Talking truth to China

When Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Asia next week, the top of his agenda will be – natch – what to do about North Korea.

And the most important converstion he’ll have will probably be with incoming Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi – since China is North Korea’s next-door neighbor, most crucial ally, and the only country that might be able to make Pyongyang show better behavior. Yet China has been reluctant to cut its critical flow of fuel, food and investments to North Korea, because it fears the country might collapse, leading to a unified Korea dominated by the south, with American military garrisons along the Chinese border.

So what could Kerry say to convince China that its best interests require it to rein in the young, reckless North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un? Here’s some suggestions from Doug Paal, director of the Asia program at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

First, notes Paal, North Korea is being debated at a higher level than previously, with even some generals voicing criticism of Pyongyang. Second, Wang Yi is “highly competent”, with extensive experience in negotiating with North Korea, and “in private is prepared to say some things about North Korea that others in the Chinese government don’t like to say.”

Given these new realities, Paal believes the time has come for U.S. and Chinese officials to discuss what a post-North Korea would look like. Kerry could tell Wang Yi: “Let’s talk about fundamental concerns. This situation [in North Korea] is not sustainable. The United States would have no desire to put troops in the north of Korea except to extract nuclear weapons. That kind of strategic conversation hasn’t been held at any level.”

Sounds like the time has come for that conversation to start.

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