Anti-North Korea demonstration in South Korea after hydrogen bomb test Seung-Il Ryu/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press

Nuclear Diplomacy’s Next Stop

Since last summer's agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, a promising new pattern of cooperation with the country has emerged. Now China and the US must apply the same commitment and cooperation to achieving a diplomatic breakthrough with another potentially volatile nuclear wannabe: North Korea.

DENVER – The diplomatic harvest from last summer’s agreement on Iran’s nuclear program has begun. When United States Navy boats drifted into Iranian waters this month – a development that, even just a year ago, probably would have triggered a crisis – they were detained only briefly. In the same week, Iran also released five American prisoners; exported enriched uranium, in accordance with the nuclear deal; and reentered world petroleum markets.

Relations with Iran still have a long way to go – not just in monitoring its compliance with the deal, but also in encouraging its leaders to change their regional approach, including by improving relations with Sunni Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, Iran has certainly made a promising new show of cooperation that, despite the risks, is worth pursuing.

But Iran is not the only potentially volatile country with nuclear ambitions. Another nuclear wannabe – North Korea – has shown little interest in negotiating a deal. On the contrary, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seems to be exhorting his scientists and engineers to accelerate development of nuclear weapons. The prospect of intimidating the world is simply too appealing to give up, it seems, even if it means remaining locked in not-so-splendid isolation.

Though North Korea is not yet officially a nuclear-weapons state, with its research and development programs continuing unabated, it could well be one soon. In fact, on January 6, the country conducted what appears to have been a successful nuclear test. Though it probably wasn’t, as North Korean media claimed, a hydrogen bomb, whatever it was – probably a fission bomb – had more than enough explosive power to constitute a serious threat.

Clearly, something must be done to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. But China – the only country that has maintained a normal relationship with the North, including by providing vital aid – has been widely criticized for its seeming unwillingness to take strong action. Rightly so. Even Donald Trump – the putative frontrunner for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, who is sorely lacking in the foreign-policy department – recognizes the need for a stronger Chinese stance vis-à-vis North Korea. (Though, true to form, Trump accompanies this common-sense assertion with the dubious suggestion that the US should cut off trade with China.)

What few seem to recognize, however, is that China cannot bear sole responsibility for bringing North Korea into line. The US – and, indeed, the rest of the world – should also be pursuing policies that support this outcome.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry has a track record of fearlessness in addressing tough issues, especially in the Middle East. But he should not forget to shift – or, let’s say, “pivot” – his attention toward East Asian security issues, as well. With smart diplomacy that helps to bring relevant powers’ objectives into alignment, he could make a real difference on that front.

Unfortunately, Kerry has resorted to finger-pointing instead. Just recently, he announced to the press that he had told Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi over the phone that China’s soft approach toward North Korea had failed. Nobody enjoys being criticized through the media, and China seems less accustomed to it than others. No surprise, then, that the Chinese quickly released a statement blaming the lack of progress with North Korea on the US.

The Chinese have a point. America’s policy of “strategic patience,” like China’s policy of “friendly persuasion,” has succeeded only in allowing North Korea to advance its nuclear ambitions.

If persuading China to take stronger action with regard to North Korea is a key US policy goal, it must expend the appropriate level of diplomatic effort, working with China to develop new solutions. Though US-China relations are highly complex, playing out according to a dynamic often characterized by competition and sometimes even confrontation, the two sides are no strangers to cooperation on matters of mutual self-interest – matters like curbing North Korea’s nuclear program.

In 2003, the US and China launched the Six-Party Talks with South Korea, Japan, Russia, and North Korea, aimed at negotiating an end to the North’s nuclear program. Two years later, a joint statement was agreed that stated the countries’ obligations – including the requirement that North Korea abandon all nuclear programs. Unfortunately, North Korea did not follow through on its commitments, even after several more rounds of talks, and the diplomatic initiative reached a standstill in 2009.

The relevant countries should work together on common approaches. For China, that probably means ratcheting up economic incentives on North Korea to change its nuclear policies. And for the US, it means going beyond merely encouraging China to do more, by offering genuine support for Chinese efforts and a straightforward discussion that should stay in traditional diplomatic channels.

Recent experience with Iran shows that diplomacy can work, even in seemingly intractable situations. It is time to apply the same commitment and cooperation to achieving a breakthrough on a feasible and viable way forward to end North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.