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Regime failure in N. Korea would be a disaster

North Korea's greatest threat to its neighbors is not nuclear weapons. South Korea, China and Japan share a more immediate fear of a precipitous collapse of the Pyongyang regime. For President Bush to work constructively with East Asian countries, he will have to play a larger role in keeping Kim Jong Il in power, however unpalatable that may be for him.

The problem is most palpable for South Korea. If an East German-like meltdown of the party-state apparatus occurred in North Korea, it would unleash a human and economic catastrophe on the South.

North Korea's economy has been in decline for more than a decade, ever since its erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, disappeared. It has nothing to trade except fear, exchanging promises to limit its nuclear and missile capabilities for cash and food. Famine has, in the past 8 1/2 years, claimed 2 million to 3 million lives.

Should the Pyongyang government suddenly fall, and its military no longer stand between the famished North and the well-fed South, it is safe to say that millions of people would surge toward Seoul in search of food. Even if the South could stem the human tide, it would be immediately responsible for the nourishment and health care of all 22 million people in the North.

The full economic cost imposed on the South by an abrupt political disintegration of the North is difficult to gauge with confidence. Estimates run from tens of billions of U.S. dollars to trillions. The World Bank suggests it could run as high as $2 trillion to $3 trillion, roughly five times South Korea's gross domestic product. Absorbing this cost, even if it runs only in the hundreds of billions, could seriously weaken the South's economy, at least in the short run.

Former South Korean President Kim Dae Jong's "sunshine policy" of opening trade and investment links to the North is, therefore, a wise choice. It is predicated on the hope that a gradual improvement of the North's economy will reduce the costs of eventual national reunification. South Korea's new president, Roh Moo Hyun, knows there is really no economic alternative, and in his recent inaugural address he pledged to pursue a "policy for peace and prosperity" with the North that essentially picks up where Kim left off.

Perhaps, then, the Bush administration should not have been surprised, as it reportedly was, to learn that the incoming Roh government was less fearful of a nuclear bomb to its north than of pell-mell regime change there. A nuclear North is certainly a threat to the South, and to the region as a whole, but not quite so pressing, in the eyes of Asian leaders, as the economic and immigration crisis that state failure would most certainly bring.

China and Japan share South Korea's outlook. Starving North Koreans have been trickling into China's northeastern provinces for years. They have desperately stormed foreign embassies in Beijing in hopes of gaining asylum. Chinese leaders worry that the growing numbers of illegal Korean immigrants could exacerbate rising crime rates and other social ills associated with the chronic unemployment ravaging their northeastern rust-belt cities. A full-scale collapse of North Korea would create a major humanitarian crisis that would spill across China's borders and worsen economic conditions.

Japan, too, worries about the reverberations of a North Korean collapse. Although they do not face the same kind of direct problems China confronts, Japanese leaders would be pressured to take in refugees from a North Korean crisis, and they would be expected to play a part in financing the costs of unification. An increase in regional instability, moreover, could disrupt Japan's trade and investment with key partners in China and South Korea, making it all the more difficult to enliven its chronically sluggish economy.

So, Japan and China have an interest in propping up North Korea, at least long enough to ease the tumult of future reunification. They also share a longer-term strategic interest, one that is rarely mentioned in public. For both of them, a divided Korea is safer than a united Korea. After reunification, in 10 or 20 years, Korea could emerge as a very powerful country, perhaps with nuclear arms. From Tokyo's perspective, a Chinese-Korean alliance could challenge its economic and military interests in the region. The mirror image applies to Beijing: A Japanese-Korean alliance, however unlikely that might seem at present, could limit Chinese power and options.

China and Japan will not, therefore, push against North Korea so hard that it might fall because, for them, a nuclear North Korea now might be less of a threat than a united Korea in the future. Of course, all involved — Japan, China and South Korea — have real concerns about North Korean nuclear capabilities. Japan might have the most to fear.

In 1998, North Korea test-fired a multiple-stage ballistic missile over Japanese territory. It seems fairly certain that Pyongyang has the capability to reach any Japanese target with virtually any sort of warhead.

Without their own nuclear force to deter a North Korean launch — something that China has — Japanese strategic planners have suggested that they might have to build their own bomb. That could spark China to increase its arsenal and impel South Korea to consider a nuclear program for itself and even raise the alarm in Taiwan that it should not be left out in the nonnuclear cold. China would not sit idly by in the face of a Taiwan bomb, and so on.

But even such worst-case scenarios are not enough to deflect the attention of East Asian states away from the consequences of a North Korean collapse. After all, Kim Jong Il might not use the bombs he makes. He might be playing for a new deal, to be paid off again, as he was in 1994, to keep a lid on his nuclear threat. Or, he might be most interested in regime survival. In that case, nuclear weapons are useful only to the extent that they deter others from attacking him. He might want them in just the same manner the United States and Soviet Union wanted them during the Cold War: to ensure, paradoxically, that they are not used. With these sorts of interpretations clouding the military analysis, leaders in China, Japan and South Korea must weigh the uncertain danger of North Korean bombs against the sure hazards of North Korean collapse.

Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul understand that they have to work with Kim Jong Il, even if he is responsible for famine and repression. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi went so far in search of cooperation that he made the first trip of any Japanese prime minister to Pyongyang last fall. His effort stood in marked contrast to the detachment of Bush.

Threatening North Korea will not work. Its conventional military weapons alone could cause terrible devastation to the South. And if the North does have a bomb, a pre-emptive military strike against it could spark nuclear retaliation against Japan. If the Bush administration wants to manage the various threats posed by North Korea, it will have to accept a cruel conundrum: shaking hands with a repulsive dictator in order to create conditions that might, in the not-too-distant future, reduce him to an unhappy memory.

Sam Crane is chairman of the Asian-studies department at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and author of "Aidan's Way."