I just returned last night from two weeks in China and the unsettling assessment in Beijing is that North Korea's supreme leader and (amateur propagandist-in-chief) Kim Jong-Un has unwittingly backed himself and his isolated regime into a dangerous corner with potentially dire consequences to stability on the Korean peninsula in the near term.
The avalanche of anti-South Korean and U.S. invective from the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea (DPRK) coupled with the Kim's own amateurish diatribes fueling war hysteria should not be dismissed as idle rhetoric, according to several prominent Chinese Korea watchers. On the contrary, they assert that the more Washington and Seoul publicly take Pyongyang's bait by responding to every boast or act, there is growing fear in China that Kim will grossly miscalculate.
Having ratcheted up the tensions to such a degree, the Chinese believe he will lose face with his generals and with the public unless he provokes some sought of a localized yet "containable" military action against a South Korean target.
One also cannot dismiss the predicament that Kim is imposing on his South Korean counterpart -- newly elected President Park Geun-hye. She also cannot afford to appear weak in the face of North Korea's provocations and is already being accused by South Korea's jingoistic political opposition of caving to the North's threats.
And the provocations keep on coming. Just yesterday, North Korea declared its intention to take out of mothballs its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyong -- one more "in your face" taunt among a growing list of petulant tantrums Pyongyang has engineered ever since the Security Council and the U.S. hammered more economic sanctions on the Kim regime.
One Chinese Korean expert speculated that the untested Kim -- trying to demonstrate to his generals his Machiavellian mastery of international affairs -- has everyone around him believing that Washington is preparing to attack North Korea's nuclear facilities in order to send a clear message to Iran that Washington is not bluffing when it asserts that all options are on the table to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
Within a despotic and cruelly self-delusional regime such as North Korea's, it is by no means a stretch for Kim and his generals to convince themselves that the U.S. and South Korea see a window of opportunity to launch such an attack, given North Korea's growing international isolation and China's unprecedented decision to throw North Korea under the bus at the United Nations when it supported more economic sanctions against Kim's regime. Chin's vote sent shockwaves across Pyongyang.
Paradoxically, the very miscalculation that Kim may make against the south could very well lead to the type of military retaliation against the north's nuclear facilities that he and his generals fear most.
Adding to the Kim regime's siege mentality is real trepidation that China -- North Korea's only fuel, food and hard currency benefactor -- has made its own policy pivot and is strategically distancing itself from Pyongyang. The fact that China's media is growing increasingly anti-Kim in recent weeks coupled with the fact that China is cooperating with the U.S. and the U.N. by imposing banking restrictions on North Korean financial transactions is further fueling North Korean frenzy. So the theory goes in certain Chinese quarters that that by lashing out so vociferously at the U.S. and South Korea, Pyongyang is sending its own message to Beijing that any further efforts by China to economically strangle North Korea could result in a war in its backyard which would compel Beijing to come to North Korea's assistance. Pyongyang knows all too well that this is the last thing China wants.
At this juncture it is a sad, inconvenient truth that through successive administrations and all manner of six party talks, diplomacy has failed to halt North Korea's militarism or its nuclear weapons program. North Korea is determined to assert its nuclear weapons "legitimacy" on its terms, no matter what Washington and Seoul demand.
In the final analysis, anyone who had visions of the youngster/dictator Kim becoming a reformer has had those hopes dashed. Like his father, Kim Jong-il and his grandfather Kim Il Song, the perpetuation of a regime under duress and under threat is the oxygen that Kim needs to sustain his brutal control at the top -- that is the lesson handed down from grandfather to grandson.
What to do?
First, it would be prudent for those who assert that Kim is merely spreading his military wings in a peacock-like manifestation of fancy to realize that that responding to his rhetorical and comical displays is counterproductive.
Second, given that the U.S. and the U.N. have run out of diplomatic options to compel North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, the reality is that only change from within North Korea is going to reverse its course.
Already, there are faint glimmers that the Bamboo Curtain is cracking as more and more western and Chinese social media makes it way around. Moreover, a nascent underground shadow market economy has taken root which further is decaying the regime's stranglehold on the economy. That is where our "soft power" resources and efforts need to be directed to undermine the regime control on North Korea's brainwashed public.
Third, while this "outside-in" effort to promote the regime's decay gathers momentum (albeit it will take several years at the very least) it is essential not to shut off contacts with Kim regime through backchannels and unofficial channels (no, I don't mean by the likes of Dennis Rodman). Kim is in desperate need of a reality check from a coterie of visitors in an attempt to reorient his calculations away from conflict.
A full-court diplomatic effort with Beijing to cool tensions with North Korea shall soon be undertaken by Secretary of State Kerry, who is shortly making his first visit to East Asia and China. It is essential that Washington and Beijing be on the same page when it comes to dealing with the inexperienced, mercurial Kim. In an indication of how worried China is about events, Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui had both Korean ambassadors in for meetings yesterday.
Whether China can at this late hour compel Kim to stand down from the dangerous limb onto which he has climbed is anyone's guess at this point. However, from what I heard in Beijing there is real fear that things have gotten so out of control that China is trying to come up with a new carrot and stick policy to thwart the regime's worst intentions.
The challenge of course is to shape a better U.S. policy that finds useful common ground with Beijing as it recalibrates its own policy toward the North. It is going to be a delicate balancing act navigating around China's resistance to any policy that overtly threatens the Kim regime which could result in a flood of refugees from North Korean into China.
Admittedly, no small feat. But aside from the unpalatable military strike option by the U.S. and or South Korea against North Korea's nuclear and missile installations, the old policies of sanctions and containment have not worked -- North Korea is more nuclear and more missile ready than ever. With North Korea's Kim bruising for a fight, the U.S. is going to have to come up with a better mousetrap since the old ones have not worked.