Commentary: Catastrophe In North Korea: The Only Hope Is China

It's hard to overestimate how dire the situation in North Korea has become. The country has almost no food or electricity and is on the verge of what the World Food Program calls "one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in our lifetime." North Korea's Stalinist leaders keep threatening to attack South Korea, where the vital interests of U.S. diplomacy and the lives of 37,000 American troops are at stake. Meanwhile, Washington and Seoul keep waiting in vain for a Godot-like North Korea to show up at the peace table to negotiate a formal end to the 1950-53 war. Whether the misery of its people will lead to North Korea's swift collapse is unclear. But the situation is at a dangerous impasse. Who can break it?

China. So far Pyongyang's giant neighbor has stayed aloof, a stance the suspicious North Koreans prefer. But if the U.S. can recruit China, it stands a better chance of achieving badly needed economic reform in the North and peace on the peninsula.

Beijing is uniquely positioned to coax North Korea out of its isolation. Unlike the capitalist U.S., South Korea, and Japan, China can teach North Korea how to prosper economically while maintaining political control and gradually opening up to the world. That doesn't mean the U.S. should abandon its long-term goal of a democratic society. But the short-term realpolitik demands that North Korea first be saved from collapse and that change then follow slowly.

BUFFER STATE. Beijing also has motivation to get involved. As North Korea's neighbor, China has much to gain by maintaining the communist North as a buffer state between it and the freewheeling ways of democratic South Korea. And it has much to lose if the North implodes, sending tens of thousands of refugees into China. Although President Jiang Zemin repeated in early May the mantra of Chinese foreign policy that "we do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries," history has shown that when its interests are at stake, China can and will get involved. It helped, for example, force the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia to negotiate peace.

China is also the only country that has shown even moderate success in influencing North Korea. It has long pressured Pyongyang to adopt Chinese-style economic reforms, while giving it just enough food aid to keep it afloat. In 1992, North Korea passed foreign investment laws modeled on China's. And after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il visited the Shenzhen special economic zone near Hong Kong, North Korea opened a copycat version in 1996. Admittedly, both measures have had little effect. But the fact that the hermetic North even tried them shows something. "The Chinese always say they have only modest influence with North Korea. But if anyone has significant influence, it's China," says Winston Lord, a former U.S. ambassador to China and former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs.

The trick now is to persuade China to step up its efforts. China could score many points with the U.S. by playing peacemaker. With U.S.-China relations these days mired in negative human rights and trade disputes, working together on North Korea would give at least one positive focus. "China would welcome the opportunity to be engaged with the U.S. on something other than trade," says former U.S. Ambassador to Seoul James T. Laney. Washington and Beijing could then make food aid to the North contingent on economic reforms and military disarmament. Beijing could give North Korea a Chinese-model blueprint for reviving its economy and make it clear that food aid comes with it.

The Clinton Administration also needs to give the situation the attention it deserves. As the biggest threat to U.S. security interests anywhere in the world right now, the Korean crisis warrants a U.S. envoy like Richard Holbrooke in Bosnia or Dennis B. Ross in the Middle East. "They have to put somebody in charge with a mandate," says Robert A. Manning, a Progressive Policy Institute senior fellow.

There have been some steps toward U.S.-China coordination, with pledges of "intensified consultations." But this is low-level stuff aimed at getting North Korea simply to attend peace talks. It's time for a radical effort, led by China with the timely assistance of the U.S. Both countries have an extraordinary opportunity--and responsibility--to prevent a great tragedy.

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