Even while North Korea and the United States exchange threats of military action, diplomacy behind the scenes is occurring to try to defuse the situation in the Northwest Pacific. The two countries are maintaining back-channel communications to convey information to one another. In the meantime, China has told North Korea that if it launches an attack and an American response occurs, that country is on its own.

American and North Korean diplomats maintain contact in New York

Joseph Yun, the American envoy for North Korean policy, and Pak Song, a senior diplomat with the North Korean United Nations delegation, are maintaining regular contact in New York.

Yun is sending reassuring messages to Pyongyang via Pak that the United States is not an enemy or a threat to North Korea. However, North Korea is presenting an unacceptable threat to the United States that will require an American response.

Yun, by the way, has been instrumental in gaining the release of American prisoners in North Korea, such as the unfortunate Otto Warmbier. He has also been of great help in garnering international support in helping to rein in Pyongyang, as demonstrated by the recent vote by the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on that country.

China warns North Korea

Meanwhile, China has warned Pyongyang that if it attacks the United States or any of its allies, it can expect no help when the American military responds.

China had once been pleased to use North Korea as an irritant to harass the United States and make life for it and its allies complicated in the region. However, things have gotten out of control, and the prospect of war has become very real. The last thing that China wants is to see North Korea destroyed by a conflict of its own making.

The prospect to a horde of refugees pouring into Manchuria, not to mention radioactive fallout of nuclear retaliation, would be intolerable for Beijing. The idea of a united Korea, controlled by Seoul, is something that China would rather not have to endure either.

China is the reason there is a North Korea to begin with. When allied forces cut off the North Korean invaders after the landing at Inchon, and were marching unopposed to the border with China, many thought that the Korean War would be over by Christmas 1950.

Instead, China intervened and sent allied forces reeling south. The war lasted almost another three years and ended in a stalemate and a ceasefire that kept the two countries divided. North Korea has been both a client and a problem for China ever since. China is signaling that a repeat is not in the cards. The risk to trade relations with the United States makes intervention unacceptable.