Tuesday, October 31, 2006
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The Chinese tightrope walk on North Korea
Many commentators are also giving the credit to China for this breakthrough. Michael Moran at cfr.org points out:
China’s actions merit most attention. Susan Shirk, an Asian affairs specialist at the University of California, says “the North Korean nuclear test, by driving China to become part of the solution and averting conflict between China and Japan, shifted strategic ground in Northeast Asia” (YaleGlobal). More than ever, agrees CFR Vice President Gary Samore, China is in the driver’s seat.This leads to an interesting question -- why did North Korea agree to jaw-jaw? I suggested earlier this month that Chinese economic pressure was the source for DPRK moderation. This New York Times report by Joseph Kahn does little to change my mind on this point:
China cut off oil exports to North Korea in September during heightened tension over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, Chinese trade statistics show.What's really interesting about this is that the Chinese are denying any efforts at economic pressure.
I'd deny if I were them too -- because successful Chinese coercion opens up a can of worms Beijing does not want to see open. The moment that Chinese economic pressure against North Korea is perceived as successful, the question becomes, "When will China use its economic lever to put the squeeze on the DPRK regime?" Indeed, this was the point Anne Applebaum made a few weeks ago in Slate. If Chinese pressure turns out to have worked, then it becomes that much tougher for China to take a backseat to the United States on this issue.
The thing is, China -- and South Korea -- want the impossible. They want a declawed but intact DPRK to act as a buffer between Beijing and Seoul. If this were possible, then China wouldn't need to worry about the long-term regional threat posed by a unified Korea, and Seoul wouldn't have to worry about the costs of bankrolling North Korea's transition.
It's not possible, however, because this regime wants absolute domestic control, and that's incompatible with the kind of reforms that would be necessary to survive.
I don't have a great answer to this problem, by the way -- but Beijing doesn't either.posted by Dan on 10.31.06 at 03:18 PM
One crazy idea--China moves its forces into northern North Korea and sets up an "administrative zone". Maybe they use a refugee flood as a pretext, in tandem with their new security fence. Within this administrative zone they impose Chinese-style economic policy and guarantee near-Chinese levels of political freedom and stability (not much by our standards, but a big leap for the DPRK). Internal refugees flock into the zone because it's the safest and most prosperous place in the country. They maintain an ambiguous policy with regard to Kim, saying that their intervention is a form of assistance.
Unless Kim does something suicidal like attacking the Chinese, they can use the zone to block or reduce the flood of refugees, build up the North Korean economy outside of Kim's control (they could even invite ROK investment), weaken Kim's hold over his population, and earn some humanitarian credit. They might even be able to make a buck or two.
Hey, I said it was crazy. But eventually, ideas like this may be the only ones that get China out of the jam they've gotten themselves into.posted by: srp on 10.31.06 at 03:18 PM [permalink]
Excellent point about China's complex motives vis-a-vis North Korea, Dan, but I disagree with your point that China is particularly concerned about a unified Korea -- unless that's another way of saying that China fears a remilitarized Japan, which is likely to be the main consequence of a unified Korea (nuclear or not).
Japanese strategic thinking has long looked to Korea as, in the words of a German military advisor to the Meiji regime, "a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan," and it would undoubtedly feel uneasy about Korean reunification, because one thing that Koreans, north and south, are united on already is their hatred of Japan.
A unified Korea could succeed where rising China and nuclear North Korea have failed in stirring large-scale remilitarization in Japan.posted by: Tobias on 10.31.06 at 03:18 PM [permalink]
China's border with North Korea is dissolving - China is experiencing the joys of proximity to a failed state. The North Korean Peoples Army is invading Manchuria as gangsters. Given the language barrier, there must be far more North Korean refugees there than suspected if so many NKPA deserters can find cover among them.posted by: Tom Holsinger on 10.31.06 at 03:18 PM [permalink]
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