The risk of escalation is massive.
The Dangers of Bringing North Korea to Its Knees
Yielding under pressure would come at a huge cost, as North Korea would no longer be able be to play the role of a potentially suicidal nuclear madman to draw leverage from the international community. Pyongyang would lose its ability to blackmail neighbours and the United States as well as to control tensions on the Korean peninsula. Further, with North Korea’s bluff called, the United States and China would be well equipped for the next time Pyongyang exhibits provocative behaviour.
Following recent missile and nuclear tests by Pyongyang, many in the international community have advocated for strong pressure on China to use its significant economic leverage to rein in Kim Jong-un. There are signs that Washington might pursue this strategy. Such an approach looks attractive to an administration short of good options — it is a stronger version of previously ineffective sanctions and a reasonable alternative to the use of force. But it is also very dangerous.
Pyongyang is clearly striving to establish a credible nuclear deterrent against the United States to guarantee its security. For this reason North Korea needs to conduct more nuclear and missile tests. If Beijing wants to force Pyongyang to abandon such a vital security goal, it has no other choice but to cut North Korea’s economic and energy lifeline and bring its smaller neighbour to the brink of economic collapse.
Such a policy would raise the prospect that the North Korean regime could fall, an outcome China fears most and one that has convinced Beijing to maintain its policy course on North Korea for some time. Smaller measures such as trade sanctions or temporary restrictions on the delivery of gas, oil and coal would hardly force Pyongyang to stop its pursuit of a nuclear deterrent. Thus, China’s leverage over North Korea is very difficult to use.
But were it to happen, Beijing’s…