Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. And the third time, he might have added, as North Korea. Just when you thought the place could not get any stranger, it did. In the past few weeks, this impoverished, isolated nation has tested a nuclear bomb, threatened a preemptive nuclear attack on the United States, abrogated the armistice that ended the Korean War and declared its intention to “rain bullets” on its neighbor to the South.
No one knows for sure what is going on. It is highly unlikely that these moves are being conceived and directed by Kim Jong Un, the young leader who succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il. North Korea’s military dictatorship has wedded itself to the third generation of the Kim dynasty, which now seems to serve mostly as a unifying symbol for its people. But it is unlikely that a 28-year-old with almost no background in politics or experience in government is conceiving and directing these policies. (He does appear to have free rein on basketball policy in the hermit kingdom.)
The most likely explanation for North Korea’s actions is that it is trying to get attention. In the past, its provocations usually led to international (especially American) efforts to defuse tensions. Then came negotiations, which led to an agreement of sorts, which the North soon cheated on, which led to sanctions, isolation and, finally, North Korean provocation again.
The pattern may be repeating — but it’s a high-stakes game, with nuclear weapons, brinkmanship and hyper-nationalism all interacting. Things could go wrong. The most important new development, however, is China’s attitude change. In a remarkable shift, China — which sustains its neighbor North Korea economically — helped draft and then voted last week for U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.
For decades, Beijing saw Pyongyang as a historical ally. But now, a senior Obama administration official told me Wednesday, “We are clearly hearing increasingly levels of frustration and concern” from Beijing about North Korea. At a recent meeting of an important advisory body to the government, a senior Communist Party official, Qiu Yuanping, openly questioned whether to “keep” or “dump” North Korea and wondered whether to talk to the North or “fight” with it. Days earlier, a senior Communist Party analyst, Deng Yuwen, argued in an op-ed in the Financial Times that China should “abandon” North Korea.
Talk is easier than action. China has never imposed penalties or strictly enforced sanctions against its ally. Beijing’s reasoning is understandable. We tend to think about North Korea through the prism of two issues: nuclear weapons and human rights. But the Chinese have a more pressing concern — national collapse. If they were to push the North Korean government too hard, the regime could fall, leaving millions to seek refuge in China. Even more important, the endgame would be obvious: a unified Korea on South Korea’s terms, which would mean that China would be bordered by a formal ally of the United States — one with about 28,000 U.S. troops on its soil as well as nuclear weapons. You don’t have to be paranoid to worry about that scenario.
If the United States wants to deepen China’s commitment to tackling North Korea’s belligerence, it will have to address Beijing’s concerns. National security adviser Tom Donilon, who has been the administration’s chief interlocutor with the Chinese, could have a frank series of conversations with his counterparts in Beijing about a strategic plan for the Korean Peninsula in the event of a North Korean collapse. The United States would need to explain whether it would support getting rid of the nuclear weapons immediately, whether U.S. troops would remain in a unified Korea and what America’s relationship with the new Korea would be.
Henry Kissinger has outlined an interesting way to approach the matter. “The Chinese will not want to be seen as abandoning an ally or colluding with Washington in planning its demise,” the former secretary of state explained to me. “They know that there is now a real danger of an accident, incident or miscalculation on the Korean Peninsula. If that happened, there is a danger that China and the United States would end up reacting quickly, viscerally and in ways that might make things much worse — even lead to conflict. To prevent this scenario, we should propose serious strategic talks.”
Kissinger, who has spent more time talking to senior Chinese leaders than any other living American, says: “My instinct is that the Chinese are ready to have this conversation.” A senior administration official concurred, saying, “China wants stability but they now recognize that Pyongyang is the driver of instability on the Korean Peninsula.”
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