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Will China Solve the North Korea Problem?: The United States Should Develop a Diplomatic Strategy to Persuade Beijing to Help

Northeast Asia is perhaps the world’s most dangerous flashpoint, with three neighboring nuclear powers including the highly unpredictable and confrontational North Korea. For nearly a quarter century the United States has alternated between engagement and containment in attempting to prevent Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has grown increasingly frustrated with its nominal ally, but the PRC continues to provide the DPRK with regime-sustaining energy and food aid. The United States and South Korea, in turn, have grown frustrated with Beijing, which is widely seen as the solution to the North Korea problem.

From China’s standpoint, the possible consequences of a North Korean collapse—loose nukes, mass refugee flows, conflict spilling over its border—could be high. The Chinese leadership also blames Washington for creating a threatening security environment that discourages North Korean denuclearization.

Thus, the United States should change tactics. Instead of attempting to dictate, the United States must persuade the Chinese leadership that it is in the PRC’s interest to assist America and U.S. allies. That requires addressing China’s concerns by, for instance, more effectively engaging the North with a peace offer, offering to ameliorate the costs of a North Korean collapse to Beijing, and providing credible assurances that Washington would not turn a united Korea into another U.S. military outpost directed at the PRC’s containment. Such a diplomatic initiative still would face strong resistance in Beijing. But it may be the best alternative available.

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