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The Monitor's View

North Korea and the perils of a third Kim regime

The ruling elite of North Korea meet this week and may anoint a successor to Kim Jong-il -- possibly his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, who was made a military general. This leadership transition, however, won't go easily. China needs to stop propping up a weak, violent regime.

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“The time has come to start discussing pragmatic policies,” Mr. Lee said in a speech last month. “Reunification will definitely come.”

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Japan, too, had long sought the status quo to avoid having a unified Korea become a big economic rival. But after the North tested two atomic devices and fired missiles near Japan, Tokyo is now less opposed to Korean reunification.

President Obama, meanwhile, seeks to reduce the cost of overseas deployments, such as the 28,000 US troops in South Korea. He and President Lee recently issued a joint statement about a Korea that is both united and free. And after the March naval incident, Obama slapped tough sanctions on Pyongyang.

All this worries China, which has propped up North Korea’s economy for decades. It doesn’t want a unified Korea – one that might allow the US military closer to the Chinese border. And it fears that a regime collapse would result in millions of North Koreans crossing into northeast China.

Such concerns explain why Kim Jong-il twice visited China this year. And why China has lately invested heavily in North Korea, not only to help its economy as South Korea’s assistance declines but to provide access to ports and minerals for Chinese companies. Beijing also never signed on to Seoul’s proof that North Korea had torpedoed the Navy corvette Cheonan.

As an enabler of Kim’s regime, China bears some responsibility for North Korea’s atrocities, both for the human-rights violations and many acts of violence against South Korea over the years. It cannot become a global leader and still provide a crutch to such a decrepit regime. Many young Chinese, too, are ashamed of being associated with North Korea.

Beijing faces a contradiction in its policy: To stabilize North Korea means opening up its economy to market forces, but by doing so, China may allow North Koreans to finally recognize the poverty they have been forced to endure. They may revolt or flee. The regime could collapse.

It is time for China to start working with the US, South Korea, and Japan on a long-range reunification plan – and not assume North Korea can be saved. Having another Kim at the helm in Pyongyang will be as illusional as the city’s vast facades to a glorious past – and a future.