01/05/2015 01:42 pm ET Updated Mar 07, 2015

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

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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

On The Road In North Korea