Today, Wednesday, October 18, the 19th Communist Party of China National Congress convened in Beijing. This quinquennial meeting of party leadership is a time to review the party’s activities over the last five years, set markers for the next five years, and appoint future leadership. I provided my predictions on all of these fronts two posts ago so I will not be redundant here. Suffice it to say that my opinions haven’t changed.
Like anyone who has been monitoring the news, however, I am increasingly concerned about the situation in North Korea. Not out of any genuine concern that Kim Jong Un has any immediate plans to attack either the US or South Korea, mind you. I am more concerned that the issue has been thrown into the US political spin cycle and that it is quickly taking on a life of its own.
Speaking at a forum in Seoul just yesterday, Hillary Clinton noted, “…it should go without saying that cavalier threats to start a war are dangerous and short-sighted.” Nonetheless, the USS Michigan, a nuclear-powered submarine armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, arrived in Korea on Tuesday, where it joins the USS Tucson, a Los-Angeles class attack sub already there. And, of course, there are the ever-constant tweets from President Trump promising to incinerate Pyongyang if the “little rocket man” tries to start anything. (Name-calling is always helpful in de-escalating tensions.)
I am always hesitant to tout history as the reason to do much of anything. The context is always different. There are certain historical truths, however, that have proven to hold true again and again. And one of those, I believe, is that whenever the rhetoric rises to this level with no reasonable plan in sight, nothing good comes of it.
There is obviously a lot at stake, in addition, obviously, to the 75+ million people who live on the peninsula. That’s not counting the 170,000 people of Guam, who are, by the way, US citizens; or the 127 million who live in nearby Japan, which North Korea is already capable of reaching with a missile strike.
A military solution to the stand off seems, at every level, both impractical and, frankly, more than a bit ludicrous. I am not a military expert but North Korea is dug in and I have yet to hear one person who is a military expert suggest that we can pop in, knock out Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program, and go home without leaving mass casualties in our wake.
So, what does everyone want out of North Korea? The US wants peace for the US and our regional allies; China wants border security and trade and does not want US troops on its southern border; Japan wants regional peace and perhaps some trade down the road; and South Korea wants peace, trade, and, ultimately, reunification of the Korean people.
An undecidable problem, as they say in computational complexity theory? I don’t think so. Counter-intuitive, maybe. But there is a solution.
The obvious first step in that solution is to remove all US troops from South Korean soil. OMG, OMG, OMG!!!
Yes, I did say that we should unilaterally, and with great fanfare, remove the US military presence from South Korea, where the US currently has 35,000 troops, and a whole lot of military hardware, sitting along the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the most heavily fortified border region in the world.
Here are the pros and cons:
1. It ratchets down the rhetoric.
2. Opens the door to a regional diplomatic solution by South Korea, China, and Japan, where it belongs.
3. Gives face to China, in a political culture that turns on face.
4. Removes the most obvious justification for Kim Jong Un to take unilateral military action.
5. Gives the US the high moral and diplomatic ground at a time when it has largely lost it around the world.
1. North Korea could be tempted to attack.
If they do, China will crush them. South Korea is a much more important trading partner for China than North Korea. China doesn’t really trust Kim Jong Un any more than the US does. And China does not want chaos on the peninsula, with which China shares an 880-mile border. (New Mexico and Arizona, combined, share only a 580-mile border with Mexico.) If the North Koreans pour across that border to get out of harms way, it will strain China’s social and physical infrastructure in the region to the breaking point.
If the North Koreans defy logic and mount a suicide mission anyway, moreover, the US still has 40,000 troops in Japan, a massive military presence in Guam, and the most mobile military in the world. (Including two nuclear submarines, B-1 bombers, and multiple warships already in the region. And that’s not counting the stationary missiles that are undoubtedly trained on the rogue country already.)
2. A potential loss of face for the US.
That’s not how face works. This will give the US face because we are acting from strength. It’s a unilateral withdrawal taken with the utmost confidence in our military and our regional allies. This is not appeasement. We’re simply giving China every chance possible—and every incentive—to take charge of the issue, something that Trump, Clinton, Tillerson, and just about everyone else have been asking for all along.
3. Panic in South Korea.
To be determined, of course, but I don’t think so. As long as the South Koreans accept our sincerity in standing by our defense commitment, I think the average South Korean understands the reality of the situation far better than anyone else. And they want to see a reunification just as much as the Germans wanted to see the reunification of Germany some twenty-seven years ago.
What is the upside for the US?
That’s easy. We’re worried about the growing influence of China. A unified Korea could potentially create a large, stable, economically powerful, and democratically friendly ally in the region. Remember that South Korea is already a staunch US ally, US corporations have a significant presence there, and 2/3 of the Korean population lives in the southern half of the peninsula today.
And what’s the alternative? In my opinion, the only alternative is for North Korea to become an autonomous territory of China similar to Tibet, Hong Kong, and eventually, Taiwan.
We can safely make two assumptions. The first is that the current regime in North Korea cannot survive. “Let them eat cake” is not a viable strategy, even in a nation whose citizens are effectively cut off from the world.
Perhaps more importantly, China will never allow a unified peninsula on which there is any chance that the US military presence moves north from the DMZ. It won’t happen. And China will never trust our political system enough to simply take our pledge not to interfere, even if President Trump were inclined to provide it, which seems decidedly unlikely for the negotiator-in-chief. The inductive Chinese are all about results. Words are cheaper than cheap. President Trump, no matter what relationship he may have with Xi Jinping personally, will never convince China to expose it’s geographic underbelly to South Korea as long as American troops reside on the peninsula.
And why would China go along and what incentive do they have to de-nuclearize North Korea? They obviously want peace on their southern border, and they want to conduct trade with a developing North Korea, not a starving one. Most importantly, however, it is exactly what a world leader would do.
As will become evident as the 19th China National Congress unfolds this week, China wants nothing more than to be seen as a world leader on a par with the US, Europe, and Russia. They don’t need Kim Jong Un’s nukes to secure the region. What they want is to achieve the Chinese Dream; to take their place on the world stage and once and for all overcome the Century of Humiliation.
I don’t generally believe in win-win scenarios. My own life experience has taught me otherwise. This strategy, however, comes about as close as you can get to a win-win-win-win-win between the US, China, South Korea, Japan, and the people of North Korea. And it should gain the swift support of Russia, which also shares a small border with North Korea and has obvious interests in the region.
This is not appeasement. This is simply resetting the board in recognition of the current economic and political realities and aspirations of the region and the world.
And, of course, it is the right thing to do from every humanitarian perspective. We tend to forget that there are twenty-five million men, women, and children living in North Korea. Liberation, which only China and South Korea can orchestrate, not mass destruction and death at the hands of American military technology, is the only humane option.
Perhaps that’s another lesson we can rightfully take from history and leave for our children.
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