North Korea, the Next Iraq?

The hazards of overreacting to Kim Jong Il's nuclear tests

The underground bomb North Korea detonated this weekend was equivalent in strength to those dropped by the United States on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In response, the U.S. and Japan will likely call for strong sanctions. They are, after all, well positioned to do so: Neither country has a land border with North Korea, so if the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il were to implode as a result of punitive economic penalties, they would suffer no hardships. They would even be in a position of geopolitical gain because, initially at least, the unraveling of North Korea would cause China and Russia more problems than it would the U.S. and Japan.

China and Russia rely on North Korea as a buffer state between themselves and the dangerously appealing middle-class, vibrant, pro-American democracy that is South Korea. China, moreover, would face perhaps millions of North Korean refugees streaming across its border were the North Korean regime to crumble. Seeking to stem this possibility, China continues to prop up the buffer state of North Korea. And indeed, without Chinese assistance, Kim’s regime would probably not last long.

Nonetheless, Kim tries to remain feistily independent of China, for while China doesn’t want North Korea to implode catastrophically, China does have designs on North Korea’s territory: It prefers the idea of a Gorbachevian buffer state like Tibet on its northeastern frontier in place of Kim’s erratic totalitarian regime.

China also has good reasons for not wanting to see the kind of North-South Korean conglomerate that might ultimately emerge from collapse. Reunification of the Korean Peninsula would be, to say the least, geopolitically inconvenient to China. Jutting out far from the Asian mainland, the Korean Peninsula commands all maritime traffic in northeastern China and, most importantly, traps in its armpit the Bohai Sea, home to China’s largest offshore oil reserve. Moreover, a unified Korea would likely be nationalistic, with distinctly mixed feelings toward its large neighbors, China and Japan, who have historically sought to control and even occupy it.

And so Kim lives in dread of the Chinese slowly, methodically undermining his regime in a way that will lead to him being replaced—in a palace coup, perhaps—without the implosion of the North Korean state. His only hope is to draw America into direct talks, with Washington implicitly recognizing his regime, so that he can leverage Washington against Beijing. Nuclear tests and missile launches are his own warped way of trying to get the attention of the new Obama Administration. He needs to be enough of a problem that Washington will have no choice but to deal with him directly, rather than merely as one party among several in the multilateral talks that have characterized negotiations with North Korea since 2003.

This strategy poses a real problem for President Barack Obama. If he doesn’t hit North Korea hard with sanctions, he risks demonstrating to Iran that America is a pushover. Indeed, Obama’s Iran policy – which requires the stick of tough action in addition to the carrot of talks and recognition – is on the line in North Korea. On the other hand, vigorous sanctions against North Korea could lead to the collapse of the regime. And anyone who talks breezily about “helping” North Korea to collapse has simply not learned the lesson of Iraq: The only thing worse than a totalitarian state is no state at all.

North Korea, with 23 million people, is roughly the size of Iraq—and its population is less educated and has much less experience with democracy than do the Iraqis, who had enjoyed several decades of semi-democracy in the early- and mid-20th century. A regime breakdown in Pyongyang might necessitate the mother of all humanitarian interventions, with the American military and the Chinese People's Liberation Army being forced to work together. Nobody wants to go down that road, certainly not China or the U.S. A nuclear test in the North irritates the Chinese leadership, but the thought of large-scale violence and millions of refugees outright terrifies them.

Bottom-line: tough sanctions will have to be smart sanctions – measures that hurt the regime more than the North Korean population, thus keeping the North Korean state alive but weakened. We say that we want a free, democratic, and unified Korean Peninsula. But what we should want more specifically is a long, gradual transition to such an outcome. Pushing for North Korea’s precipitous demise would only alienate South Korea and propel it into the arms of China, for South Korea, too, would be threatened by the chaos of a sudden regime collapse. Now is not the time for unilateral threats. The disaster in Iraq should be foremost in our minds when dealing with North Korea. And that means, hard as it may be to swallow, working with Beijing.