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North Korea: Choosing the Lesser Evil

In an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor Ted Galen Carpenter proposes a solution to our problems in dealing with North Korea that not only shocks me but puzzles me as well:

There is a final option that deserves consideration. It would amount to inducing (bribing) China to remove Kim Jong Il’s regime and install a more pragmatic government in Pyongyang, along with the explicit condition of keeping the country nonnuclear. Part of the bargain also ought to be a commitment from Beijing to promote the reunification of the two Koreas within the next generation. During my visit to China last year, policymakers there professed loyalty to Beijing’s longtime ally, but there was also a distinct undertone of exasperation with Pyongyang.

If the price were right, Chinese leaders might be bold enough to topple Kim with a palace coup. But the price would certainly not be cheap. At the least, Beijing would want a commitment from the US to end its military presence on the Korean Peninsula and, probably, to phase out its security alliance with South Korea. In all likelihood, Chinese leaders also would want US concessions on the Taiwan issue.

Final option, indeed. This approach is shocking because it would jettison the policies we’ve followed in the region for the last 50 years. But pursuing such a course would be puzzling as well. It’s an effective statement that North Korea’s nuclear program is sufficiently threatening that we’re willing to encourage whatever ambitions China has in regards to Asian hegemony and the consequences of a China-installed regime in North Korea for the South and, possibly, for Japan in exchange for the termination of that program.

Is North Korea’s program really that threatening? If so, we could prevent any North Korean nuclear proliferation by blockade. If we can’t trust the Chinese to prevent North Korean nuclear proliferation through Chinese territory, why can we trust them to install a regime that’s even minimally acceptable? Or, indeed, a regime that would abandon North Korea’s nuclear weapons program?

I think we shouldn’t underestimate the dangers posed by a North Korean nuclear weapons program but let’s not overestimate them, either. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is of little direct danger to the United States now and won’t be for the foreseeable future. As Galen acknowledges in his op-ed, the real danger is North Korea’s propensity to proliferate. And we can prevent that without abandoning all of Asia to China’s tender mercies.

A North Korea that doesn’t sell its nuclear weapons to any and all comers is in China’s interests as much as ours. We aren’t the only country with enemies and I see no reason to offer China extraordinarily generous encouragements to do what’s in their interests anyway.

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About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging.

Comments

  1. Brett says:

    Indeed, and I hope the author wasn’t being entirely serious about this being a valid option.

    As for the Chinese, it’s probably a good bet that they’ll, at the very minimum, keep the current North Korean regime from collapsing under its own weight. We could probably take advantage of that, and do a “malign neglect” policy where we just outright ignore the North Koreans, refuse to give them any aid, and give South Korea and the Japanese things like additional American ABM technology and other support.

    That would shift most of the burden of keeping the North Korean government from collapsing from mass starvation and slow economic failure to Beijing, which is only fair (considering the role they played in setting up the DPRK anyways). Considering that the North Koreans have pretty much broken every treaty commitment they’ve made over the years regarding nukes and proliferation, why not let the Chinese bear that burden?

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  2. I am sympathetic to the Dave’s argument here, and agree with the conclusions. But I do wonder if this:

    And we can prevent that without abandoning all of Asia to China’s tender mercies.

    isn’t a bit over the top? I mean, I agree we shouldn’t get too panicky over North Korea, but I also think there is little evidence that China has imperial ambitions in East Asia. Hegemonic? Sure, in the same way that the U.S. has hegemonic aspirations over Central America. But in Asia, China is nicely balanced by Japan, India, South Korea, and even an ASEAN grouping that seems pretty committed to the concept of regional autonomy.

    I don’t think, in the end, that even if China were to engage (at our request or not) in quasi-coup to install a more predictable regime in North Korea that it would be a new Anschluss or anything. China’s aspirations seems wholly conventional for any great power rather than revolutionary to me.

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  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I’ll acknowledge it’s a bit over the top, Bernard, but only a bit. Do you really want to make the argument that the U. S. is no more benign than China? That’s what’s implied in your comparison of U. S. hegemony in Central American with prospective Chinese hegemony in Asia.

    I think that U. S. involvement in East Asia is on net beneficial both to the people in East Asia and here. Were we to materially absent ourselves as would be the case were Galen’s prescription to be followed I think that it’s more than likely that South Korea would Finlandize itself and India and Japan both arm themselves.

    War between India and China is not beyond the realm of possibility. I think that our involvement with both and involvement with East Asia makes that less rather than more likely.

    My main view on Galen’s suggestion is that we don’t know what the outcome would be and that it’s better not to encourage the Chinese in behavior that’s the opposite of what we’d really like to see from them.

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  4. Tlaloc says:

    I think we shouldn’t underestimate the dangers posed by a North Korean nuclear weapons program but let’s not overestimate them, either.

    It’s hard to overestimate them. North Korean technology isn’t exactly state of the art. I don;t believe they’ve had a single successful rocket launch or test detonation.

    With no payload and no delivery vector their nuclear program is about as dangerous as the contents of my garage.

    also they’re hemmed in on all sides by neighbors that are less than sympathetic to islamic terrorists (most definitely including China). That makes it less likely they can smuggle any future bombs or even dirty bomb materials to the kind of people we worry might use them. Unlike say PAKISTAN, which has working nuclear weapons, working ballistic missiles (medium range at least), strong ties to Al Qaeda, and easy smuggling routes via Afghanistan to pretty much anywhere.

    Pakistan worries the hell out of me.

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  5. Do you really want to make the argument that the U. S. is no more benign than China?

    It depends. Is Bush president at the time of the comparison?

    Okay, I kid.

    No, I don’t want to make that argument. BUT, on a continuum with the U.S. at close to one end and, say, Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia at the other, I think China today is more comparable to us than to those revolutionary powers. So our policies toward the Chinese should be more like those towards an occasionally maddening ally like France than a vicious adversary like Stalin’s Soviet Union.

    It isn’t that I want to encourage Chinese ambitions, as much as I want to avoid using terms like “Finlandization” which make connections to quite different powers, with quite different (and I would argue) more dangerous aspirations.

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  6. Dave Schuler says:

    So our policies toward the Chinese should be more like those towards an occasionally maddening ally like France than a vicious adversary like Stalin’s Soviet Union.

    I agree. I don’t think we should encourage the French to overthrow governments in Africa (for example) however much it might stabilize things in the short term.

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  7. Brett says:

    I think that it’s more than likely that South Korea would Finlandize itself and India and Japan both arm themselves.

    The latter is almost certainly true (both Japan and India would heavily step up arms purchases and expenditures, and Japan would probably modify the clause in their Constitution so as to loosen up the ban on anything other than self-defense), but I don’t buy the former. You forget that South Korea is pretty wealthy and prosperous in that region; I think it’s more likely that they would

    A. Go nuclear, and
    B. Form an uneasy alliance with the Japanese (I say “uneasy” because there’s a lot of bad history there) against the Chinese.

    They already have a pretty solid military – the only reason why the North Koreans are even a threat is the sheer quantity of hardware that they’ve got (much of which is ancient).

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  8. Tlaloc says:

    It’s hard to overestimate them.

    Crud, that should be “It’s hard to underestimate them.”

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