Then there is the elephant in the room, or rather the dragon. In East Asia, China cannot be divorced from any policy considerations. Toppling the Kim regime would necessitate filling that power vacuum with something which, in the thinking of Seoul and Washington, would be their forces. For the Chinese, already skeptical of American interests in the region, the prospect of a unified, pro-U.S. Korea and American troops standing on the Yalu River is a red line.
Inherent in the Chinese factor is the solution to this issue, and, if it is going to work, it should have nothing to do with the United States. As you pointed out, China has spent sixty years propping up the North Korean regime, and, as you point out, much of that has had to do with China’s skepticism of American interests in East Asia. China has been willing to tolerate North Korean shenanigans for decades, precisely because North Korea is a buffer between them and a pro-American state.
But, a lot has changed in the last sixty years. Who is South Korea’s largest trading partner, both for imports and exports? It’s China, not the United States. On top of that, South Korea has had an enormous tourism boom in the past decade, and nearly half of those tourists have been Chinese.
The relationship between China and Korea goes back millennia, with myriad complications, and has largely manifested as a wary Korea’s diplomatic response to Chinese imperialism and dominance in the region. Those still crop up today, with China discouraging Chinese tourism to South Korea and rejecting cultural imports from South Korea in response to the THAAD missile system being deployed in South Korea (ostensibly in response to North Korean posturing).
Despite all of the political grumbling from Chinese officials, the Chinese people absolutely WILL NOT BE DENIED their BTS videos and absolutely WILL NOT BE DENIED their Lee Min-Ho dramas. Despite government pressure, fewer than half of the Chinese people bound for South Korea changed their plans. Millions of Chinese tourists want to see the sites in Seoul and visit the MBC Dramia & Folk Village by the bus load. None of this is likely to change because of ornery politicians on either side of the lines. A kinship between South Korea and China has been developing at the level of the citizenry, and that is not so easily erased in a world as connected as ours in 2017.
The passage of time since China started propping up the Kim regime in North Korea has left China with fewer reasons to keep doing so. North Korea is an economic drain and an embarrassment for China, not just internationally, but internally as well as this video from a Korean YouTuber’s channel with interviews of ordinary Chinese people about North Korea demonstrates:
Meanwhile relations with South Korea have steadily improved, decade after decade. If hiccups and hurdles like the blustering Trump administration and the THAAD missile system (among many others over the years) can continue to be overcome, and the relationship and bonds between South Korea and China at both an economic and cultural level can continue to strengthen, then there is simply no way for the Kim regime to survive, yet no need for the Kim regime to fear reprisal from the very entity that propped it up for over half a century.
In other words, South Korea has been doing the heavy lifting of improving its relationship with China and maintaining diplomacy with North Korea all these years, and the less the United States interferes, the better this is likely to turn out for everyone, most importantly, the people of both North and South Korea.
PS — It’s Baekdu or Paektu.