China can make North Korea’s Kim Jong-un an offer he can’t refuse – political asylum
Paul Ulrich believes a deal for the North Korean dictator that guarantees his safety in return for his stepping aside might well be taken up
Until recently, China put little pressure on its troublesome neighbour North Korea, but propped up its economy with food, fuel aid and trade. North Korea’s acceleration of long-range nuclear-missile testing is likely to change that. After years of failed six-party talks under the Bush administration and eight more years under president Barack Obama’s forlorn policy of “strategic patience”, tensions on the Korean peninsula are now approaching an inflexion point.
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Some in the US under President Donald Trump talk of imminent military conflict. By contrast, in Asia, the locus of any near-term conflagration, China urges calm, Japan is increasingly nervous, and South Korea last week elected a president who offers to resume the “sunshine policy” of rapprochement with the North.
All parties recognise that the current North Korean dictator shares the same overriding concern as did his father and grandfather: survival of the regime, or, in essence, his own safety and that of his family. Brandishing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles are Kim Jong-un’s sole ticket to ensuring that safety.
With or without the acquiescence of the US or others, China can offer a deal to Kim – a deal similar to that which other nations have given to dictators – namely, a guarantee of political asylum, if needed, or of his remaining in power, in exchange for stopping all further nuclear and missile testing, while dismantling, over time, the nuclear weapons programme.
In considering his options, Kim must prefer the fate of a previous ruthless dictator, Idi Amin, who died of old age in Saudi Arabia, to that of Nicolae Ceausescu, Muammar Gaddafi or Benito Mussolini – all killed at the hands of their own people – or Saddam Hussein, snuffed out after an American invasion. Indeed, China set a precedent in providing asylum: it sheltered Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk, following the king’s overthrow in 1970, and again in 1979 after Sihanouk supported the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
A cornered Kim could use nuclear weapons on nearby Seoul. China should wield the carrot of personal protection instead of the stick of national punishment. Only then can we hope to lure Kim out of the deep and troubling hole that he continues to dig himself into.
As for the rest of his regime, other countries such as post-apartheid South Africa have used various forms of reconciliation to heal societal rifts and rebuild. With a push from China, if Kim’s family dynasty were to step aside peacefully, a similar approach might become possible as a prelude for the peninsula’s long-hoped-for reunification.
Paul Ulrich is a Hong Kong-based policy researcher, writer and consultant, with graduate degrees from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Stanford University