John McCain (R-AZ) went on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday to call for “regime change” in North Korea. He made it clear he was not suggesting a military action, but rather a polite request to China, asking them to make a somewhat less polite request to North Korea: “The key to this, obviously, is China, and unfortunately China is not behaving as a responsible world power. It cannot be in China’s long-term interest to see a renewed conflict on the Korean peninsula.”
McCain’s remarks highlight the difficulties faced by civilized democracies when dealing with terror states. North Korea is certainly a “terror state,” every bit as much as the state sponsors of Islamic terrorism. The foreign policy of Pyongyang is explicitly based on blood-curdling threats, and occasional demonstrations of their willingness to kill without warning or provocation. Artillery shells make just as good instruments of terror as truck bombs. Better, in fact, since everyone tiptoeing around the maniacal regime in North Korea knows they could kill hundreds of thousands of civilians within a matter of hours, by shelling the Seoul metropolitan area.
China is behaving as a regional hegemon, not a “responsible world power.” They like North Korea just fine as it was, before the first shells slammed into civilian structures on Yeonpyeong Island last week. They’ll gladly suffer a minor headache to give the U.S. and South Korea a migraine. The government in Beijing shovels its peasants around like piles of dirt to accommodate its industrial plans, and stole water from poor farmers to irrigate its Olympic village. What do they care about the humanitarian disaster inflicted on the people of North Korea by the Kim dynasty? That’s a small price to pay in exchange for the power and prestige they accumulate as the only visible authority over a feral client state.
China tried to flex that authority again over the weekend, by asking the U.S. and South Korea to respond to North Korean aggression by resuming the same fruitless “six-party talks” that have gotten us nowhere for years. China loves being Party Number Six at those endless talks. McCain is correct to state that open war on the Korean Peninsula is not in their interests, which is why Beijing looked a bit uncomfortable over the weekend. Such a war would inevitably conclude with North Korean refugees streaming into China, Asian markets disrupted in a manner frustrating to Chinese economic growth, and a victorious United States – South Korean alliance becoming the undisputed leader of the Pacific Rim. China wants the Kim attack dog back on its choke chain, but they’re not ready to have it put to sleep.
McCain suggested China could bring about regime change in North Korea through economic pressure, saying they could “bring the North Korean economy to its knees if they wanted to.” Leaving aside the question of how far the starvation economy of North Korea has to go before it hits its knees, why would China take actions that might provoke that stream of skeletal refugees – a population weapon the Kim dynasty would not be shy about mentioning, in the kind of diplomatic communiqués WikiLeaks never seems to be interested in exposing?
If polite requests and pressure from China won’t bring about the peaceful end of the Kim tyranny, what’s left? “Regime change” is a phrase Western politicians throw around to look tough, and signal their extreme displeasure with regimes that are unlikely to “change” under any pressure the civilized world can bring to bear. The North Korean terror state is not a bad idea cooked up in Pyongyang a couple of years ago. It was created by powerful global forces, from Chinese ambition to weak Western diplomacy, and those forces have not dissipated.
The fundamental flaw in our diplomacy with terror states is a refusal to see them for what they are, at least officially. The crucial ingredient for United Nations-style global diplomacy is a dash of unearned recognition, an insistence upon pretending barbarians are just a little rough around the edges. When they are granted comfortable seats at the table with better nations, the high are made low… and the low are made hungry. McCain talks of the Kim boys as if they were incompetent CEOs who might get fired by angry stockholders.
Seoul appears to have abandoned its illusions about its deranged northern neighbor, as the Washington Post quotes a presidential spokesman as saying resumption of the six-party talks “was not discussed seriously.” The President himself, Lee Myung-bak, called North Korea’s attack on Yeonpyeong a “crime against humanity” and began toughening his country’s military posture, even as artillery drills from Yeonpyeong were canceled over the weekend. The joint exercises with the American George Washington carrier group are also proceeding. No questionable provocations will be left hanging in the air over the Yellow Sea. If North Korea takes any action, their aggression will be indisputable, and the South wants them to understand it will be the last mistake they ever make.
Sadly, that’s the only way tyrannical regimes ever really change. The real face of “regime change” is Iraq, and that’s not something we’ll try in North Korea unless they leave us absolutely no choice. Meanwhile, it seems counterproductive to blow off global steam by indulging in bitter fantasies of Kim Jong Il climbing into a Learjet with his son and a suitcase full of cash, destination France.