Thursday, July 06, 2006

China, North Korea, and the US

A new sobriquet for North Korea could be drawn from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel: The Land that Time Forgot. Everywhere else the Cold War is a fading memory. Free market economics are rapidly transforming Russia, China, Eastern Europe, and Vietnam. Even Fidel Castro's Cuba has made tentative accomodations with the globalized world. North Korea, however, remains suspended in an ideological deep freeze. The preternatural stasis of the regime has even produced the world's first Communist dynasty, as the "Great Leader" was succeeded by the "Dear Leader" with hardly a pause for breath.

This stagnation is not only embodied in the workings of North Korea's government and economy, however, but extends to the geopolitics of the entire Korean Penninsula. In most of the world the strategic barriers and defensive protocols of the Cold War have disintegrated. Germany is reunited. The "iron" and "bamboo" curtains are fallen. A U.S. embassy is operating in Hanoi. Yet the Demilitarized Zone remains a no-man's land so full of mines it may never be fit for human traffic or habitation. This state of affairs is so taken for granted now that one rarely sees a commentator ask "why?" Why have the chilled relationships of the Cold War warmed everywhere else but on the Korean Penninsula? What is keeping North Korea on ice?

Isolation is obviously the key to this conundrum. Pyongyang has been able to keep its political and economic system operating on strictly Stalinist principles because it has avoided the pitfalls of commerce and communication which so eroded the ideological purity of other Communist systems. But "isolation" itself is not a satisfactory answer, for it begs the further question of what has enabled the North to remain so isolated. Why has Pyongyang resisted the globalizing tide that has penetrated Moscow, Beijing, and even Havana?

To begin approaching this question one must merely look at a map. North Korea has only two borders over which any threat to its isolation might approach. The DMZ to the south is obviously a non-porous frontier. Less obvious, however, is why North Korea's frontier with China would not be a worrisome source of subversive influences.

Beijing has not, of course, embraced democracy. But it has opened its arms to free-market commerce and a general depoliticization of the economic realm. I remember when the most prominent billboards one noticed bicycling down Changan Boulevard proclaimed the supremacy of "Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought." Now as one passes those same billboards in a Toyota or BMW one sees ads for French facial cream or Irish beer. Why have the winds blowing from Beijing not have led to a thaw in the rigidly Stalinist posture of Pyongyang?

North Korea remains heavily dependent on economic aid coming across the Chinese frontier, yet none of it has come with the attached condition that Pyongyang conform to Beijing's reformist line. This fact may not be dismissed as insignificant, as ideological differences have been a source of friction between Beijing and its Communist neighbors in the past. Moreover, tolerance of Pyongyang's anti-reform stance must have cost reformist leaders in Beijing politically. Allowing a client state to remain ideologically "pure" would provide fodder to those in the Chinese Communist Party who opposed free-market reform.

Given these potential costs, therefore, Beijing must have tolerated North Korean puritanism out of perceived self-interest. Why would Beijing desire stasis in Pyongyang? Because stasis is the only condition in which North Korea may persist as a single-party state. The Korean Communist Party can only maintain its authority through draconian control of communication and commerce, any degree of "Pyongyang Spring" would most likely lead to the implosion of the North Korean state and its absorption within the liberal democracy of South Korea (a la Germany 1990). This is a scenario Beijing fears far more urgently than any retrogressive chill coming from Pyongyang. The democraticization of North Korea following on the heels of full-sufferage elections in Taiwan would send shock waves through the PRC that could threaten the unravelling of Beijing's single-party autocracy. It is for this reason first and foremost that Beijing abets and encourages North Korea's policy of isolation and stagnation.

These realities cast a harsh light on recent US policies on the Korean Penninsula. Since 1993 Washington has labored fruitlessly to pressure Pyongyang into surrendering its nuclear program. A central pillar of that policy has been reliance on the assistance of Beijing. Such an expectation is founded on a confusion of both Beijing's motives and practical influence, however. Beijing might well desire that Pyongyang relinquish its nuclear arsenal, but in certain respects the PRC is less equipped to exert pressure on North Korea than the US, as Beijing's own self-preservation is intertwined with Pyongyang's survival. Beijing will never threaten Pyongyang with genuinely dire sanctions (the refusal of food aid, for example) for fear that such a move would cause its fragile client state to collapse.

Herein lies the basic flaw of US policy toward North Korea. An unremitting focus on North Korea's nuclear weaponry will never produce desired results, as any sanctions which Washington is able or Beijing is willing to apply will only deepen the isolation upon which the KCP thrives. Thus every method the US has applied thus far to break the nuclear standoff in Korea has only nurtured the conditions that cause it to persist.

The only tactic that can move Pyongyang is one that forces a crack in its self-sustaining isolation. Since Beijing will never be anything but complicit in maintaining the North's antiseptic cordon, the sunlight of a "Pyongyang Spring" can only come from one direction- south. Maintenance of a hostile posture of "regime change" has made Washington Beijing's unwitting accomplice in abetting North Korea's stagnation. If the US would drop "regime change" in favor of a policy of "reconciliation and reunification" on the Korean Penninsula as a whole, such a move would rock both Pyongyang and Beijing back on their heels.

If the President or the Congress (or both) announced the US' intention to pursue negotiations toward the peaceful, bilateral reunification of Korea the strategic deadlock would be broken. The KCP, trapped by its own history and rhetoric, could not reject such overtures absolutely. The US and South Korea could make Northern disarmament a precondition of discrete aspects of reconciliation. Though both Beijing and Pyongyang would attempt in ways both subtle and overt to stonewall such a process, in the long run neither regime would likely succeed in preventing at least some commerce and communication from opening up across the DMZ, any amount of which would be radically destabilizing to Pyongyang.

Beijing would no doubt fear the long-term consequences of such a development, but diplomatic propriety would preclude the CCP from acting too aggressively to interdict it. It is thus in the power of US leaders to break the deadlock on the Korean Penninsula with a modicum of ingenuity, skill, and flexibility. First and foremost, however, they must recognize that the same motives prevailing in Washington are in not force in Beijing.