I thought this was an interesting bloggingheads video between Charli Carpenter and Dan Drezner. Carpenter makes a hypothetical case for South Korea (and allies) trying to "out-crazy" North Korea, that is, keep playing chicken and even step it up a notch, basically gearing up for combat. The motivation is the fairly overwhelming likelihood that North Korea will lose any war (on the principle that fewer desperately poor people lose to many more very rich people). The problem of course is the million or more dead people, in Seoul as elsewhere. How many depends on China. If China actually militarily aided NK, then it's a very very bad idea. If China looked the other way and did nothing, it's a bad idea. If China actually signed on to the idea, in the form of amassing armies near the border and effectively saying "Sure, flatten Seoul, whatever. We're tired of having a batshit crazy neighbor." the idea starts to seem ... worth putting in the general vicinity of the table of consideration.
This is just a thought experiment, not something I'm advocating, as my anti-war bias runs deep. People do crazy things when backed into a corner. I don't think anyone knows what already-crazy people with nuclear weapons do when backed into a corner, even given the presumably offered cozy diplomatic exile for the thugs in power. (I'd be willing to give Kim Jong Il all the Hennessey he wants and not put him on trial at the Hague if it meant allowing North Korea to modernise.) And I realize it's the people on both sides who get maimed and killed in any war, regardless how the political wins and losses distribute amongst the ruling classes on both sides. On the other hand, this whole story is set against the backdrop of the starvation and oppression of the North Korean people; it's not like they have too much to gain from patiently waiting several generations for a liberal to be miraculously born on the slopes of Mount Paektu.
Enough with toy soldiers. Back in reality, everything still depends on China. I usually think of the Chinese government as being fairly well approximated as a rational actor, but if that's the case, I've never understood why they put up with North Korea. I guess the common knowledge says North Korea serves as a buffer state betwixt the mainland and US-backed South Korea. And China doesn't want to deal with millions of NK refugees, something SK doesn't want to deal with either. On the other hand, it seems to me like China's economic ties to SK, America, and cetera are worth more by orders of magnitude. China's rulers act as if they want to be seen as a responsible rising power and this seems like a relatively inexpensive opportunity to do the right thing, especially if oodles of Western aid were assured to help both China and SK with the transition. The ruling elite in China must understand the benefits of cooperation on this particular issue, and the benefits for history of confidence-building cooperation exercises with the West generally, or have I been blinded by my Western liberal biases?