A fragile balance

The United States must use caution when working with China to influence the North Korean regime

Kim Jong Un's confirmation as Kim Jong Il's successor in North Korea has created a new set of problems for the United States. The main problem North Korea must soon face is the prospect of the current regime's collapse. The need to collaborate with China to influence the future of the Korean Peninsula is greater than ever. Regime change, however, is not the best policy prescription. Coordinated pressure with China to bring about the collapse of the Kim dynasty will heighten the risks of Sino-U.S. confrontation and throw North Korea's small nuclear arsenal into terrorists' hands.

Those who think a regime change can be brought forth through increased access to modern technologies, South Korean propaganda efforts and the natural resentment and suffering caused by a series of famines during the last two decades are overly optimistic. In a nation as tightly controlled as North Korea, there is no access to modern technologies. The impact of Facebook and Twitter on Iran in summer 2009 will never materialize in North Korea because these technologies are simply not available to its general public. A public uprising, on the other hand, is unlikely thanks to tools such as social engineering, mass propaganda and threat of government force.

If a regime change were to occur, it would be produced out of a power struggle between the ascending Kim Jong Un and the military. But such a struggle would inevitably lead to a bloody civil war. North Korea's neighbors have historically prioritized a stable regime change. Both China and South Korea fear the violence, refugees and conflict spillover that might ensue from a sudden power struggle. But even if the coup were sudden and successful, there is no guarantee the new regime will be any more open than North Korea was under Kim Jong Il or Jong Un. Rather, the new regime would likely be equally oppressive and focused on maintaining power.

Finally, the greatest problem with the regime change option is the inevitable mass exodus of refugees into both China and South Korea after a civil war. Both nations will undoubtedly use military force to protect their borders or may even send a contingent into North Korea to halt the exodus. The ensuing chaos would make it difficult for policy-makers to make split-second decisions. A 2009 Council on Foreign Relations Special Report recognized the United States' challenges with such a scenario. How will China respond to South Korea or U.S. troops in North Korea and vice versa? It is a scenario that maximizes the risk of confrontation between China and the United States. Then there is the frightening possibility that North Korea's nuclear weapons will fall into the wrong hands and be traded in the black market.

What policy options, then, can the United States feasibly pursue on the Korean peninsula? First, the United States, along with China, must encourage economic reform in North Korea. In the past decade, China has tried to persuade Kim Jong Il to follow the "China model" of economic liberalization. The United States should aid the Chinese by changing the current sanctions regime to provide humanitarian aid and economic benefits if North Korea liberalized economically. After all, free market reform is the first step towards political liberalization. If nothing else, it provides much needed relief to North Korea's beleaguered citizens.

The United States and China must also continue efforts to lure North Korea to rejoin the six-party denuclearization talks. In addition to creating economic incentives for North Korea, the United States should also attempt all forms of engagement, such as cultural exchanges, and allow North Korea to participate in international organizations. It is frustrating to continue the six-party talks in light of North Korean belligerence and duplicity, but there are no other realistic short-term policies available. Pursuing any sort of aggressive regime change through pressure or military force is far too dangerous to consider given the fallout that would result from a civil war.

Most important, the United States must coordinate with China, South Korea and Japan to form a contingency plan for the peninsula in case regime change occurs to avoid dangerous unilateral military action following a potential civil war. The succession in North Korea presents an unparalleled potential for a deadly upheaval, but also a chance for much needed improvement in Sino-U.S. military relations.

It must be remembered that China is unwilling to see any political instability in North Korea and its policy-makers have shown no signs of deviating from this course of action. It is of no use to pressure China to be hardline with North Korea because Chinese and U.S. interests simply do not align on the continuity of the regime. Any U.S. influence will be limited by China's actions; going head-to-head will not achieve any tangible results. The United States must keep this in mind to pursue a successful North Korea policy.

George Wang's column normally appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at g.wang@cavalierdaily.com.\n

related stories