Another week's chatter about North Korea's latest outrage obscures the burning issue: Will China ally itself with the U.S., South Korea and Japan to prevent war on the Korean Peninsula?
Whatever is going on behind Pyongyang's kimchi curtain, it's clear a rogue state has determined its very existence depends on dangerous gambles to intimidate its enemies. How else to explain why continuing assistance offers over several decades by Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have been accepted opportunistically, but ultimately spurned by the North? At the same time, Pyongyang has been cooperating with other pariah regimes in the clandestine trade of weapons of mass destruction.
By responding only rhetorically to Pyongyang's recent provocations - the sinking of a South Korean sloop, the shelling of a civilian population and the exhibition of new nuclear facilities - the anti-North Korean alliance comes pitifully close to encouraging the North's intransigence. A regime that permitted hundreds of thousands of its people to starve in order to fund one of the world's largest militaries will not turn away from that strategy so long as it is working. And make no bones about it, the regime has been winning, surviving as a communist royal dictatorship, and now, apparently maneuvering through another succession crisis.
The critical issue now is how long South Korea and its allies can afford not to respond. Washington and Tokyo are fortunate that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a realistic and competent executive, is at the helm of one of the world's most dynamic economies. But the recent resignation of Mr. Lee's defense minister is a sign of trouble ahead. Inability to deal with its ethnic brothers is bound to erode not only Seoul's democratic environment, but also the underpinnings of the world's 10th largest economy.
Talking heads tell us China is the key to unlocking the crisis. Pyongyang's military economy depends for food and fuel on Beijing's support. China could theoretically bring ailing Dear Leader Kim Jong-il to heel. But speculating on why Beijing has not acted is almost as fruitless as attempting to decode the murky power battles inside Pyongyang.
Some explanations are, on the face of it, ridiculous - the idea, for example, that Beijing fears "a dangerous flow of refugees" across its border if the North Korean regime implodes. Pray tell, is there anything in Chinese Communist history - in its worst Maoist moments or even now - to suggest human life is so sacred Beijing would not use whatever means necessary to block refugees? More likely, China fears Pyongyang's disintegration would result in a reunified Korea, a stronger rival in East Asia, and one linked ideologically, if not in formal alliance, with Washington.
Eminent authorities argue for "persuading" Beijing that it shares a common interest in stabilizing a non-nuclear peninsula by reining in Pyongyang - a condescending argument at best. Can it be that the Chinese leadership does not recognize its own self-interest in a burning issue on its doorstep for half a century - or, if it does, to use old diplomatic gobbledygook, they are still "conflicted" about what to do? Furthermore, with growing friction between Washington - on commercial, financial, political and military levels - achieving a "grand bargain" with Beijing on the peninsular crisis defies the most skilled diplomacy, at least for now.
Does that mean meeting the next North Korean provocation with military force or tolerating an unstable time bomb in East Asia? No, but given the propensity of the North Korean crisis to escalate, it does demand the use of whatever means at Washington's disposal to persuade Beijing to act.
Is that a realistic possibility, given the current weakened U.S. position?
In 2005, an overly patient Bush administration imposed stringent sanctions - backed by serious enforcement measures - to pressure Pyongyang. Alas, the U.S. goal was simply getting the North Koreans back to a conference table for more interminable negotiations. Washington's strategy, offering aid from America and its allies as a reward to change the nature of the regime, proved a non-starter. Pyongyang's acceptance of a liberalized economy would undermine the very basis of a regime built on terror. While Pyongyang has paid lip service to imitating "socialism with Chinese characteristics," again and again North Korea has reverted to its unique combination of Stalinism and institutionalized corruption.
The 2005 sanctions "worked" temporarily because Washington not only clamped down on North Korea, but threatened Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang. That got Beijing's attention, and brought about Pyongyang's acquiescence.
It is time again for Washington and its allies aggressively to go after all operations sustaining North Korean enterprise, and that means - whatever the cries of outrage from Wall Street - going after Chinese entities aiding the North. The pressure must also target the "frills"; e.g., Japanese state subsidies to its ethnic-Korean-language schools employing the Pyongyang curriculum.
That would be called, in some circles, "demonizing" China. But it really amounts to "playing your hand" in what is increasingly a high-stakes game of Northeast Asian poker.
- Sol Sanders, a veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics, business and politics. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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