Not through military means, he’s quick to add, but through … what, then? Diplomacy? John Bolton floated this idea in an op-ed the other day but there’s no reason why either North Korea or China would entertain it. The Kims aren’t about to hand over the keys to their kingdom; they’d have to be deposed by the military first. And even then, the new military rulers would probably rather continue on in North Korea as a governing junta than reunify with the South. North Korean society is already based on the principle of “military first”; why would the junta trade that for absorption by South Korea, which would relegate most of them to nobodies and might mean international tribunals for a select few? As for China, a unified pro-western democratic Korea next door is as much a headache for them as Japan is. Assuming they can keep North Korea from doing something so crazy that it’ll touch off a war — which, granted, is a big assumption — they’re better off keeping the Koreas divided and propping up the North as the bad cop to their good cop vis-a-vis other powers in the region. McCain complains here that China isn’t acting like a “responsible” world power, which may be true, but so what? They’re acting like a self-interested power. Surprise.

One way you might nudge North Korea towards reunification is by offering aid in exchange for expanding markets inside the country. The regime has already made halting, primitive moves on that front; if they went further and the country grew wealthier, the “military first” doctrine would weaken and the military itself might decide that the prospect of an even higher standard of living in South Korea is worth laying down their guns. Or maybe not. Maybe they’d stay put and enjoy the filthy lucre gained from skimming huge sums off the top of trade revenue. Or maybe they’d try to become China Jr., balancing nationalism, authoritarianism, and capitalism to grow the economy (and the military) while keeping social impulses towards liberalization in check. What could go wrong?

It’s nice to think that carrots alone might lead to reunification or regime change, but realistically, I think, the only thing that would make it viable for the military lords who rule the North is if the alternative is death. And needless to say, no one wants to break out that particular stick. So here’s China urging new six-party talks this morning, eager to defuse the situation and return to the good cop/bad cop status quo where North Korea freaks everyone out but never does anything so nuts — like this? — as to cause real problems for the Chinese. South Korea, as you might imagine, seems underwhelmed by the offer.

Tags: China