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North Korea: A Negotiable Issue?

[ 46 ] November 30, 2010 |

As has been noted in several places, this is one hell of an interesting cable. The upshot is that South Korean officials seem to believe that North Korea will collapse in a fairly short interval after the death of Kim Jong Il, and that a few Chinese policymakers have suggested that China is prepared to acquiesce on a reunified Korea governed by Seoul.

Drezner throws the cold water:

I don’t doubt that Chinese officials said everything reported in the documents.  I do doubt that those statements mean that China is willing to walk away from North Korea.  It means that Chinese diplomats are… er…. diplomatic.  They will tell U.S. and South Korean officials some of what they want to hear.  I’m sure that they will say somewhat different things to their North Korean counterparts.

Indeed, although that’s not quite the right framing for the Chinese comments. Diplo-speak is about more than simply telling the other side what it wants to hear; there’s an element of that, but diplomats also try to refrain from saying stuff that could be dangerous for national interests. Chinese diplomats aren’t just going to tell Seoul that Beijing is groovy with reunification to be polite, because that removes leverage and may create an incentive for South Korea to get reckless. Indeed, suggesting that Beijing would accept reunification on South Korean terms is really kind of dangerous, whether or not it reflects official state policy. At the very least it confirms that there are divisions in China regarding the proper policy towards Korean reunification, which could in itself be a dangerous message to send to Seoul.

That said, Drezner is correct that any Chinese queasiness about North Korea hasn’t yet made it into visible public policy. Nevertheless, that even some Chinese diplomats are willing to even hint that the existence of North Korea might be a negotiable issue is very interesting.

See also E. on the downsides of assuming that North Korea will collapse. More on that later.

this seems to imply that China is thinking seriously about leaving North Korea in the cold.


Comments (46)

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  1. Midwest Product says:

    Has the grandchild of a dictator ever successfully consolidated power over a country? That is, have three generations of the same family ever managed to maintain continuous autocratic rule over three successive generations? If the regime survives the death of Kim Jong Il, I feel like it will be a first for the world, at least in the modern era.

    • John F says:

      Many monarchies (which is what N Korea is)have successfully devolved power past the third generation.

      • Midwest Product says:

        Fine, have three generations of the same family ever managed to maintain continuous totalitarian rule over three successive generations?

        • John F says:

          I think looking at the devolution of power from one individual to another is misplaced- how long do “totalitarian” regimes last anyway? Do they all fall apart, or do some devolve into mere autocracies? What if Kim the third turns out to be mere puppet but N. Korea remains totalitarian?

          The trouble is some of the more notorious totalitarian regimes were taken down by external force rather than internal, but my impression is that these regimes can’t last. The longest lived one would be the USSR I suppose, though assuming China lasts another 10-15 years- it will be China…

          N. Korea is remarkable for the ability to keep the populace cooped up inside a pressure cooker for so long anyway… It’s like being perpetually stuck inside China’s cultural revolution- perpetually.
          I think the first real crack will be the end – boom- total implosion- at the first sign the regime is faltering or unwilling to crack down- that’s it, it will fall like the E European countries did- except more violently and in a far more compressed timescale, and I doubt anyone- China or S. Korea is going to physically be able to react- whether to prop up the regime or ameliorate the collapse.

        • wengler says:

          The Romanov dynasty lasted well over 300 years.

  2. ajay says:

    See also E. on the downsides of assuming that North Korea will collapse.

    Are you sure? This is the post that says, among other things, that the North’s economy has been “growing at a steady 3 percent annually over the last decade”. Which is not, well, true.

  3. DrDick says:

    given that the North is largely an economic and social basket case, I suspect this is a result that South Korea could come to regret (think German re-unification on steroids and meth).

  4. wengler says:

    The future of the DPRK should be decided by its people.

    Though I suppose the 24 million or so people right at the doorstep of the Pacific Rim would make great slaves for the workshops of the global free market. Being imprisoned in a cult state has already given them 70 years to prepare.

    • “The future of the DPRK should be decided by its people.”

      What does this mean, exactly?

      • DocAmazing says:

        They should be allowed to vote and to choose their oppressors, like we do.

          • Robert Farley says:

            Well, it’s a reasonable question. We don’t really have a sense of what the will of the North Korean people is, or have any really good way of finding out. In the case of a state collapse, it might be quite difficult to hold a referendum or constitutional convention. The almost complete lack of civil society is also a problem, even more serious that the situation in Eastern Europe.

            That said, I think it’s sensible to debate the basic assumption of reunification, that the North Koreans would prefer living under the Seoul government to independence. Of course, none of that changes the fact that the neighboring states have to do a lot of contingency planning w/r to state collapse.

            • wengler says:

              I actually think the fact that they have lived in very hard times already will help them transition away from the cult of Kim Il Sung. The problem comes when the South will want to exploit them for cheap labor.

              • Anonymous says:

                Given the current level of economic development and poverty in NK, I’m guessing they’ll be pretty thrilled to be exploited by their southern neighbors.

              • Robert Farley says:

                Yeah; I think it’s rather quaint to be concerned about the economic exploitation of North Korean workers. Say what you will about the depredations of global markets, it’s almost certain that North Korean incomes will increase radically through exposure to the market.

        • Malaclypse says:

          Nader will spoil everything there too.


  5. Gwen says:

    One thing that makes me wonder… how much does North Korea really trust China to do what is in it’s interest?

    Even if the embassy leak is an inaccurate description of Chinese thinking, and even if recent Chinese actions have tended to coddle the “spoiled child,” I would think this certainly must worry somebody in the DPRK power structure.

    Moreover, I have to wonder how much the DPRK leadership distrusts China simply because they are large, powerful and next door. It seems like half the countries in Latin America are ambivalent about the United States for more or less the same reason (well, OK, that and our penchant for coups and invasions, but the Chinese have their own things to play down, like the war with Vietnam in the 70s/80s).

  6. Ken Houghton says:

    China has a huge population of itinerant, agriculture workers without other noticeable skills, the best of whom move to the city and become itinerant workers or, if they are lucky, employed in a local factory.

    While it may be true that they could use the land, this is a trade like the old Soviet Union deciding that it really couldn’t afford to keep East Germany, Czechoslovakia, et al. after decades of subsidizing them and invading Afghanistan.

    First prize is giving up most of North Korea. Second prize is having to maintain a war economy with limited industrialization and corruption that makes your own government look like something Plato would envy.

  7. Jon says:

    I feel Communism’s not monarchy or dictatorship, but much more akin to
    classical-era oligarchies. They were anti-capitalistic, totalitarian and regimented, and had robust checks and balances. The first oligarchy, Sparta, even had kings, but two of them.

    Sparta and its constitution lasted centuries, so I’m not ready to ring North Korea’s deathbells by any means. Nobody thinks China or Vietnam are about to fall; Cuba seems to be doing all too well.

  8. Murc says:

    You know, I’ve always… does the south WANT the north back? I mean, is that legitimate question to ask?

    I know South Korean leaders always say the right things when it comes to reunification, and that there’s a big cultural assumption towards it in the south, but it SEEMS like SK ought to run screaming into the night at the thought of re-unifying with the North.

    It would be like German re-unification times twenty. They’d essentially be pointing a shotgun at the kneecap of their economy and pulling the trigger, to say nothing of the matter of absorbing 25 million people about whom there is already a large degree of cultural prejudice against in the south (my understanding is that if you’re a northerner who manages to flee south, you’re regarded as the retarded cousin by virtue of having been raised in the northern society) and whom very large numbers of will immediately place enormous strain on your social safety net services. If it were me, I’d run SCREAMING.

    Or am I crazy?

    • Jon H says:

      How much would South Korea save by relaxing their military posture?

      How much would the US save?

      • ajay says:

        South Korea’s entire military budget is $27 billion. 2.8% of GDP. (I know, I expected it to be more.)
        Now, take the best-case scenario and assume that post-unification Korea will have the same defence spend as another similar state with no neighbouring enemies at all – New Zealand, which spends 1.1% of GDP on its military. So reunification will save it about $17 billion a year.

        Reunification, on the other hand, will cost anything from $50 billion to $1.5 trillion, depending who you ask. The latter is about ten times the world annual total of foreign aid.

        North Korea is bigger in proportion than East Germany – half the size, not a quarter – and poorer – 5% of annual percap income, not 30%.

    • Robert Farley says:

      Yeah, it’s a legitimate question, and the answer has often been “not really.” However, it’s also kind of been assumed that the pressures of the moment, as well as Korean nationalism, would kind of force South Korea’s hand.

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