IT'S EASY to dismiss Kim Jong Il as a cartoonish lunatic. The Don King-like hair, the goofy glasses, the drab olive jumpsuit, the eccentric habits, the secrecy--Kim looks, and often acts, downright cuckoo. Even as bloodstained dictators go, his Q-rating is abysmal. But never underestimate his wily maneuvering. Pyongyang's recent announcement that it wields nuclear weapons and is withdrawing from the six-party talks worked in Kim's favor. It convinced Western chatterers that (1) the North Korean standoff is at a hopeless impasse and (2) George Bush's policy has been an abject failure.
The latter bears a seed of truth. In his first term, Bush wisely eschewed bilateral deals and correctly highlighted the human rights dimension of the Korean crisis. But he put too much faith in the six-party talks. He never leaned hard enough on China. And intra-administration spats made a muddle of his carrot-and-stick approach. In the end, the Bushies offered an incoherent mix of harsh rhetoric and squishy diplomacy.
As for the former--that obviating a nuclear-armed, weapons-exporting North Korea is now impossible--well, that needn't be true. And it mustn't be true, if America is to maintain its East Asian credibility and forestall a potential domino effect of nuclear proliferation. But what to do? Even the hawkiest hawks say the human costs of military action--both to American GIs and Korean civilians--are too ghastly to contemplate. An economic blockade might do the trick. But that would compel the Chinese to cease propping up Kim's regime with food and fuel. In any case, Pyongyang regards sanctions as tantamount to a declaration of war. It vows to respond by turning Seoul into a "sea of fire." China, not to mention South Korea, probably won't roll those dice.
There's another option, however: one that is peaceful, moral, and multilateral. It too involves China. The Wall Street Journal hinted at it in a trenchant editorial last week. It may be a long shot--but then, there are no "good" alternatives from which to choose. As the Journal pointed out, "Even Kim Jong Il must realize his regime would collapse if China declared the border open, just as East Germany's did when Hungary refused to turn back refugees in 1989."
Let's back up a minute. Nobody knows for sure the number of North Korean refugees hiding in China. Estimates range from 30,000 to 300,000. The Chinese-North Korean border is among the most heavily militarized on the planet. And China denies access to international officials. If Beijing opened that border, and stopped repatriating North Korean defectors, it would be the equivalent of yelling "Ollyollyoxenfree!" The border would soon resemble Pamplona during a running of the bulls. And China's subsequent refugee pickle would make the 1980 Mariel boatlift fiasco--which deposited some 125,000 Cubans on U.S. soil--look like small beer.
In short, convincing China to adopt such a policy is a daunting task. It would require Herculean arm-twisting by Condi Rice. But a starting point could be the North Korea Human Rights Act, which Congress passed late last year. This bipartisan legislation urged Beijing to honor its obligations under the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and the 1967 Refugee Protocol. A few token gestures aside, China summarily brands North Korean refugees "economic migrants" and ships them home. If Beijing were loyal to its U.N. duties, it would give the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees access to all Korean defectors and cooperate in resettling them abroad. Should China do so, and demilitarize the border region, it would galvanize a stampede of defectors that might well implode Kim's government.
Consider the Cold War precedent. In August 1989, Hungarian border guards began letting a trickle of East German refugees pass through Hungary into Austria (and freedom). When the Hungarians sliced holes in their infamous barbed-wire fence, word spread like wildfire. In no time thousands of East Germans had trekked to Hungary. And on September 10, Hungarian foreign minister Gyula Horn made it official: Budapest would no longer turn back any East Germans trying to reach Austria. Over the next two months, East Germans gave Communist strongman Erich Honecker the bum's rush and tore down the Berlin Wall.
Is the analogy to China/North Korea perfect? Of course not. But so what? If shown the green light, North Koreans will vote with their feet just as robustly as East Germans did in 1989. Does anyone really doubt that? Skeptics might also contend we have minimal leverage over Beijing. True. But if China joins the G-8, America will have a new forum in which to exert pressure. Washington could always play the Taiwan card: warn China that a nuclear Pyongyang means a nuclear Taipei. The Chinese may not want Kim to have nukes, but they certainly don't want Taiwan to get the bomb. The Taiwan card, moreover, trumps the "Japan card" suggested by Charles Krauthammer and others. Anti-nuclear sentiments run deep in Japanese politics--so deep, in fact, that it's hard to fathom Tokyo's seeking atomic weapons. (Even still, flashing the Japan card wouldn't hurt.)
In return for China's opening the border, America could offer to help the Chinese sort out the massive influx of defectors. The financial burden would surely be great. But the new U.S. law authorizes $20 million per year for North Korean refugee assistance. America would need to spearhead international refugee camps, and maybe absorb thousands of Koreans itself. This is now possible, again thanks to the new law, which modified a Catch-22 in U.S. immigration policy that had previously shut American doors to Korean refugees.
None of this would be simple. It would demand deft diplomacy, hard bargaining, and, above all, a willingness to talk tough with China. Chiefly, Washington must convince Beijing of two realities. First, China has as much to lose from a nuclear North Korea as America does. Second, Kim's regime will inevitably fall; better that it happens on Sino-American terms than on Kim's. As Adam Garfinkle has put it, "The more time the North Korean regime has both to fail and to build nuclear weapons, the more likely its eventual collapse will be maximally calamitous."
Duncan Currie is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.