Bringing Down Kim

This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal Asia on September 4, 2006.

Fresh activity at North Korea's major missile test site in recent days suggests that Pyongyang may be about to defy the world again with further missile launches. Similar signs of activity at a suspected nuclear test site have raised fears that Kim Jong Il's regime is preparing to escalate its defiance even further, by conducting an underground test.

That's yet more proof, if any were needed, of the increasingly pressing need to look for new ways to deal with North Korea's nuclear weapons programs before the first bomb goes off. Negotiations have failed. It's been almost a year since the last round of six-party talks, with Pyongyang refusing to return to the negotiating table until the United States abandons its successful financial sanctions against North Korea. So it's time to test the radical alternative of encouraging China to overthrow Kim's regime, in return for America agreeing to end its military presence on the peninsula.

China is concerned enough about the behavior of its long-time ally that such incentives might just be enough to tempt Beijing to act. Chinese leaders were reportedly furious that Pyongyang ignored their repeated requests not to conduct the July 5 missile tests. These included a high-level plea by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao for North Korea to "refrain from taking measures" to increase tensions on the peninsula, delivered barely a week before Pyongyang test-fired at least seven missiles. If Kim's regime now snubs Beijing again with a second round of missile launches or, even more seriously, a nuclear test, China's patience might reach breaking point. All the more so because a North Korean nuclear test would create further pressure on Japan to reconsider its non-nuclear status, and a nuclear Japan is the last thing that Beijing wants to see.

China is also the one country with the ability to bring down Kim's regime, since it provides much of the energy and food that keeps the impoverished regime afloat. According to Korea experts Victor D. Cha and David C. Kang, approximately 30% of North Korea's total outside assistance and an estimated 38% of its imports come from China. The Beijing leadership is wary of using that leverage for fear that too much pressure would cause the North Korean state to implode. That could produce two consequences which Beijing fears, a massive influx of refugees and a reunified Korea that would continue Seoul's security alliance with the U.S., so bringing American forces to China's border.

While there is relatively little the U.S. can do to ease Beijing's fears of being swamped with refugees, beyond offering to help with financial assistance, the second fear is easily addressed. Washington can pledge that, if China helps bring down Kim's regime and end North Korea's nuclear-weapons programs, the U.S. would end that security alliance and withdraw all its forces from the peninsula. This would, of course, be conditional on China also agreeing not to deploy any military forces on the peninsula.

Such a concession would do no more reflect the reality that Seoul is already drifting into Beijing's orbit. Trade between South Korea and China is expanding rapidly, and Seoul increasingly sides with Beijing rather than Washington on issues ranging from relations with Japan to the status of Taiwan. That foreign-policy posture is causing complications for Washington, as demonstrated by President Roh Moo Hyun's attempts to downplay the significance of the July 5 missile tests. And the U.S. military presence in South Korea is already in the process of being cut by a third, to 25,000 troops in 2008. Completing the process in the event of a reunified peninsula would help give Washington more room for maneuver, especially as a united Korea could be expected to forge even closer diplomatic and economic ties with China.

That's unlikely to be the only concession Beijing would demand, in return for agreeing to bring down Kim's regime. Chinese leaders have hinted in the past that they would expect U.S. concessions on Taiwan, especially pressure on Taipei to end pro-independence activities and commence talks on reunification, before agreeing to put any significant pressure on Pyongyang. That's a concession Washington can never make, since it's not America's place to dictate to a fellow democracy what policies to adopt.

But a full troop withdrawal and an end to the security alliance with Seoul fall into a very different category. This simply involves relinquishing a waning strategic asset in return for something important. Nor is there any downside to making the offer. The worst that Beijing can do is say no. If, on the other hand, Chinese leaders respond positively then America will have found a cost-free way to prevent the emergence of a volatile nuclear power.