Will Obama Save North Korea from Collapse?

North Korean soldiers have recently been escaping to China. In May, Chinese troops on one part of their border apprehended five of them, who were promptly returned to authorities in the North. Army defectors are often executed.

There are many signs that Kim Jong Il’s abhorrent regime is failing. The economy turned down last year, contracting 0.9% according to South Korea’s central bank. A botched currency redenomination in November resulted in protests and the execution of the official in charge of the maneuver. Thousands have starved to death in the center of the country since January, and the bodies of the elderly have been left in streets of the capital of Pyongyang. Beijing, according to reports, is preparing contingency plans for a collapse of the government. Kim, 69, is known to be in failing health. His succession plan -- to pass power to his 27-year-old son -- is meeting with resistance. Senior officials have died under mysterious circumstances in Pyongyang in recent months.

But what’s the clearest signal that things are not going well in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? Soldiers, the backbone of the regime, are not being fed and are leaving. In the past, desperate North Korean troops went into China on raids for food, but they almost always returned. Now they are not.

Defecting soldiers say that senior civilian and military leaders are stockpiling provisions in preparation for war. That’s a possible reason, but it is just as likely they are storing foodstuffs for themselves to get through the winter.

The Chinese are theoretically able to rescue their North Korean comrades, but there is a practical limit as to what they can do.  Security Council Resolution 1874 prohibits most forms of aid to Pyongyang, and, although Beijing is violating this measure, the South Koreans are actually monitoring compliance. The government of President Lee Myung-bak, to its great credit, has gotten Seoul out of the business of propping up the North. The Japanese government, once another supporter of Pyongyang, is not inclined these days to help either.

The country that can easily rescue the North is the United States. We did that once. In the middle of the 1990s, South Korean President Kim Young Sam publicly warned the Clinton administration not to provide aid to Pyongyang while the North Koreans concentrated their few resources on their armed forces. Washington ignored his common sense advice, however, and saved Kim Jong Il’s government by signaling American support for it.

And how did we do that? In a number of ways, but none more important than signing the Agreed Framework in October 1994.  The nuclear deal provided an economic lifeline to the North and essentially told Pyongyang’s elite that Washington accepted the regime’s existence. When we inked this deal, just three months after the death of Kim Il Sung, we instantly enhanced the stature of his son and made his rule viable.