Pressure on China to broker North Korea deal
The collapse of the North Korean state, headed by Kim Jong-il, is an undeniable possibility. The country is so closed to the outside world that it is difficult to know the facts completely, but the signs of instability still come through in many forms, including information from refugees and defectors, reports from aid agencies charged with fighting widespread famine, plus the government's own erratic posturing over its nuclear weapons programme.
And there is, as we report today, a rising tide of violence on the country's border with the mainland. China has many military and strategic reasons for wanting to see the North Korean crisis resolved peacefully, but the situation in its border provinces also says much about the human cost of the continuing crisis.
At least 100,000 refugees - perhaps three times as many, according to some estimates - have crossed the border into China and are now living in the northeast. A large number of other ethnic Koreans who settled in China in previous decades also live in the region.
In the latest wave of violence, many of the perpetrators appear to be soldiers from the North Korean army. Whatever sense of fear and disorder may exist in the area now, the situation could become far worse in the event of a complete meltdown in Pyongyang, China must surely be aware of the crucial role it plays as both a neighbour and ally.
Progress has been plodding since Mr Kim announced last October that he had been developing nuclear weapons, despite an international agreement to halt the programmes. The recent six-way talks held in Beijing represented the opening gambit in complex negotiations rather than any real progress towards a settlement.
But last week brought signs that Mr Kim was ready to return for a second round of talks. A 55th anniversary celebration, widely expected to include a demonstration of the country's nuclear weapons capability, proved uneventful. US-led multinational naval exercises kicking off a campaign aimed at intercepting nuclear exports from North Korea and Iran drew the expected belligerent rhetoric from Mr Kim's side. But the lack of recent military escalation from North Korea, viewed in the most charitable light, could mean that progress is being made.
So far no evidence of any concrete plans to sell the country's nuclear technology to the highest bidder, as threatened in the past, has surfaced. Nor has Mr Kim tested any of the intermediate-range missiles that the US claims he has.
If there is one country that could not only keep North Korea in line but also force it into bona fide negotiations, it is China. As the North's major source of food and oil supplies, it is literally Mr Kim's lifeline.
The six-way talks in Beijing are, to be sure, high-stakes international diplomacy. The pressure is on for China not only to play host but to broker an agreement that protects stability in its own northeast and beyond. China has as much to lose as any country in the event of a shift in the military balance of Northeast Asia, but it is one of only two countries where a flood of refugees and instability on its own soil are distinct possibilities, the other being South Korea.
The first order of business is, of course, removing nuclear capabilities from what is the region's least stable and most desperate regime. Beyond that, international players will have to set about fixing the world's obviously broken anti-proliferation arrangements.
Bilateral and multilateral agreements, along with inspections by the UN's nuclear energy agency, have failed in providing countries like North Korea with incentives not to go nuclear. The price of continued failure will be more scenarios such as those on the border North Korea shares with China.