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What hope for diplomacy to defuse North Korea crisis?

Any diplomatic resolution to the North Korea crisis depends upon China's priorities and Kim Jong-un himself. Here's why both are difficult to gauge as Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to travel to the region.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (r.) waves as North Korean military officers clap at a stadium in Pyongyang during a mass meeting called by the Central Committee of North Korea's ruling party in April 2012. Any efforts at diffusing the North Korean crisis through diplomacy would hinge on Kim.

Ng Han Guan/AP/File

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Whether diplomacy may yet ease the spiraling tensions on the Korean peninsula, amid increasingly provocative steps by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, hangs on two key factors: neighboring China’s assessment of the situation and Mr. Kim’s internal standing.

Both are difficult for US diplomats to gauge, though Secretary of State John Kerry will be in Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo later this week, in part to try to enlist China’s help in bringing the tense military stare-down to a nonviolent end.

First, say some experts on the region, Mr. Kerry will need to ascertain whether China is worried enough about the potential effects of Kim’s fiery threats to lay aside its suspicions about long-term US intentions in the region – heightened by President Obama’s announced intent to “pivot” to Asia. (On Tuesday, North Korea repeated an old pledge to engulf Seoul, South Korea’s capital, in a “thermo-nuclear inferno” and warned foreigners to flee.)

As for the second factor, Kim himself, the question is whether North Korea’s young leader has, by ratcheting up tensions, reinforced his hold on domestic power to the point that he can pull back from his aggressive posture.

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