- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
How should we respond to North Korea’s latest bit of infuriating behavior? So far, the Obama administration’s decision to send a US carrier for joint naval exercises with South Korea strikes me as about right. Overreacting would just give North Korea what they usually want-i.e., more attention than they deserve-but a purely verbal statement of support would have been seen as too modest by South Korea and our other Asian allies.
At the same time, we want to let Seoul take the lead in responding to this attack (while letting them know that we have their back), because we want our Asian allies to start taking more responsibility for their own security. South Korea is far wealthier and stronger than the North (which has a large but poorly trained and equipped army), and there’s little danger of escalation if South Korea chooses to retaliate in a measured way. A real war on the Korean Peninsula would almost certainly bring about the final death knell of the North Korean regime, and somehow I don’t think Kim & Co. have a death-wish.
But there’s another step that I’d consider. Specifically, I’d try to initiate some quiet discussions with China on how to deal with the whole thorny issue of a post-Kim environment and the prospect of reunification. We’re already asking China to intercede, but I’d go further and push them to talk about what our two countries will do in the event that the Pyongyang regime begins to unravel and reunification suddenly begins to look like a real possibility. One of the reasons China keeps protecting North Korea is their legitimate concern that the collapse of the Kim regime would cause enormous headaches for them. Among other things, they worry about a massive influx of refugees, the emergence of a major public health crisis just across the border, the security of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and the possibility that a reunified Korea would remain allied with the United States, thereby putting a traditional U.S. ally right next door. Because China doesn’t want any of those things to happen, it doesn’t want the Kim dynasty to disappear. And this situation gives Pyongyang some leverage.
Yet even though I don’t think North Korea is on the verge of collapsing, there are two good reasons to start some quiet conversations about what we would do it if did. First, North Korea might implode at some point in the future, and it would be nice to have thought about how we should respond and to have discussed this problem with China in advance. The second reason, and the one more relevant to today’s concerns, is that news of these conversations would inevitably leak, and Pyongyang would undoubtedly be deeply concerned if they thought that Beijing was having serious conversations with Washington about the implications of a post-Kim world.
Of course, it is possible that China would just stiff us on this issue, either refusing to discuss the matter or using the conversations as an opportunity to back up Pyongyang once again. But at this point they may be growing tired of North Korea’s unpredictable antics, and the steps outlined above would be a subtle and low-cost way for them to show it. And if they refused to help on this issue, it will undercut their attempts to portray themselves as an increasingly responsible "stakeholder" in the East Asian security environment.