Friday, June 21, 2024
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What’s the plan if NKorea collapses?

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SEOUL: North Korea appears to be making an orderly transition after the death of leader Kim Jong-il last week, but the risk of collapse is higher than before and regional powers need to start discussing that contingency with China, diplomats and analysts say.

The problem is China refuses to contemplate any unravelling of North Korea which has nuclear ambitions and is its long-term ally. Beijing has rebuffed such overtures from the United States, Japan and South Korea.

“Secret talks with China to plan for contingencies have long been overdue,” said Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in a paper this week.

“Beijing has been reluctant to engage in this kind of dialogue, although Chinese thinkers have increasingly acknowledged privately the need for such an authoritative conversation.”

Yet little evidence has emerged that such talks have taken place or are being planned, despite a flurry of discussions betweeen the four countries in the aftermath of Kim’s death last Saturday.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda travels to Beijing at the weekend, but it is unlikely that China would entertain anything more than platitudes.

No contingency plan can be coordinated without China’s agreement, since it borders North Korea and supplies much of its food and fuel. Christopher Hill, a former envoy to the six-party talks on North Korea nuclear disarmament, said it was difficult to raise North Korean instability scenarios with China.

“The Chinese are always skittish about these things”, he said, adding that the disclosure of secret U.S diplomatic cables by Wikileaks have made them especially wary of contingency planning.

Still, the transition of power in North Korea from the departed “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-il, to his son, the “Great Successor” Kim Jong-un, is going smoothly so far.

“We hope it stays that well,” said Pentagon spokesman George Little. “We have not seen any unusual North Korean troop movements since the death of Kim Jong-il.

That would be one indicator of a less than smooth transition.” The real worry is further down the road if a contest for power develops and piles stresses on a state that is already perilously close to economic collapse.

China, the United States and other regional powers around the peninsula may face a number of daunting scenarios if the transition goes badly over the medium term.

These could include civil conflict, a mass exodus of refugees, military mutiny, lost control of the North’s small nuclear arsenal or military attack.

China is however undergoing its own leadership transition in 2012 and down the line it’s not impossible that there may be some changes in its steadfast refusal to work with the United States and its allies on contingency planning for North Korea.

In one Feb 22, 2010 cable by then US ambassador to Seoul Kathleen Stephens, a top South Korean diplomat cited private conversations with two high-level Chinese officials who said China could live with a reunified Korea under the control of South Korea. (PTI)

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