SINOGRAPH Flaws in pulling plug on North Korea
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - It is right, as the Washington Post said in its May 31 editorial,
China has been shielding the regime of Kim Jong-il in North Korea that
torpedoed and sank a South Korean warship on March 26. Although an
international investigation blames North Korea, Beijing has refused to point
the finger at Pyongyang.
China is North Korea's main trading partner and main supplier of energy and
food. Without China, North Korea could shrink and die. This shows that China is
propping up a regime that deserves to be cast into history. China could
conversely pull the plug on North Korea and the Kim dynasty and its minions,
who oppress over 20 million Koreans, would disappear.
This reasoning is clear and straightforward, but as most things too
straight, it is also deeply flawed.
China pulls the plug on North Korea and then what? It is far from sure that
North Korea would just melt down without lobbing missiles at Japan, without
bombarding South Korea with its thousands of weapons along the truce line. And
who then would take care of the impoverished North Koreans? They number about a
third of South Korea's population, yet every year make only one twentieth of
what their South Koreans compatriots earn. That is: they are relatively more in
number than East Germans compared to West Germans at the time of reunification
in 1989 - and are far poorer. It took some 20 years for West Germany to absorb
East Germany, it could take well over half a century for South Koreans to do
the same with North Koreans.
Is South Korea willing to do that? Apparently no. There are only about 1,000
North Korean refugees in the South, but more than 100,000 in China. In other
words, the Chinese host about a hundred times more North Korean refugees than
the South Korean "brethren".
If South Korea wanted to send a clear message to the world it could start
campaigning to absorb North Koreans. Millions of East Germans fled to the West
well before reunification. The North could get angry, but it could well
collapse. Yet there are geopolitical implications and questions surrounding the
risks of a united Korea. There could be trouble in China and Japan, both of
which have active North Korean minorities.
Or what about the future regional balance of power? Thousands of American
troops, now stationed in the region to avert a North Korean threat, would have
to pull out or find a new raison d’etre. In both cases it would be very
complicated. Without an American presence, Japan would start to re-arm to
defend itself against China and China would do the same, leading to a dangerous
arms race. Keeping American troops would not do the trick either, as this would
pose the irksome question of whether their presence would be against a possible
Chinese threat, or for what?
Those venting their frustration against China who don't have any answers to
such questions are beating a dead horse. No need for conspiracy theories, it is
enough to believe that many political decisions are quite whimsical and
superficial, otherwise the US would not have plunged into disastrous adventures
in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Conflict in North Korea could have occurred long ago, and it could have been
worse than the other two, yet thanks to the patience and perseverance of a
bunch of skilled diplomats mainly from the US and China, this disaster has been
avoided, and American taxpayers have thus been saved billions of dollars in war
Is it time to change the policy? Possibly (as I have argued elsewhere (Tough
love for an unstable neighbor Asia Times Online, May 29, 2010) this
could also be an opportunity. North Korea has underscored it can be a threat to
neighbors even without nuclear weapons. Therefore, Pyongyang could have a
reason to give up its nukes in return for some aid to buttress its failing
There are a lot of "ifs" in this predicament, and one may have good reasons to
lose patience. But certainly there are even more reasons for keeping cool and
thinking creatively for possible solutions. Blaming China for shielding
Pyongyang is not one of them.