With North Korea’s recent successful test of a Hwasong-15 missile that reached an altitude of 2,800 miles, more than ten times the altitude of the International Space Station, Kim Jong-un is back on the front page. This, experts suggest, gives the hermit nation the established ability to strike Washington, D.C. with a pre-emptive nuclear strike launched from within its own borders.
When confronted with the issue by reporters, Trump, characteristically, was dismissive: “We will take care of it.” How, exactly, no one knows. Sanctions clearly haven’t worked and whatever diplomacy Secretary Tillerson has been pursuing behind the scenes apparently hasn’t either. (Adding even more urgency to the issue, Tillerson, the one politician even broaching diplomacy, is rumored to be on the way out.)
According to The Washington Post, “A growing chorus of voices in Washington is calling for serious consideration of military action against North Korea,” although it is inconceivable that such options have not already been considered and ruled out as impractical. The loss of life, particularly in South Korea, would easily rival the 20 million Russians who perished during World War II, redefining the geopolitical landscape for decades to come.
China has clearly noted that it would consider any pre-emptive strike by the US to be an intolerable violation of sovereignty. Such military aggression, moreover, would be senseless unless the US was willing to follow its ordnance into the country to pick up the pieces and reshape the nation, and there is virtually no way the Chinese would allow this to happen without their strongest possible resistance.
Depending on whether Trump or China is higher on their derisory priority list on any given day, many Western media outlets have attempted to position the latest missile test as either indicative of China’s failure to follow through on the perceived commitment to resolve the Korean Peninsula issue, or Trump’s foolhardiness for believing he had that kind of personal pull in Beijing.
Personally, I think there is little incentive for China to do anything except sit back and watch. If it believes that Kim’s regime will ultimately collapse, it has little to gain by getting its hands dirty now, short of preventing the US from establishing a US military presence on the 880-mile border China shares with North Korea. Let it collapse and then step in to either push for a unification of the Korean Peninsula, with security and political assurances from the current South Korean government, or turn North Korea into an autonomous Chinese political zone not unlike Hong Kong, Macau, or Tibet. (The latter, I believe, is the more likely scenario, all things considered.)
Two things, I believe, we can say with certainty:
1. Given any say in the matter, the people of North Korea will choose a Chinese protectorate over a US protectorate. Unless South Korea takes significant steps to distance itself from the US they will not, in all likelihood, even choose unification over China. Dennis Rodman’s diplomacy aside, the North Koreans do not see the US as Donald Trump sees us.
2. China will do nothing to give Trump face. In other words, he will accomplish nothing with China’s help if they believe he stands ready to take credit for it. He is quite literally shooting himself in the foot by touting his relationship with Xi Jinping in the context of his great self-acclaimed negotiating skills. To give Trump credit would be to compromise the Chinese Dream that is at the heart of Xi’s political agenda and legacy. He won’t do it; he has no incentive to.
To this latter point, I am quite confident that China did not release LiAngelo Ball and his UCLA basketball teammates after being arrested for shoplifting in Hangzhou because Trump asked them to. They did so because they concluded that it was in their best interest. It may, in fact, have been a simple test to see how Trump would respond.
Trump’s reaction, in fact, could not have been worse in terms of his future ability to influence Chinese behavior. In his willingness to start a Twitter feud with LaVar Ball, Trump demonstrated beyond a doubt that he has no understanding of Chinese culture and the importance of face, particularly in the political arena. Certainly someone in Washington understands this.
I believe the most effective option for the US and the world remains the same. The US must withdraw its military presence from the Korean Peninsula unilaterally, while maintaining its commitment to protect South Korea from aggression using all of its resources, including nuclear weapons, if necessary.
Given the unlikelihood that a contained exchange of cannon fire along the 38th parallel will be sufficient to convince Kim Jong-un to dismantle his nuclear capabilities, it is hard to see how a military withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula would materially compromise the US’ treaty obligations to South Korea or Japan.
Nor would it, in fact, cause a US loss of face in the region. As famous Chinese military general Sun Tzu is often quoted to have said, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” In the eyes of Asia, it would take a strong and courageous America to unilaterally to pursue such a strategy, putting the clear burden for resolution of the North Korean problem at the doorstep of Beijing’s leadership.
The proof is in the rhetoric. Why has China not seen fit to rattle its sword to the extent President Trump has? Why are there no anonymous quotes coming out of the Great Hall of the People? Is it because China is afraid? Or is it because China is clever and understands the importance of face in true diplomacy?
China can resolve the North Korean problem. And it will, if we allow them to solve it at their own pace and in their own way. In the meantime, North Korea is contained. There is no way that China will allow Kim Jong-un to unleash a single nuclear device on Guam, Japan, or the US. And there is no way that China would not know of such an attack long before the missile leaves the ground.
What is it that American diplomats are so afraid of? Does the Munich Pact still haunt the souls of our diplomatic core? The times and the circumstances could not be more different.
This would not be peace through appeasement. This would be peace through strength and confidence and a willingness to put humanity above any one individual’s standing in the polls. This is not an issue for Twitter. This is an issue for men and women of greatness to take the lead in the name of peace and stability.
If they fail to do so, history will not remember them kindly.
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