How the US can get Chinese and Russian support for regime change in North Korea
Richard Alan Nelson says the US should offer a ‘grand bargain’ to Beijing and Moscow: if they could help to remove the Kim regime and work towards Korean reunification, America would withdraw its military troops from the Korean peninsula
From its point of view, joining the nuclear club was a rational strategy to counter threats of regime change. US administrations since the Clinton years have employed a carrot-and-stick approach of appeasement and threat. The two decades of on-and-off negotiations by American officials with the North Koreans, to prevent nuclear weaponisation and missile development, have now been proven an abject failure.
Both China and Russia share borders with the North and are the key to any solution. They each have economic interests that favour stability in the region. For example, building gas pipelines across the North to reach the booming markets in the South is something the Russians have proposed. Those projects are not moving forward due to the volatile political situation. Without these two powers’ cooperation in pressuring the North, tensions are not likely to decrease.
The unanimous United Nations Security Council vote on August 5 to impose additional sanctions on North Korea for its recent missile tests shows collaborative agreement is possible. Previous sanctions have hurt Pyongyang. An economic comparison of the two Koreas is startling: According to published 2013 figures and CIA World Factbook estimates, the gross domestic product of the much more prosperous South Korea is US$1.19 trillion, while that of North Korea is believed to be only US$33 billion. Per capita GDP for the South is US$33,200, in contrast to just US$1,800 in the North.
Despite this disparity, the North invests heavily in its military and advanced weapons programmes. The North spends an estimated 23.3 per cent of its GDP on the military, in comparison to the South’s 2.6 per cent. In terms of troops, the North has an estimated 1,190,000 active duty troops, while the South maintains only 655,000. The only reason for such high service numbers in both countries is the very palpable threat of renewed conflict.
A key sticking point to any solution remains the American troop presence in South Korea, which dates back to the 1950s. About 23,500 US military personnel are there currently, and multiple installations serve as deterrents to aggression by the North.
A look at the precedent of Finland shows what could be done. Following the second world war, the Soviet Union signed an agreement with Finland in 1948 guaranteeing Finnish independence. Under the pact, Finland agreed to adopt a strict policy of neutrality in international affairs and not to allow hostile forces (i.e., the United States and its allies) to enter the country. As a result of this experience, Finland to this day has maintained good relations with both Russia and Nato members.
Regime change in North Korea would obviously end the ongoing tension, but it will not likely be successful through US efforts alone. To achieve a breakthrough, America should offer a “grand bargain” to China and Russia. If they can choke off the Kim dynasty, remove its leaders, and render its weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems inoperable, the US will agree to withdraw all its military forces from the Korean peninsula.
The deal would involve a commitment all around to the reunification of North and South, similar to what happened between West and East Germany. And the new Korea would adopt a strict policy of international neutrality modelled on the Finno-Soviet treaty of 1948. American withdrawal, complemented with a series of enhanced economic contracts helpful to China and Russia, would increase the incentive for cooperation.
Negotiations will only occur when each power sees their own national interests advanced. No such agreement will take place unless the Chinese in particular are confident they can execute control over the North Korean political and military apparatus to prevent war rather than instigate it.
Certainly there are dangers. But if something isn’t done to change the trajectory, war is inevitable and the consequences will be terrible. So a permanent end to the “problem” of North Korea is the more desirable result. In initiating its own overthrow of Kim and his threats, China will win international plaudits that result in tangible benefits for achieving a myriad of other foreign policy priorities. It is not inconceivable that President Xi Jinping would even secure a Nobel Peace Prize.
America benefits in this case not only from the avoidance of nuclear conflict, but also from its continued strong commercial connections with an enlarged Korean market, and the military cost savings of withdrawal. The new reality also ensures greater geopolitical stability in the region (important to allies Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan), and serves as a confidence-building measure for further cooperation by the US with China and Russia on other issues.
Richard Alan Nelson, PhD, is a retired professor and the author of A Chronology and Glossary of Propaganda in the United States