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Washington and Beijing have to accept that there can be no more business as usual in dealing with the Kim regime. The two principal actors in this crisis have to work towards political change in North Korea through a new regional order in East Asia.

Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang.

Once again, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program agitates East Asia and the world. “The land of lousy options,” is how Victor Cha, Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the White House’s top advisor on North Korea under President George W. Bush, once dubbed the global security threat presented by the Kim regime.

This is true – but so far, the problem also has been tackled with lousy strategies by the two principal outside powers, the United States and China. In their different ways, both Beijing and Washington have kicked the can down the road, hoping that something eventually would turn up to dissolve the threat of weapons of mass destruction. For the U.S. (and its allies in Seoul), that “something” was the collapse of the brutish family regime in Pyongyang; for China, it was the conversion of North Korea to the Chinese model of economic reform under “enlightened” one-party rule.

North Korea’s zero-sum game

Neither hope has come true in the quarter century since the end of the Cold War. That suggests it is time for a re-think in both Washington and Beijing. This needs to start with a realistic assessment of the characteristics, the interests and strategies of the regime in Pyongyang. The Kim family has built up a political system that resembles more a territorially organized cult or crime syndicate than a normal state. It owes its survival to indoctrination, exploitation and brutal repression at home and to subsidies and the extortion of resources from abroad. It practices politics as a zero-sum game of survival or death. Its preferred mode of dealing with internal enemies is extinction, even in the case of close blood relatives.  

North Korea’s political and social structure has not fallen into anarchy, as would be the case in a typical failed state. The ruling regime has maintained its firm grip on power, but it has long ceased to provide a path forward for its population, turning it into a “zombie state”: undead and dangerous. If there ever was a justification to apply the (now all but defunct) United Nations doctrine of R2P (Responsibility to Protect), the international community would have to protect the unfortunate North Korean people by freeing them from their regime.

This is, alas, out of the question as things stand on the Korean peninsula. It does suggest, however, that the international community needs to do more than just practice “strategic patience,” as Washington has done under the Obama administration, or keep North Korea afloat through subsidies as a buffer, as Beijing has chosen to do. Kim Jong-un, the ruling representative of the Kim dynasty, is in his early thirties. This means that he could easily tyrannize his country for another thirty years, perfecting his arsenal of nasty weapons and dirty tricks. The regime’s track record suggests that it will use this arsenal to blackmail the rest of the world into upholding the system, and that this strategy will be quite successful for those in power in Pyongyang (even if the population will be made to suffer even more).

The world cannot wait several further decades

Something may well turn up, of course, to spare the region, and the world, such a future. The regime might be hollowed out and even collapse, undermined by the rampant corruption within its ranks. Or the man at the top might fall victim to his own methods of resolving conflicts. Yet even the possibility of regime survival for further decades should give the neighbors pause for thought before they decide to kick the can down the road some more.

So what could be done? It is obvious that Washington and Beijing need to cooperate on the North Korean conundrum. They have done so, on and off, already for some time, sometimes openly, through the Six-Party-Talks or by imposing economic sanctions through the UN Security Council, sometimes behind the scenes by discussing scenarios for the case of regime collapse in Pyongyang.

Their cooperation would need to be a lot bolder, however, and shift its focus. Rather than managing the threats from Pyongyang directly, Beijing and Washington should concentrate on designing new arrangements of regional order in East Asia that would reconcile their mutual interests, as well as those of the other countries in the region. This means settling all open border issues, including maritime claims, the future of the U.S. military presence and its security alliances, the rehabilitation of North Korea and the regional institutions required to provide appropriate security assurances. The Six-Party-Talk framework could offer a good starting point for designing such a new regional order.

How North Korea can bring Washington and Beijing together

The basic principles of that order, however, would have to be hammered out first by the two principals, the U.S. and China. To do so, the two would need to overcome their strategic distrust. This would no doubt be difficult, but it is not inconceivable. By working together on forging a new regional order, however, Washington and Beijing would be able to better resist Pyongyang’s blackmail and undercut its strategic ability to play off China and the U.S. against each other. Such a joint effort would also have huge benefits for the overall relationship of China and the U.S. in East Asia, and beyond.

For better or worse, therefore, the North Korean problem seems destined to serve as a catalyst for far-reaching changes, in the region and possibly beyond. Addressing the risks and opportunities of this situation with the “strategic patience” that both Washington and China have shown so far is no better than hoping for luck while resigning oneself to the course of events.

Shen Zhihua, one of China’s most renowned researchers on relations between China and Korea, gets it right when he argues that China should stop supporting North Korea. The fact that he can make this case publicly is encouraging: it suggests that Beijing is pondering a change of policy. It is also encouraging that the Trump administration so far has handled the Korean conundrum reasonably well, and seems willing to work with China.

The Korea crisis has the potential to bring the U.S. and China closer together – if leaders in Beijing and Washington are willing to rise to the Occasion.