Truth be told, the worst thing in the world that could happen—next to a nuclear war between Pakistan and India—would be a nuclear conflict in northeast Asia and the Korean peninsula. In both cases, millions, or tens of millions, could die. And it’s possible to envision a disoriented, paranoid North Korean leadership triggering a war with South Korea and its allies, with the ever-present danger that such a war could escalate if North Korea used its stockpile of nuclear bombs. In addition, the flow of countless refugees across the border into China would likely involve Beijing in the crisis instantly.
It’s far too early to suggest that such a doomsday scenario, though possible, is likely. But the crisis in the Koreas arises just as the Obama administration has executed a highly publicized “pivot” toward Asia. The White House is telling anyone who’ll listen that the end of the war in Iraq and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan by 2014 signals a new focus on China and the Pacific. The Korea crisis means that the United States will need China more than ever as a partner for peace and stability in the region.
The Obama administration, caught off guard by the sudden passing of Kim Jong Il, has adopted a wait-and-see attitude, and they’ve made it clear that they don’t expect much to happen in the immediate period of “mourning” in the wake Kim’s death. Kim’s young ‘un, Kim Jong Un, may or may not hold the reins of power. The reports about the young leader, and more broadly on North Korean affairs, reveal that U.S. intelligence is almost completely ignorant about what’s happening, and what might happen.
If anyone knows, it’s China. The late Kim earned frequent-flyer points back and forth to China, and he made a point of introducing his son to Chinese leaders. China has a huge stake in North Korea, but although Beijing won’t be a friend of democratization there, to put it mildly, above all China wants stability and urgently wants to avoid conflict. In that it has common interests with the United States, which means that the United States needs China.
As Robert Carlin, a Stanford University fellow who travels to North Korea, told the New York Times:
“At this moment, China might provide the best chance of stability. They want to be the best informed and have a modicum of influence and have people consulting with them at his moment. The rest of us are deaf, dumb and blind and with our arms tied behind our backs.”
I don't know about the deaf and blind part, but dumb certainly applies to people like Senator John McCain, who in the past called for a naval embargo against North Korea and who loves to rattle sabers. Expect loud noises from the right, and let’s hope that the White House has its earplugs in tight.