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What hope for diplomacy to defuse North Korea crisis?

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“I do think we’re going to see some action” from Kim – perhaps another missile test in the coming days – “and then some dialing back,” says Andrew Scobell, a senior political scientist focusing on US-China relations at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. “He’s got to be concerned about his internal control.”

The US, for its part, is looking to China to put the brakes on its troublesome ally – hence Kerry’s upcoming stop in Beijing Saturday and Mr. Obama’s phone call last week with China’s new leader, President Xi Jinping. China, though, is reluctant to pressure Pyongyang in ways that might benefit the US standing in the region, Mr. Scobell says.

Successive administrations come into the White House thinking China is the key to “solving” the North Korean problem, he says, but so far they have mostly been disappointed over how far Beijing has been willing to go to rein in the North.

“The Chinese are more worried about what the US might do than what the North Koreans might do,” says Scobell, co-author of the book, “China’s Search for Security.” China is “worried about what North Korea is doing,” he says, but is “concerned the alternative to this might be even worse.”

What's worse, in China's view? "A nuclear-armed unified Korea aligned with the US," says David Shlapak, Scobell’s colleague at RAND.

In the heat of the North Korean crisis, Beijing has not forgotten its concerns over Obama’s “rebalancing” of US assets and priorities toward Asia, some regional analysts say. Indeed, Scobell believes that Beijing doesn’t see this latest rise in tensions as a crisis – even though China was concerned enough by North Korea’s missile launch and nuclear test this year to support a new round of international sanctions against the North.

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