FROM THE ANTHOLOGY: North Korea and the Bomb

The China Option

Progress in Pyongyang Must Go Through Beijing

Chinese and North Korean flags outside a restaurant in Ningbo, China, April 2016. Reuters

Among the challenges faced by the next president of the United States, perhaps none will be as serious as the question of how to deal with North Korea. The presence of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula is already a potential tripwire for war, and Pyongyang is seeking to develop the capability to strike the United States itself. And although U.S. officials routinely affirm that they will not accept the North as a nuclear power, it has become one nonetheless. Washington seems powerless to influence Pyongyang’s behavior.

For many analysts and officials seeking a breakthrough with North Korea, China is the last hope. As Pyongyang’s only ally and diplomatic and economic lifeline, China is thought to have a unique ability to influence the regime, and the United States has frequently sought its cooperation. Yet despite some deterioration in Chinese­–North Korean relations in recent years, Beijing appears to have recently warmed to Pyongyang, relaxing economic controls imposed after the latter’s nuclear test in early September. In order to convince China to change its Korea policy, the next U.S. administration should therefore try a new approach: addressing the rationale behind China’s strategy.


Washington’s North Korea policy is a wreck. The United States first faced the possibility of a nuclear North more than two decades ago, but hoped that the nightmare would never become reality. The country’s derelict regime couldn’t last forever, U.S. leaders reasoned. The end of the Cold War would transform North Korea, just as it had transformed the ex-communist countries of Eastern Europe. Officials assumed that the peninsula would be reunified, or that China wouldn’t tolerate a northern nuke, or that Pyongyang could be bought off with aid and other benefits. Over the last quarter century U.S. policy thus oscillated between attempts to threaten, bribe, and isolate the North. 

Hopes for change proved to be misplaced. Since the 1990s, North Korea has managed two dynastic successions. The

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