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.

We also provided aid. By doing so, we made it acceptable for others -- especially Kim Young Sam’s successor, Kim Dae Jung—to give crucial assistance just when the North Korean regime came closest to losing power. Although the North proved surprisingly resilient in the period after Kim Il Sung’s passing, it is unlikely that Kim Jong Il could have survived complete and simultaneous failures of both agriculture and the civilian economy without crucial backing from Washington.

Will we repeat this fundamental mistake? The Obama administration has publicly committed itself to a resolute course of action after the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan, the South Korean frigate, by a North Korean torpedo. For instance, the president said last month that Pyongyang’s “belligerent behavior” is “unacceptable to the international community.” He also stated the North must be “held to account.” In a remarkable shift, administration officials even promised not to talk to North Korea until it acknowledged responsibility for the Cheonan’s destruction.

But inspiring words are this administration’s specialty. Last year, the White House also was pitch perfect when it came to its rhetoric as the North, among other things, detonated a nuke, tested a long-range missile, abrogated the Korean War armistice, and announced the resumption of plutonium production. But Obama’s Washington did little but to ask the North to go back to the six-party denuclearization talks.

Like in 1994, North Korea is at a critical moment. The regime is failing. We know that because soldiers are fleeing the miserable conditions there. So if Kim Jong Il sticks to his playbook, he will seek to restart talks with us to get aid to save his family’s rule.

Today, at Kim’s request, the U.S.-led UN Command is in Panmunjom to meet with his officers who have yet to flee. He wants to talk. We should not be listening.