TOKYO -- Defense experts gathered here at the Future of Asia conference agreed that China needs to be more involved in pressuring North Korea to stop its nuclear tests and missile launches, but differed on how to do it.
"It seems more difficult to resolve this nuclear issue through negotiations," Yu Myung-hwan, former South Korean minister of foreign affairs and trade, said in a panel discussion on Tuesday. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un believes that nuclear weapons are linked to his survivability and increase his legitimacy, Yu said. "He will never give them up voluntarily."
The former minister said the ball was in China's court when it came to pressuring the rogue state. "It is China who has to resolve this nuclear conundrum," he said.
Daniel Twining, counselor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, echoed Yu's views, pointing out that any sanctions on North Korea are useless unless China -- which accounts for 90% of Pyongyang's external economic activities -- does not cooperate. Twining argued that it was also in China's interest to cooperate with international powers.
"China is stepping out in the world as a major power and is very focused on its reputational advantages," Twining said. North Korea is "a problem for China's image as China steps into world power. To have a country like this as your closest ally and dependent is awkward." He noted that North Korea "is not a partisan issue" in the U.S., and in Washington, there "is symmetry with Beijing in thinking that we need to do something [and] that the status quo is not acceptable."
Twining also touched on the possibility of the U.S. needing to inform China that it was "so serious that [the U.S.] can escalate." Meanwhile, Satoshi Morimoto, former Japanese defense minister, used stronger words, saying "North Korea should understand that once those capabilities [nuclear missiles] are used, the regime will collapse instantaneously."
But Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, had a different message. What China was afraid of in the past was that the regime could collapse, and "this collapse could bring about the massive chaos and refugee outflow, and even civil war in the peninsula," he said.
Shi stated that Beijing believes the Kim regime to be more stable than the U.S., South Korea and Japan perceive. "If your hope of denuclearization [rests] on regime change, at least up to now, [it is an illusion]."
Shi added: "We should be realistic... We only have one option, to tighten the screws and launch stricter and more comprehensive UN sanctions."
Nikkei staff writers Natsumi Kawasaki, Chihiro Tanaka, Kazusa Ban and Shizuka Tanabe contributed to this article.