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Jonathan Fenby: Now we need China's help even more

Beijing is anxious to avoid the emergence of a united Korea, allied to the US

The road to Pyongyang lies through Beijing. Despite the disappointments of the six-party talks aimed at curbing North Korea's nuclear experiments, one can only hope that the West, meaning primarily the US, is working with the Chinese leadership to formulate a joint policy towards the hermit realm after the death of Kim Jong-il.

The fact that Beijing was unable to deliver its "Little Brother" on the nuclear front should not be a deterrent to a fresh attempt to forge a common front in a situation that contains dangers reaching far beyond the Korean peninsula.

Chinese leaders, including Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, have visited North Korea in the past two years and Vice President Xi Jinping, the man most likely to become China's leader next year, spoke of "a great victory" by Chinese and North Korean troops in the Korean War. But conversations with Chinese diplomats have made clear to me that they were both bemused and frustrated by the late leader's ability to pursue his own path regardless of the pressure put on him. The main conduit for Chinese influence may be in links between its army and military leaders in Pyongyang, but the truth is that we know little about how strong those are or how Chinese influence might play into the likely infighting between different branches of the Kim family.

China will be as concerned as anybody by the uncertainty following Kim's demise. Beijing is both anxious to avoid a collapse which would unleash a flood of refugees across the frontier, and to ward off the emergence of a strong, united Korea allied to the US, which would alter the balance of power in East Asia. In this context, Western diplomacy should aim to fashion a joint approach with China that focuses on the way the regime in Pyongyang is evolving, rather than becoming bogged down on the nuclear issue.

One snag is that President Obama's recent efforts to expand US policy in the Pacific, ranging from stationing troops in Australia to launching a proposal for a free trade zone, are viewed by China as a threat, with claims from hawks in Beijing that Washington is embarking on a Cold War-style containment policy of the mainland. Another is that Japan continues to find it hard to play a political role commensurate with its economic power.

But precisely because the outlook for North Korea is so uncertain – with the possibility of faction-fighting in Pyongyang that could breed extreme policy lurches – the West, China, Japan and South Korea face a specific challenge. They have to try to evolve a policy that offers a chance of warding off an explosion (or implosion) in a region which is more vital than before for the global economy.

Jonathan Fenby is the author of the Penguin History of Modern China