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On Point

China's Moment of Choice


by Austin Bay
October 11, 2006

South Korea's Samsung Corp. is one of the largest private employers in the Texas county I call home. Samsung's international headquarters, located in downtown Seoul, South Korea, lies within the range fan of North Korean FROG-7 type rockets. A North Korean fighter-bomber, flying south from North Korean airspace, will be over Seoul in two to three minutes.

Given the destructive effects of conventional artillery and bombs, North Korea doesn't need a nuke to wreak havoc on Seoul -- which means Kim Jong-Il's criminal regime doesn't really need a nuke to attack Texas' economy, either. Launch a conventional attack across the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ), and the global managers and senior staff of a major Texas employer risk becoming immediate casualties.

Meet the 21st century -- at least, the economically, politically and technologically linked elements of the 21st century. This linkage explains, in part, why the United States says it regards any military attack on South Korea and Japan as an attack on the United States. This linkage also helps explain China's aversion to war (especially nuclear war) on the Korean peninsula. South Korea has become a major Chinese trading partner.

This is a radical, fundamental change from 1950, when Kim Jong-Il's father, Kim Il-Sung, began the Korean War. Kim Sr. and China's Mao were communist allies. In 2006, Kim Jr. remains a communist. China, while definitely an authoritarian state, now benefits from trade and markets, which means at some point China's leaders know North Korea's regime and rogues like it ultimately threaten the wealth-producing system modernizing their state.

While Stalinist North Korea starves and slips deeper into poverty, democratic South Korea has become a world-class economic and political success. South Korean diplomat Ban Ki-moon has just been nominated to serve as U.N. Secretary-General -- which gives Ban a global podium. Secretary-General Ban sends the message that South Korea is a world leader, while Kim Jong-Il's North is a criminal rogue that meets day-to-day expenses by counterfeiting cash and smuggling drugs.

Except South Korea lacks nuclear weapons. Nukes give Kim one shred of international prestige. For small men like Kim Jong-Il, nukes are their means of escaping tin-pot irrelevance. Instead of killing thousands with conventional munitions, he can now threaten millions with radioactive devastation. With a ballistic missile, his reach extends well beyond Seoul.

Hence Kim's nuclear extortion racket: "Pay me off and guarantee the survival of my impoverished, criminal regime, or I'll nuke my economic and human hostages and cost all of you more in lives and money than the bribes and media kowtow I demand."

But Kim's nuclear test -- though a small bang in a cave -- may have finally wrecked his nuclear racket.

South Korea's "sunshine" policy -- intended to nudge North Korea toward modernity -- has failed. Kim's July missile volley ended Japan's policy of public quiescence and private uneasiness. Likewise, U.S. diplomacy, aimed at ending North Korea's emerging nuclear threat, has failed. The Clinton administration attempted to buy the nukes with economic carrots, the Bush administration (with its six-nation talks) tried to pry the nukes loose using a diplomatic "squeeze." Neither gambit worked, because both strategies to be effective relied on steady Chinese cooperation.

Which is why the nuke test may boomerang on Pyongyang.

North Korea's July missile volley embarrassed China. The nuclear test appears to have galvanized it. Chinese security specialist Shen Dingli said last week that North Korea "considers its national interests (in acquiring nuclear weapons) to be greater than its relations with China." In Shen's words, China's diplomacy has also "been a failure."

Kim's nuke test publicly exposes China's failure -- a major power's failure on its own border.

No one likes to lose face, but "face" is particularly important in North Asian diplomacy.

Forcing North Korea to kowtow (in the regional parlance) is a way for China to re-establish its political position. But this must be done without resort to war.

That suggests a land and maritime embargo of North Korea, with the Hermit Kingdom's borders hermetically sealed. An embargo is the "stick" the Bush administration's "six-nation" diplomacy lacked. Such a cooperative international operation might actually "pry the nukes" from Pyongyang. An effective embargo requires a committed China. It's time for China to demonstrate the political will to protect its own linked economic interests.

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