As the US policy has failed in the Korean Peninsula, dark scenarios cast a shadow over the region – but could also pave way for peace.
Recently, US President Donald Trump, in a historically bellicose debut speech to the UN General Assembly, threatened the “total destruction” of North Korea if it does not abandon its drive toward nuclear weapons.
“Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime,” Trump said about the North Korean leader. He added: “If [the United States] is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
The menacing threats reverberated across Asia. If Trump truly threatens to resort to conventional weapons or a limited nuclear strike to annihilate more than 25 million North Koreans, he is endangering the lives of millions of South Koreans and Chinese. Pyongyang is more than 11,000 kilometers away from Washington DC but only 200 kilometers from Seoul and 800 kilometers from Beijing – not that different from Washington DC to Atlantic City or Atlanta, respectively.
President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping have jointly denounced North Korea’s recent nuclear test as “dangerous to the world.”
Recently, US UN Ambassador Nikki Haley called for “the strongest sanctions” to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear arsenal “before it’s too late.” Now President Trump’s rhetoric is taking the conflict with North Korea to an entirely new level – assuming that the White House will walk the talk.
And yet, in a sense, it is already too late. Decades of U.S. policies have strengthened Pyongyang’s determination to exploit the deterrent value of its nuclear arsenals – as evidenced by its intermediate range ballistic missile on September 15; the second time that Japan has come in North Korean missile’s targeting range within a month.
That is not to say that the game is over; only that it is time to play a different game. Dealing with the “Rocket man” is not rocket science.
Decades of policy failures
Ever since the 1953 Armistice Agreement, Washington has seen North Korea as a “rogue state.” Even with the Soviet Union, Washington supported “peaceful coexistence”; with North Korea, only a “temporary ceasefire” – which has nurtured fears of imminent intrusion in Pyongyang.
In the postwar era, both China and North Korea opted for socialism. But when Deng Xiaoping opted for economic reforms and opening-up policies, Kim Il-sung (1972-94) chose precisely the reverse; a self-reliance (Juche) doctrine that translated to political consolidation and international insulation.
When Kim Jong-il (1997-2011) succeeded his father, he chose not to reform the economy and kept the country closed. While the West celebrated the “end of history,” Pyongyang was obsessed with the U.S.-led “big bang democracy” in Russia and the consequent Great Depression. It served as a compelling negative demonstration effect.
For years, Beijing had encouraged Pyongyang to emulate Chinese lessons in economic reforms. Kim Jong-il listened, but initiated few reforms. Kim Jong-un (2012-) is a different story. In a televised 2013 New Year’s address, he advocated “a radical turn in the building of an economic giant on the strength of science and technology by fanning the flames of the industrial revolution in the new century.” These economic efforts should “be manifested in the people’s standard of living.” In the Obama White House, it was seen as just another ploy.
Instead of rapprochement, Washington pushed for a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea. THAAD would kill two birds with one stone: it would subdue Pyongyang and it would contain China. The stance was predicated on President Park (who would soon be impeached), a “realistic” Kim Jong-il (who has not given in), accommodating Beijing (not President Xi Jinping’s firm leadership) – and an imperial White House that would “speak softly but carry a big stick” (until the failure of the Clinton campaign).
In a year, all these assumptions collapsed. In the Korean Peninsula, the new status quo offers potentially disastrous scenarios but also a way out.
South Korea’s strategic U-turn
As Seoul is trying to cope with North Korea’s nuclear blackmail, it is amid a great domestic shift. In March, Park Geun-hye, the conservative daughter of South Korea’s former strongman Park Chung-hee was impeached for corruption. In turn, Moon Jae-in, the incumbent president began his career as student activist against Park’s dictatorship and his presidency could result in a new geopolitical momentum for peace. He worked closely with President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-8), who pursued rapprochement with North Korea.
In his first months, President Moon has been promoting income-led domestic policies to reduce social inequality, tax hikes for large companies and the wealthy and trying to cool the overheated property market. While public debt has expanded, his approval ratings remain very high at around 80 percent.
In foreign relations, Moon seeks stability with China and the U.S., even if he and most Koreans have great doubts about Trump. In fall 2013, South Korea approached the Pentagon about the anti-missile system, which it opted for toward the end of the Park era. Obviously, Beijing’s concern is that the real target of the THAAD is China. Moon has sought to slow THAAD’s deployment.
But the balancing act between Washington and Beijing is challenging, especially as Trump insists on renegotiating a bilateral free trade agreement with Korea, which remains on watchlist for “unfair currency practices.”
Moreover, President Park’s conservatives were able to postpone the repeal of the Operation Control agreement (OPCON), which allows the Pentagon – not Seoul – to control its military fate. The mission statement of the South Korea/US Combined Forces Command (CFC) is to “deter hostile acts of external aggression” South Korea by a “combined military effort.” The CFC is commanded by a U.S. General and it has has operational control (OPCON) over more than 600,000 active duty military personnel both countries.
As President Rho failed to implement transfer, the latter was delayed; in turn, President Park managed to defer it to 2022. In the event of war, U.S. interests will thus override the interests of South Koreans – in their own country.
Washington’s ominous tone
The talks over North Korea’s nuclear weapons have been lingering since they were initiated by the Clinton Administration in the 1990s. After the George W. Bush presidency and the first term of the Obama Administration, the negotiations shifted from mainly bilateral to the multilateral Six-Party Talks among the US, China, South and North Korea, Japan and Russia.
The expansion reflected progressive shifts in the world economy. Just as the G7 nations – the US, Europe and Japan – could not resolve the global crisis without support by large emerging economies, regional conflicts that have global implications cannot be resolved by the “West” anymore. In the Six-Party Talks, some key agreements were reached for North Korea’s aid and recognition in exchange for denuclearization. But since 2009, the talks have been suspended, while concern about nuclear proliferation to other strategic actors has increased.
Following false starts in talks and aborted policy postures, the White House has opted for new sanctions and building alliances against Pyongyang. Meanwhile, President Trump and Pyongyang have engaged in the kind of rhetoric that has not been heard since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Recently, President Vladimir Putin stated that the U.S. strategy under Trump, Obama, Bush – forcing North Korea to give up its nuclear program – has conclusively failed.
Since Pyongyang believes that its nuclear arsenal is the best deterrent against U.S. invasion, which President Trump’s “fire and fury” threats have only reaffirmed, it is now less likely to reconsider its nuclear stance.
From Pyongyang’s perspective, U.S. threat is existential, extending from regime plans that would top the Kim Jong-un leadership to a limited nuclear strike that threatens the entire nation – as precipitated by the THAAD system. Undeniably, the timeline of North Korea’s intensified nuclear and missile tests correlates with efforts to sustain THAAD and joint US-South Korean war games in the region.
On September 17, the Pentagon’s 14 bombers and fighters over the Korean Peninsula – which included South Korean and Japanese aircraft and a drop of live bombs in a massive show of force – merely confirmed the severity of existential threat among North Koreans.
(The original, shorter commentary was released by China-US Focus)