KOREAN DEMILITARIZED ZONE — One of the last Cold War relics, the Demilitarized Zone that cuts the Korean Peninsula in half, is the world’s most fortified frontier. Although this division has prevailed for almost six decades, it is unthinkable that it can continue indefinitely, despite renewed inter-Korean tensions over the deaths of 46 South Korean sailors in the sinking of a warship.
Just as the last two decades since the end of the Cold War have geopolitically transformed the world, the next two decades are likely to bring no less dramatic international change. One place where major geopolitical change seems inescapable is the Korean Peninsula.
Today, however, the spotlight is on the return of the Cold War between North and South Korea. Relations between the two Koreas have sunk to their worst point in many years, as South Korea’s neoconservative president — holding Pyongyang responsible for the sinking of the ship on the basis of a multinational inquiry that he ordered — has redesignated the North as his country’s archenemy. The North, in reprisal, has frozen ties with the South and banned its ships and airplanes from using the North’s territorial waters and airspace.
The deterioration in North-South relations, however, predates the March 26 sinking of the South Korean warship, Cheonan. It began soon after South Korean President Lee Myung Bak took office in 2007 and reversed the decade-long “sunshine policy” with the North that had been pursued by his two immediate predecessors, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun. As part of his policy of squeezing the regime in Pyongyang, Lee also effectively cut off bilateral aid.
Lee’s strategy has little to show in terms of results. If anything, the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang has demonstrated a proclivity to throw caution to the wind, best illustrated by the manner it conducted a second nuclear test, launched a long-range rocket and fired several missiles — all in the span of a few weeks in April-May 2009.
Although none of the four powers with a history of intervention on the Korean Peninsula — China, Japan, Russia and the United States — has any interest at present in disturbing the political status quo there, events could occur that are beyond the control of any internal or external force. The trigger for unleashing a cascading effect can come only from an increasingly isolated, impoverished and unstable North Korea.
North Korea’s economic crisis is deepening, with food shortages and widespread malnutrition rife in a nation of more than 24 million people. Desperate government attempts at currency reform have only spurred hyperinflation and simmering social unrest. The South’s reversal of the sunshine policy has added to North Korea’s economic woes.
Another indicator of the looming uncertainty is the poor health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Despite surviving an apparent stroke in August 2008 and returning to his feet, a shriveled Kim today looks palpably sick. On a recent visit to China, he was seen dragging his feet.
Kim Jong Il seems to be grooming his third son, the 26-year-old Kim Jong Un, to succeed him. In the coming months, Kim Jong Un is likely to assume a party position. But Kim Jong Un is too young and inexperienced to command popular respect and authority by succeeding an ailing father who may not last too long.
Given the worsening economy and the uncertainty over how long Kim Jong Il will survive, the decks seem stacked against the prolongation of North Korea’s totalitarian system for many more years.
Yet, China seems more intent than ever to maintain the North Korean regime, with or without Kim Jong Il. China continues to prop up the regime with economic aid, military hardware and political support. In fact, without the political protection it has continued to provide North Korea in the U.N. Security Council, the regime would have by now collapsed under the weight of international sanctions.
It is with such political protection that North Korea became the first nonnuclear member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to breach its legal obligations and go overtly nuclear. It is also because of Chinese policy and protection that the now-dormant six-nation talks on the North Korean issue made no progress.
Yet, China has cleverly played its diplomatic cards to emerge as the central player on the North Korean issue, with U.S. policy more dependent than ever on Beijing for any forward movement. But Beijing, intent on shaping a regional order under its influence, has little interest in helping out U.S. policy.
The reality is that China is being guided by its ancient zhonghwa ideology, which calls for an East Asian order led by China. According to zhonghwa, the entire region stretching from the Korean Peninsula to the Japanese archipelago is supposed to be within China’s sphere of influence, thus requiring it to exercise leadership through aid, leverage and diplomatic maneuver.
That may explain why Beijing, ignoring sensitivities in South Korea, warmly received Kim Jong Il on a recent state visit — a visit about which Seoul learned only after the North Korean strongman had arrived in China.
The fact is that China sees its interest best served by preservation of the status quo on the Peninsula. Korean reunification would not only change the geopolitical dynamics in Northeast Asia by creating a resurgent united Korea, but also bring U.S. influence and military to China’s doorstep.
Today, by continuing to play the North Korea card, Beijing is able to wield political leverage against the U.S. At the same time, it is able to keep the economically powerful South Korea — a U.S. ally that is double the size of North Korea demographically — at bay. The logic on which Chinese policy operates is simple: Outside forces like the U.S. cannot be allowed to exercise power in China’s backyard.
Yet, such is China’s growing clout that none will dare to criticize the political protection it provides North Korea — not even Lee’s government, despite the dual diplomatic snub Beijing has recently delivered, first by hosting Kim Jong Il and then shielding Pyongyang over the Cheonan crisis.
Through his hardline policy on Pyongyang, Lee has played into China’s hands. Beijing can only thank him for pushing North Korea onto its strategic lap.
Given the fact that it will be South Korea, like West Germany, that will have to bear the costs of reunification, the South should actively be seeking to open up the North, rather than working to further isolate it. The way to reduce the costs of reunification would be for the North to be integrated with the South economically before moves are made toward political integration. But Lee’s policy, in reversing the inter-Korean detente, has blocked such a path.
China has not tried to export its economic model to its client states. It is actually afraid that if North Korea begins to reform, its own ailing system could collapse under the weight of its contradictions. After all, despite its economic success, China itself must walk a tightrope on opening up to the outside world. Because of its opaque, repressive system, the more it globalizes, the more vulnerable it becomes internally. China has sought to open up only to the extent necessary to underpin economic growth.
It is doubtful it can prop up the North Korean system for very long. When Kim Jong Il passes away, events over three to four years could create an unstoppable momentum toward radical change in the North — and on the Peninsula as a whole.
Brahma Chellaney is the author of “Asian Juggernaut” (HarperCollins, 2010).