The Skeptics

Why America Must Find a Diplomatic Solution to the North Korea Crisis

Such a diplomatic initiative would not only reduce the looming danger of a cataclysmic war in Northeast Asia, it would likely have a positive impact on China’s policy. Beijing might be willing to apply greater pressure on North Korea if Pyongyang spurned Washington’s conciliatory moves and continued its reckless, provocative conduct. There is little question that Beijing is increasingly displeased with the behavior of its ally. The notion circulating in some conservative U.S. political circles that the Chinese are playing a double game and really don’t mind a volatile, nuclear-armed North Korea causing problems for the United States and its East Asian allies is the stuff of paranoid fantasy. Beijing’s warnings to Pyongyang concerning its nuclear and missile tests have become ever more pointed in recent years. China has now even endorsed and begun to implement the most recent round of UN-mandated sanctions against the DPRK.

If a genuine attempt by Washington to negotiate a “grand bargain” with North Korea failed to produce results, Beijing’s annoyance with its North Korean client would likely intensify. Chinese leaders have been reluctant to put maximum pressure on Pyongyang for a variety of reasons. They worry that such coercion might cause Pyongyang to lash out and engage in even more risky military provocations, thereby triggering the very war that everyone wants to prevent. Even if that nightmare did not occur, cutting off food and energy aid might cause the North Korean state to unravel. Among many other potential problems, that development would lead to massive refugee flows into China.

But if it becomes clear to Chinese leaders that Kim Jong-un’s regime will not accept even the most reasonable compromise agreement, they may well be inclined to incur such risks to put a leash on their dangerously disruptive client. That step is even more likely if the Trump administration sweetens the incentives by offering explicit guarantees that Washington will not exploit a possible demise of the North Korean state to enhance U.S. power on the Korean Peninsula.

In any case, we have little to lose by offering to engage Pyongyang in serious negotiations. The alternatives to that approach are much worse. One would be to watch the DPRK soon become a full-fledged nuclear-weapons power akin to Pakistan, along with a fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the American homeland. The other option would be to launch a perilous preemptive war to destroy those capabilities. Attempting to achieve a grand diplomatic bargain is far preferable to either of those scenarios.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author or coauthor of ten books, including The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), the contributing editor of ten books, and the author of more than 650 articles on international affairs.

Image: Missiles are driven past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other high ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj​

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