North Korea needs someone like Günter Schabowski. One afternoon in 1989, the East German government spokesman mistakenly announced the Berlin Wall was to be opened. A few hours later, people were flooding into the West. By morning, the German Democratic Republic was kaput.
Unfortunately, there will be no Pyongyang Schabowski. But perhaps one can be found in Beijing.
On Wednesday, North Korea shocked the world by claiming to have successfully completed a test of a hydrogen bomb, which if true would take the hermit kingdom from nuclear state to nuclear-plus. All of which has China very worried. And China, the one country with real influence over North Korea, may finally be concerned enough to start throwing its weight around.
What can China do? It could open its border with North Korea. Beijing has long discouraged North Koreans from escaping their prison-state, but it could put pressure on the regime, and maybe even bring it down, if it instead welcomed refugees.
An open border would be a huge problem for the third-generation tyranny of the Kim dynasty, now led by Kim Jong-un. If allowed to vote with their feet, most impoverished North Koreans would. It is hard to imagine anything else that stands a chance of restraining Mr. Kim or removing him from power.
China has been the closest thing to a friend, ally and trading partner for insular North Korea. Trade between the two countries amounted to US$6.4-billion in 2014.
The Beijing government was right to "resolutely" condemn Pyongyang's announcement, saying, "China strongly opposes this act.... China will firmly push for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." This was remarkably unambiguous language from Beijing.
The opening of the border to huge numbers of North Koreans seeking a better life (or life itself) would be an inconvenient nuisance to China, but a nuclear-armed Mr. Kim and his successors would be in a position to manipulate and blackmail several nations. The "supreme leader" of North Korea is buffoonish and strange, but that doesn't mean he lacks cunning, or that he isn't extremely dangerous to all his neighbours.
For the international community it's unfortunate that only China has much leverage over North Korea. But that's the way it is.