New Delhi: China’s situation with North Korea is somewhat akin to the circumstances between the former Soviet Union and emergent revolutionary China in the 1950s. To be sure, the situations are not alike as they can never be. But they share some striking common features that would justify comparison and conceivably assist to foresee the future.

Dissimilarities in the situation between the erstwhile Soviet Union and China and China and North Korea are by no means negligible. The nuclear age was nascent in the 1950s with the United States nuclear monopoly having just been broken by the Soviet Union which was in the early stages of formulating deterrent strategies. China was more than a decade away from becoming a nuclear power. Its priority was to gain recognition and respect from the Soviet Union and financial aid to rebuild a country destroyed by civil war and beset with poverty.

North Korea, on the other hand, has underlined the primacy of the nuclear age. While the Soviet assistance to China’s nuclear programme at least initially was scarcely a secret, North Korea’s nuclearization has been rather more clandestine on account of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which North Korea was a party to prior. Furthermore, although the Soviet Union and revolutionary China commenced ties as asymmetrical powers, there was little room for scepticism during and after the Korean War that China was headed to become a Great Power. There was never any doubt that China was a civilizational force. When this was joined to the singular and renowned capacities of the Chinese people and China’s vast national territories, it created a potent combination that should have rung alarm bells in the Kremlin. Joseph Stalin was cognizant of the danger and hoped for Chinese reverses in the Korean War to restore the balance. It was not to be. By the time the Soviet Union realized the full extent of the danger from China, it was simply too late to turn the clock back.

In the consolidation if not the birth of North Korea, China played a role not entirely different from the Soviet Union’s early nurture of China. Indeed, China did more. It fought the Korean War alongside North Korea, suffered tremendous casualties, and was responsible for stalemating the war. But North Korea cannot be a Great Power and Kim Jong-un is realistic. He leads a tiny country and his ambition is restricted to the expulsion of US forces from South Korea and the reunification of the two Koreas under his leadership.

China would not oppose this denouement. Ideally, it would prefer the status quo without Kim Jong-un’s nuclear sabre-rattling. A reunified Korea under Kim would be rather more powerful than should provide comfort to China. But if it is attended by the externment of the United States from the Korean peninsula and, gradually, East Asia as a whole, China would not look the gift horse in the mouth. China’s biggest challenge as a Great Power is to put a lid on the North Korean crisis while ensuring that the United States gains nothing from de-escalation. It would also prefer that North Korea remains under its thumb which was not how the Sino-Soviet rivalry played out in the end. The question that should be haunting the Chinese leadership is whether North Korea would do a China to China.

In view of the numerous differences between the Sino-Soviet and China-North Korea situations, North Korea may not after all emerge from the crisis stronger and rather opposed to China. Still, the imponderables are too many. China is clear that North Korea must denuclearize. This puts it on the side of the United States. To Kim Jong-un’s way of thinking, that would tantamount to betrayal. He won’t accept it. From the receipt of betrayal to turning virulently against China should not take long. China cannot take the risk. Unless it gets proactive with Kim Jong-un, the situation may get out of hand. At the moment, Kim holds all the cards. China has been put to its biggest test since the Korean War.