Three weeks after it appears to have joined the world’s nuclear club, North Korea has confirmed that it will return to multilateral disarmament talks, a move that diminishes the likelihood of a second nuclear test. President Bush pronounces himself “pleased,” though the New York Times reports, “behind closed doors at the White House and the State Department, some are less happy, saying the country’s nuclear test should be answered with isolation.”

Thus far, the Bush administration’s reluctance to talk to Pyongyang has resulted in another embarrassing foreign-policy failure. But even as Washington proclaims its readiness for war against another member of Bush’s axis of evil, armed conflict with North Korea is truly unthinkable. The U.S. would win, but the cost—to America, but even more so to South Korea—would be horrendous.

Diplomacy remains the strategy of choice, and what little hope is left of dissuading the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) from amassing a nuclear arsenal centers on China.

Beijing accounts for 80 percent of the North Korea’s energy, provides it with substantial food aid, and is the isolated state’s largest trading partner. Although the People’s Republic of China has agreed to enforce recently passed UN sanctions, until now the PRC has feared North Korea’s collapse more than North Korea’s nukes. Even an erratic Pyongyang isn’t going to use atomic weapons on China. Indeed, a nuclear DPRK benefits Beijing: it unsettles the U.S., demonstrating Washington’s impotence; disrupts relations between South Korea and the U.S.; and constrains the use of American military power in northeast Asia.

On the other hand, an implosion of the DPRK—which could result from China applying too much pressure—would be quite costly. A violent disintegration and power struggle would have unpredictable consequences. Even a purely peaceful demise of Kim Jong-Il’s regime could be messy. Millions of refugees might flood north, and such an onrush could act as social and ethnic dynamite in border provinces that already contain millions of ethnic Koreans.

Beijing also fears the geopolitical consequences of Korean reunification. Although relations between the South and China are good, the PRC does not want a unified Korea allied with the U.S. on its border. Precisely this prospect brought Beijing into the Korean War in late 1950 and animated a half-century-long alliance between the PRC and North Korea. While China almost certainly would not use force to prevent a South Korea-dominated reunification, it is equally unlikely to adopt policies that would encourage that outcome.

China’s commitment to the North has not prevented some analysts from hoping for a miracle. Author Bruce Gilley offered what he termed an “immodest proposal” to solve the North Korean problem: “Beijing should invade North Korea on humanitarian grounds and establish a China-backed transitional regime there. The U.S. and its allies in Asia should provide diplomatic and logistical support to the operation, while the U.N. should provide its legal blessing.” The operation, Gilley proclaimed, “could be a clean-cut affair.”

It would be more realistic to hope for an invasion of North Korea by Mars. It might be possible, however, to induce Beijing to take steps short of war that might change the DPRK’s priorities. China could aim for the overthrow of North Korea’s leaders rather than its system.

Beijing appears dissatisfied with the behavior of its troublesome ally and has repeatedly urged Pyongyang to participate in the six-party talks between the PRC, DPRK, U.S., Russia, South Korea, and Japan. In addition to brokering the latest resumption of negotiations, China warned North Korea against conducting its July missile tests and October nuclear tests. After the latter, China’s UN envoy indicated that “bad behavior” should be punished, and Beijing voted for UN sanctions.

Effecting regime change would not be easy, even for China. Any attempt to remove Kim could trigger a violent power struggle or even civil war. Kim might survive—to China’s obvious detriment—or the country could dissolve into bloody chaos.

Given these risks, the PRC is unlikely to act absent some assurance that it wouldn’t be the primary loser if events go bad. For this reason, the best course the U.S. can take would be to suggest a less proactive course for China, backed by an American geopolitical guarantee.

First, China should strictly enforce the limited UN sanctions, particularly the ban on trade in luxury goods and weapons. Cutting off oil and food might bring Pyongyang to its knees, but that might spark the kind of violent national collapse that Beijing most fears. The humanitarian consequences could be equally serious. Moreover, the tactic might not work. Kim has proved willing to starve the North Korean masses, which have little ability to overthrow him. Change is only likely to come from action taken by the small circle of party elites and military commanders.

The model for regime change in North Korea is Romania, where communist elites took advantage of domestic unrest to oust Nicolae Ceausescu, rather than East Germany, where popular protests led to the downfall of party boss Erich Honecker. A palace coup might not deliver a reform-minded regime, but all that is needed is a deal-minded replacement for Kim, and Beijing’s involvement is likely to deliver a more tractable government.

Kim and his allies, like other authoritarian regimes, use access to Western goods for control. He is apparently fond of Hennessey cognac and other quality liquors and beer; his wine cellar reportedly boasts 10,000 bottles. He enjoys fine foods—his former chef mentions caviar, lobster, melons, shark-fin soup, and sushi, as well as McDonald’s hamburgers. Kim is also said to have given favorite family members and generals cars, camcorders, foreign-made suits, bidets, electronic games, fancy watches, gold pistols, jewelry, and foreign cash.

Restricting the nomenklatura’s access to these fine products would severely undermine Kim’s regime. Notes Aaron Friedberg of Princeton, “Kim rewards his underlings and ensures their loyalty by letting them share the loot. Kim’s extended family, the top echelons of the Communist Party, and the upper ranks of the military and security services all benefit from this arrangement.”

Though 40 percent of North Korea’s imports come from China, it is not the only player when it comes to restricting the regime’s access to foreign luxuries. South Korea invests in and trades with Pyongyang but has been reluctant to interfere with cross-border contacts. Until recently the DPRK also had substantial economic ties with Japan and conducts commerce elsewhere in Asia.

To limit the DPRK’s access to hard currency, China and other countries should not only restrict illicit behavior such as drug trafficking and counterfeiting but also curtail otherwise legitimate economic activities. This strategy would be aided by limiting the influx of North Korean “businessmen” and shrinking the number of local DPRK “diplomats,” who often engage in commerce. The UN sanctions bar transit of those involved in weapons programs, but the limits should be tightened. This would penalize North Korea’s privileged elite, starting with Kim, who travel abroad and educate their children overseas.

North Korea would be able to smuggle in some goods, but even a modest diminution of access to luxuries could increase hardship among North Korea’s elite and foment domestic unrest. That, in turn, would encourage Kim’s underlings to attempt his overthrow or to co-operate with efforts to oust him.

The PRC could also put pressure on North Korea by opening its borders to refugees. Although a totalitarian state, the DPRK has not sealed its northern frontier. To the contrary, North Korean citizens routinely escape into China after bribing border guards. “Money now trumps ideology for an increasing number of North Koreans,” explained Peter Beck of the International Crisis Group to the New York Times.

Refugees began fleeing to China in 1983. North Korea’s veritable economic collapse, topped by mass famine in the late 1990s, greatly accelerated the exodus. An underground railroad has developed through which North Koreans are spirited out of their country with the aid of Christian missionaries, human-rights activists, and profit-minded brokers. Even though Pyongyang typically imprisons anyone it catches, by some counts the outflow has reached 400,000. Many have been captured; others have returned voluntarily. The U.S. government believes that 30,000 to 50,000 escapees remain in China illegally. About 9,000 have reached safety in South Korea and a few other countries.

As more North Koreans moved north, China sought to interdict what it calls “illegal immigrants, not refugees” more effectively. The PRC refuses to abide by any of the international agreements governing refugees or co-operate with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. To the contrary, Beijing works with North Korea, returning the refugees it catches. The Christian Science Monitor reports: “Along the border, China has heightened a two-year crackdown—with stepped-up house-to-house searches, leaflets warning villagers not to help, and bounties paid to informants.”

Moreover, China is building a concrete and barbed-wire barrier along the two nations’ 800-mile border. In the opinion of Kim Woo-jun of the Institute of East and West Studies in Seoul: “The move is mainly aimed at North Korean defectors,” since Beijing expects that with the enforcement of the new UN sanctions “the number of defectors are likely to increase.”

By discouraging refugees, China is propping up Kim’s regime. One of the most destabilizing factors in Eastern Europe leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall was the surge of refugees after Hungary tore down its “Berlin Wall” along the Austrian border. Encouraging a similar refugee flow from North Korea could have an equally destabilizing effect. Pyongyang undoubtedly would attempt to tighten the border, but if the economy worsens, North Korean security personnel would become even more susceptible to bribery.

Washington has criticized the PRC for its heartless repatriation policy. Nevertheless, the West has done little to help Beijing bear the burden of a growing North Korean diaspora. Between 2002 and 2006 the U.S. granted asylum to only a couple dozen refugees. Last year American Ambassador Joseph DeTrani observed, “many of the countries in Southeast Asia have diplomatic ties with North Korea and are reluctant to cooperate publicly with the United States.” Even more incredibly, South Korea has been stingy. Two years ago Seoul reduced the benefits it pays to defectors and penalized brokers seeking to organize escapees. The unification minister explained that “we disapprove of the mass defections,” since “undermining the North is not our policy.” But undermining the North should be the policy of all of the DPRK’s neighbors.

The Bush administration should work with South Korea, Japan, and like-minded states to develop a program to ease Beijing’s burden in opening the border. South Korea, backed by the U.S. and countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region, should offer to accept substantial numbers of refugees. The issue should not be viewed as another immigration or asylum controversy but as a matter of national security.

The allied coalition, which ought to include the EU, should also promise to aid the PRC in the care of refugees who are not resettled. Although China’s economy is large and its growth rates are impressive, per capita income remains low. Since Beijing would be risking its political relationship with the DPRK, it could fairly request not to be left with the entire financial bill as well.

Before proposing that China confront its ally, Washington should offer an international guarantee of sorts indicating that it does not intend to take advantage of Beijing’s willingness to help. That is, the Bush administration should allay any Chinese concerns that America would bolster its regional influence at the PRC’s expense.

First, the U.S. should promise to recognize a new North Korean government and help to integrate it into the global economy as long as it negotiates an end to its nuclear program. (In the event that Beijing engineered regime change, the new government would likely follow the PRC’s lead in this regard.)

Second, Washington should promise to withdraw its troops from and end its security treaty with a unified Korea. In this way, a newly reunified Korea would not become an advance American military post on China’s border.

In fact, the U.S. troops should be withdrawn today, since the South is well able to defend itself from North Korea and South Korean and American geopolitical objectives have been steadily diverging. Indeed, South Korea has indicated that it will not allow the U.S. to use its forces in the region without Seoul’s consent, turning America’s presence there into an advanced base to nowhere. As Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute puts it, pulling out “simply involves relinquishing a waning strategic asset in return for something important.”

Washington would still retain extensive cultural and economic ties with South Korea. Moreover, a united Korea would still have a significant incentive to co-operate politically with America, in particular to help balance the influence of China and Japan. But Washington should make clear that the U.S.-South Korean relationship would not be directed against the PRC.

Why would China entertain such a proposal? The PRC-North Korea relationship, once described as close as lips to teeth, has grown distant, and the status quo is inherently unstable: DPRK irresponsibility could spark pressure for intensified sanctions, trigger war, or encourage nuclear proliferation to South Korea, Japan, and even Taiwan.

Helping to remove the Kim regime, in contrast, would stabilize regional relations while ensuring a friendly neighbor for the PRC. Beijing also would win the gratitude—presumably backed by more practical considerations—of Washington and its allies. That’s a bargain China’s eminently practical leaders are likely to consider.

American neoconservatives, on the other hand, look less willing to deal. National Review’s Rich Lowry writes, “In the case of North Korea, we have talked to our enemy, and it only has made him stronger. It’s time for action.” Bill Kristol adds in The Weekly Standard, “[T]he country cannot afford [Bush’s] all-U.N.-all-the-time defensive crouch. It is not too late to increase the size of the military; to work with Japan, rather than kowtowing to China, on North Korea…”

Should the negotiations fail to yield an immediate solution to the nuclear crisis—Kim does have a history of going back on agreements and walking out of the six-party talks—the war hawks will demand military action as the only alternative. Yet the best hope isn’t confrontation but an indirect strategy of undermining the DPRK’s ruling elite while China actively works to oust the dictator. There’s no guarantee that this will succeed, but given the results of our last attempt at forcible regime change, we cannot afford not to try.

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Doug Bandow is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.