Kim Jong Un is consolidating his grip on power through a combination of patronage and dread and is doubling down on his nuclear and missile programs, developing long-range missiles that may soon endanger the continental USA. Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington have a shared incentive to handle security risks in Northeast Asia, but a history of warfare and occupation along with current distrust makes cooperation difficult. Continued North Korean provocations, such as additional nuclear and missile tests, may worsen equilibrium in the region and immediate nations to take actions, sometimes unilaterally, to defend their security interests. Kim is determined to secure international recognition of the North as a nuclear- nation, for safety, prestige, and political legitimacy. Contrary to his father and grandfather, he’s signaled little interest in participating in talks on denuclearization. He codified the North’s nuclear status in the party constitution in 2012 and reaffirmed it during the Party Congress in 2016. Beijing faces a continuing strategic conundrum about the North. Pyongyang’s behavior both undermines China’s argument that the US army presence in the region is anachronistic and demonstrates Beijing’s lack of influence–or perhaps lack of political will to exert influence—within its neighbor and customer. North Korean behavior leads to tightening US alliances, more assertive action by US allies, and, on occasion, greater cooperation between these partners themselves—and might lead to a change in Beijing’s approach to North Korea with time.
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