China will be critical in guiding North Korea to the future
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Nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are important, but borders are just as important.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping looks south to the Korean Peninsula, he can’t like what he sees: North Korea is run by an inexperienced, purge-prone autocrat who likes to test-fire missiles in the direction of Japan, and who most likely ordered the murder of Kim Jong-nam, his exiled half-brother who lived in Macau under Chinese protection. South Korea is in the midst of a political upheaval and the impeached president was arrested for of bribery and influence peddling; the U.S. is deploying the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system that Xi thinks will really be used to spy on the People’s Republic of China; and a U.S. Navy strike group is moving into the neighborhood - his neighborhood.


On top of that, the U.S. can’t stop talking about how China can “deliver” North Korea when it’s time to do a deal.


Hopefully, the U.S. will recognize what Xi knows: maintaining North Korea as a coherent political entity with secure borders is important to the stability of Asia. North Korea serves as a necessary buffer between China and U.S.-allied South Korea, and the 28,500 troops of U.S. Forces Korea. A secure North Korea with guaranteed borders won’t likely merge with South Korea, creating a peninsular power that would be a constant irritant to China and a challenger to Japan. A nuclear-free Northeast Asia would then be a dream.

The sooner “reunification” is cast aside, the better for U.S. interests. 

North Korea has signaled it wants to talk about officially ending the Korean War, but the U.S. usually insists that nuclear weapons be part of the discussion, which the North refuses. In the wake of his recent visit to the U.S., Chinese President Xi Jinping said China will work with the U.S. to end the North’s nuclear weapons program, but that it must be done peacefully. “Peacefully” means talks which is what the North has insisted on and America has resisted. 

Why does Kim Jing-Un insist on talking to the U.S? It’s not just for the photo op. 

If the U.S. gets its wish and nuclear weapons are included in initial talks, the North will likely demand that the parties start with the same deal Iran got, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was steered by the U.S. The U.S. will balk, if only for negotiating purposes, but the North has arguably a less unseemly record in the subversion department than Iran, which is likely responsible for killing almost 1,000 American troops in Iraq, Lebanon (Beirut barracks ) and Saudi Arabia (Khobar Towers), destabilizing Iraq, propping up the Assad regime in Syria, and creating the terror group Hezbollah.

The JCPOA is a comprehensive agreement that includes the “P5” (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States)), Germany, and the European Union. Using the JCPOA as a starting point with North Korea will get a lot of negotiating out of the way at once.

And the denuclearization of North Korea will have to be accompanied by the rollback of sanctions.

In 1994, the then-United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali told North Korea the United Nations Command in South Korea was really a U.S. operation: “…the Security Council did not establish the unified command as a subsidiary organ under its control, but merely recommended the creation of such a command, specifying that it be under the authority of the United States. Therefore the dissolution of the unified command does not fall within the responsibility of any United Nations organ but is a matter within the competence of the government of the United States.” 

What is North Korea’s goal?  The goal is regime survival; nuclear weapons are just how they go about it.

Reunification holds nothing for North Korea’s leadership as it has become a different country than the South. South Korea views the process more as a soft takeover than the rejoining of a family torn asunder. The North will note that, while the South is an American protectorate with K-Pop and great flat-screen TVs, they, the North, developed nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles under severe sanctions.

There will be no place for the North’s leadership in a “reunified” government or economy. Depending on one’s place in the North’s highly-stratified society, the options will be lustration or discrimination.

The North’s best model is economic development à la Chine. China wants to lead its “little brother” and, despite the historical friction between the Chinese and the Koreans, it is the best example of how an authoritarian government develops a market economy. Offering an economic opening to the world with Kim and Co. in power will definitely be a glass-half-full situation, but war it ain’t.

James D. Durso is the managing director at consultancy firm Corsair LLC. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years specializing in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He served afloat as supply officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).

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