Mr. Cabestan is a China expert based in East Asia for more than two decades.
HONG KONG — The immediate causes of the recent diplomatic breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula are well known: stronger international sanctions against North Korea, approved by even China and Russia, and President Trump’s bellicose response to the recent intensification of nuclear and missile tests under Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader since 2011.
But a more fundamental driver is being overlooked: China’s growing ambition to dominate East Asia. Mr. Kim’s apparent move to reconcile with his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, is above all a gambit to get closer to America to keep China in check. He hopes to reduce North Korea’s overarching economic dependence on China and curb Beijing’s aspirations to control the future of the Korean Peninsula. After another surprise meeting between Mr. Kim and President Xi Jinping of China on Tuesday, the second in two months, the Trump administration announced on Wednesday that North Korea would release three American prisoners.
The regime’s survival and security have long been the Kim family’s top priority, with political independence not far behind; those are the prime reasons it has sought to develop North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missile capability. That purpose has also been served by political purges, notably the killing in late 2013 of Mr. Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek, who was suspected of entertaining especially close relations with China, and in early 2017 of Mr. Kim’s half brother Kim Jong-nam, another Beijing protégé and once an heir apparent to Kim Jong-il, the country’s previous leader and Mr. Kim’s father.
Now that these pressing existential objectives seem to have been satisfied, economic development has become the crux of the regime’s long-term stability. It is no coincidence, for example, that last month the Workers’ Party of Korea abruptly decided to abandon its well-established policy of byungjin — the simultaneous advancement of the country’s military, particularly its nuclear program, and its economy — to refocus entirely on economic development.
But how best to do that? With more than 90 percent of North Korea’s trade already dependent on China, moving even closer to Beijing would risk turning North Korea into an appendage or tributary state — a dream for some Chinese nationalists but the nightmare of almost every North Korean. Integrating with South Korea would undermine the primacy of the Kim family in the North. In theory, Russia could help reduce North Korea’s dependence on China for oil and gas, but little else. So Mr. Kim’s best option to boost the North Korean economy is to diversify its partnerships and open up to the West and Japan.
Moving the country closer to the United States and further from China is also sound strategy from a security point of view. China may not openly threaten North Korea’s independence, but its ambition to better control its near abroad — in Southeast Asia, around the South China Sea, through its One Belt, One Road initiative — can only breed serious suspicions in Pyongyang. (There seems to have been no talk of reactivating the old Sino-North Korean alliance or the two countries’ long-forgotten mutual defense treaty.) Mr. Kim’s overture to Mr. Trump to fend off China today is not unlike Mao’s reaching out to President Richard Nixon to hold back the Soviet threat in the early 1970s.
This development, however implausible or sudden it may seem, should come as no surprise, especially in a part of the world where state leaders tend to be realists in international affairs. And Mr. Kim may be the most realist of them all.
None of this is to say that China will soon be “sidelined,” as some have speculated. Beijing will always be part of the picture, and sometimes part of the problem. The point is simply that China’s neighbors are repositioning themselves as it becomes stronger and tries to establish hierarchical or clientelist relations with them. Some, like Cambodia and Laos, comply. Others, like Vietnam and Singapore, try to push back or at least rebalance. North Korea, too, must recalibrate and hedge.
It does so from a special posture, of course, because of its nuclear program and diplomatic isolation — and because of many remaining uncertainties about its intentions, including over a matter as fundamental as what it means by “denuclearization.” Still, Mr. Kim’s unexpected offer to meet President Trump and Mr. Trump’s quick acceptance suggest that both leaders see in this moment an opportunity for some measure of détente. About that much at least they are correct.
Lifting sanctions, normalizing relations, starting to trade — these things may not materialize soon, or ever. But the strategic landscape on the Korean Peninsula already has changed, and it has changed in favor of America and its allies.
Mr. Kim’s two sudden and unannounced meetings with Mr. Xi recently are, more than anything, a remarkable diplomatic show, mainly designed to allow China to save face. During the five years that he has been in power, Mr. Xi has seemed to largely ignore Mr. Kim; he may now regret that approach. As China’s power has risen, America’s has declined, persuading North Korea to move closer to the United States and seek from it security guarantees.
Skeptics will doubt that North Korea, given its ideology, can really move in this direction; optimists may now see the reunification of the Korean Peninsula on the horizon. I think that North Korea’s one-party system will remain in place for a long while and that in the meantime the country’s human rights situation will continue to be dire. Nor will improved relations between the two Koreas, or even the conclusion of a peace treaty, lead to any kind of reunification. Any such thing would be suicidal for Pyongyang and too costly for Seoul.
Yet I also think that this moment is indeed a rare opportunity for both America and America’s allies to improve relations with North Korea — and work with it to establish a new balance of power in Northeast Asia that can offset China’s ambition to dominate the region and better serve the interests of the West.
This article has been updated to reflect news developments.