To paraphrase Gordon Chang writing in Forbes magazine, we don’t have a North Korean problem, we have a China problem. Chang made this observation over a year and a half ago after North Korea tested a second atomic bomb, and it applies even more today. So far this year North Korea has killed 50 South Koreans in unequivocal acts of war – 46 in the sinking of the South Korean destroyer Cheonan and 4 in the shelling of Yeonpyeong island.
China’s continued support of North Korea is self-defeating. It would like nothing more than to drive the United States out of the western Pacific, yet paradoxically China’s unqualified support of North Korea’s belligerence pushes South Korea and Japan closer to the United States and sucks America deeper into the region. Protests in Seoul against the American presence have been replaced by protests demanding immediate retaliation – with American involvement.
China is worried about two events: a mass influx of refugees in the near-term and a unified Korea allied with the United States in the long-term. By propping up the Kims they may have created the conditions where both outcomes are likely.
But the truth is that neither South Korea or the US want the North Korean regime to collapse. The south isn’t in West Germany’s position in the early 1990’s when it could afford to integrate East Germany. The integration cost more and took longer than expected even with Germany’s deep pockets and East Germany’s relatively educated and informed population. South Korea won’t have either luxury when North Korea falls. Its prosperity is new and still shallow, and the North Korean population is in a feudal state and brainwashed. A unified Korea would require more resources than South Korea is itself capable of marshalling; it would need support from the world community but especially Japan, the United States and yes even China. It would also take decades.
Unification in Korea would be much messier and more expensive than Germany’s – and that’s not even considering the mechanics of the collapse of the Kim regime. Such an event would likely happen swiftly and violently – exactly the kind of event South Koreans living in the shadow of artillery and Japanese within missile range fear most. Add in nuclear, biological and chemical tipped missiles and North Korea becomes a true Pandora’s Box that no one in the region wants to open.
But someone is going to have to, and that someone is going to be China. China alone has the capability of stabilizing the situation and can do so without causing a flood of refugees or the collapse of North Korea. China must accept that it is possible to destroy the Kim regime without sacrificing the state the regime has built – and that it must act.
So far China hasn’t been willing to do this because it has benefited from North Korea’s poking of South Korea and the United States. North Korea is a very big stick it can use to bully Japan, South Korea and the United States. It has had this stick for 60 years and has not had a good reason to give it up. Both SK and the US have allowed themselves to be manipulated by refusing to accept the more painful realization that they don’t have a North Korean problem – they have a China problem.
This realization is more painful because it recognizes that China is an adversary – not an ally in world affairs. It is coming around to the Chinese perspective which has always viewed the US and Western nations through the historical prism – successors to the nations that divided and pillaged China during the 18th and 19th centuries. Chinese memories – and the paranoia they breed – run deep, much deeper than Western memories. China sees trade as a zero-sum game that benefits it by providing resources and funds which it can then use to increase Chinese political and military power. In exchange it provides relative trinkets that cannot be used to boost the strength of its trading partners (more about that here).
Neither the US nor South Korea can continue to accept a status quo whereby North Korea commits one act of war after another, killing South Koreans without punishment. Both states must make it clear that while neither can retaliate against the North Koreans directly, they can hold China responsible for the North’s actions. It is time for these nations to make China understand that its support of North Korea has consequences and that while are retaliation options are very limited with the Hermit Kingdom, that isn’t the case with the Middle one.
Imagine the following situation:
Kim Jong Il has died suddenly but before his son takes power he is arrested by one of North Korea’s generals acting on behalf of the dead Kim. The son would be charged with treason for deviating from the Socialist path or something (see the communiqué issued by the Hungarian Communist party requesting assistance from the Soviets in 1956 for details) – and would be executed – along with the rest of the Kim clan who hadn’t fleed beforehand. This general then requests that China send its People’s Army to North Korea to help North Korea maintain order, and China complies – sending tens of thousands of troops in to support the new regime. These changes are for the most part invisible to the outside world; the only difference would be the uniforms worn by the soldiers on the north side of the DMZ.
How would the world react? With relief. The fact that China may not believe that the US and South Korea want stability more than a unified peninsula does not make it less true. All regional powers would much rather see the North Korean military and its nuclear weapons under Chinese control and its populace under an authoritarian rule that can at least feed it.
The only trade off is that China would lose its puppet – so it must be made to understand that it will lose more by supporting the Kim regime than it would by replacing it. Until it accepts this, and is made to believe it through the concrete actions of the United States, Japan and South Korea, then North Korea will continue to kill and threaten civilians.