How the U.S. Can Influence China to Abandon North Korea

In a photo taken on July 27, 2013 North Korean soldiers march on Kim Il-Sung square during a military parade marking the 60th
In a photo taken on July 27, 2013 North Korean soldiers march on Kim Il-Sung square during a military parade marking the 60th anniversary of the Korean war armistice in Pyongyang. North Korea mounted its largest ever military parade July 27 to mark the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War, displaying its long-range missiles at a ceremony presided over by leader Kim Jong-Un. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

DENVER -- Nowadays, all eyes are on North Korea's alleged newfound cyber capabilities. If the recent attack on Sony Pictures' computers really did originate there, as United States officials charge, was it an act of sabotage, vandalism, terrorism, or, to use neo-conservatives' favorite word (especially during the holiday season), war?

Whatever the merits of the U.S. allegation (about which there is some skepticism), North Korea's human rights record has also come under renewed -- and well-deserved -- scrutiny. Whether this development leads anywhere -- namely, to North Korea's referral to the International Criminal Court -- will depend on decisions taken by the United Nations Security Council.

Given that China and Russia -- veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council -- oppose action in such matters, the discussion will probably not get that far. But, at a minimum, the debate, in the words of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, "shines a light" on North Korea's "abysmal human rights record," and the need for some accounting of that record.

Countries throughout the world get away with bad human rights records. Some get away with cross-border cyber attacks. A few even get away with maintaining nuclear programs. But rarely does a country pursue all of them, as North Korea evidently is.

But times are changing. Anyone who has visited China lately knows that whether the Chinese ultimately -- and for their own reasons -- prevent North Korea from being referred to the ICC, they are fed up with their client state's behavior. In a part of the world where politics relies heavily on symbols, China has not invited North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to visit Beijing since he assumed power in 2012, and it appears unlikely to do so anytime soon.

China's official explanation for this lapse is that the time is not appropriate -- a line that obviously is open to interpretation and change. For now, however, it appears that China's shunning of Kim is becoming etched in stone.

When Kim assumed power, he immediately threatened war with the U.S., posing with his generals beneath a map that showed missiles aimed at North America. Kim ultimately settled for another way to express his leadership: arresting his uncle (and the regime's China hand) at a party meeting and putting him to death. Whatever their own challenges, China's leaders know that they cannot rely on the "Young General."

China's motivations in managing North Korea are complex. But, increasingly, the many issues wrapped up in the bilateral relationship are anachronistic. For China, mending relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors, which have been damaged by territorial disputes, is a higher priority. That process is already underway, as China now appears willing to address the disputes multilaterally, through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Similar tensions with Japan have been allowed to fester, benefiting neither side.

But the North Korean problem is different. Assuming that China's leaders are aware that their relationship with one of the world's worst behaved regimes will not further their goal of global engagement, the U.S. should consider how it could influence Chinese policy.

Too often, China and the U.S. address the issue of North Korea in a formulaic way, with the Chinese declaring that they "support dialogue," while the U.S. urges China to do more, without specifying what. For the U.S., the goal should be to persuade the Chinese to make deterring North Korean rogue behavior a higher priority. That means communicating to the Chinese more clearly where North Korea stands among its own priorities.

In particular, China needs to know how the U.S. views future arrangements on the Korean Peninsula. Of all of China's worries about North Korea, the most serious is that regime collapse -- probably followed by state failure -- could be perceived as a Chinese defeat and a U.S. victory, with Korea reunified as part of the U.S. alliance system. Giving one another access to deep thinking on the issue could be the best means to encourage cooperation and, most important, a doctrine of "no surprises." The Chinese today frequently discuss a policy of "great country relations" and "win-win" arrangements. The U.S. must work with them on that concept.

Moreover, the U.S. should encourage better relations between China and South Korea. It is widely believed in the region that the U.S. frowns upon closer relations, as if more China in South Korea's future means less America. In fact, there is plenty of room for everyone, and the sooner China feels comfortable with the Republic of Korea as an immediate neighbor, the better for everyone.

Hollywood, human rights, and cyber security are not issues that China is particularly comfortable addressing. But their confluence attests to the need for better channels of Sino-American cooperation on North Korea. Whatever U.S. President Barack Obama's administration means by the phrase "strategic patience," there has probably been a little too much of it in recent years. The time has come for strategic reengagement with China. North Korea is not a problem that will solve itself.

This piece also appeared in Project Syndicate. © Project Syndicate

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    In this June 20, 2014 photo, a North Korean man stands in front of a row of homes in the town of Kimchaek, in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 20, 2014 photo, an exclamation point punctuates a long propaganda slogan in a field in North Korea's North Hamgy
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    In this June 20, 2014 photo, an exclamation point punctuates a long propaganda slogan in a field in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 19, 2014 photo, residents of a small roadside town walk towards the main road in North Korea's North Hamgyong. (
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 19, 2014 photo, residents of a small roadside town walk towards the main road in North Korea's North Hamgyong. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 19, 2014 photo, a North Korean man pushes his bicycle to a village in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP
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    In this June 19, 2014 photo, a North Korean man pushes his bicycle to a village in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, North Korean men ride in a farmer's wagon in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, North Korean men ride in a farmer's wagon in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 20, 2014 photo, North Korean people rest next to the railroad tracks in a town in North Korea's North Hamgyong p
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    In this June 20, 2014 photo, North Korean people rest next to the railroad tracks in a town in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this Saturday, June 21, 2014 photo North Koreans walk in front of an apartment building in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 21, 2014 photo a monument of a fist holding a bayonetted Kalashnikov rifle stands on a roadside in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 20, 2014 photo, exhaust fumes, like fog, spills out of the long Hamgwan Tunnel near Hamhung in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 15, 2014 photo, an apartment block stands behind hotel room curtains on the main street in Hamhung, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 15, 2014 photo, the remains of lunch sits on a restaurant table in the city of Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 14, 2014 photo, portraits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are illuminated on a building side as the sun rises over Pyongyang. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, statues of animals playing musical instruments stand along the roadside south of Samsu, North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, walks with a pink umbrella along the roadside south of Samsu, North Korea in Ryanggang p
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, walks with a pink umbrella along the roadside south of Samsu, North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, farmers walk in a rainstorm with their cattle near the town of Hyesan, North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, boys play soccer in the town of Hyesan in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, North Korean men share a picnic lunch and North Korean-brewed and bottled Taedonggang beer along the road in North Korea's North Hwanghae province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 16, 2014 photo, a fishing boat crosses the Samsu reservoir near the town of Samsu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a deer's hoof used as a door handle, hangs from the front door of the home where North Koreans say the late leader Kim Jong Il was born around Mount Paektu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man holds a hand drawn map of the areas around Mt. Paektu as he and colleagues drive in Samjiyon in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man sits by a cooking fire he built to roast potatoes and chicken in the town of Samjiyon, in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man takes shelter in the rain next to long propaganda billboards in the town of Samjiyon in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 18, 2014 photo, the Associated Press vehicle climbs the slopes of Mount Paektu in North Korea's in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In June 18, 2014 photo, a boulder lies on a path near the peak of Mount Paektu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. North Koreans venerate Mount Paektu for its natural beauty, but more importantly because it is considered the home of the North Korean revolution. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 19, 2014 photo, smoke stacks of a factories stand behind a compound wall along a street in the city of Chongjin, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this Thursday, June 19, 2014 photo, North Korean women sit in their small food stalls in front of apartment blocks on the outskirts of Chongjin, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 19, 2014 photo, a hotel employee walks in the lobby of a hotel that accommodates foreign visitors in Chongjin, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 21, 2014 photo, a row of bicycles are parked next to the sea Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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    In this June 21, 2014 photo, a group of young North Koreans enjoys a picnic on the beach in Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 21, 2014 photo, a man works on his car as others sit next to the sea Wonsan, North Korea.  (AP Photo/David Gutte
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    In this June 21, 2014 photo, a man works on his car as others sit next to the sea Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)