North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, growing nuclear arsenal, and ongoing egregious violations of international nonproliferation treaties pose a significant threat to U.S. and South Korean security and a continual irritant to U.S. and Chinese relations. In the event of a collapse of the North Korean regime, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and nuclear complex―and the vital importance of securing both―could serve as a catalyst for conflict between the United States and China, with significant negative repercussions for South Korea. Washington and Beijing, however, have found common ground to cooperate on a range of nuclear security and nonproliferation issues and initiatives in the past. The ROK can play an important diplomatic role in encouraging future dialogues and diplomacy on nuclear issues between the United States and China that could forestall a potential North Korean internal collapse from also becoming a major power nuclear crisis. Quiet but deliberate diplomacy aimed at encouraging bilateral or trilateral cooperation on securing beleaguered nuclear complexes and “loose nukes” could lay the groundwork for Washington and Beijing to tacitly agree on responses to a North Korea collapse scenario which realize mutually beneficial outcomes on nuclear issues―while also avoiding misunderstandings that could result in armed conflict.
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