North Korea’s most recent irrational behavior has made clear the government’s indifference to sanctions. Some believe China is the only country that can talk Pyongyang into toning down its rhetoric. In reality the United States can do much more to calm the situation.

Soldiers run into ice-cold water to be close to their beloved leader. He stands on the bow of a small boat and waves to those back on the beach.

The scene from the recent screenplay about the Cold War in East Asia was carefully orchestrated. Its message: The young leader Kim Jong-un is just as popular among the people as was his father, Kim Jong-Il. And the military is ready for anything.

Kim and his military leaders are alarming the world once again with threats and saber-rattling, and the world has reacted with condemnation. US President Barack Obama has ordered a missile defense system, stealth bombers and cruisers into the region. All are hoping that the war games don’t accidentally devolve into a bloody battle that could easily set back Asia by decades. In contrast financial markets are hardly blinking, and the streets of Seoul, just a few kilometers away from the border with the North, are filled with dismissive calm.

As irrational as the North Korean military and its leader may seem, their threats are calculated. The message is both for domestic and foreign audiences: Kim must prove to his comrades that he is in no way inferior to his father, who died in late 2011, or his grandfather and founder of the nation, Kim Il-Sung. In recent months, he and his powerful relatives have deposed several high-ranking officers, perhaps even having them killed. Now Kim Jong-un has to show that he too can be a calculating commander.

At the same time, he wants to attract the attention of the Americans. Kim wants to look like more than just a pariah of the international community — he wants to be seen as a worthy opponent in war, and to be treated as such by Obama. When Kim recently received US basketball star Dennis Rodman in Pyongyang, the message was clear: “We want to talk with you.”

Regime Change is the Goal

How should such a regime be approached? The Americans have officially argued for years that the North Korean government must comply with all international obligations and treaties. Only then could dialogue take place.

As with his predecessor George W. Bush, the goal of Obama’s strategy is that of regime change. It’s hoped that eventually the starved North Koreans will grow sick of the constant calls to war and throw out the Kims and their military cronies. Problem solved.

But it hasn’t yet come to that, and the world is still looking at North Korea unsure of what to do. The Kim dynasty has continually broken treaties, given politicians the runaround and forgotten promises. Politicians wring their hands and demand that China, North Korea’s closest ally, finally get Pyongyang under control.

“The key to success… lies in Beijing,” German parliamentarian Bijan Djir-Sarai said in a radio interview on Friday shortly after returning from a visit to North Korea. “That means that it’s important that the Chinese urgently persuade the North Korean leadership to tone down the rhetoric and actions.”

China Will Not Abandon Ally

But Djir-Sarai and all others who see Beijing as the miracle healer are hoping in vain. Little can be expected of Beijing for many reasons. For one, China’s influence on the North Koreans is overstated. Pyongyang conducts its foreign policy alone.

In addition, the new Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping cannot allow North Korea to fall. If the country collapses because Beijing cuts off oil and food supplies, a crisis could ensue, also threatening China’s economic boom. If a civil war breaks out, millions of refugees could flood across the border. And if North Korea implodes, who will secure the nuclear weapons?

One also shouldn’t forget the role China’s military plays in the country’s foreign policy. The People’s Liberation Army provided hundreds of thousands of soldiers to aid their Communist brothers and sisters in the 1950s Korean War. Such solidarity is eternal in the eyes of the Communist Party. Their allies will not be abandoned, no matter how irrationally they behave today.

So if Beijing is unable or unwilling to ease tensions, who can? The answer is the United States. The American government has to reconsider its approach if it wants to eradicate the hotspot in the Far East.

US Must Offer Incentives

For starters it should shorten the current maneuvers with South Korean forces as a sign of good will. The exercise accomplished its goal: America has proved anew that it is powerful and cannot be intimidated, and that it will support South Korea in case of war.

A second step would be to agree on a common path forward with China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, then to start talks with North Korea without preconditions. And all parties have to give up the goal of trying to force North Korea to get rid of its nuclear weapons.

Because Kim and his military will never consider such a thing. Their logic is that nuclear weapons protect them from attacks. If Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi had had them, they would still be alive today.

Rather than pursuing futile goals, the Americans should try to try to prevent North Korea from selling material and know-how for the construction of nuclear weapons to Iran or other governments. A peace treaty and food aid could serve as a carrot.

If North Koreans’ lives improve and the image of the United States as an enemy disappears, regime change could happen much quicker than expected.

By Andreas Lorenz | Spiegel