North Korean hostesses wait for customers at the entrance to a restaurant in the Chinese border city of Dandong in China's northeastern Liaoning province, Dec. 12, 2012.
Credit: Wang Zhao

OWLS HEAD, Maine — "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest."

Henry II's frustrated plea to be rid of Thomas a Becket is surely mimicked these days with regard to Kim Jong Un and his whole turbulent regime. And not so much in Washington and Seoul — though surely in both capitals such deliverance is devoutly wished — as in Beijing where their unruly puppets in Pyongyang could, through miscalculation, set off an explosion that China has no interest in but for which it would certainly share much blame.

For half a century China has tolerated, and indeed supported, their North Korean ally's belligerent behavior, regarding them as a welcome buffer to the nearly 30,000 American soldiers stationed in South Korea for well over 50 years.

But a China that has long since emerged from the hardline days of Mao must now be increasingly worried that its poorly trained pet will bite the wrong leg once too often.

Western analysts continue to suggest that Chinese reluctance to reign in its irrational neighbor reflects Chinese fear that overt pressure, were it to lead to North Korea's collapse, would have two disastrous consequences: in the short run, millions of starving North Koreans would flee across the Chinese border bringing economic and political instability to China. And, longer term, as the peninsula is re-united under Seoul, American troops would end up stationed along China's border.

Both are such grossly dated fears that one can legitimately wonder if China, as opposed to analysts looking from abroad, legitimately share them.

At a time when the number of Syrians escaping their civil war to Jordan is approaching 300,000, or 5 percent of the population of that impoverished country, how destabilizing, politically or economically, would a few million brainwashed Koreans be in a country of 1,300,000,000 with the world's second largest GNP.

As for the fear of American troops on China's border: Secretary of State John Kerry, eager to make his diplomatic mark, should have been in Beijing last weekend, not Israel, telling the Chinese that were the Korean peninsula unified, American troops would be out of there on the next plane.

For nearly 60 years, American troops have served as a tripwire guaranteeing direct US military involvement in the event of a North Korean attack. No North Korea: no need for a US tripwire. Perhaps an explicit agreement to such a result could actually encourage Beijing to acquiesce in, or even help engineer — if the US and China could figure out how — the regime's collapse. Look at China's bilateral trade with South Korea: forget about the departure of US troops, enhanced trade should be advantage enough for China.

And once Kerry has Beijing and Washington aligned on North Korea, he could then reschedule his visit to Israel on the way home. There, he'd meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pull out a check-list of items the whole world knows must be agreed to if there is to be a two-state solution to the six-plus-decade-old Arab-Israel confrontation. Netanyahu prides himself on his no-nonsense, direct manner. So, Kerry should accommodate:

"Mr. Prime Minister: if you want a two-state solution, here's what's required: first, the Palestinians must have their capital in East Jerusalem."

Netanyahu: "No, Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel."

"Mr. Prime Minister: Israeli settlements adjacent to Jerusalem and the '67 borders can be included in Israel's final borders so long as the Palestinians are given the same amount of Israeli land elsewhere."

Netanyahu: "No, Israel will agree to some land swaps but not on the basis of the '67 borders."

"Mr. Prime Minister: Israel must agree to the repatriation to Israel of a nominal number of Palestinian refugees from 1948."

Netanyahu: "Israel does not accept the right of any Palestinians, or their descendants, who chose to leave in 1948, to return to Israel."

"Mr. Prime Minister: once a final peace treaty has been agreed to, Israel must remove all its soldiers from within the borders of the new Palestinian state, including those in the Jordan Valley."

Netanyahu: "Israel does not agree to leave the Palestinian border with Jordan unsupervised and open to terrorists."

"Mr. Prime Minister: you have clearly stated a position that means that no realistic two-state solution is acceptable to Israel. What do you propose instead? Permanent occupation or a single democratic state with a Palestinian majority? If there's another option, please advise us."

"Oh, and one final thing, Mr. Prime Minister: while the US will continue to recite the 'no options are off the table' formula in dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions, I want you, as our close ally, to appreciate that, under no foreseeable circumstances, will the US launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran, nor will we support Israel if it chooses to do so. The US public will not tolerate another war in the Middle East. We intend to seek direct bilateral negotiations with Iran to resolve the issue; and we believe that an agreement is possible in which Iran would refrain from assembling any nuclear weapons, with full IAEA access to all its nuclear sites, in exchange for a lifting of sanctions and an eventual resumption of diplomatic relations."

On his way back to Washington, the new secretary of state could perfect his, and the US', new diplomatic style by stopping off in Havana to lay the groundwork for ending the embargo and resuming relations with the Castro government.

Trade with Cuba, and a flood of Cuban-Americans visiting their cousins, could undermine the communist regime a lot more successfully than another half century of the current approach. Indeed, the US embargo against Cuba has been an even bigger diplomatic failure than our role as honest broker overseeing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine, and still travels frequently to the Middle East.

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