Maybe Dennis Rodman had a soothing effect on North Korea's chubby dictator during his visit to the Hermit Kingdom earlier this year, even though we now know that Kim Jong Un would have preferred to host Michael Jordan. This is not surprising, since Jordan was, as Kim is, a two-way threat while Rodman played mostly defense.
For whatever reason, the North Korean strongman has been relatively silent of late. He has even made a few conciliatory gestures to South Korea, which the Seoul government has correctly rejected. But no matter the cause of his current reticence, it will not likely last long. His behavior suggests that of a lunatic, seemingly hostage to the phases of the moon, and his mood and rhetoric change with the tides.
Emerging from seclusion after the death of his equally mercurial father, Kim has pursued the same policies, if indeed nihilistic threats, errant missile launches and bombastic talk can properly be called policy. We know little about him besides his love of basketball, funky haircut and gloomy wardrobe. In fact, we can only guess at his motives and intentions and speculate on whether he really is in charge.
But we are certain of two things. First, North Korea does have nuclear weapons and is striving to improve its missile delivery systems. Second, China, and only China, has any influence on the country's conduct.
Over the past decades the United States has employed every imaginable tack in dealing with North Korea. We have tried gentle suasion through humanitarian food aid and coercion through economic sanctions. We have attempted diplomacy through four- and six-party talks and intimidation through military maneuvers. But even though some of these gestures have steadied matters for a while, they all have proved unavailing in the end. North Korea regularly reverts to form. Tensions mount, threats ensue and missiles fly.
About the only thing we have left to offer Kim is a better barber and tailor, which might enhance his self-esteem but probably won't make him more obliging or less obnoxious.
China, though, has plenty to offer and much to withhold. North Korea's well-being, such as it is, depends on China's open border and the food and energy it provides. If North Korea alienates China, it loses its closest friend in the region and one of the few it has in the world. Its crimped existence would become almost solitary and its economy would collapse.
By its lights, China has good reason to sustain North Korea. Beijing is wary of a unified Korea, especially if American troops were to remain, and wants to prevent a mass migration of Koreans into China if Kim's regime implodes. But interests are not immutable. As geopolitical factors change, so do policies.
This may be happening. China's leader, Xi Jinping, has scolded the North Koreans for their nuclear tests and bluntly told them to return to negotiations. The Chinese government has also been circumspect in reacting to American military exercises with the South Koreans. At the same time, Chinese leaders have come to understand that as North Korea persists in threatening its neighbors with annihilation, Japan and South Korea will take measures to defend themselves from the menace. And a more formidably armed South Korea and Japan most assuredly are not in Beijing's interest.
So the Chinese may have decided that the cost of their friendship with Kim now approaches the contributions that North Korea can make to their security as a buffer between them and the American troops in South Korea. If that is the case, the Chinese might assume a more assertive role in persuading North Korea to act rationally and abandon its nuclear-arms program.
President Barack Obama meets Friday and Saturday with Xi in California. No doubt North Korea is on the agenda. The president will have ample time to make his arguments. He will reassure the Chinese that we have no hostile designs on North Korea and that we seek, with much of the world, only to help put an end to the country's development of dangerous and destabilizing nuclear weapons.
The Chinese have made it clear that they also want to see North Korea give up the program, but they will take no actions that might hasten Kim's political demise, at least for the time being. They do not want a failed state on their border.
Still, they may be prepared to use their influence, and perhaps even some threats of their own, to nudge North Korea back to the negotiating table. But even if they agree to take these steps, Kim may rebuff them. China has some sway with the North Koreans. It does not direct their behavior or dictate their policies.
To be sure, in dealing with Kim, the frustrations are many, the options few and the prospects for success slight. But China holds the highest trump. It's important that the president persuade them to play it.
Robert J. Callahan, a retired diplomat and former Chicagoan, served as U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua.