During his first official visit to Tokyo as Secretary of State, John Kerry hinted at the possibility of talks with North Korea provided certain strigent conditions are met.
It is timely to list a number of imperatives which are instructive in understanding the North Korea conundrum -
(a) If the North Korea regime collapses, there will be millions of hungry refugees invading China's borders, a humanitarian disaster of perhaps biblical proportions. That's why China keeps on feeding the North Koreans even if China's hand is bitten a number of times;
(b) Both Russia and China don't want a nuclear North Korea as this would trigger the positioning of nuclear weapons by Western allies near Russia and China's borders. What is more, this would spread nuclear armament in the region and beyond, neutralizing their own nuclear strategic advantage. For China, the added fear is a nuclear Japan.
(c) However, North Korea is trying to emulate Chairman Mao who ordered and possessed the Bomb in1964, regardless of everything else. Chairman Mao famously said that China would rather do without trousers (as the country was so poor) than giving up possessing the Bomb. At that time, China was subject to continuous risks of nuclear blackmail from the West and possessing the Bomb was seen as a sure-fired deterrent for preserving national sovereignty and dignity.
(d) For China, North Korea may act as a buffer and a useful bargaining chip against the West . But North Korea regime collapse is not necessarily all bad for China as China, rather than America, will be much more influential in deciding whether a collapsed North Korea is going to be united with South Korea and if so, on what terms (perhaps on condition that America should henceforth withdraw all its forces from a united Korea, which would be a justifiable demand with unification under South Korea). (The China Choice, Hugh White, Black Inc, Australia, 2012, pp. 89-93)
All these explain China's ambivalence in dealing with North Korea.
This also point to the possibility of a long-term negotiated settlement through initial talks behind the scene - North Korea giving up nuclear weapons once for all in a credible, verifiable way in return for an iron-clad guarantee for North Korea's sovereignty and security. This could take the form of a multilateral security treaty including U.S., China, Russia, Japan and South Korea plus abolition of sanctions, joint economic aid and the hope of entry into the World Trade Organization. I mentioned the idea of an iron-clad security guarantee for North Korea in a recent BBC radio program of 29 March, 2013.
There is no guarantee that the North Koreans would buy that settlement, as the regime is now celebrating 100th birthday of the country's founding father, Kim Il Sung, hailing the country's right to possess nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless, nuclear weapons is a means to an end. In "The History of the Peloponnesian War", Thucydides wrote in 431 B.C.E that wars generally originated from fear, honour and profit, the three basic needs of people and nations - security, identity and prosperity.
With North Korea's ever-increasing escalation of dangerous theatrics to secure its ultimate goal of regime stability, national security and development, perhaps the idea of an iron-clad multilateral security treaty guarnatee coupled with powerful tools for economic development may at least be worth a try.