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.