ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Many observers of the crisis over North Korea say that the role played by China is and will be pivotal. More on that now from Robert Kaplan, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, who wrote about North Korea in an article in the October issue of the magazine. It's called When North Korea Falls.
And Robert Kaplan, I gather one very important element in China's view of what happens in North Korea is the possibility of North Korea falling?
Mr. ROBERT KAPLAN (The Atlantic Monthly): Yes, it is because look what this test shows us. We don't know if it was a nuclear test or not, Robert. If it was, it was a pretty weak, pathetic one. This regime has an almost obsessive compulsive desire to show its military prowess, to launch missiles to get attention, but we don't send our Secretary of State there, we send an Assistant Secretary, so then they try to explode a nuclear device.
They are desperately seeking to get our attention, to get us into one on one talks because the regime's real worry is not what we will do to them, but what China may do to them. China is in a much stronger position than anyone else to influence events inside North Korea. It controls a lot of the infrastructure projects. It has a lot of North Korean exiles, refugees, defectors who it wants to send back. It has relationships with the military there to a degree that we do not have.
That does not mean North Korea's a puppet of China. It doesn't mean that at all. It means they have simply more influence than anyone, and Kim Jung Il knows that they covet his geographical space. But while they're supporting his regime, they have better ideas for the future.
SIEGEL: Now, I want you to explain something first. The North Koreans who have gone to China, that is, people have fled North Korea to China, not just the odd, highly placed defector, but large numbers of people who were starving in North Korea.
Mr. KAPLAN: Absolutely. Large numbers of middle class, to the degree that you can call anything in North Korea, have fled to China. China is building a cadre of Northern Koreans who can go back, create some vague sort of Tibet like buffer state that will be a kind of Gorbachev liberal form of communism to replace the totalitarian monstrosity that exists today. You know, a kind of in-between regime, something like China is today, so that our dream of this reunited, democratic Korean peninsula may never actually occur.
You know, China looks forward to some kind of peaceful regime evolution, and that sits fine with South Koreans who the last thing they want is total collapse, catastrophe, experiments with democracy in a place that is the same population as Iraq but poorer, with chem biological weapons and even less of a tradition of any kind of Western, liberal democratic system, even before 1945.
SIEGEL: Well, let's say that U.S. and other diplomats are now pressuring the Chinese, are telling the Chinese look, you have some leverage with these people. You have an extensive, complicated relationship with these people.
Mr. KAPLAN: That's a good way to put it.
SIEGEL: Why don't you start turning the screws a little bit here and maybe you can influence their behavior. The Chinese would say there's a danger they could fall apart if we do that.
Mr. KAPLAN: They could say that. Also, there may not be total agreement in the Beijing leadership about exactly what to do with North Korea because the last thing Beijing wants is any experimentation with regime change, even gradual, peaceful now because, you know, if things are that weak, with half the population starving, the slightest tweak could unhinge the whole regime.
That's the last thing China wants before its 2008 coming out party in the Beijing Olympics. China's a very conservative power now. It wants little change. It wants to just keep things going as they are through 2008.
SIEGEL: Your reading of this situation and the U.S. reading of where we go next, the State Department's reading, there's an ironic paradox here. The U.S. is saying it's really very important that China do something now.
You're saying the North Koreans with their various actions are saying please don't leave us to the mercies of the Chinese. You Americans come and talk to us about this.
Mr. KAPLAN: Well, it's sort of like that, because what does Kim Jung Il gain? All right, here we have a regime with a large portion of the population semi-starving, which is desperate to show it can explode a nuclear weapon and may even fake one if it turns out that it isn't, for one purpose - to get in one on one talks with us rather than single or six party talks. What do one on one talks do for this regime? It buttresses it up. It gives it some perceived, implied legitimacy, which gives it leverage with Beijing.
SIEGEL: That's Robert Kaplan, who's a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, the author of the article When North Korea Falls in the October issue. He's now also a visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and spoke to us from Annapolis. Robert Kaplan, thanks a lot for talking with us.
Mr. KAPLAN: It's my pleasure.
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