China at crossroads on Korean Peninsula

By Yu Kun-ha
  • Published : Apr 21, 2013 - 20:30
  • Updated : Apr 21, 2013 - 20:30

As North Korea’s Kim Dynasty takes the world to the brink yet again, let’s keep our eyes on the endgame. While Beijing may not be able to tell Pyongyang what to do and it’s clear the two sides aren’t as chummy as most outsiders think, Beijing can pull the plug. And that’s what it must do.

North Korea is a criminal enterprise that denies its people the most basic rights and stays afloat largely thanks to weapons exports to fellow bad actors, sales of natural resources to China at below-world-market prices (so long as Chinese miners pay in hard currency and don’t spread news of the outside world to locals), as well as various illicit activities.

North Korea gets most of its energy from China while China also helps blunt the effects of United Nations sanctions against it. In short, North Korea exists because China sustains, protects and apologizes for it when it counts. Without China, North Korea’s gone. That day can’t come soon enough.

China claims a North Korean collapse would bring regional instability. But North Korea’s mere existence fosters instability. Why should a historically peaceful nation like Korea be divided against its will, especially when its enslaved half taunts the free world at the barrel of a gun?

China also says a North Korean collapse means refugees across its border. But judging by Germany’s experience, North Korean refugees will instead go south if given the chance. If anything, I foresee a day when ethnic Koreans in northeastern China migrate into the former North Korea to cash in on unification.

China’s true zero-sum game fear behind a united Korea is the prospect of a U.S. ally on its border. Washington can help assuage Beijing’s fears by promising not to station any of its troops above the 38th Parallel in a united Korea (as we made good on our promise to Moscow not to put any troops in the former East Germany after German reunification), and by suggesting to any formal reunification body that all existing Chinese business contracts in a former North Korea be honored.

Chinese companies already in North Korea would thus in theory be able to access U.S. and European markets via South Korea’s existing free trade agreements, into which all of Korea would presumably be grandfathered (as the former East Germany was into the European Community which later became the European Union).

Soviet-era arms control experts, former U.S. Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, can be drafted out of retirement to track down the North’s loose nukes in the months preceding formal unification. Fresh ideas like these can help Beijing see past its own myopic North Korean policy.

Otherwise, with North Korea still in business, China will only face more calls from within Japan for Tokyo to develop its own nuclear weapons, fan the flames of South Korean public resentment for its forced repatriation of North Korean refugees, and unwittingly further validate America’s Asia “Pivot,” or “Rebalancing.”

U.S. President Barack Obama is right not to talk to North Korea. Leaving aside former Presidents Clinton’s and Bush’s own experiences in dealing with Pyongyang, how can we expect Kim Jong-un’s unelected, murderous regime to negotiate with us in good faith when it doesn’t even respect its own people enough to let them access the Internet, or travel?

Pyongyang’s a circus sideshow, hoping to suck in gullible foreigners who don’t know better. The time for talking to North Korea has long passed. All future realpolitik diplomacy should be in China’s direction, telling it in no uncertain terms what it stands to lose by remaining North Korea’s enabler and defender of last resort.

It didn’t start out this way, but North Korea’s continued existence is now but a U.S.-China proxy war for influence a la 1980s Afghanistan, which was, in fact, an indirect armed conflict between the United States and Soviet Union.

Considering how hypersensitive China is on matters of national sovereignty, it shouldn’t be China standing in the way of Koreans’ unified destiny. But sadly, it is. It’s time for Beijing to step aside, let North Korea fall and allow Koreans to be one again if they so choose. Until then, everything else is noise. China can end Korea’s division and misery once and for all.

By Sean King

Sean King is senior vice president of Park Strategies, LLC in New York. ― Ed.