A little noticed but significant news item today - RIA Novosti reports that North Korea has broken off talks with Russian Railways over a planned inter-Korean rail line that would have joined the Trans-Siberian railroad.
"At the end of last year, North Korea said that at a time when the United States is toughening its policy in regard to the DPRK, the Korean side 'sees no sense' in holding a second trilateral expert meeting on the reunification of the Trans-Korean railroad," Yakunin said.
Translation: the North Koreans know independent, faith based organizations with clout in Washington D.C. have openly discussed destabilizing their Stalinist tyranny through a mass refugee exodus. The last thing the DPRK regime wants is to create a potential highway for more refugees, and even influential defectors, to escape.
If North Korean refugees will risk freezing to death to cross the Yalu river, where they can be caught by Chinese police and sent back to face torture and the gulag, how much more determined would they be to sneak onto trains taking them to Russia or Mongolia, where there is no one trying to send them back? In fact, Ulaan Batoor, Mongolia, with a large population of well-to-do South Korean Christian businessmen, has become a major transit point for NK refugees.
The Novosti story is another strike against the gradual, "realist" approach to the ongoing North Korean humanitarian catastrophe. The North Korean dictatorship, unlike the Chinese, are far more interested in absolute control than in making money. All the "realist" talk about North Korea opening up to the world in a gradual, Chinese-style authoritarian market turn from hardcore Stalinism is just that - talk. Unlike the Chinese Communist Party, the DPRK regime cannot open up to the world in the slightest without losing its grip on power. A Stalinist cult of personality and paranoia is the very life blood of the regime, whereas China has thousands of years of history. The advent of capitalism undermines the very existence of the North Korean regime - the slightest twinge of freedom, and the clamor for reunification becomes irresistable, at least on the North Korean side (whether the South Koreans at that point will be able to keep their "brothers" from launching a peaceful invasion thru the DMZ is another question).
The much ballyhooed Sunshine Policy of South Korean investments in North Korea created Potemkin villages, which were designed to bribe the North Koreans - in exchange for a handshake and prestige for the Roh government. As my former boss at the Hudson Institute, Michael Horowitz, declared last summer, the Sunshine Policy is simply a vehicle for delaying the inevitable as long as humanly possible, for crass economic reasons.
Still, many Washington wonks continue to obsess over North Korea's developing nuclear arsenal, failing to see the strategic and humanitarian forest for the trees - or perhaps in Fred Kaplan's case, the forest for the Bushes. The ongoing 6-party talks that include Russia and China aren't about whether North Korea will have nukes, but whether the regime will be able to extort enough aid from the world to avert collapse. Self-proclaimed "realists" on the NK issue simply do not accept the possibility of a sudden collapse of the North Korean regime, or of China or Russia ever having a role in bringing down their erstwhile ally. They don't understand that if North Korea collapses, the nuclear issue becomes irrelevant - so long as international inspectors, or if need be, Chinese and American special forces can secure the Yongbyon facility. (Although a scholar at the D.C.-based Nautilus Foundation has gone so far as to claim recently that even a humanitarian aid workers on the ground after the collapse could face an Iraqi Baathist style insurgency of Juche diehards!).
It is becoming obvious to all but the most partisan (the Clinton/Albright 1994 Agreed Framework must be post facto vindicated!) or gradualist (South Korea can't possibly afford reunification!) that the 6 party talks in China have gone nowhere for precisely this reason - irreconcilable differences. North Korea correctly suspects that the 6 party forum is actually not about bribing the regime to give up its nukes, but to provide for informal talks on how North Korea's neighbors can deal with the regime's inevitable collapse. The real action, as with any diplomatic summit, is behind closed doors, over drinks, in the hallways, and away from the cameras, when diplomats can save face and cut the diplospeak.
This is the real meaning of North Korea's constant demands from the U.S. for "guarantees" and promises of "respect for its sovereignty and territorial integrity" i.e. taking human rights and refugees off the table. The regime fears a Chinese turn, allowing for a sudden refugee exodus, above all else (unfortunately, as Thomas P.M. Barnett laments, the Administration has yet to offer Beijing quid pro quo for turning on their former NK allies - though if such an covert agreement were in the works, who would know?).
This is also why the South Korea's representatives at the talks seem the most hapless. NK Zone and One Free Korea have been all over this story for the last week. The mainstream media in Asia, the U.S. and Europe have all made great strides in the last two years in covering North Korea - beyond the nukes. The Asia Times publishes commentary by a graduate of Leningrad University, the excellent Andrei Lankov, speaking hard truths to power in Seoul.
Besides fighting Islamist terrorism, extending covert assistance to North Korean refugees is another major opportunity for U.S.-Russian cooperation. The primary obstacle in this case is the difficult terrain on the narrow Russian-North Korean border. Nonetheless, there are many people of mixed Korean and Chinese descent in the area, and the Russian governor seems agreeable to more Koreans settling in the region.
On the Chinese side, Russia could quietly urge its border guards with Manchuria (Yuri would probably interject here - what border guards?) to turn a blind eye to refugee traffic. The U.S. could fund safe houses for North Korean refugees just across the Russo-Chinese border. From these safe houses, NK refugees could transit to South Korean church funded safe houses in Mongolia and then to political aslyum in the U.S. or South Korea. The more NK refugees claiming their constitutional right to asylum in South Korea, the more pressure the South Korean government will have to face to move human rights back to the top of the agenda.
It is my sincere hope that President Putin and President Bush have already come to some understanding on this issue - the U.S. needs to provide enough money for Russia's Far Eastern governors to make it more than worth their while. Perhaps a bounty of 500 hundred American dollars for every escaped North Korean refugee? The North Koreans can't match that, and the local Chinese officials on the other side can be bribed to be in on it. How about a little palm grease for the cause of human rights, for a change? The challenge for Putin then would be preventing corrupt local officials from pocketing the money and turning NK refugees back over to the Chinese for more money.
It's time for the U.S. and Russia to cut a deal on NK refugees. Hopefully this might, at least behind the scenes, budge the Chinese position one inch towards an agreement to stop forcibly returning NK refugees in Manchuria. Once it becomes common knowledge that NK refugees will not be sent back, we can only then hope and pray that the tipping point for the regime's collapse draws near.
UPDATE 7/18/2005: Discovery Institute foreign policy fellow James J. Na quotes from a website citing Japanese defense ministry speculation about a possible joint Russo-Chinese intervention in North Korea. The intent of such an operation would be to stem a potential massive refugee tide. This speculation seems premature, but the real point is that open discussion of humanitarian relief and reconstruction operations in post-Kim North Korea needs to take place, now.
Forget the sneering of Beltway "realists" who insist such talk needlessly provokes the NK regime and is an example of "faith based foreign policy making". These same critics would turn around and ask why there was "no plan" to deal with North Korea's collapse in the event of a coup or mass refugee exodus. They are only interested in North Korea as an arms control issue, or as a replay of the showdown over Iraq, not as one of the world's worst humanitarian crisis. And that is why they deserve to be ignored as back seat drivers.
Sophisticated logistical plans cannot be drawn up overnight nor by the U.S. alone - indeed it has not dawned on the critics of the Six Party Talks that precisely the reason Russia, Japan and China must be included is so that parties other than South Korea can be consulted in advance on how to deal with a regime collapse. The North Koreans certainly are aware of this possibility, this is why they insisted on one-on-one talks from the get-go (which Senator Kerry promised to give them in the first 2004 presidential debate - so much for working with our allies).
The ground logistics for such an operation would either move on paths cleared thru the DMZ or highways from the Yalu, with Pyongyang's airport as the main hub. Forget the regime's demand for "guarantees" - these are just euphemisms for not pointing out its fatal weakness to the world.