The Skeptics

China’s Reactionary Korean Policy

North Korea’s Kim Jong-il reportedly is visiting China to yet again study Chinese economic success. It’s his third leisurely excursion—Kim prefers trains to planes—in a year. Reports the BBC:

The North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is visiting China to better understand the country's economic development, the South Korean government has said.

A spokesman for South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak said the Chinese prime minster had briefed Mr Lee on the trip over the weekend.

For all the buffoonery that surrounds Kim’s image, he’s not a stupid guy. The reason he hasn’t followed Beijing’s reform path is not that he doesn’t understand it, but that he understands it too well: yielding economic control risks weakening political control.

So far the Chinese Communist Party has maintained its monopoly on power despite its extensive economic reforms, but the Chinese people are no longer so docile. Indeed, the Beijing authorities reacted with fear to the Arab Spring, cracking down on even the hint of dissent. Kim likely took note.

The North’s “Dear Leader” probably is making one of his periodic begging missions. Weather on the Korean peninsula has been bad—of course, South Korea seems to survive heavy rains and cold winters just fine—and the World Food Program estimates that three-quarters of North Korean households are having trouble finding enough to eat.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea recently made an unprecedented appeal to developing states for food. No surprise, there appears to have been little response. But now Kim is going where the food is: the People’s Republic of China provides about 60 percent of Pyongyang’s food assistance. Presumably, he’s hoping for a little extra this year.

Unknown is whether Kim Jong-un, the young, chubby, and untested heir apparent, is on the trip. Beijing has never been very enthused with North Korea’s system of monarchical communism, so the Dear Leader may hope familiarity lessens contempt in this case.

Unfortunately, the Chinese government seems satisfied with the Korean status quo, preferring a sometimes difficult, even truculent neighbor to a reunified peninsula allied with America and hosting U.S. troops. Washington needs to work with both South Korea and Japan to change the PRC’s cost-benefit assessment.

The current situation actually is quite unstable, with a North Korean regime of uncertain strength facing national crisis and repeatedly inviting war. The United States and its allies could offer to help indemnify China if the DPRK implodes, spewing refugees northward. Washington also should promise that no American troops would be stationed in a reunified Korea.

Most important, the United States should indicate its willingness to rethink its commitment to nonproliferation if the North continues its nuclear program. Maybe it would be better if South Korea and Japan were able to defend themselves than keeping them forever reliant on the United States and keeping America forever entangled. At least Beijing should have to worry about that possibility.