The Magazine

One Korea, After All

Time to undo the Kim family regime

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By ROSS TERRILL
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It is China, after all, not the United States, that has just two modest rivers between it and Korea; China that would feel the consequences of nuclear explosions on the Korean Peninsula. “It was a stupid policy for China to view North Korea’s nuclear weapons as potential leverage against the United States,” said Professor Zhang. “Instead the nuclear weapons will be mainly aimed at China.” Quite possibly.

Reunification would be seen as a process offering open‑ended paths to One Korea. North Korea would cherish an initial hope of major input into reunification that would be dashed by the huge gap in muscle and prosperity between South and North. Seoul’s failed “sunshine policy” would suddenly come into its own as the totalitarian edifice in Pyongyang cracked and compromises, deals, defections, realignments of all kinds became possible. Reunification would end up being regime change cast in a new dress. The system entrenched in Pyongyang could never act thus, but an impulsive 28-year-old offered a role in a new One Korea government just might.

Japan would help finance post‑reunification Korea—along with the U.N., World Bank, and perhaps the IMF—in return for the alleviation of a major security concern. A Korea deal could well be the key to preventing a downward spiral in Japan‑China relations and the disaster of Japan making its own nuclear weapons. Japan’s worry about China is tomorrow’s issue for Beijing; North Korea’s fate should be yesterday’s.

Let a unified non‑Communist Korea lean where it chooses. It is likely to be friendly to China, but not Beijing’s ally. Koreans would probably be warm to Washington and continue the present close economic and cultural relationship with U.S. society. Civil with Japan, the new Korea would also keep the door open to Russia as insurance against China.

Beijing did not want Kim Jong Eun to succeed his father, seeing another father-to-son succession as unsocialist and stifling. Now is a good time for the Chinese to roll the dice for reunification as they have zero investment in Kim Jong Eun. “One Korea” is no less of an imperative than “One China,” after all. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said last month: “China and North Korea have always maintained high-level visits, and we welcome North Korea’s leaders to visit China when convenient for both parties.” It is significant that he did not say “leader,” but “leaders.” Likewise, impersonal wording marked most of the Chinese statements after Kim Jong Il’s death and his son’s elevation to post after post: “The Chinese people have always stood by the Korean people.”

Some feel the democracies should just muddle along on North Korea since crumbling dictatorships are dangerous. Indeed, there is risk. The best argument against reunification is the danger of desperate acts in the North as the outcome of the process becomes clear. North Korea has a one-million-plus army whose loyalties could waver or fracture. There are probably chemical and biological weapons close to the DMZ that could fall into crazy hands. However, the international structure surrounding a step-by-step reunification process, orchestrated from the wings by Washington and Beijing, would modify the danger. Above all, a boss of North Korea in his twenties presents a huge opportunity for Obama to “transform” the Korea issue.

Overlooked by believers in everlasting “talks” is the immorality of sustaining North Korea. Condoleezza Rice once said the collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest victory for human rights in the 20th century. How then to justify propping up North Korea? Each billion in aid—most is from China—prolongs Pyongyang’s repression and military braggadocio. The gap between South and North grows every year, making reunification more costly for Seoul. Surely the end of the Pyongyang regime would be a spectacular victory for human rights in Asia.

The writing is on the wall for the miserable Pyongyang regime, and the fence‑sitting should be over for China. No longer poor and a victim, China can put deeds behind its words about “peace and development” and “international community.” Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, setting off for Beijing last week, lamely declared: “It is very timely to exchange views with the host of the six-party talks and the country with the most influence on North Korea.” Not only did Noda overlook the futility of the talks but also that China’s “influence” sustains the existence of the wretched Pyongyang regime.

Four policies on Korea are possible for Beijing: Protect North Korea, with slight restraint upon it, resulting in no change. Actively promote an indefinite life for Stalinist Pyongyang (“Our East Germany,” Korea scholars in Beijing whisper; “if it falls Communist rule in China may also fall”). Gradually draw the North into Northeast China as a dependent “autonomous region,” benefiting Beijing’s strategic situation but infuriating Seoul. Finally and best, China could pull off its first diplomatic triumph as a risen power by orchestrating, with Washington, the reunification of One Korea, bringing a new vista to Northeast Asia.

The charade of treating North Korea as a troubled child requiring kid‑glove handling by five patient adults has been fruitless. Steps toward Korean reunification can crack the nuclear threat from Pyongyang, lend hope to people in the North, and eventually ease a wracking pain at the heart of Northeast Asia. One Korea, for all its unknowns, is the solution. A grand bargain between Washington and Beijing can trigger the process. Japan spurred Korean nationalism through its colonial rule. Washington and Moscow were responsible for dividing Korea. These two plus Beijing bore heavy responsibility for the outbreak of the Korean War.

Korea is owed its reunification, the spiritual battle with the North for Korea’s future has been won by Seoul, and the heartbreaking cost of a third Kim dictatorship would outweigh the risk and price of a managed unification.

Ross Terrill, associate in research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, is the author of Mao, The New Chinese Empire, and Madam Mao.

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