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China Must Help Us End the "Kim Dynasty" By: Henry S. Rowen
Wall Street Journal | Tuesday, July 22, 2003


North Korea's nuclear-weapons program confronts us with hard choices. It creates a sense of urgency to make another deal with the North but experience tells us that more crises would follow. We will do better if we focus on our final destination instead of some present-day stop-over -- to wit, on securing a new leadership in Pyongyang and the reunification of the Korean peninsula.

That said, the North's weapons pose three immediate challenges. Combined with its long-range missiles, its nuclear warheads could inflict devastation at long distances, including the U.S. The threat to Japan is already rousing Tokyo to rearm. Worse still, the regime has threatened to sell nuclear weapons to all comers, including terrorist organizations.

This crisis was set off by the North admitting it had a secret nuclear-weapons program in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework. Negotiated by the Clinton administration, the framework promised the North economic benefits in return for "freezing" its nuclear program. Since breaking the agreement, the Kim Jong Il regime has loudly proclaimed that the U.S. is planning an attack and has demanded a guarantee of security from us. Perhaps seeing our campaign against Iraq has persuaded Kim that he's next. But we aren't likely to do this without South Korean concurrence, which is highly unlikely. As for the North starting a war, there is no good reason to regard Kim as suicidal.

The Stalinist dictator has a bundle of fears, maybe of an attack, but surely he has a greater fear of a life without money. Why then has he not heeded China's advice: Do as we have done, open the economy and you will prosper and stay in power. Evidently, he sees his hold on power as fragile. What's left is extortion.

Kim may not understand the fire with which he is now playing. If his nuclear weapons aren't enough to provoke the U.S., perhaps together with China, to end his rule, the prospect of North Korean-origin bombs being detonated in Manhattan -- or Tiananmen Square -- should do it.

The Bush administration is rightly treating this as also a problem for Kim's Asian neighbors. The Japanese see it as such: but what about the South Koreans and Chinese?

Much has changed between South Korea and the U.S. Until around 1990 we were aligned on the South's security and its consolidation of democracy. With its democracy now solid, the problem is security. Southerners don't expect the North's nuclear weapons to land on them or to be the target of nuclear-armed terrorists, but Americans see themselves as endangered both ways.

Attitudes changed greatly during former president Kim Dae Jung's tenure. To many people the North is not a threat. School textbooks present it in a less hostile way than before. Southerners also fear that political collapse in the North will cause millions to head south and also burden them with building of the North's economy. (Here the U.S. has been neglectful; it is in our interest to commit now to helping the South with this load.)

Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" -- giving money to Kim Jong Il without conditions -- contributed to the growth of anti-Americanism. If sunshine didn't bring peace who is to blame? Many South Koreans point to the U.S. The recent election showed that younger voters preferred the winner, Roh Moo-hyun, who had been critical of the U.S., and are less wary of the North than older voters who remember the Korean War and American support in the hard times after.

But the Roh government cannot act as a middleman between the U.S. and the North. It cannot choose the comfort of an American alliance while helping to sustain the Pyongyang regime.

China's position is pivotal. Its leaders don't want a communist regime to collapse, a flood of refugees, a war that might bring U.S. forces to the Yalu River, or a rearmed Japan.

Beiijng says it opposes the North's nuclear programs but seems to have left the job largely to us. Although China has lately been leaning on the North, it isn't clear how far it will go. If not very far, China could end up with three more nuclear-armed neighbors, two in Korea plus Japan.

The U.S. and China should work together toward a common goal: a leadership in Pyongyang committed to developing the North as a step towards the unification of the peninsula. This means the end of the Kim family dynasty, although not necessarily the immediate dissolution of the North Korean government. Kim might usefully be replaced by a North Korean Park Chung Hee or Deng Xiaoping. Both were dictators who opened their countries, produced rapid growth and, as a consequence, increased personal freedoms.

* * *

Meanwhile, there remain many advocates of a deal that can be labeled "Agreed Framework Mark II." This presumably would have more extensive inspections and any fissile materials found would be taken away. There might also be a multi-country nonaggression agreement (but surely this would not include the two nuclear reactors being built under the 1994 agreement). Such an agreement might also include a cut in conventional forces. Any such accord will be hailed, although elation would be premature. Keeping the Kim dynasty on life-support keeps danger alive. Any deal would stand a better chance of avoiding future crises if it included specific actions by the North on opening the economy, human rights, and reductions in the threat to Seoul.

Ultimately, we should try to work with China on a new leadership in Pyongyang. At the end of a transition (that might be short) the aim is to have a peacefully united and democratic Korea without nuclear weapons; the North's top leaders retired; a rapidly developing North supported by outside investment; and perhaps a U.S. security linkage. That last decision should depend not only on Korean preferences but also on how we then assess our role in Northeast Asian security. The main question about the Kim dynasty is when and how it goes and what disasters occur before then.

Mr. Rowen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Asia/Pacific Research Institute at Stanford, was assistant secretary of defense, 1989-91.



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