A Plan for Defusing the North Korea Crisis
October 17, 2006
by John O'Sullivan
Everyone agrees China is the key to the North Korean crisis, but most diplomats dealing with the crisis have no idea how to turn that key in the lock.
As the nearest great power, China should in principle favor reducing and eventually eliminating the dangerous instability posed by nuclear totalitarian North Korea. Since Pyongyang is utterly dependent on China economically and strategically, the Chinese government in Beijing has the power to change the regime if it chooses. (In practice a few telephone calls to some of the 200 or so generals who underpin Kim Jong Il's power would probably do the trick.)
But China has used diplomacy, both in the six-power talks and at the U.N. Security Council, to defend its client-state on the Korean peninsula. The deal it seeks in negotiations is one in which the United States would help to stabilize Kim's regime with guarantees and money in return for the North Koreans ceasing to become a full-fledged nuclear power. And as a way of persuading Pyongyang to accept this (highly advantageous) bargain, China agreed to help impose U.N. trade sanctions last week.
Such a bargain, however, is a dangerous mirage: The North Koreans, whatever they say, will never give up their nuclear ambitions. The United States would find itself paying for their surrender time and again without ever getting it. Worse, Pyongyang would raise the ante by building up stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, too. And whenever the U.N., the United States or the "international community" sought to punish North Korea for its intransigence, the sanctions would break in their hands.
Indeed, that has already happened: Less than one week after the U.N. adopted sanctions, China has announced it will not examine cross-border shipments from North Korea to see if they violate them. Washington only resorts to such transparent gambits because the alternative -- military action against North Korea -- seems an even worse option.
War would certainly be highly dangerous. It would create a grave international crisis, alienate China, invite an attack on South Korea and Seoul, perhaps provoke a nuclear "spasm" response from a barely rational Kim, and produce unknown consequences. If that were the sole alternative, then the current diplomatic process might well be preferable.
Fortunately, there is a third approach -- one that turns the Chinese key in the lock. There are an estimated 400,000 North Korean refugees in China. More are expected when the winter drives starving people to cross the Chinese border for food and work. They are routinely returned by China to Kim's regime and then worked to death in his gulag.
That is a breach of international law. China has signed a treaty that gives the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees the right of access to such refugees and the right to refer any dispute about them to binding international arbitration. The UNHCR has not been given access to these refugees, but the commissioner has taken no action to refer the matter to arbitration. Last April Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia complained of this failure in a letter to retiring U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. They have yet to receive a reply. Similarly, the Bush administration -- at the insistence of the president himself rather than of a lukewarm State Department -- has called on China to live up to its signature on this human rights treaty.
This is merely the start of a major new human rights campaign -- and one which China will be unable to ignore. There is a large and growing left-right coalition of Korean Americans, traditional human rights groups and evangelical churches. They were the political forces behind the North Korean Human Rights Act passed two years ago by Congress (and -- full disclosure -- largely drafted by my Hudson Institute colleague, Michael Horowitz). They will now be raising the issue of North Korean refugees in Washington, on TV, in churches, in rallies and on the Internet.
North Korean refugees will eventually become a bipartisan political issue on the scale of the plight of Soviet Jews in the 1970s. Just as that issue produced the Jackson-Vanik amendment, forcing the Soviets to choose between allowing their emigration or losing access to the U.S. market, so the plight of North Korean refugees will eventually present China with a similar choice. And trade with America is vastly larger and more important to a fast-growing capitalist China than it was to a stagnant and impoverished Soviet Union.
Of course, China could retaliate against trade restrictions by selling its U.S. bonds and provoking a fiscal crisis and a trade war simultaneously. Everyone would lose massively. Before we blunder into that crisis, therefore, both sides should ask themselves: How much are Kim and the survival of his regime worth to us?
For America the answer is clear: His downfall and replacement by a civilized regime would be major strategic and moral gain. For China, it is surely no less clear: Kim is useful mainly as an irritant to America and its Asian allies. Beijing, along with everyone else, would actually be better off with a buffer regime in Pyongyang that was friendly to China without being either a nuclear threat or an affront to human decency.
China's long-term interests do not lie with a policy of blackmailing America into "stabilizing" the murderous Kim regime. Its benefits are trivial (a little gloating over America's difficulties) and its costs could well be substantial. But if Beijing were to make a few telephone calls to its favorite generals in Pyongyang, suggesting they would benefit from his overthrow and the gradual liberalization of his regime, it could advance its own interests and seek some reward from Washington, Tokyo and the U.N. for being an international good neighbor.
If the Chinese Embassy would like to hire me as a consultant, my price is 50 cents -- for I will return to this issue in future columns to discuss exactly how this campaign will be waged.
John O'Sullivan was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.
Click here to view the full list of .