I recently spent some time in China and had the opportunity to discuss China’s policy toward North Korea with people from a variety of professional backgrounds and perspectives, including the military. The good news is that one can envision a potentially mutually acceptable endpoint. The bad news is that getting there may be politically difficult, if not impossible, in both the US and China.
My Chinese interlocutors generally had a more positive assessment of North Korea than one hears around Washington: the economy was growing, the chronic food shortages were attenuating, and once he got rid of all the hardliners surrounding him, Kim Jong-un would turn out to be a reformer. (There was concern over the execution of Jang Sung-taek, regarded as having particularly close ties with China, however.)
The Chinese were unhappy with the nuclear program, however, and reiterated their commitment to a non-nuclear Korean peninsula. One possible solution might be a peace treaty and normalization of relations between the US and the DPRK in which North Korea’s nuclear disarmament was a long-term commitment, but that a constrained nuclear program (no further development or testing, no increase in stocks, no proliferation) would be accepted in a transitional period. The resemblance to Sig Hecker’s “three no’s for a yes” is obvious. But just as obvious would be the difficulty of establishing a credible set of penalties if North Korea violated these terms. And while the Chinese are proud of their sponsorship of the Six Party Talks, there was also recognition that this format may have run its course, and that talks involving the four principle Korean War combatants (that is without Japan and Russia) might be preferable.
How one gets from here to there politically in the US is not obvious, with a Democrat president and one or both of the houses of Congress controlled by the Republicans. In Nixon-to-China or Begin-to-Egypt fashion, a peace treaty with North Korea may require a Republican president.
The issue of unification came up repeatedly, and gives the Chinese considerable heartburn. I repeatedly encountered an extraordinary aversion to changing China’s current policy of backing the Kim regime. My interlocutors kept observing that China and North Korea had a 60+ year Party-to-Party relationship, that it would be enormously risky for any Chinese leadership to move away from this, and asking if I/the US/someone could “guarantee” that China would be better off with a different policy.
This skepticism was rooted in part by considerable distrust of the United States, and concern over the disposition of US troops in some post-unification scenario. While I indicated that the politics in the US and South Korea were such that it would be more likely that US troops would be removed from the peninsula entirely than redeployed to the Yalu River, my Chinese counterparts did not appear persuaded. Instead, they repeatedly indicated that it was the responsibility of the US to convince China that it could be trusted, and to “guarantee” that any lessening of total support for the Kim regime would result in outcomes beneficial to China’s interests.