The big question is whether a high-profile visit from John Kerry will get China’s attention at all, and if so, whether it will move the needle in Beijing. In a joint press conference an hour or so ago, Kerry and his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se demanded that Pyongyang tone down the rhetoric, with Yun calling the threats a “grave provocation” and Kerry merely calling them “unacceptable.” However, Kerry also told reporters that the US will not accept the DPRK as a nuclear power, which leaves the impasse in place.
As CNN notes, though, the North Koreans aren’t Kerry’s intended audience:
Why not just ignore Kim Jong-un and his regime? Andrei Lankov agrees that’s a tempting thought, but it’s “utterly unrealistic“:
There is thus a great and growing temptation to say that North Korea is better off forgotten and ignored. This reasoning is attractive, and utterly unrealistic. North Korea has not the slightest desire to be left alone. Whilst being “benignly” neglected, North Korean leaders would work hard to improve their nuclear and missile arsenal. They would then try to sell their technologies abroad, both as a way to be troublesome and to earn extra cash.
All of North Korea’s most destructive policies — the nuclear and missile programs, the unwillingness to reform, the determined efforts to maintain a police state, the penchant for fomenting regional tensions — are designed to keep the regime afloat. The only way to alter North Korea’s behavior is to change the nature of the regime. The question is how.
Lankov points out that the Soviet Union didn’t collapse because of the political repression imposed by Moscow. It fell when the subjects of the USSR realized the extent of their economic oppression, and the disparity between their own poverty and Western nations. Although Lankov doesn’t draw this connection, it’s not a coincidence that the collapse of the Soviet Union began in Poland and then accelerated at the Berlin Wall, two places that were close enough to Western economies to see the difference beyond the propaganda. That’s not dissimilar to the situation at the 38th Parallel:
North Korean propagandists face a bigger challenge. They have to explain the stunning prosperity of South Korea — a country populated by members of the same ethnic group, who share the same language and culture as the destitute inhabitants of the North. The more that knowledge about the fabulous success of South Korea spreads among ordinary North Koreans, the less tenable the status quo will become.
Three channels can be exploited to provide the North Korean populace with unauthorized information about the outside world. First, academic, cultural and other interpersonal exchanges, endorsed by North Korean authorities, will open the gates to potentially dangerous knowledge. Conservatives in Washington, Seoul and elsewhere may question the value of these exchanges, and no doubt the top functionaries in Pyongyang and their spoiled children will be the first to take advantage of overseas study trips or international student exchanges. Yet these are exactly the type of people who matter most. Changes to the North Korean system are most likely to be initiated by well-informed and disillusioned members of the elite.
The fax machine helped bring down the Soviet empire. Today, as Lankov suggests, the DVD and the cell phone could be deployed to the same purpose. It certainly beats sending missiles across no-man’s-land.