5 (Bad) Options for Dealing w/ NK (2): China & Bribery don’t Work either


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Part 1 is here.

I spoke at the Korean Institute of Defense Analysis last week. This is an expansion of my remarks. In part 1, I argued that the first option, negotiation, would fail. Here are three others that I don’t think have lead anywhere either.

2. Wait for Change/Muddling Through: This is the default position, as NK is so erratic, it is hard to build a ‘grand strategy’ to deal with it. Call this permanent crisis management. This is attractive, because it doesn’t require a huge Southern defense budget; the Americans are here and will help SK deterrence. It also appeals to our sense that NK is living on borrowed time. If there is one idea I hear at just about every conference I’ve been to in Asia, it’s that NK can’t last. If SK can just hang-on, then eventually NK will go away. I see two problems: First, NK doesn’t seem to be going away no matter how many experts and economists tell us they are on their last legs. Indeed, NK confounds us all by surviving, somehow, no matter what happens. It’s astonishing actually. Second, insofar as NK is an unbelievable brutal regime, simply waiting for change raises the moral issue of the fate of North Koreans. North Korea is beyond your run-of-the-mill dictatorship; its 1984. It allowed some 1 million of its own people to starve to death in the 1990s, and it runs the worst gulag system on the planet. Insofar as ‘traditional’ dictatorships allow regular people to survive if they keep their heads down, the moral compulsion on outsiders to end that regime is low. But when a regime actively brutalizes its own people, the R2P principle kicks in. I wonder if all this raises moral culpability among the liberal states in the 6 parties? Given just how bad NK really is, do we have a moral responsibility to try to accelerate its demise? Is mutual coexistence defensible with a regime this bad?

3. China: This was the great hope of the last decade, but it seems to be going nowhere. The liberal states of the 6 parties are played for gain by NK less and less; they have learned to not get gimmicked and played off against each other. This has driven NK, in desperation, to China, as its last benefactor. (Russia is neither wealthy nor interested enough to care.) So for awhile in the 2000s, there was talk about the ‘way to Pyongyang runs through Beijing.’ And this would be true, if China used its leverage, and one read of the NK nuclear program is that it prevents the total clientelization of NK by China. But they just aren’t helping. Indeed, the Chinese decision to continually subsidize NK led me to call them ‘liars’ on unification two years ago. Maybe that was an overreaction, but their non-response to both the Cheonan and the Yeonpyeong last year was a terrible failure of global citizenship. NK is ground-zero for all that talk of China being a ‘responsible stakeholder.’ Reining NK is vastly more important the China’s currency gimmicks or even the South Chia sea flap. If there is any one thing the world wants from China, it’s help in bringing the NKs to, if not change internally, at least behave with a modicum of normality externally. My own thinking on China has softened since I’ve lived here. I have had enough ‘track II’-style relations with Chinese scholars and students to see that there is a lot of worry about NK, an awareness that the world is really watching China on this issue, and a general sense that Chinese global prestige is damaged every time it looks like NK is the maniac pitbull whose owner won’t control it. But perhaps old ways die hard, or the PLA is the one really calling the shots on the NK issue. I can certainly understand that China does not want an American-allied, nationalist, larger ROK on its border. Whatever the reason, this is not working; China is not disciplining NK (or maybe it can’t and we have over-estimated it). Sure, we should keep talking to Beijing about this, but like the negotiating strategy, it is time to be realistic that this probably won’t work.

4. Sunshine Policy Bribery: Contrary to SK hawks, I thought this was actually a good idea back in the 90s. By 1997/98, it was pretty clear that NK was going to survive the end of the Cold War and its internal famines. Waiting for NK to collapse feels like waiting for Godot, so just about anything that might work is worth a try at this point. Given that the goal is NK change, not ideological purity, I see no reason we should criticize Presidents Kim or Roh as dupes of NK or something like that. They tried. A pragmatic decision to see if another approach would work was absolutely worth it at the time. It’s unhelpful right-wing ideology to say that we should never talk to NK or that they are part of the ‘axis of evil.’ What we really need is change, and a pragmatic decision to reach out was certainly defensible. It should also be admitted though, that it didn’t work. We know now that both President Kim (1997-2002) and Roh (2002-07) were bitterly disappointed that NK did not respond. Kim Jong Il even needed to be personally bribed in order to come to the inter-Korean summit. In the language of game theory, the Sunshine Policy could be read as persistent, unreciprocated cooperation, even as the other player defects and defects, in order to see if the other player can eventually be brought around. The failure of player B (NK in this case) to respond tells us very important information: at least until the current Kim passes, it is very unlikely that unreciprocated cooperation will work. It was worth a college try; indeed, it was a heroic, noble effort (Kim won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize). But it also failed almost completely, and I entirely understand why the SK electorate turned against it and took the current hardliner as president. It is unlikely to be tried again, at least while Kim Jong Il is alive.

Part 3 will go up on Monday.

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3 thoughts on “5 (Bad) Options for Dealing w/ NK (2): China & Bribery don’t Work either

  1. Pingback: 5 (Bad) Options for Dealing w/ NK (3): Defense Build-Up to Harden SK « Asian Security Blog

  2. I’ve read the third installment, so with that advantage, why not China? China might be belatedly trying to develop the border areas around the Yalu and Hamgyong and Rason provinces as a way to facilitate pacifying North Korea. Not responding to Yeonpyeong is regrettable but understandable: China doesn’t like drama, so it refrained from fanning the flames. Both Seoul and Beijing benefit from Russia’s pipeline deal and China’s development projects. The one drawback to remilitarizing South Korea is, that it’s license for Seoul to ratchet its anti-Japan rhetoric as well. All three states, ROK, PRC, and Japan could start a conflict under perfectly bad conditions. The U.S. should either prod Japan and ROK into a true alliance from the current quasi-alliance, or forge an oil-sharing consortium out of all three, since resource competition will lead them into war more surely than NK. Hardening SK just kicks that can down the road to a point when the U.S. no longer has the power and influence in the region it still has now.

  3. Pingback: 5 (Bad) Options for Dealing with NK (1): Don’t Expect Much from Talks – UPDATE: Today’s Talks flopped again « Asian Security Blog

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