China is pushing the latest agreement out of conviction that North Korea will collapse and that China would rather not cope with the refugees that result pouring into China:
China knows North Korea will eventually collapse, and it wants to have the determinative voice in the creation of a "United Korea." Combining South Korea's dynamic economy and abundant technical skill with North Korea's material resources puts a regional powerhouse on China's border.
Hence, China plays a careful, long-range game.
A North Korean collapse will be both boon and boondoggle for South Korea. South Korea has watched Germany's economic struggles -- West Germany absorbed East Germany, but the economic costs were (are) enormous.
North Korea is in much worse shape than East Germany. This is why some South Koreans would like a "leg up" on the future. North Korea has no infrastructure. In the short-term, shipping North Korea cheap electrical power in exchange for nuclear weapons reward's Kim Jong Il's extortion game. Yet South Korea knows it will confront the daunting task of "rewiring" North Korea when Kim and his colleagues enter history's dustbin.
Add to this the recent Russian-Chinese military exercise that may have been aimed at the Korean peninsula rather than Taiwan (My post rambles, I'm afraid. I guess I shouldn't blog while stinking drunk. Just kidding). If this was a dry run to see if China could intervene with airborne and amphibious forces to keep the US and South Korea as far south as possible in the case of a North Korean collapse, did the Chinese evaluate that they could not accomplish this mission? Are the Chinese trying to hold off collapse with a deal in order to improve their ability to bite off a sizable chunk of North Korea as a buffer south of the Yalu River?
So China and with lesser influence, South Korea, are assuming that North Korea will collapse, but they don't want the collapse next week. So by aiding North Korea the consequences of such a collapse are lessened and perhaps delayed until better circumstances exist.
Considering the stakes, this is interesting:
The only certain solution to the WMD question on the Korean peninsula is regime change. The Clinton administration claimed that the reason the Agreed Framework was such an obviously bad deal was that they thought it would not matter; they expected North Korea to melt down before it could be fully implemented. Maybe some policymakers in the current administration believe the same thing. However, if North Korea is on its way into the dustbin of history then the last thing we should be doing is reaching agreements with them to provide economic aid and energy assistance. We might inadvertently stave off the inevitable, and give Kim Jong Il's regime a new lease on life. With democracy on the march around the world, this is not the time to get to "yes" with one of the most repressive totalitarian regimes on earth.
So what are we assuming? We assume North Korea has the bomb, first of all. They haven't lit one off, which makes me suspicious. Indeed, I argued that it would be good if North Korea set off a nuke in a test. Still, if they keep going this path they will get one in time. But given the difficulties of intelligence are we bribing based on a bluff?
But more to the point, we are assuming North Korea will collapse relatively soon. And compelling a North Korean collapse is our best hope for solving the North Korean problem. Even a North Korea that gives up nuclear weapons (as unlikely as I think that is given their paranoia about our intentions) could sell the technology to terrorists or hostile states. Max Boot puts it well:
Someone so demented hardly makes a reliable negotiating partner — or the proper recipient of economic aid. Although an agreement with him may be an acceptable short-term expedient, the ultimate goal of the U.S. and its allies should be to remove Kim and his criminal clique from power. The Bush administration has been slowly pursuing this goal by trying to squeeze North Korea financially. The biggest obstacles to doing more are the governments in Beijing and Seoul — North Korea's largest trading partners — which seem to view the U.S. as a greater menace than Kim.
My basic worry is that providing aid to North Korea as part of a bad deal on the assumption that North Korea will collapse anyway risks us saving Schrodinger's Cat. It may be fine to assume North Korea will collapse. Just because President Clinton wrongly assumed the 1994 deal would never need to be completed because Pyongyang would collapse is no reason to assume that it is impossible now. Indeed, I think North Korea is closer to collapse today.
But will this deal erase the assumptions that lead to North Korea's collapse? In a universe where the Pillsbury Nuke Boy both exists and does not exist simultaneously, are we making a mistake by observing the cat? And feeding it?