make clear that it will not rest until the situation is corrected. Washington now has much experience with Pyongyang. A false, partial solution being portrayed as a breakthrough is not in the cards and is very unlikely. In Congress, specifically, neither party will accept a “make believe” solution. “CVID”—complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement—remains American policy and is unlikely to be changed.
Alternatives to the patient and painstaking work in the six-party talks and its working groups remain few and unattractive. It is a nonproliferation problem that must be solved in a regional context. In doing so, the six-party talks:
•Keep ongoing pressure on the DPRK, if only in its relations with China and South Korea, its principal sources of food, fuel and money.
•Have generated useful commitments, even if not decisive ones. The September 2005 agreement—which sets a goal of nuclear disarmament accepted by the North and all five others—does put pressure on Pyongyang.
•Resonate as U.S.-China cooperation in a useful way. China has come to enjoy the benefits it sees as the talks’ host.
•Ensure steadfastness and help coordination in the U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea.
•Provide a useful mechanism if and when internal tectonic shifts in the DPRK make it newly amenable to a serious settlement. North Korea—beyond any transition—is now exposed to information and economic contacts from outside, as it has never experienced before. It will change—probably fracture—someday sooner than many expect. We cannot count on that, but it argues for having the key players continually engaged.