Looking in the right direction: Establishing a framework for analyzing the situation on the Korean Peninsula (and much more besides)

Looking in the right direction: Establishing a framework for analyzing the situation on the Korean Peninsula (and much more besides)

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Protesters demand halt to largest ever U.S.- South Korea war games in front of U.S. Embassy in Seoul, March 7, 2016. Signs at left read: "Stop, the joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea ("AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Protesters against the largest ever U.S.- South Korea war games, at U.S. Embassy in Seoul, March 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

By Tim Beal | April 23, 2016
Paper prepared for KPI March 2016 webinar on “The Crisis in Korea”

Hysteria, hypocrisy and self-harm amongst a shower of satellites

In the first half of February 2016 a number of satellites were launched; two by Japan, three by the United States, one each by Russia and China and one by North Korea. The other launches went unremarked outside the scientific community but the North Korean satellite was another matter; a very curious matter. It was, we were told, really a missile, an ICBM. ‘North Korea is committed to striking the U.S. with a nuclear-armed missile’ the Pentagon told Congress.  This satellite launch was taken as indication of North Korea’s wicked intention. No matter that a satellite carrier rocket is a rather different beast to a missile. Satellites are designed to stay up in space and missiles to come down to deliver a warhead on a target – this missile was, in fact, a satellite launcher, no matter that the intention was clear. In the background, though, there is North Korea’s KN-08 ICBM. It has not been tested, although it has been displayed, either the real thing or a mock-up, on parade in Pyongyang. The KN-08 “likely would be capable” of striking the continental U.S. if successfully designed and developed, said the Pentagon.  A couple of assumptions there, lodged in a tautology – the KN-08 ICBM, if successfully designed and developed, would be a successful ICBM.

The North Korean satellite was roundly condemned by that fine institution ‘the international community’ because it had been launched by a ballistic rocket, and North Korea had been expressly forbidden to use ballistic rockets. No matter that all satellites are launched by ballistic rockets; that’s the physics of it. No matter that there must be tens of thousands of ballistic rockets, of all sizes, military and civil, around the world. This prohibition only applied to North Korea.

The United States went to work trying to push a resolution through the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to increase sanctions against North Korea. There is an interesting story here, only half-revealed. The U.S. moved to deploy more financial sanctions, utilising its dominant position in world banking, designed, according to Andrei Lankov, to push ‘the North Korean economy towards crisis’ and famine. The beauty of this strategy is that, if successful, the malnourished children will be produced as evidence not of American ruthlessness, but of Kim Jong Un’s desire to starve his own people. No one, so far, has asked John Kerry, in relation to sanctions against North Korea, the question asked of Madeleine Albright regarding sanctions against Iraq. When asked on 60-Minutes, May 12, 1996, by Leslie Stahl: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Albright paused briefly and replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.” She regretted her honesty that next day. Presumably that interview is now part of the induction process for senior U.S. officials, on questions to avoid answering.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, North Korea’s satellite launch, preceded by its fourth nuclear test on January 6, 2016 (way behind America’s thousand plus tests), caused the Park Geun-hye administration to move into high gear. The situation was used as a justification for pushing forward the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missiles, in spite of protests by Russia and especially China. No matter that the THAAD rockets would probably be ineffective against the missiles that North Korea actually has, but are rather part of missile defence against China and Russia. And no matter that North Korea’s Unha satellite carrier rocket, even if converted to an ICBM, would pose no threat to South Korea. Again the physics; a ballistic trajectory means that you cannot use a long-range rocket to attack your immediate neighbour.

President Park closed down the Kaesong Industrial Park, causing losses of 800 billion won, nearly a billion dollars, for South Korean companies involved  and  reduced Inter-Korean relations to their lowest in decades, while warning of North Korea’s ‘collapse’.  The word, ’collapse,’ really used here as a euphemism, because no informed observer thinks that a collapse, in the real meaning of the word, is in the cards. Rather the contrary. The lawyer and investment consultant Michael Hay, based in Pyongyang, recently complained wryly in an interview with NK News that ‘“the country is in such a state of self-confidence – the highest level of self-confidence I have ever seen – that I perhaps think they may have a slightly less than full picture of how they are perceived from the outside, in terms of business assessment.”

But President Park is probably using ‘collapse’ in a sort of Orwellian sense as indicated by the fractured grammar of a headline in the South China Morning Post  – ‘South Korea’s President Park Signals Shift by Invoking Threat of ‘Regime Collapse’ against North Korea.’ Now you can logically invoke a danger of collapse, or you can threaten invasion, but you cannot threaten collapse against a country. You can threaten someone that you will shoot him, but you can’t threaten diabetes.

Does President Park have an invasion of the North in mind?  Hopefully not, because the consequences for the peninsula, the region and indeed the world, should it morph into a war against China, would be horrendous.  The current joint military exercises led by the U.S., but with South Korea providing the bulk of the troops, and with contingents from far-flung colonial outposts such as Australia and New Zealand to add a touch of ‘the international community,’ are exceedingly worrisome. These exercises have been described as ‘the biggest in history,’ involving nearly as many troops as the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and apart from a computer-simulated drive towards the Chinese border, and amphibious landings in the spirit of Inchon.

For the first time the exercises also incorporate an OPLAN 5015 which includes ‘decapitation strikes’ against the North Korean leadership and the use of Special Forces to seize key nuclear assets before the South Koreans can get to them. Imagine this: The U.S. launches decapitation and Special Forces strikes alleging that the regime is collapsing and it is forced to act to prevent nuclear weapons from being transferred to terrorists. Most of the media, and allied governments, will not question this fantasy. No doubt the phrase ‘humanitarian intervention’ will be weaselled in somewhere.  North Korea will retaliate as promised and the U.S. will launch the invasion proper, with South Korea troops doing most of the fighting, and filling most of the body bags. This invasion will be purely defensive, of course.

How do we try to explain the hypocrisy, the hysteria and the war-mongering; and in the case of South Korea, self-harm?

A framework for analysis with the U.S. at its core

In order to make sense of this and, lay the foundation for activism, as appropriate, we must contextualise and establish a framework for analysis. The starting point for this framework is that we must look in the right direction. Most writing and discussion on Korean peninsula issues focuses almost exclusively on North Korea. We are told of the North Korean problem, the North Korea threat, how North Korea, or the Kim family, is mad, bad, unpredictable, and so forth. The clue is to look at phrases such as the “Vietnam War,” the “Korean War,” “ invasion of Afghanistan,” “ invasion of Iraq,” and work out what they have in common; or rather what is left out that they have in common. The answer of course is the United States. The U.S. is the common denominator.

No doubt some wise person thousands of years ago pointed out that we will not see the mountain, however high it may be, if we are looking in the wrong direction.  And the American mountain is very high indeed. The U.S. is the global colossus.  It is the world’s major economy (although now overtaken in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms by China) and one relevant consequence of that has been its fondness for economic warfare.  Physical sanctions may devastate a target economy without impinging on the far larger American one. The U.S. had an embargo against China for 25 years without American business protesting; mind you they didn’t realise what they were missing out on. Sanctions on North Korea have been in place some 70 years, with no apparent protest from American business. The U.S. dominance in international business makes financial sanctions very appealing; again they cause great damage without much cost to the U.S. U.S. economic might means there is plenty of cash to buy friends and influence people. Vicky Nuland’s boast, in December 2013, just before the coup in the Ukraine, that they had ‘invested’ $5 billion in the Ukraine is one example; then there are all the stories of CIA operatives sashaying through Afghanistan and Iraq with dollars, not in fistfuls but in suitcases.

The U.S. is uniquely blessed by nature, with extensive agricultural and mineral resources meaning it cannot be blockaded into submission, however strong a future enemy might be. It is protected by vast oceans east and west and bordered by small, non-threatening countries north and south. Despite this geographical invulnerability, the U.S. spends on its military nearly as much as the rest of the world put together. If one adds to its military budget that of its ‘allies’ and compares that to the military wherewithal of potential adversaries the disproportion is staggering.  At a rough calculation using data from the latest Military Balance assessment from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the military expenditure of U.S. and its ‘allies’ is about $1 trillion a year. They outspend China seven times, Russia 19 times and North Korea somewhere between 100 times and, if one accepts the estimate of Pyongyang’s military budget made by the director of the South Korean Defence Intelligence Agency back in 2013, 1000 times.

The United States also has immense Soft power, as understood by Joseph Nye, which includes diplomatic power and its domination of the global intellectual space which are linked together, the one feeding off the other.

The U.S. has immense diplomatic power. Hence for instance all those dubious UN Security Council resolutions censuring North Korea, and violating the sovereignty of Libya, Yugoslavia, Iraq, or Iran. The U.S. is able to bully, cajole or perhaps just instruct permanent and non-permanent members of the UNSC to commit egregious violations of the UN Charter, damaging its enemies and protecting its friends, such as Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and of course itself. Again its power is not absolute, but it is extraordinary.

The official U.S. narrative not merely fashions Western media and academia but also much of that in Russia and China. If you look at Russian or Chinese media, in English at least, you will see that unless national interests are directly challenged – in Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the Russians and the South China Sea for the Chinese, the default position is to accept uncritically what the Western news agencies, and hence Western officials, portray. This, needless to say, only works one way. No Western newspaper would ever regurgitate a statement from Tass or Xinhua without inserting it in a political envelope telling the reader not to believe it.

As a result of this domination of the international intellectual space no one seems to blink when the U.S., with its thousand nuclear tests, fulminates against North Korea’s four, or with its myriad nuclear and conventional missiles, bombers, fighters, aircraft carriers, and submarines claims that it is being threatened by North Korea with its very limited and uncertain ability to project power far beyond its borders.  This goes beyond hypocrisy and double standards into the construction of a special sort of unreality.

Of all countries in the world North Korea alone has been censured by the UNSC for launching satellites, and that on the strange ground that they utilised ballistic missile technology. Strange because not merely, as noted early, are all satellites launched by ballistic rockets, but ballistic missiles are not themselves illegal. How could they be when the U.S. has so many of them?

There are various bilateral and multilateral agreements by which the U.S. attempts to manage the situation – there is, for instance, the limitation it has imposed on South Korean missiles (they don’t want Seoul attacking China without permission) but missiles per se are not prohibited  Similarly for nuclear tests and weapons. There are various ‘voluntary’ agreements – the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and the Non-Proliferation Treaty – but these are different in nature from, for instance, the prohibition on invading other countries which is enshrined in the United Nations Charter, and dates back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.  In this regard the construction of North Korea as an international pariah is an expression of American power rather than, as is usually claimed, a result of the infringement of international law.  In fact, the discriminatory charges against North Korea are themselves a violation of the norms of international law and the equal sovereignty of states.

American power means that nothing much happens in the world without the U.S. being involved although that is frequently hidden. Sometimes it is the dominant actor, sometimes just an endorser, but the U.S. is always there. This does not mean that the U.S. is omnipotent. Indeed something that intrigues me is that clients sometimes have surprising leverage against the U.S. One thinks of Syngman Rhee in the 1950s, or more recent Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. These are people who were installed by the U.S., had not much popular support and many domestic enemies, but nevertheless at times could disobey orders quite flagrantly.  The client/master relationship is constantly being negotiated and is complex. However, if push comes to shove the master prevails, as Rhee found out in 1960.

Deciphering U.S. global strategy

So, in analysing world affairs the starting point must be the U.S. What does America want?  That, needless to say, often bears little connection with what it proclaims as its objective. Analysis must be hard-nosed looking beyond the spin and rhetoric, focussing on actions and seeking real explanations.  When we have some idea of America’s position we can start looking at the other players, in descending order of importance. For most countries, most of the time, the United States is their major partner-cum-adversary. They tend to tailor their policy in relation to third countries in the light of their relationship with the United States. At the same time we must presume that Washington has a global grand strategy (however incoherent and subject to various factions that may be) and that this strategy prioritises and subordinates the part to the whole.

The failure to put the U.S. at the core of geopolitical analysis is a fundamental reason why so much writing on the Korean peninsula is usually off mark. We have innumerable websites and NGOs, books and articles focusing on North Korea, often with little attention paid to the U.S., other than considering what effect North Korea, and often ‘the North Korean threat’ has on America. Looking in the wrong direction, asking the wrong questions, they get misleading or meaningless answers. Associated with this, and arguably a result of it, is the fact that virtually all the experts, all the pundits we hear from, are to use Perry Anderson’s term ‘state functionaries’. He was talking about American experts on China. Here I am focussing on American experts on Korea, though much the same holds for experts from Britain, Russia, and China. Most of these experts either currently work for the U.S. government or have in the past – in the CIA, Defence, or State usually. If they are former employees they now work for think tanks or NGOs which are, to put it politely, state-aligned. Even academics are constrained by the desire for research funding.  There are very few neutral, dispassionate, disinterested (in the proper meaning of the term) voices. One simpler indicator is that virtually all of them express horror at the idea of North Korea having nuclear weapons but few have any qualms about the U.S. and its arsenal. They tend to view the prospect of the U.S. attacking North Korea with moral equanimity.

The Korean peninsula in U.S. strategy

Why is the U.S. interested in the Korean peninsula? The answer is location. Korea is the most valuable piece of geopolitical real estate in the world.  It is the nexus where most of the great powers meet and contend. China and Russia share a land border with Korea, Japan is separated by a small sea, and although the Pacific is a large ocean it is also ‘the American lake’.  None of these powers want a unified Korea subservient to any of the others and since the U.S. is by far the most powerful it has the most-pro-active policy. The U.S. is also different in that it alone, at the moment, has aspirations for global hegemony.  This means keeping Japan subservient, and containing China and Russia with the longer term aim of fragmenting them so that they are no longer competitors.  It is easy to see how Korea fits in with these strategic objectives.  As a physical location it provides bases adjacent to China and Russia and whilst the number of troops permanently deployed in South Korea is small, one of the functions of the joint exercises with the ROK is to practice the rapid influx of massive reinforcements. Japan fulfils the same role.

As an aside it might be noted that Korea also provides a base for keeping an eye on Japan. Whilst the U.S. has been an enthusiastic supporter of Japanese remilitarisation, thinking in terms of the containment of China, it is possible this may change. A remilitarised Japan (and it should be remembered that Japan has the expertise to rapidly develop nuclear weapons and delivery systems that might well be superior to China’s), made a ‘normal’ country again, may want to assert its independence from the U.S. As Lord Henry John Temple Palmerston remarked, back in the nineteenth century, countries don’t have perpetual friends and enemies, merely perpetual interests.

The Korean peninsula not merely provides the U.S. with physical bases for its military; it provides access to a huge reservoir of Korean military assets. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies report, Military Balance 2015, South Korea has a total troop complement – that is the combination of service personnel and reserves – of about 5.1 million. For comparison this is 2.6 times as much as that of North Korea’s 2 million, considerably more than America’s 2.2 million and quite a bit more than China’s 3.5 million. Because of interoperability, these South Korean troops can fight alongside America, under American command, but probably can’t operate on their own in a major war. The Joint military exercises such as Key Resolve, Foal Eagle and Ssang Yong are described as defensive to deter North Korean aggression. Given North Korea’s incredible military inferiority against the U.S.-led forces this is obviously a pretext. The exercises practise more than the invasion of the North. The Chosun Ilbo  which, like Donald Trump sometimes blurts out an inconvenient truth, recently made this comment about the exercises:

The underlying aim is to bring South Korea, Australia, Japan and the U.S. closer together to thwart China’s military expansion in the Pacific.

When the United States looks at Korea, it sees China.

So it is clear that for the Unites States the Korean peninsula is hugely important. This is partly in its own right – its 75 million people put it on a par with Germany or France. However its main significance to the U.S. is that it is a strategic asset in its confrontation with China, and to a lesser extent, Russia.  If the peninsula could be detached from the Asian mainland, towed down to the South Pacific and parked near New Zealand, then the U.S. would be far less interested. We would not have had the division of Korea, the war, the militarisation.

All this means that the U.S.’s North Korea policy, and hence its South Korea policy, must be seen within the context of its struggle with China, and Russia.  In 1945 when the U.S. had the peninsula divided its main concern was Russia, then the Soviet Union. At that time it ‘owned’ China, through Chiang Kai-shek.  This changed over time and now China is the major component in its East Asia strategy. However Russia should not be overlooked. The U.S. is a global power, and Russia straddles Europe and Asia, and although it is the European face of Russia which concerns the U.S., it is its Asian side which is most vulnerable; if Russia is struck in East Asia, it bleeds in Europe.

To recap, the U.S.’s Korea strategy is a component of its global strategy, and China is the major focus of that, with Russia coming in behind. North Korea is important because of the role it has in that strategy; it is not really important in itself. So, if for instance, the U.S. decided that good relations with North Korea would better serve its containment of China than the present hostility – by no means a foolish idea – then its Korea policy would change, whatever the screams in Seoul.

U.S. North Korea policy

What, then, is the U.S.’s North Korea policy? Most people, left or right, find that easy to answer. It sees North Korea’s nuclear programme threatening and its focus is the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. I am not so sure. For one thing U.S. hostility long preceded North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. More important and telling is the fact that there has never been a serious, bipartisan, and sustained attempt to negotiate with Pyongyang on the issue. There was, indeed, the Agreed Framework of 1994 but that was sabotaged by the Republicans while out of the White House, and torn up by them, by George W Bush, when they did hold the presidency. Bush did go through the motions of negotiating for some years, but despite North Korean gestures such as the blowing up the cooling tower of its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon in 2008, these came to naught. Obama, under the rubric of ‘strategic patience’ has refused to negotiate. To some extent this history can be ascribed to infighting within the power elite, and between government agencies; for instance Treasury’s actions against Banca Delta Asia which scuttled the negotiations for some time.  American governments are also reluctant to negotiate with adversaries because negotiation implies compromise, thus exposing themselves to charges of being soft and unpatriotic by opponents – Trump, Cruz, Rubio, et al. However, underlying this is a fundamental strategic dilemma.

Some argue that the U.S. could easily negotiate a deal by offering a grand bargain where it guaranteed North Korea’s security with perhaps the concession of allowing Pyongyang to retain its present, probably inoperable and certainly tiny, nuclear deterrent. Sig Hecker’s ‘The Three No’s’ is an example of this – ‘no new weapons, no better weapons, no transfer of nuclear technology.’  With Libya in mind, let alone the abrogation of the Agreed Framework, it is difficult to see how the U.S. could offer credible guarantees, even if it wanted to. But it is scarcely likely that it wants to. North Korea’s major threat to the U.S. is not its nuclear weapons but its proposal for a peace treaty. If North Korea, by developing a nuclear deterrent, by building a formidable, but primarily defensive, military, by refusing to buckle down under sanctions and having the temerity to launch satellites – if North Korea by doing all this is able to force the U.S. into accepting peaceful coexistence then its example might be followed by others. The one thing empires detest above all else is independence; that and its brother, rebellion. It was for this crime which the Roman Empire reserved crucifixion. North Korea’s success would also have implications for China and Russia in their struggle with the U.S.

Having said that, the U.S. would probably negotiate if it were genuinely concerned that North Korea’s nuclear weapons presented a serious threat. It seems to me that despite the posturing, they do not. Firstly it is a deterrent, not an offensive weapon, so if North Korea is not attacked then it does not come into play. Barring accidents, the initiative lies with Washington. Secondly, there is no evidence that North Korea can actually deliver a nuclear weapon, certainly not to substantial U.S. territory. This may change; miniaturization may proceed beyond photo opportunities, and an ICBM may someday be tested. Thirdly, the U.S., bolstered by its allies, has overwhelming military superiority.  For the moment there is no pressing need to negotiate.

This brings us back to China policy. If the U.S. did negotiate a peace treaty, or if it were able to invade and conquer North Korea and extend Seoul’s administration up towards the Yalu (under an American general of course) without provoking a Chinese intervention, what would this do to its China policy? If China did intervene then we would have a second Sino-American war, with all that might entail. But leaving aside that possibility and just considering the implications of a peaceful Korean peninsula we immediately see problems in justifying the U.S. military presence, and missile defences.  How would the U.S. keep South Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan, in line with the containment of China without a North Korean threat? Even today we see lot of anguish in South Korea – I will leave details to my South Korea colleagues – of the impact of THAAD, and other measures, on South Korea’s relations with China, and with Russia.

It seems to me that the present situation serves U.S. policy towards China (and towards Russia) very well. Going to war to remove North Korea’s nuclear weapons would be perilous, negotiating them away might be even more problematic for U.S. interests, should other small countries follow North Korea’s example.

China and Russia – shared predicaments, common strategies

Let us now turn to China, and to Russia. Both are competitors to the Unites States and so both are targets of U.S. global strategy. In addition, both are resurgent states. Russia is recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Yeltsin years, and China from the 19th century meltdown of the Qing dynasty. Other things being equal, this means that both are getting stronger relative to the U.S., but both are currently very much weaker, Russia of course more than China. But the shift in relative power means that the U.S. has an incentive to go to war earlier rather than later, while for China and Russia the longer they can delay any such clash the better. This in itself does not mean that the U.S. will attack either of them, although there is plenty of conjecture from all quarters on that. However, current weakness combined with the likelihood of greater security in the future does present both China and Russia with a shared predicament – how do they cope with an America in relative decline, which is very strong, has a history of aggressiveness and, the current presidential campaign suggests, may be more adventurist in the future.

This surely is no easy matter. It requires cool and calm judgement in balancing the need to be firm on core issues while giving the United States neither cause nor pretext on more peripheral ones. But what is core and what is peripheral?  And where does Korea fit in?

It is often said that the Korean peninsula is the most likely place for conflict between the United States and China (though the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea are also candidates).  For Russia it is more likely to be Eastern Europe or Turkey, but a war in Korea would involve Russia to some degree. It is also the place where Russia is most militarily vulnerable. Whilst the U.S. keeps a pretty firm grip on South Korea (it does have wartime control of its military for example) China has little leverage over North Korea and Russia even less. So while the U.S. can ratchet tension up and down as it requires, neither China nor Russia have much control over Korean events; an unenviable strategic position to be in.

However, whilst recognising the dilemma they face I would argue that they have erred on the side of timidity, even perhaps appeasement, especially in relation to the UN Security Council.  They were both complicit in voting for UNSC resolutions censuring North Korea for actions which were quite legal. They have done this on other occasions; Libya comes to mind but they seem to have learnt a lesson from that and have stood firmer on the issue of Syria. UNSC resolutions against North Korea stretch back to 1950, when unfortunately the Soviet Union was absent and not in a position to utilise its veto to defeat the U.S.’s resolution to go to war in Korea, but the modern series date from an attempted satellite launch in 2006. Once having accepted that as a violation of the UN Charter they have been on a slippery slope with no way back.

The word ‘appeasement’ is often used loosely in order to condemn compromises which are the natural consequence of negotiations between adversaries of some degree of equality. Country A makes a demand of country B. If country B complies will that be the end of the matter; indeed will A reciprocate with a gesture of good faith? If so, well and good. However, if country A’s demands are really stepping stones on the way to an objective – perhaps the enfeeblement or destruction of B – then giving way only whets is appetite.

The problem for China is that America’s North Korea policy is really aimed at it, so concession does not solve the problem, but probably exacerbates it. The same, with obvious differences, applies to Russia.

It might be argued that China, and Russia, have followed a Zen strategy of bowing to the wind, which would break a brittle tree, while staying rooted in the soil. They have negotiated a softening of the resolutions and then not implemented them vigorously.  I don’t think this has been a wise strategy because it means they are constantly on the defensive. North Korea will remain intransigent, because it has no choice, and the U.S. will continue its pressure. I suspect that Putin’s response to the U.S.-assisted coup in Ukraine and the U.S.-assisted crisis in Syria offers lessons. Nimble footwork and countermeasures, a judicious amount of military intervention, both in quantity and duration, while at the same time restraining criticism of America with plenty of face-saving gestures.

China, supported by Russia, calls for the resurrection of the Six Party Talks as a solution to the problem. There have been rumours that China cut a deal with the U.S. over the latest resolution for some sort of American promise of talks. Personally I think the Six Party Talks are probably dead, partly because as explained above the U.S. has little interest in negotiating with North Korea but also because the Obama administration realised that Bush had made a strategic mistake in agreeing to them in the first place. Allowing your main competitor to chair and host the major security forum in East Asia while you, and your allies Japan and South Korea, sit on the second tier with North Korea and Russia was not a smart move.

China’s contortions, and those of Russia, have been painful to watch. They have condemned North Korea for its violations of the UNSC resolutions forbidding satellite launches and nuclear tests, but they are partly responsible for the resolutions in the first place. They are also partly responsible for the nuclear tests. The United States does provide security and a nuclear umbrella for South Korea. Because it is a master-client relationship it has been able to prevent the South developing nuclear weapons in the past, during Park Chung-Hee’s time, and will surely do so in the future. Neither China nor Russia provides real security assurances, or a nuclear umbrella, to North Korea, so they can scarcely be surprised if it attempts to look after itself. To be fair, the United States is far superior in military terms and they perhaps cannot be expected to match America’s muscular approach. This leaves China in particular in a vulnerable, defensive position where the initiative is in America’s hands. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has recently warned that:

As the largest neighbour of the peninsula, China will not sit by and see a fundamental disruption to stability [there], and will not sit by and see unwarranted damages to China’s security interests.

But what does this mean in practice? Is he saying that if the U.S. does invade North Korea, China will intervene?  If so, surely it would be wise for China to be more explicit. It should be recalled that in 1950, with no direct communication with the U.S., China conveyed a message through Indian Ambassador K. M. Panikkar that it would intervene if U.S. forces invaded the North and moved towards the Yalu. Washington did not hear, did not listen, or just ignored that warning. The first Sino-American War ensued.  Will history repeat itself for a lack of a clear understanding of the consequences of invasion?

If, however, the U S decides that now is the time to give resurgent China a bloody nose, explicit warnings will be irrelevant. Starting the conflict in Korea would give the U.S. signal advantages, not available elsewhere. It would automatically bring in the formidable South Korean military, with the world’s largest reservoir of military manpower. It would certainly utilise Japan, whose military budget is 25% higher that South Korea’s and who navy is reputedly superior to China’s.

Japan – leveraging the Korean situation for remilitarisation

Japan’s position in all this is relatively straightforward. It has long used the Korean situation, and the perceived ‘North Korean threat,’ buttressed by a good dose of Japanese colonial racism as a pretext for remilitarisation. This has long been supported by the U.S., not in respect of North Korea, where it is scarcely needed except as a place for bases, but as a bulwark against China. Japan’s recent eagerness to join in conflict on the Korean peninsula, however, has caused considerable anguish in Seoul. Fighting fellow Koreans under an American general is bad enough, but for South Korea soldiers to fight alongside Japanese troops would be a public relations disaster.

South Korea – the pivot which did not turn

I hesitate to say much about South Korea in this forum but perhaps a few brief remarks, however, ignorant, from a foreign perspective might be tolerated.

I must confess I was wrong about President Park Geun-hye. The North Korea policy of her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, had been such a disaster that it seemed to me that she would move in some ways to correct things. Lee had increased the danger of war, and his sanctions had damaged the South Korean economy while pushing the North’s into the hands of China. Even on his own terms nothing had been achieved.

Whilst Park was less likely than a progressive to want to improve the relationship with the North she has a distinct advantage in being able to do so, if she wishes. Just as Nixon, with his anti-Communist reputation could go to Beijing and play the ‘China card’ against the Soviet Union without being accused of being ‘soft on Commies’ so too could Park, as the daughter of the late anti-Communist dictator, Park Chung Hee, engage with Pyongyang in ways that the more liberal Moon Jae-in could not.

Back in 2011, before the election President Park published an article in Foreign Affairs entitled ‘A new kind of Korea: building trust between Seoul and Pyongyang’ where she talked about ‘Trustpolitik.’ That, and the phrase ‘peaceful unification’ was often on her lips; a notable occasion being her speech in Dresden in 2014. She described unification as a ‘bonanza’ and described her dream, stolen in fact from Kim Dae-jung, of a Eurasian land bridge through the Koreas and Russia through to Western Europe. The words still live on. Yet her actions have always belied her words.

Obviously, if she had been serious about building trust she would have cancelled the May 24 Sanctions, have built economic and social links between South and North, and have at least attempted to curtail the joint military exercises. She did none of those things. On the contrary, she has now done what Lee couldn’t do, and closed down the Kaesong industrial Park, and the current exercises are larger than ever. It is commonly agreed that she has brought inter-Korean relations to a nadir. The Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents were spurious, as I have written elsewhere, but they did provide Lee with an alleged justification for his actions. Nothing comparable has happened during Park’s term of office

I leave it to my South Korea colleagues to explain this strange behaviour.  Is she delusional or is she just lying?

Park Geun-hye aside I still think South Korea remains what I call a ‘pivot state’. All the other actors in this drama, from the U.S. through to North Korea, have their lines written for them. The United States is an empire and will do what empires do. It has many options within that characterisation but the general thrust is fairly ineluctable. Mao Zedong once said that we shouldn’t expect imperialism to put down its butcher’s knife and become a Buddha. Conceivably it could, but it won’t. North Korea is a vulnerable target sate and will do what it can to defend itself, wisely or unwisely. It has few options and cannot avoid the role it has to play.

South Korea is different. Born as a client state of the U.S. from the ruins of the Japanese empire it now has considerable economic and social strength. It has options. It can make choices. It can, at its most brutal, choose between putting Korea first or serving the U.S. Roh Moo-hyun, in a rather sad exchange with Kim Jong Il at their 2007 summit described how he was attempting to make gradual moves towards autonomy from the U.S.  He did not succeed but the challenge is still on the agenda.

Park Geun-hye, under American pressure, has given into Japan over the comfort women issue. That, though galling, is mainly symbolic. More important she has antagonised China, and Russia, over the proposed deployment of THAAD missiles in South Korea. This in itself is important, but it is also a symbol of a deeper and continuing dilemma. The United States sees South Korea as a pawn in its struggle against China, and Russia. Pawns, as we know, sometimes survive but are often sacrificed.

North Korea – limited options of a target state

Most writers put North Korea first. I’ve put it last because there is less to say.

Military speaking, as we have seen, North Korea is vulnerable and far inferior to its adversaries who outspend it from a hundred to a thousand times. It has survived sanctions so far – some 70 years and counting – but that is to a large degree due to uncertain and undependable Chinese policy.

There are many things about North Korea policy I find difficult to fathom. I do not understand, for instance, why Kim Jong Un has not worked harder at relations with China and Russia. There may be good, but unknown reasons, why he did not attend the anniversary celebrations in Moscow and Beijing last year. Why, with his overseas education did he not do anything to reform North Korea’s notoriously dysfunctional foreign communications/propaganda apparatus? Having lived in Switzerland he must have been aware of how superbly the Americans do these sorts of things. Lack of resources is clearly an issue and frankly however sophisticated and adroit the communications became it would not make much difference to the way that North Korea is portrayed in the mainstream Western media. The Russians run a pretty sophisticated show but that has not stopped the demonization of Putin and the vilification of Russia. But it would help on the margins and would be appreciated by scholars like me and others honestly seeking to comprehend what is going on. Then there are the ridiculously excessive prison sentences imposed on foreigners, most of whom are seemingly mentally unstable or pawns, for petty crimes. There is a long list.

However, I do think the Byungjin policy of a simultaneous development of a nuclear deterrent with economic development is sensible and perhaps inevitable.  Let’s unpack that a bit.

First of all North Korea is constantly under military threat – the current exercises are just one example – and is subject to continual economic, propaganda, and psychological warfare. Sometimes this is relatively straightforward with physical and financial sanctions. Often these are very petty – here in New Zealand we were prevented by the government from donating laptops to a school in Pyongyang.  Recently there have been a couple of stories from Japan, one of a South Korean who was arrested for sending sweets, garments, dishes, spoons and forks to North Korea  and then there was the Chinese woman arrested for selling knitwear. Sometimes the warfare is more invidious.  Last month there were media stories from Australia of goods for the sports clothing company Rip Curl being made in Pyongyang by ‘slave labour’. Unnerved by the hype, Rip Curl apologised and cancelled the contract. Perhaps the unfortunate textile workers in Pyongyang lost their jobs – which were probably highly prized – just like their compatriots in Kaesong.

There is clearly no easy way for North Korea to counter what it rightly calls the ‘hostility policy’ of the U.S. but with nuclear weapons.  For all their direct and indirect costs, they do make sense. They are cheaper than conventional arms. Moreover, even if it suddenly acquired huge wealth North Korea could never match the conventional military power of the U.S. and its allies. It may be the best option for North Korea in the circumstances, but it does have its drawbacks.  ‘Best option’ of course does not mean that something is desirable, merely that of all of the possible options it is the best choice. This obvious point is often avoided or obscured by people who do not recognise the predicament that North Korea is in; a predicament produced by geographical location, by history and by U.S. global strategy. It was the U.S. that divided the Korean peninsula; it is the U.S. that is hostile to North Korea.  This is not a situation that North Korea can avoid, but only seek to cope with.

Being cheaper than conventional weapons means that more resources can be devoted to the economy. There are indications that this is happening. As a corollary, it should be remembered that one function of the military threat, as exemplified by the invasion exercises, is to force North Korea to divert resources from the productive economy into defence.

There are three major disadvantages of the nuclear weapons option.

Firstly the early stage of nuclear weapons requires physical testing. The U.S. no longer needs that, but it already has under its belt those 1000 physical tests in the past that brought it to this position. Unlike, for instance, acquiring an F-35 fighter or an Aegis destroyer nuclear tests are obvious and newsworthy and attract much opprobrium, hypocritical though most of that is.  One of the great successes of American propaganda has been to attach to non-proliferation the assumption of peace and disarmament. In fact it has nothing to do with that, it is merely preserving the monopoly of nuclear weapons states. Kenneth Waltz argues that proliferation is peace-enhancing because it provides protection to small states that that they would not otherwise have.

Secondly, nuclear weapons for North Korea can only be used as a deterrent. However unlike the prospect of mutually assured destruction (MAD) of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, North Korea’s deterrent is rather like the ‘Sampson Option’ described by Seymour Hersh in respect of Israel.  It is similar to a suicide bomber who kills himself, and in the process some, but not all, of the enemy.

In any case deterrence is a matter of convincing the other side that attacking you would result in intolerable damage to them, and that it is not worth the risk. So it is a matter of perception rather than reality. You may be bluffing – and bluff is an inherent aspect of deterrence – and your defences may in reality be weak, but that is irrelevant.

North Korea is often mocked for making extravagant claims about its military capabilities and accused of being crazy for threatening to attack the U.S. That is a misunderstanding of what it is all about. North Korean threats are always essentially conditional. For instance the recent warning by the KPA Supreme Command regarding stories that the U.S. was preparing to launch a ‘decapitation’ attack:

…….all the powerful strategic and tactical strike means of our revolutionary armed forces will go into pre-emptive and just operation to beat back the enemy forces to the last man if there is a slight sign of their special operation forces and equipment moving to carry out the so-called “beheading operation” and “high-density strike.”[Emphasis added]

The media often, especially in headings, leaves out the crucial little word ‘if’ thereby creating the false impression that North Korea is being threatening and bellicose, when in reality it is the other way round. The military exercises, the practising of decapitation and amphibious landings, and of the invasion of North Korea are surely threatening and belligerent – one can well imagine the uproar in the West if it were Chinese and North Korean forces practising to invade the South. North Korean statements therefore are not a matter of threat, but of deterrence.

However, the problem for North Korea, and this is the third problem, is that its deterrent in respect of the U.S. is a nuclear one. If the U.S. were not involved and it were merely a matter of deterring the South then North Korea’s  artillery, which it claims can turn Seoul into a sea of flames, would be sufficient.  But it is the U.S. that must be deterred and the only feasible way to do that is to convince them there is a real chance that America itself might be damaged in a counterattack and that means nuclear weapons. In this context bluff is quite reasonable since it is a matter of instilling doubt in the minds of the other side. North Korea almost certainly can’t deliver a nuclear warhead on the U.S., but it just might.

The phrase used above -not worth the risk- is relevant here. From the point of view of the U.S. it is a matter of risk-benefit analysis. The amount of risk must be related to the amount of benefit.  We might image some megalomaniac strategist sitting in Washington and calculating that it might be worthwhile losing the West Coast if it meant destroying China. With China out of the way the U.S. would have no challengers for generations. The world would be at its feet. It would be a big prize. North Korea is quite a different matter. It is a very small prize and as discussed above removing it through war, or indeed peace, would cause problems for the containment of China.

Moreover a nuclear deterrent is a blunt instrument. For a small country like North Korea, faced by vastly more powerful adversaries, a retaliatory attack has to be all out, no holds barred. No calibrated response, no escalation such as a powerful country might apply to a weak one – Vietnam comes to mind.  But, as noted above, this is the Samson option, resulting in the devastation of North Korea.

This brings us to the word ‘pre-emptive.’ This was misconstrued by George W. Bush to mean unprovoked. A simple dictionary definition is an action to prevent attack by disabling the enemy. Since Iraq was in no position to attack the U.S., the invasion was clearly not pre-emptive. Pre-emption is normally associated with the action of a weaker person or country faced with what is perceived as an imminent attack by a stronger adversary. This is probably what would happen in a conflict between the U.S. and China, apart from the scenario of China intervening, as in 1950, in response to a U.S. invasion of North Korea. The U.S. would force China into a situation in which it felt it was compelled to make a pre-emptive strike. Being by far the stronger combatant the U.S. would absorb this strike, and then having gained the moral high ground would launch the attack, now a counter-attack, that it had planned; a variant on Pearl Harbour.

Leaving aside the moral deception involved in shifting blame there is the danger that the weaker party might misinterpret the actions of the stronger and launch a pre-emptive strike unnecessarily. This is particularly plausible in the case of North Korea which has very limited surveillance and intelligence capabilities compared with the Americans (North Korea’s satellite programme is an attempt to remedy this deficiency).  The U.S. makes a feint which North Korea interprets as presaging, say, a decapitation strike and launches a pre-emptive and all-out attack. The war, so long desired in certain quarters, comes about.

It might well be argued that for North Korea nuclear deterrence is unwise and might in fact incite the U.S. to attack now, before it is too late. If tomorrow the enemy will be invulnerable, better to attack today. North Korea could say ‘if you invade we will unleash a people’s war – remember the 1950s, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.’  The problem with that is what might be called the ‘Stalingrad factor’. Stalingrad, it has been said, was easier to defend against the Germans when it had been reduced to rubble. But who wants their cities reduced to rubble?

North Korea’s nuclear deterrent does also have potential of being able to force the U.S. into some sort of peace agreement in a way that a conventional defence, which by its nature would pose little danger to the U.S., ever could. Whether that might come to pass is another matter but since peace with America must remain North Korea’s major foreign policy goal, it will always be on the agenda even if denied.

 Conclusion

There is much more to be said but time is limited. Let me conclude by re-iterating the main points

  • In order to understand the situation on the Korean peninsula, and East Asia, we must contextualise and establish a framework of geopolitical analysis
  • The analysis should place the United States center stage because the U.S. is by far the dominant player on the world stage
  • The U.S. and its allies spend about $1 trillion a year on their military; this is 7 times that of China, 19 times that of Russia and between 100 and 1000 times that of North Korea
  • Dominance does not mean omnipotence and we must realize that the relationship between the U.S. and its subordinate allies, and its adversaries, is subject to constant negotiation
  • The key to America’s interest in the Korean peninsula is its location which brings together more of the world powers than any other place on earth
  • When America looks at Korea it sees China, and to a lesser extent Russia; U.S. – Korea policy is a subset of its global policy, and in turn a subset of it policy towards China (and Russia)
  • Globally, the U.S. wants to remove competitors and that implies the destruction/dismemberment of China and of Russia
  • S. policy towards North Korea is ambiguous – it would like to destroy the North but in doing so it would remove a key component of its containment of China
  • The U.S. does not want to return to negotiations; it is not currently too concerned about North Korea’s nuclear weapons; the present situation serves its China policy and the Six Party Talks gave too much prestige to China
  • China and Russia share the challenge of coping with the U.S. and the Korean peninsula is a key battle field, more important for China than Russia
  • Both are resurgent states recovering from collapse of previous regimes (China the Qing, Russia the Soviet Union); they need to advance this resurgence without unduly antagonising the U.S. and providing a justification/pretext for war
  • Both made a strategic mistake in acquiescing to America’s delegitimising of North Korea’s right to launch a satellite by acceding to UNSC Resolution 1695 in 2006 and both have been caught in the consequences of that
  • Since U.S. strategy in Korea is ultimately aimed a China, and at Russia, their appeasement has exacerbated their predicament
  • Japan uses the Korean situation as a justification, pretext, and shield for its remilitarisation
  • South Korea is a pivot state which can move towards greater autonomy from the U.S., and rapprochement with the North
  • Park Geun-hye has belied early rhetoric about ‘Trustpolitik’ and peaceful reunification’ and has brought inter-Korean relations to a nadir.
  • Park’s policy endangers South Korea moving it towards become the meat in the sandwich in the event of a second Sino-American war
  • North Korea, being by far the weakest country on this stage has few options
  • There are imponderables especially why Kim Jong Un has not worked harder at building relations with China and Russia
  • The Byungjin policy of developing the economy behind the shield provided, and the money saved by, the nuclear deterrent is probably the best option available, but it has disadvantages
  • Nuclear weapons require testing, they can provide no more than a deterrent for North Korea, and this deterrent is the ‘Samson option,’ balancing the destruction of North Korea against intolerable, but limited damage to the U.S.
  • However nuclear weapons may potentially force the U.S. into some sort of peaceful coexistence with North Korea and that is Pyongyang’s major foreign policy objective.

 

Tim Beal is an author, researcher and educator.  Before his retirement, he was a professor in Asian Studies at the Victoria University in New Zealand.  He is the author of Crisis in Korea: America, China, and the Risk of War and maintains a website on Asian geopolitics.

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