North Korea's overwhelming interest is its own survival. Kim Jong-il’s only assets, in his impoverished country, are a massive conscript army and a rudimentary nuclear weapon. These are the only tools at his disposal to prevent the collapse of his power.
One can envisage manufactured border incidents with South Korea, military clashes between the two countries, and a deliberate escalation of tension with Japan. This would not be because North Korea actually wants to start a war it could not win. Kim Jong-il's calculation is that South Korea and, more importantly, America will make concessions to get it back to the negotiating table. It needs help to revive its hopeless economy. The regime also wants recognition of its legitimacy and permanence.
China and South Korea are concerned that the collapse of the regime could lead to millions of refugees pouring into their own countries. While the reunification of Korea would be the end result, North Korea is so backward and totalitarian that the integration of the two Koreas would make the reunification of Germany – still incomplete after 20 years – seem like child's play in comparison.
So how is this "elephant in the room" to be managed and pacified? The key is China, even more than the United States. The pressure that the Chinese might be willing to apply will be private. It is known to have done so in the past and may, for all we know, be doing it again at this very moment. Much of North Korea's trade is with China; its investment comes from either China or South Korea, and the regime would be in deep trouble if Beijing withdrew its diplomatic support.
[Excerpt of an article by Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP, former British defense secretary and foreign secretary]