A Sane Conservative Response to the Cheonan Affair

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I’ve often blogged about how unsatisfying and childish it is to call Kim Jong-il’s, or the DPRK’s, actions crazy. What is crazy is American conservatives calling for war. Fortunately, scholars like Charli Carpenter and The Economist make the conservative argument for sagacity look good.

Of course neither a conflagration nor an end to the regime may be round the corner. Despite a suspected stroke in 2008, Mr Kim has tightened his political grip. His power does not appear to have been shaken even by a disastrous currency reform late last year that further impoverished hard-pressed North Koreans. He has used the Cheonan affair to stir up nationalism at home, by thundering about the threat of invasion.

I’ve often blogged about how unsatisfying and childish it is to call Kim Jong-il’s, or the DPRK’s, actions crazy. What is crazy is American conservatives calling for war. Fortunately, scholars like Charli Carpenter and The Economist make the conservative argument for sagacity look good.

Of course neither a conflagration nor an end to the regime may be round the corner. Despite a suspected stroke in 2008, Mr Kim has tightened his political grip. His power does not appear to have been shaken even by a disastrous currency reform late last year that further impoverished hard-pressed North Koreans. He has used the Cheonan affair to stir up nationalism at home, by thundering about the threat of invasion.

But the Dear Leader is not immortal, and when he dies the succession is likely to be fraught with danger. At that point the neighbouring powers will desperately need to talk to each other through mechanisms that currently barely exist.

Each has had its own reason to look the other way. South Korea is loth to contemplate a breakdown in the north because of the cost of unification, given a disparity in living standards that is far greater than newly united Germany had to cope with. America is distracted by Afghanistan and other hotspots. China is too concerned about maintaining the figleaf of stability on its north-eastern flank to discuss the frailty of the regime. Instead all three countries, along with Japan and Russia, have focused their attention on the denuclearisation of North Korea in six-party talks which Mr Kim has used to squeeze money out of all five in exchange only for broken promises.

But the Cheonan must surely change that. For the only predictable thing about the Kim regime is its unpredictability. Planning for the other contingencies that might be in store will be difficult. Done publicly, it could encourage Mr Kim to lash out even more aggressively. But one way or another it needs to involve all five powers with a stake in North Korea’s future; no one should feel left out. There are pressing practical issues, such as how to control refugee flows and whose special forces—China’s or America’s—might secure North Korean nuclear weapons in the event of the regime’s collapse. These discussions could lead on to more sensitive ones, such as whether the peninsula should be reunified, or North Korea made into a buffer as a UN protectorate of some sort.

Before any of that can happen, China needs to recognise the dangers of doing nothing. If the Cheonan incident helps its leaders do that, the 46 sailors will not have died in vain.

Filed under: Academia, East Asia, Korea, Maritime, Military, Subscriptions, USA Tagged: charli carpenter, cheonan, china, dprk, kim jong il, north korea, prc, rok, the economist



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