The Economist Magazine indicates it is time for all of North Korea’s neighbours to start thinking of how they might together deal with some of the unthinkables they have hitherto tried hard to ignore
If China cannot have a grown-up discussion with America about something as clear-cut as the attack on the Cheonan, how much greater will be the danger of miscommunication in the event of something hitherto unthinkable happening: an outbreak of war, say, a nuclear incident, or the collapse of the regime. Anything that sparked fears of “loose nukes” or a refugee crisis, with American and Chinese troops aiming nervously at each other across North Korean territory, could quickly make the Korean peninsula the most dangerous place on earth. China ignores such risks at its peril.
A handover of power—whenever that happens—may not be smooth. So a number of academics, in China as well as in America and South Korea, are arguing that the three countries—and perhaps Japan and Russia too—should consider a new co-ordinated approach to deal with the eventuality that the hermit kingdom spins dangerously out of control.
In gauging the regime’s stability, analysts look at the economy, the armed services and the political powerbrokers likely to survive Mr Kim’s eventual demise. There is a great deal of uncertainty about each—North Korea-watchers have remarkably little to go on. Economic problems are the most apparent but may also be the least important: for years the regime has shown that it can carry on with its policies regardless of the hunger of its people.
The level of hunger has become considerably worse in the past few years—in a country where famine led to the deaths of some 1m people, or nearly 5% of the population, in the 1990s. One man who works there says the number of orphans has surged recently as hunger has claimed their parents’ lives. Another man who works in the north-eastern enclave of Rajin-Sonbong, where foreign investment is allowed, says he has seen open expressions of defiance by North Koreans.
If a meltdown does occur, the risks are enormous. North Korea’s GDP per head is about 6% that of South Korea’s, which is far lower than East Germany’s was compared with West Germany when the Berlin Wall collapsed. This means that unifying the two countries could be treacherous, with costs that the South Korean central bank has put as high as $900 billion over four decades
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
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.