North Korea's nuclear test on 6 January was not a surprise. Over the past year the single cause for speculation was about how long Pyongyang would postpone the test.

At first sight the event may look like a setback for anyone who hoped that the minor diplomatic progress made over the course of 2015 might lead to a resumption of dialogue. Yet the underlying problem in the conflict has not changed: a narrowly defined negotiation agenda which is solely focused on denuclearisation. Pyongyang's move underlines its stance that its nuclear program is not negotiable, and that talks must lead to a peace treaty.

But positions about what future talks should actually focus on remain irreconcilable. Viable 'next steps' are missing in order to reinstate any kind of talks, trust is missing on all sides, and there is no willingness to understand the other's positions. China remains the only actor that could bring about change, but over the past three years Beijing's North Korea policy has encountered increasing difficulties.

North Korean consistency

North Korea's latest nuclear test has little to to do with international provocation or a desire to trigger international reactions. Rather it is part of a consistent effort to gain international recognition that its security concerns are paramount. The nuclear deterrent is a means to guarantee its own survival and free internal resources to develop the domestic economy.

Over the course of 2015, Pyongyang has hardened its stance and increasingly rejected any resumptions of talks. Instead it has put forward an absolute demand for a peace treaty with the US as a condition for the resumption of talks. The motives for putting such a demand onto the agenda are left for speculation. Most likely the intention is to counter international demands with a bargaining position.

The open question is whether North Korea would be willing to re-engage if the US and South Korea in particular reviewed their agenda and engaged in a gradual peace process that included the issue of eventual denuclearisation.

International expectations

The UN and the Northeast Asian powers have been narrowly focused on the nuclear issue too. UN sanctions are focused on North Korea's ballistic missile program, a re-engagement with Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and a return of IAEA's safeguards. The Six-Party Talks have focused on a single-track agenda with the goal of denuclearisation.

Instead of bold steps towards security negotiations and setting up an agenda for reconciliation, the parties arrayed against North Korea's nuclear program have offered small steps such as political and economic confidence-building measures with South Korea. These have served domestic South Korean needs but have not led to any desired outcomes in Pyongyang.

A pinballing China?

China's reaction to the 6 January test reflects the fact that China's 'little bit of everything' stance has let it into a policy impasse that can only be reversed with difficulty. Yet China is the only country that can really make a difference on the Korean Peninsula.

After the nuclear test, the Chinese government reissued old statements from 2013, saying that it opposed to North Korea's nuclear test and strongly urges the DPRK to honour its commitment to denuclearisation. This line underscores China's commitment to UN Security Council resolutions and its goal to restart the Six-Party Talks.

Yet over the past three years, China's position on the situation on the Korean Peninsula has changed, and China-North Korea relations have soured significantly. North Korea has rejected the Chinese development model. During the course of internal purges and power struggles it executed Jang Sung-taek, a key figure in the relationship. China has increasingly applied, against its own foreign policy principles, a carrot-and-stick approach in its North Korea policy. On multilateral level it has supported UNSC resolutions. Bilaterally, the government under Xi Jinping denied North Korea any symbolic gestures (such as high-profile visits), limited economic interaction and emphasised the importance of relations with the South. In so doing it has increasingly lost leverage. Pyongyang no longer sees fit to even inform Beijing about its intentions (such as to conduct nuclear tests).

At the same time, China has sought to reinstate economic engagement with North Korea. This involves investment in Special Economic Zones and a resumption of infrastructure development in order to transform the country, maintain stability and regain influence. The nuclear test might have stopped this move before it has even started..

The tripartite effort of coercion, engagement and facilitation has led China into a self-made impasse. North Korea has ignored both sticks and carrots and has thus left Beijing with few options. Instead, Pyongyang has once more made China lose face. In order to avoid sliding into a disoriented approach, dithering between incentives, pressure and interest politics, China might be forced to adopt an even firmer stance. The question remains how a less compromising stance will be compatible with Beijing's role as a facilitator and constructive broker in future dialogues.

A way out?

Despite international dismay about Pyongyang's latest nuclear test and the ad hoc reaction that will now follow, there are strong limits on what the international community can do. Only mid- to long-term strategies can help to resolve the situation. China must find its role as a key player in future negotiations. Overcoming its narrow focus on denuclearisation and development as well as cooperating internationally to define a sustainable process that might satisfy the needs and goals of all parties would be first step in that direction.

Photo courtesy of Flckr user (Stephan)