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Exclusive to the Trib: One Korea, one less problem

| Saturday, March 15, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Pyongyang, center, is the sole illuminated spot between South Korea, bottom right, and China, top left, in this nighttime view of the Korean Peninsula from the International Space Station.
Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA-Johnson Space Center (
Pyongyang, center, is the sole illuminated spot between South Korea, bottom right, and China, top left, in this nighttime view of the Korean Peninsula from the International Space Station.

Once again, a dramatic nighttime photo, taken in color from space, shows North Korea as an almost totally black void, surrounded by bright lights across South Korea and nearby China. The pervasive darkness dramatically highlights the failure of 70 years of totalitarian rule.

Nonetheless, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has proven good at one thing: making progress toward a deliverable nuclear weapon, including detonating three nuclear devices since 2006, with more rumored. And, on Feb. 28, Pyongyang launched short-range ballistic missiles, both for their political effect and as part of its continuing efforts to develop intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities.

Unfortunately, President Obama has all but ignored North Korea for five years. Consistent with his general disinterest in U.S. national security, the DPRK has attracted little presidential interest, as if ignoring the danger will reduce it. This childlike, willful blindness is especially misguided in Pyongyang's case. Disregard only intensifies the long-term menace, allowing it to metastasize in the shadows, guaranteeing an even greater threat when it finally emerges full grown.

Secretary of State John Kerry's February visit to Beijing highlighted the problem. China has said repeatedly it opposes Pyongyang's nuclear program because it destabilizes Northeast Asia, thereby impeding Chinese economic growth. This is code language for China's worry that Japan, South Korea and Taiwan might pursue nuclear weapons as Pyongyang's threat grows ever more palpable, a much more direct concern than mere economic uncertainty. Indeed, the North's rising success makes that threat ever more imminent.

In fact, China has done almost nothing to stop North Korea's burgeoning weapons capabilities. Nonetheless, said Kerry, “China has responded. China has done positive things.” After meeting with President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Kerry stressed that “they are committed to doing their part” to deal with the menacing weapons program long pursued by the DPRK.

We have heard such “commitments” from China for over two decades. Whether through the stalled six-party talks or supposed bilateral demarches to the Kim family dictatorship, the line, faithfully parroted by U.S. diplomats, is that Beijing is doing all it can. If, however, China had undertaken a fraction of what has been claimed, the North's nuclear effort today would look like President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace initiative.

Kerry's recent statements merely underline the unreality of Washington's DPRK policy. Neither Obama nor President Bush pressed China to do what it alone can do: put such enormous pressure on Pyongyang that the regime, if it expects to survive, has no alternative but to renounce nuclear weapons. China supplies over 90 percent of the North's energy and substantial food and other humanitarian goods. If China used the leverage these transfers provide, it could solve the DPRK nuclear crisis.

China has not acted. While it fears nuclear proliferation in its neighborhood, it also fears that pressuring the DPRK could collapse the regime, thus leading to reunifying the Korean Peninsula, effectively under South Korea's model. That, and the prospect of U.S. troops on China's Yalu River border with North Korea, China has not been willing to abide.

Significantly, however, many younger Chinese leaders realize that North Korea is no longer a strategic asset. Instead, in their view, Pyongyang's ugly, malign behavior is so dangerous to regional stability that Korean reunification, carefully managed, is entirely thinkable. A reunited Korea would be an important trading partner for China and might well be a counterbalance to Japan in regional disputes.

This is not the dynamic Washington prefers, given our longstanding efforts to transform America's “hub-and-spokes” Pacific alliance system into something more closely resembling NATO's structure. A reunited Korea might make this objective harder to achieve. Nonetheless, by removing the DPRK's growing regional menace, reunification would promote greater focus on the primary potential adversary: an increasingly well-armed China and its assertive territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.

Chinese concern over U.S. forces on its border, a scenario Beijing has feared since the Korean War, is easily resolvable. Washington today doesn't want troops stationed along the Korean DMZ, much less future dispositions along the Yalu River. We would much prefer basing our military assets at the peninsula's southern tip to avoid having them pinned down inside Korea and to facilitate their rapid deployment elsewhere in East Asia. China does not particularly welcome that idea either, but it is far more appealing than U.S. concentrations along the Yalu.

In short, reunification is a clear alternative to the seemingly endless charade of fruitless negotiations. For over a decade, the six-party talks have produced nothing but continued North Korean progress. We should at least stop kidding ourselves.

Achieving Korean reunification diplomatically will not be easily or quickly accomplished. Considering both North Korean and Iranian advances in both nuclear technology and ballistic missiles, however, the worldwide proliferation threat is rising rapidly. Obama's policy, like his predecessors', is failing. It is time for a change.

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His exclusive column to the Trib appears once a month.

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