I know what your thinking: there’s the president of a democracy standing next to three dictators, one of whom insists on dressing like Mao, watching Chinese soldiers goose-step like fascists. Yikes! I agree that the optics are terrible. (Quick quiz: who’s the ‘president for life’ in blue on the left? Here.)
But Park is flattering China like this is for a purpose – to isolate North Korea. So stop all your nattering about her clothes at this event (yes, I’ve heard that); that she is Xi’s ‘girlfriend;’ that she’s a ‘sinophile;’ that she’s drifting from the US or turned her back on her friends or democracy or whatever. None of that is true. All of that is speculative.
Instead, she’s hustling hard – 6 trips to China in 3 years – to convince China that South Korea is not an enemy and that China can therefore give up the North Korean buffer. How many times have you heard American analysts, in an attempt to get China to do more on North Korea, say, ‘the road to Pyongyang runs through Beijing’? Well, here are the South Koreans taking that to heart. If you think she’s dissing the US alliance, recall that the whole purpose of the US-SK alliance is North Korea. The US alliance is not an end in itself, no matter what neocons think.
China is North Korea’s last trap-door to escape the obvious inefficiencies of its economy. Without China, the perks of running North Korea – the cars, yachts, booze, trips to Hong Kong, girls, foreign education for your kids, and all the rest – disappear. Cut that Chinese umbilical cord, and North Korean resources will diminish dramatically. As the budget steadily shrinks, regime elites will turn on each other over a diminishing pie. The Songun bargain (my term) – struck by Kim Jong Il to keep the system rolling after the Cold War, in which the KPA generals do not overthrow the Kims in exchange for the cushy lifestyle – would collapse, because the lifestyle is impossible without some access to the outside world. And the only place North Korean elites can park their money, traffick their meth and missile parts, import skiing equipment (yes, really), and all the rest, is China.
If you can finally cut off North Korea from the world – no more hidden pipelines – then I’d bet the regime would collapse within a decade from elite infighting over the small domestic, not very cushy resource pie leftover (no more Hennessey!). After the jump is a reprint of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute making this argument at length.