Almost as vexing as the armed wall that has separated North and South Korea for 60 years has been the standoff since 2006 over North Korea's budding nuclear weapons program.
The nuclear issue resurfaced in December with North Korea's successful launch of a long-range missile and subsequent threat by the North last month to conduct another nuclear test. That would be its third in seven years. The rocket launch set off a familiar response of condemnations accompanied by another U.N. Security Council resolution calling for stepped-up sanctions against the North.
But this time there was a perceptible difference from past attempts to wean North Korea of its ambition to become a fully capable nuclear-armed state. Leaders in Beijing appear this time to be finally running out of patience with their troublesome ally.
China, North Korea's staunchest backer and practically only trade partner, and the United States, the North's arch nemesis, worked together in negotiating the terms of the new U.N. resolution, which ratchets up sanctions against trade and financial transactions with the North. China is also considering sending a delegation to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to attempt to talk the government there out of conducting another nuclear test, according to a report this week in the South Korean press.
North Korea's young new leader, Kim Jung-un, has boldly rebuffed these efforts from his only significant friend in the world, and close observers doubt anything will stand in the way of another test. In fact, such a test might prove useful to the United States in determining how much progress the North has made since the last time it exploded a nuclear device in 2009. Korea is still believed to be years off from being able to launch a nuclear strike.
But in the longer run, this latest episode displays evidence of new diplomatic opportunities to stabilize the environment on the Korean peninsula with China's help with and with a change in approach in ending the 60-year-old Korean stalemate.
China needs to better exercise the economic advantage it has and take a tougher stance with North Korea to restart talks over nuclear disarmament. Cooperating with the United States over the North Korea issue would have clear benefits for China. Improved relations with this country would give China more breathing room to deal with pressing domestic issues and leverage in a current territorial dispute with Japan.
But tough love alone is not enough. The United States meantime must begin to hold out the prospect of there being two sovereign states coexisting peacefully on the Korean peninsula, an idea that could lead to the realization of two of North Korea's foremost foreign policy objectives: formal recognition and a non-aggression agreement with the United States.
For this to happen, the vocabulary needs to change. Instead of reunification, the parties should be talking about normalization.
Korean foreign policy is oddly based on the non-existence of North Korea. Many believe that North Korea's nuclear weapons program is but another attempt merely to get some respect from the rest of the world, despite the government's peculiar and often criminal behavior in accomplishing that.
The nuclear issue is a serious matter, to be sure, but it has also been a distraction from the more important goal of bringing peace to the region, ending the tragic and dangerous militarized division of Korea and formally bringing to an end the Korean War. That goal should become the cornerstone of diplomacy over Korea.
North Korea cannot survive in its dysfunctional state, with prolonged starvation, repression and isolation from the world community. But nobody else involved wishes for the likely consequences of its collapse. The only feasible alternative is to coax its leadership into the world community. With its educated workforce and the technological skill it has exhibited in developing a nuclear capability, North Korea could escape the past and prosper.
The world cannot afford another nuclear power on the Korean peninsula, nor tolerate the egregious human rights violations that are known to take place in North Korea in the name of national survival.
But it also cannot tolerate the status quo that has resulted in human misery and danger for too long.