Had an interesting conversation last night over drinks with a friend who for the last few years has been a private political analyst focused on Asia. He was surprisingly (to me) upbeat about North Korea. His view of the situation:
- North Korean nukes are a weapon of blackmail and a commodity to trade. They are not a direct threat of any consequence to America; the threat is that they will be sold to people who are a threat to America. So we can effectively contain the North Korean problem through aggressive interdiction of North Korean shipping, effectively laying seige to the country. This also puts increasing pressure on the regime which depends on the drug and arms trade for survival.
- China has many cards, but it is not in as strong a position as I feared - and it knows it. China does not want North Korea to implode. They want a solution that keeps the regime reasonably stable. Anything we do - such as interdiction - that puts pressure on the regime also threatens China because an implosion would create a huge refugee crisis. By contrast, a collapse of the regime is an unmitigated positive for US; the only downside is we'd have to hand over buckets of cash to South Korea to pay for reunification.
- South Korea is all bluff. They have the most left-wing government they are likely to have for a while, and it is trying to make sure the Americans don't leave. So much for their anti-Americanism. There is no danger of them being Finlandized by China; they are just whining and indulging in sentimental nationalism.
- Both China and South Korea are far more worried about what Japan will do than about what America will do - and they are both very aware that North Korea's intransigence is causing Japan to rethink their own traditional stances on military action, nuclearization, etc. This is another reason why time is on the US's side: because we are not threatened directly by the Japanese rumblings, while South Korea and China are very disturbed by them, so the longer the crisis on Korea festers the more incentive China and South Korea have to actually try to solve the problem the way America wants - i.e., by getting the Norks to back down.
His bottom line: Bush is doing exactly the right thing. We don't need a deal. China and South Korea need a deal. North Korea needs whatever it takes to stay alive. So we should hold firm, take no military action other than aggressive interdiction of shipping, but also refuse to let the crisis end by entering into a new agreed framework. Eventually either the Norks will back down, or the Chinese will force them to back down, or there'll be sudden political change in the country (i.e., a coup of some sort), or the country will collapse.
One cheeky suggestion he had for further scrambling the Norks' brains: embrace the South Korean Ministry of Unification (I think that's what it's called) and begin a formal planning process for reunification. Start talking openly with the Chinese about how to plan for the refugee crisis that will follow a collapse of the North. In general, behave in public as if North Korea is realistically likely to simply collapse and that we need to plan for the cleanup. To the extent that news penetrates the Hermit Kingdom (rather limited, I should think) it couldn't be good for the fortunes of either Kim or the regime as a whole. And even if it doesn't penetrate to the people, it should drive the Norks absolutely nuts.
Anyhow, it was nice to talk to someone optimistic.