[EDITOR’S COLUMN]China’s power might break North’s arms

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[EDITOR’S COLUMN]China’s power might break North’s arms

In Henry Kissinger’s book “Diplomacy,” he discusses what he calls Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s key mistake during the drive to the North after the Incheon landing in the fall of 1950, during the Korean War.
According to Mr. Kissinger’s logic, impeccable with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it would have been far better for Gen. MacArthur to halt his drive northward at the narrow “waist” of the peninsula north of Pyongyang.
Had he halted there, well short of the sensitive border with China, North Korea would have become a rump state consisting mostly of mountains but with some mineral resources, and South Korea would have had a more defensible (because it would be shorter) border to the north.
That strategy would have infuriated Syngman Rhee, who never abandoned his dream of reunification by military force ― with a determination that spurred a nervous U.S. Senate to reject treaty aid to South Korea if it invaded the North.
What a difference less than two generations makes. Now we see a nervous South Korean government trying to keep the peace while Washington rattles sabers and exchanges bellicose threats with North Korea.
I admit to some sympathy with the Washington hawks, who believe North Korea will never agree voluntarily to give up its nuclear weapons.
The North has demonstrated convincingly that it plays by different rules than “ordinary” nations, and even if some agreement could guarantee the North’s compliance, the average North Korean would continue to live a life of repression and misery.
The elite in North Korea do not live in the country - they live on it. The economic development and the social liberalization that the Roh administration hopes for in the North will always take second place to measures that guarantee the continued entrenchment of the elite there.
So does that mean the United States will have to either invade and topple the regime or accept its nuclear status?
Maybe not. Recently, attention in Seoul has begun to focus a bit nervously on the increasing economic role of China in North Korea. Seoul’s strategy of preemptive capitulation toward North Korea frustrates Washington mightily and undercuts efforts to make it more difficult for Pyongyang to deal in illegal drugs, peddle bogus currencies and sell missile technology to keep its economy afloat.
Washington has done little work with Seoul to induce North Korea back to the negotiating table, probably believing any such efforts would be unproductive.
Seoul loves carrots but abhors sticks; the U.S. government probably has concluded that the fertilizer and rice will continue to flow north despite the lack of reciprocal moves by Pyongyang.
On the other hand, Beijing and Washington have consulted substantively on matters related to the six-party talks, and although those consultations have not resulted in any true meeting of the minds, Beijing has occasionally stepped in to remind Pyongyang there are limits to what it will condone.
Taking these ruminations a step further, Beijing could conceivably become so important to North Korea that the North would be a near-vassal state.
China could probably become, with relative ease, the kind of “big brother” that the United States was in the South when it ordered Park Chung Hee to end his program to develop nuclear weapons.
If Washington were confident, as it probably is, that China wants to shut down efforts by Pyongyang to export nuclear technology or missiles, the United States would have, by proxy, a solution to a major problem: The North’s nuclear ambitions and the threat that the North’s nuclear technology will gravitate toward the Middle East or terror groups.
How would the North react to increasing dependence on China?
Certainly by trying to improve ties with Seoul. But the nature of inter-Korean relations is such that ordinary South Koreans are a bigger threat to the North Korean elite and its system than outside pressures.
It is difficult to imagine how South Korean voters would allow the administration to try to outdo China in generosity unless the North opened its doors to family visits, allowed sightseeing tours and relatively free contacts between ordinary North Koreans and their wealthy southern brothers. That prospect would be ruinous for regime survival in Pyongyang.
Russia as a counterweight? Perhaps, but Russia is already familiar with the methods of controlling a balky satellite state. Like China, it would fear the prospect of arousing U.S. wrath by condoning the nuclear arms trade. Like China, it would be relatively uninterested in the methods Pyongyang uses to keep its people under control. Certainly Pyongyang would be able to play the two nations off against each other to obtain even more economic concessions, but the effect would be to ensnare the North even more deeply in economic dependency on its neighbors. And Russia, like China, has no desire to be in thrall to a nuclear proliferator.
Where would all this leave Seoul? Probably further away from unification than Korean hearts could bear.

* The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by John Hoog
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