Addressing North Korea: “One Country, Two Systems” Plus Leader, Not Full Regime Change

The looming crisis with North Korea escalates, and the current US administration continues to complain via tweets and simplistic sound-bytes about China’s reluctance to use its leverage to diffuse the situation.

At the same time, knowledgeable diplomats, think tanks, and pundits agree on several critical points:

-As North Korea’s largest historical ally, as well as its current largest trading partner and supplier of critical resources that provide essential stability to the North Korean regime, the People’s Republic of China holds the only significant “key” to a solution.

-China today is, itself, thoroughly exasperated with North Korea. This is amply evidenced by the PRC’s support for increasing sanctions against North Korea in the UN Security Council, as well as the blatant “cold shoulder” China has displayed towards North Korea’s leadership. Since ascending power in 2011, Kim Jong Un has not yet met with any top Chinese leader, even as China has repeatedly engaged South Korea at the highest levels. Additionally, China’s continued, albeit unenthusiastic, support for the North Korean leadership (and, indirectly, North Korea’s well-publicized human rights excesses) is nothing short of a blot on China’s quest for respect and prestige as an emerging global superpower.

So, what is stopping China from intervening? The prevailing analysis goes something like this:

China cuts off key contacts and resource support for North Korea, precipitating the “fall” of the North Korean regime. The two Koreas quickly reunify under the capitalist South, allied with the United States. This would result in a US ally sitting on China’s Northeastern border and, possibly, still in possession of the existing North Korean nuclear arsenal. Quite obviously and understandably, this is unacceptable to China, as well as likely for Russia which also shares a border with North Korea.

To be sure, the most thoughtful Western media commentators have already contemplated such critical barriers in securing China’s assistance in resolving the stand-off with North Korea. For example, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria recently commented on Public Radio’s New York affiliate, WNYC Radio, that, in contemplating the North Korean situation from China’s point of view, the US would need to agree to either completely withdraw its troops from a unified North Korea or, at least, not extend US military north of the 38th parallel to approach China’s borders. At the same time, the US would have to align with China on the future disposition of North Korea’s existing nuclear arsenal.

While such an approach does makes superficial sense, it is still not likely to allay China’s, nor Russia’s, concerns. Such an agreement could be signed, but would rely on China’s trust of the US which, at the moment, is scant due to the unpredictability of the Trump administration. China’s anticipated skepticism of such a proposal is understandable: would the US trust either China or Russia today to sit on our own borders?

However, there is another potential solution that may be more palatable to China — one that even “echoes” the successful return of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China based on China’s “One Country, Two Systems” model. Let’s call this option the “Grand Bargain.”

In this scenario, China facilitates a change of North Korea’s top leader — but not full regime change — resulting in a continuation of North Korea’s ruling Worker’s Party, albeit led by a new command structure committed to economic and societal reforms based on China’s development model since the 1980’s. Who better than China to shepherd such change, having navigated its own transition from the unfettered chaos and human rights excesses of The Cultural Revolution to it’s own opening, reform, and global engagement? This option has the potential to enrich North Korea while lifting the country’s millions out of starvation and poverty and easing (even if not eliminating) societal control, while still maintaining the country’s stated socialist system. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal would be either destroyed or, at least, its further development halted — to be jointly decided and verified by multiple parties including China, Russia, the USA, and South Korea. Of course, China cannot credibly deny the aspirations of the two Koreas to eventually reunify, particularly given its own unwavering aspirations for reunification with Taiwan. However, in such a “Grand Bargain,” the issue of reunification could be strategically delayed for a “confidence-building” period of 10, 20, or more years. This could also benefit South Korea by precluding the enormous expense of immediate reunification while, at the same time, still affording the South a leading role in North Korea’s emerging reforms and economic development.

In such a scenario, the current North-South Korean borders would remain intact, relieving both China’s and Russia’s concerns about the US encroaching on their frontiers. China, Russia, South Korea, the USA, and other Western nations would obviously all benefit by making significant investments in a new North Korea’s emerging development.

Quite obviously, mere tweets won’t get us to such a solution. What we need is more experienced and nuanced diplomacy that would embrace such a vision, and the corresponding multilateral negotiation and cooperation needed to achieve such an outcome.

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