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.

During the long rule of North Korea by one family, the capital of Pyongyang has been built for grand gestures. Its wide boulevards, giant stadiums, and tall monuments offer up illusions of power and majesty. Residents are not allowed pets. Bicycles are few. Each day workers march to their offices and then back to sterile apartment blocks.

All this reflects an autocracy that relies on two throwbacks to the mid-20th century – harsh communist rule and an Asian dynasty. This week, the world will get a glimpse at this odd, personality-based government, and can judge whether it will last.

A rare gathering of the Korean Workers’ Party – the first meeting of the country’s elite in three decades – is expected to name a third-generation Kim to be the next leader. The transfer of power, however, from the ailing Kim Jong-il may not happen soon. The heir apparent – perhaps his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, who’s not yet 30 but was just made a military general – still needs to establish his own legitimacy.

This selection will start a shaky transition, one that raises anew the issue of whether the US, along with its allies South Korea and Japan, should use all available means short of war to bring down the regime and reunite the peninsula.

Until recently, stability had been the prime concern in the region. In the early 1990s, South Korea backed away from seeking reunification after seeing the high cost to West Germany of absorbing East Germany. And for many years it even engaged in the “sunshine policy” of building up a very weak North Korean economy to keep it stable.

But last March, North Korea sank a South Korea naval vessel, killing 46 sailors. The incident was a reminder of just how unstable North Korea can actually be and how much it still uses provocations to bully its democratic neighbor. Now that it is armed with nuclear devices and heading toward unstable leadership, the North is no longer something simply to be endured or paid off with aid.

Since March, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has cut off most economic exchanges with North Korea and proposed a “unification tax” in the South to help pay for the eventual cost of absorbing North Koreans once their regime fails.

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

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.

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