September 7, 2017
MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey
Korea: American Policy, China, and the Future
Much of our nation’s recent attention internationally has been turned to North Korea and the seemingly erratic actions of its leader, Kim Jong Un. It seems at the beginning of every American presidency that Communist state engages in “testing” the resolve and policies of the United States. It has been no different with the administration of President Trump—with one major exception: this president does not come from the same “foggy bottom” diplomatic and internationalist environment, or from the usual political circles that have directed our foreign policy for decades. And he does not appear willing to, as it were, “kick the can down the road,” to put off dealing with the question of the North Korean nuclear threat to some later time.
Add to that the fact that Kim is now in the process of perfecting—and probably already has—the ICBM capacity to transport hydrogen payloads to possibly as far as Seattle, Los Angeles, or even Chicago. In other words, nuclear conflict has become a real concern in Washington.
But what seems to cast an even greater shadow over our relations with Pyongyang is Kim himself and the kind of regime he leads. As supreme head of the “hermit kingdom,” isolated, insular, and hostile, he rules a nation that has demonstrated even less restraint than the world’s other so-called “rogue regime,” Iran. At least the Mullahs in Iran seem to understand that open conflict—war—with the United States, would be suicidal for their nation. As a nation, they are involved heavily in Iraq, in Syria, and in Lebanon, and, yes, there are the rather consistent verbal and media attacks on “the great Satan” and the appeals to Islamic (Sh’ia) solidarity. Yet, they have also been careful in many ways—save for a few confrontations in the Persian Gulf—not to directly threaten to inflict a “nuclear holocaust” on the US or on American allies like the Saudis.
Certainly, goes the reasoning, Kim must understand that a direct military conflict with the United States would mean the total obliteration of both his regime and his country. And, no doubt, on those cold nights secreted in his mausoleum-style bunkers across the country, he must realize that. But, as his father before him, Kim Jong Un dances a kind of nuclear kabuki dance on a tight wire. It seems clear that what he desires most of all is the kind of respect and acceptance that the world’s other states enjoy, and his nuclear status gives him that Ace card, and in fact it is the only real card he has to play—it demands attention from the rest of the world. And the more he emits those blood curdling threats of nuking Guam or ravaging the American west coast, the more attention he receives.
The Trump administration, from the beginning, understood that the way to affect Kim and North Korea was largely through China. That nation is by far the North’s largest trading partner and, indeed, the real regime prop that guarantees its survival. While Communist China deeply fears the eventual collapse of the Pyongyang regime—and a resultant human disaster with potentially millions of Korean refugees traversing the border into Manchuria, and thus desires above all a kind of status quo and lessening of tensions—it also recognizes that Kim’s bellicose threats and imprecations, his continued testing of ICBMs potentially capable of conveying atomic destruction across the Pacific, could easily reach the “Sarajevo Point,” where one misstep or one action would mean devastating war and possibly millions dead in the Korean peninsula.
A major question for the United States, then, is to what degree and how are we—should we be—as a nation involved? What kind of response is in our best national interest? Are we dealing with a maniac who just happens to have a nuclear capacity, or rather with a high stakes, reckless gambler who is willing “to bet the farm” to achieve his longer range objective of respect and acceptance into the “comity of nations”?
It has been sixty-four years since the truce ending the Korean War. Some 28,000 American troops still remain in the South. Since 1953 South Korea has become one of the most prosperous and successful states in Asia. Yet, it spends less than 3% of its GNP on defense, while North Korea spends over one fourth of its budget on military expense. Both South Korea and Japan since the conclusion of the Second World War have made incredible strides economically and politically, yet the United States still provides the military “shield and buckler”—the defensive umbrella—for both states, a policy which dates from the Cold War, when serious threats from Peking and the Soviet Union were real and present.
But that situation has changed dramatically in recent years. Both countries are quite able of assuming a much larger role in their own defense, and certainly, as some observers have noted, such a strategy would actually do two significant things: first, it would shift much of the responsibility of defense to those countries and away from the United States. Indeed, both Japan and South Korea are quite capable of shouldering a major portion of that burden, including the possibility of stationing nuclear missiles in those countries.
Secondly, enhanced power and roles for Japan and Korea would place pressure on the Chinese whose goal all along has been to erect a kind of “Sino-Sphere of Influence” in East Asia, both economically but even more importantly, politically (consider its recent “island building” in the South China Sea). The relative power of a strong Japan and South Korea might well be the factors that determine just how much pressure Peking put on Kim, or, even, at some future date, if it were to see the need for some kind of regime change.
Strengthening Japan and South Korea, then, while at the same time perhaps ratcheting down direct American responsibility for the overall defense of the region, might be an effective strategy of triangulation. After all, it seems that other avenues have led nowhere. Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s recent statement that sanctions implemented by the US will undoubtedly fail is probably quite realistic. If we want a change—even a minor shift in the North’s actions—then it is most likely through a combination of effective pressure on China, and at the same time, ramping up the military capacities of our two major allies in the region.
No doubt, should hostilities break out, we would be eventually dragged in. Yet, there is no reason, six decades after Panmunjom, that we should continue to place 28,000 American boys eye ball to eye ball with Kim’s troops on the DMZ. Well-trained and committed South Koreans could fill that role, with Japanese back up. And behind them, the might of the United States.