Saturday, November 27, 2010
How do you solve a problem like Korea?
If ever a ruling elite seemed to justify the Bush-era doctrine of “pre-emption”, it is the Kim dynasty in North Korea. No government anywhere subjects its own people to such a barbarous regime of fear, repression and hunger. And the Kims are complicit in international outrages ranging from murderous terrorism and nuclear proliferation to drug-smuggling and currency-counterfeiting. The present dictator, Kim Jong Il, is apparently not long for this world, and seems to be boosting his 27-year-old son and anointed successor as a victorious warrior. When the elder Kim was himself dauphin, in the 1980s, he earned his spurs through international terrorism.
This week the North waged war for the second time this year with South Korea when it shelled a South Korean island near the disputed maritime boundary, killing two soldiers and two civilians, injuring others and burning a score of houses. In March, when one of its torpedoes sank the Cheonan, a naval vessel, killing 46, North Korea could, albeit implausibly, deny culpability. This time, though the North describes its aggression as retaliation (for a harmless South Korean military exercise), there is no gainsaying its responsibility for one of the most serious incidents since the end of the Korean war in 1953. To add to this dismal catalogue, the latest onslaught came just three days after the revelation that, in defiance of international efforts to curb its nuclear programme, North Korea has developed a sophisticated facility for enriching uranium. That gives it a further potential source of material for bombmaking.
The starting-point for answering the North’s aggression has to be that, in the most basic sense, the Kims will almost certainly get away with only a symbolic return of fire. It is entirely wrong for North Korea to act as it does. But punitive military reprisals against the North risk a spiral of escalation and catastrophic war. Deterrence works badly against a dictator who blithely imposes famine and gulags on his people during peacetime. Even if there are doubts about the efficacy of its tiny nuclear arsenal, North Korea has enough men under arms, and enough conventional ammunition within range of Seoul—just 35 miles (60km) from the frontier—to make war seem very much a last resort.
If war and the threat of war are hardly even options, what can the world do? The best card in a bad hand is to heal the divisions among other countries about how to handle North Korea. That means, in particular, making China see that a tinderbox it has long regarded as a strategic asset has become an appalling liability. China also struggles to control North Korea. But a united front would change the environment that encourages the rogue state’s bad behaviour.
China cannot be blind to the Kims’ bungling and bellicosity, nor welcome their nuclear ambitions. But it has had two worse fears. One is of a rekindled war on the peninsula, which would damage China. The other is of North Korean collapse, with millions of desperate refugees pouring into China and South Korea or even American troops on China’s border. It is as a bulwark against this “instability” that China cossets the Kims. It refused to condemn them even for the sinking of the Cheonan, and this week issued blandly even-handed calls for restraint. It apparently believes that if their only ally abandons them, the Kims might do something really rash.
But they already have. Whatever it says publicly, China must surely see that this regime flirts with war as an instrument of diplomacy and that its desire to shock the world into negotiating with it requires ever greater outrages. Ultimately, this pattern of behaviour threatens the very stability China craves. China’s alliance with North Korea thus undermines not just its image as a global power but also its own interests.
So how to nudge China in the right direction? One possibility is the revival of the six-party forum, chaired by China and involving Japan and Russia. Talks stalled after North Korea forged ahead with its nuclear programme. The Kims would regard a revival as a victory. But talks will eventually have to resume if North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are to be negotiated down. If they also help persuade China to rein in North Korea, that would be a double benefit. ◦