Although the People’s Republic of China has a sizable stake in the US-North Korea standoff, it is maintaining a low public profile this week. Aside from repeated calls for restraint, China has made no official statements on the crisis. There is some speculation that the prolonged border crisis with India is consuming Beijing’s focus at the moment, even as the North Korean situation continues to simmer. With two major crises on its borders right now, China appears to have opted to contend with them individually instead of resorting to diplomatic multitasking. The Doklam standoff is the more urgent situation for the moment with Indian troops still sitting on a piece of ground that Beijing considers to be Chinese territory. China’s distraction from North Korea is understandable, however, it could possibly be missing its window of opportunity to directly influence the crisis and bring it to an end before it escalates out of control.
It is no secret that Beijing has a great deal of influence with the North Korean regime. The PRC is North Korea’s closest ally, and in many regards its only sincere friend on the global stage. It has stood by the North through thick, and thin, propping the regime up when it was necessary and vital to China’s national interests. North Korea’s location is crucial to Chinese security concerns. The country acts as a thick layer of insulation that keeps the influence and military power of South Korea, and the United States at a safe distance. Losing that insulation is not an acceptable outcome for Beijing, as was made apparent in 1950 when China intervened in the Korean War.
A pro-China faction exists in the North Korean regime. Now would be an excellent time for Beijing to ponder how it could best be used to prevent Kim Jong Un from dragging his country…and much of the region…. into the abyss. Regime change may be an unpalatable option, but it is one option that has to be scrutinized right now. Regime change undertaken by the US or South Korea would be a nonstarter, and guarantee a major war. If the pro-China elements inside of North Korea’s government, and military organize and move to overthrow Kim Jong Un, it could end the North Korean nuclear crisis once and for all. There would be no vacuum. A new North Korean government would be ready to take control immediately with the material and political support of the PRC backing it. Denuclearization of North Korea could follow shortly after, potentially opening the door to improved relations and foreign investment. On paper, it would be a win-win for all parties involved. For the US, a major threat is neutralized and stability returns to the region. Japan, and South Korea could likely accept a less belligerent North Korea and find common ground with it on many fronts. For the PRC, it maintains its buffer zone and creates a more stable, governable ally on its southeastern border.
China holds the key to ending the North Korean crisis permanently and favorably. However, Beijing does not appear to be ready to move from the sidelines for now. Unfortunately, given the current speed and instability of the situation, by the time China is ready to move the game could be over.