North Korea is a relatively small country (120,500 km2) with the same population of Shanghai (around 25 million), yet it is causing great alarm by bragging about its nuclear capability and its ability to launch long range ballistic missiles that can reach the United States.
It’s a threat that has been aired recurrently for many years without it being taken too seriously as it was believed that the North Korean regime was technologically unable to carry it out. This might have been true in the past whereas at present the threat appears to be real and has triggered an international crisis that could escalate out of control.
Washington has taken a hard-line warning Pyongyang that “all options are on the table” and sending to the Korean peninsula an aircraft carrier accompanied by a strike force of two destroyers and a cruiser.
China is being pressured by the US government to find a way to force North Korea to stop its provocative behaviour and give up its nuclear and missile program. The last thing Beijing needs in this juncture is to be pushed to align with the confrontational posture impulsively adopted bythe Trump administration—an option China can hardly consider since, on top of undermining its independent judgement and its policy of non-interference in the internal or external affairs of other countries, it would be likely to intensify the crisis.
Nonetheless China cannot afford looking the other way. If North Korea does not recede from threatening a nuclear attack against the United States, its own security and interests are at stake. Its only course of action is diplomacy however flimsy a diplomatic solution presently appears after the failure of Beijing’s attempts to send emissaries to Pyongyang over the past week.
But tactfulness and persuasiveness are distinctive traits of President Xi Jinping’s statesmanship which have transpired since he took over the reins of the Chinese government and started expanding China’s network of international relations throughout the world. The positive outcome of his recent face-to-face meeting with President Trump in Florida further confirmed his negotiating skills.
Western media analysts were unanimous in predicting an uptight summit on account of President Trump’s heated claims over China’s trade comparative advantage but President Xi was able to inject reason and goodwill in his counterpart’s bombastic temperament.
The task of subduing the bull-headed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un isa more complicated one and requires a comprehension of the motives behind it. As pointed out by an American political scientist who has been meeting with North Korean government officials for over two decades, Pyongyang has a longstanding and deeply ingrained view that Washington’s real agenda is to get rid of the North Korean regime because of the military threat it poses to American allies like South Korea and Japan and now to US itself.
It is necessary therefore that Washington restrains from taking military action and lets China assume an intermediary role with a mandate from the United Nations Security Council to seekto break the deadlock. The objective of course would be to bring about a resumption of negotiations between the two sides which would necessarily imply Pyongyang relinquishing its nuclear and missile program in exchange of the United States formally renouncing any hostile intentions toward North Korea. This is the only reasonable way for China contributing to a peaceful solution of the crisis.
Elenoire Laudieri Di Biase( Twitter account: @ElaudierLaudier ), sinologist from the Melbourne University, Australia, is an expert on international diplomacy and psychoanalysis. Senior analyst on China at the Nato Defense College Foundation.