The Skeptics

Who Swallows North Korea after Its Collapse?

More likely would be the establishment a mini-me version of the PRC, an authoritarian North adopting economic reform while eschewing nuclear weapons—and relying on China to guarantee its security. Such an outcome seems more likely the more serious the problems facing the North. If chaos threatened, possibly overflowing the border into China, Beijing might choose to intervene militarily to restore order and create a temporary government. The PRC could retain its buffer state, but one which did not threaten its neighbors. Journalist Bill Emmott suggested a relationship in which the North lived “under a Chinese nuclear umbrella, benefiting from a credible security guarantee.”

Such an outcome would fall short of the ideal imagined in Seoul and Washington and could result in confrontation and even conflict if the allies also intervened in the midst of an imploding North Korea. Armed North Korean factions and American, Chinese and South Korean troops would be a volatile mix; an incidental clash could ignite something far more serious. The long-term consequences would be unpredictable, perhaps resulting in a partitioned North Korea and more hostile China.

Still, even the survival of North Korea under Chinese influence would be a substantial step forward. The nuclear crisis would end; conventional threats against the South almost certainly would end as well. Chinese influence would be enhanced, but would not threaten America or its allies. And the new North Korean state might evolve in a more liberal direction and ultimately join the South.

Nevertheless, Chinese military intervention doesn’t look likely and presumably would be viewed as a last resort in Beijing. Yet it is difficult to predict anything about North Korea. There are plenty of reasons to fear the unexpected and unusual. Given recent events, if a bad outcome is possible, a worse one seems likely.

At the very least, Washington and Seoul should talk with China about North Korean contingencies. Beijing has refused, to publicly do so in the past lest it cause trouble with Pyongyang, which could not be happy with other nations discussing a successor state. However, the interested parties need to ensure that however a crisis evolved, there would be no clash among their respective militaries in a mad rush to grab territory, weapons and population in the North.

If that approach didn’t satisfy, the ROK and United States could minimize the possibility of Chinese intervention by addressing Beijing’s presumed interests: the role of a reunited Korea and its relationship with the U.S. The PRC went to war in 1950 to forestall an American ally with U.S. troops on its border. Although such a presence has minimal military significance today, in an era of ICBMs, air wings and carrier groups, it would retain powerful symbolic significance. And the full peninsula could provide America with additional bases, which would be useful in any Sino-American conflict. In short, a reunited Korea allied with America would change regional dynamic to the PRC’s disadvantage. Beijing might not go to war to stop it, but would have no reason to adopt policies which encouraged it.

To ease China’s concerns the United States should indicate that if the Koreas reunited, then American forces would go home. Washington would not seek to use Beijing’s forbearance against the PRC. If China accepted a reunited Korea, then the latter would not become a base for American military operations.

Seoul could reinforce that message by pledging military neutrality. (Robert Kelly of Pusan National University terms it “Finlandization,” after Finland’s careful policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union during the Cold War.) The ROK would trade with everyone, including China, Japan and America; the many personal and cultural ties between the South and United States would remain. But South Korea would be an independent military actor, rather than act as a tool of American foreign policy.

This is the best, indeed, perhaps “only way,” as the Carnegie Endowment’s Michael D. Swaine put it, “to clear the path for China to exert is full influence against its neighbor.” That would mean threatening North Korea with economic isolation to back a U.S. proposal for security guarantees, economic development and political integration in return for denuclearization. This would be the ultimate deal by a president who prides himself on his dealmaking ability. He should put it to the test in Korea.

This still would be a second best solution, but that is no objection. Essentially every proposal involving North Korea, other than assuming the Tooth Fairy or Great Pumpkin is going to magically appear and solve the problem, is second best. It may be unfair to give the PRC a de facto veto over the ROK’s future, but the latter exists in a bad neighborhood, surrounded by three larger and at times hostile powers. Geopolitical accommodations are inevitable.

Nor does the ROK have any claim to a continued presence of American troops after reunification. Continuation of the alliance might be in Seoul’s interest, but it certainly is not in America’s interest. Indeed, today the South is capable of providing for its conventional defense. With the U.S. republic essentially bankrupt as it faces an entitlements tsunami, it cannot preserve every existing defense commitment simply because they exist. Of course, even a reunited Korea might feel uncomfortable next to an overwhelming China, but America’s military policy should reflect domestic security, not foreign charity. Moreover, the ROK has options, including building its own nuclear deterrent (perhaps preserving weapons acquired from the North) and working to improve its ties with Japan as well as Russia and India as possible counterweights to the PRC.