Pondering North Korea

The last seven decades have not treated Asia kindly: the India/Pakistan wars of 1947, 1965, 1971, and 1999; Mao’s regime (40 million killed); the Korean War (5 million killed); the Vietnam War (3 million killed); Cambodia’s nightmare (1.5 million killed); ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Each lost life is a tragedy, but the scale of anything in Europe or the Americas pales in comparison. It is through the Asian lens that we should view the escalating crisis with North Korea.

First, the public really doesn’t know what is happening behind the scenes. Kim Jong Un had his uncle, and former regent, killed because his relationship to China posed a potential threat. He had his half brother, who lived in Chinese Macao, killed because he was  a potential dynastic heir. We don’t know if there was more to the tragic case of Otto Warmbler – released so that his death could become an international spectacle. In any case, the CIA and its Chinese counterpart are doing all that they can to figure out the fissures within Kim’s hierarchy, whether there are any pressure points to be exploited, and who would prevail if the Glorious Leader were removed. The New York Times and CNN are not on the distribution list.

For years, the consensus has been that, by virtue of their predominant trading relationship, the reluctant Chinese are in the best position to influence North Korea’s behavior. Let’s consider things from a Chinese perspective. While we see only risk, they also see opportunity.

-Since the end of WW II, the United States has been the preeminent power in the western Pacific, with the 7th Fleet based in Yokosuka Japan; strategic territorial possessions in Guam, the Mariana Islands, and American Samoa; the guarantor of China’s arch rival Japan, South Korea, breakaway province Taiwan, and the Philippines; long term military cooperation with Australia, Thailand, and Singapore. It is in China’s interest to demonstrate that we are a paper tiger, or to negotiate away some of our military presence and relationships.

– This is a time of unusual internal weakness for the United States and its allies. The United States can assemble world leaders to discuss sanctions at the United Nations and at the upcoming G20 meeting, but the Trump administration cannot count on American unity with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Shumer, much less uber-hawk John McCain and the Obama / Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. If the Republicans cannot agree on how to replace Obamacare, how can the various factions agree on what concessions to make to the North Koreans, or what military measures to take?

– About 2 million ethnic Koreans live in China, largely near the border.  With populations of 1.4 billion in China, 25 million in North Korea, and 50 million in South Korea, the number is relatively small, but the Chinese make a major talking point of risk of a mass influx of refugees in the event of destabilization in North Korea. More importantly, North Korea serves as a buffer between China and the more prosperous and economically assertive South Korea, and must not be allowed to be absorbed into the larger and more prosperous South.

– The real risk to China is indirect – not that North Korea will aim its nuclear missiles at Beijing, but that they will prompt a nuclear arms race which includes Japan. Avoiding that is a modest priority for the United States,and a major requirement for the Chinese.

–  With a 23 mile border with North Korea along the Sea of Japan, Russia also has a horse in this race. This week’s summit meeting between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jin Ping concluded amid statements about the “best relationship ever between the countries”, the “most important strategic partner”, the need for North Korea to suspend testing and the US to suspend military exercises. On July 7, Putin will let President Trump know his price for exerting potential leverage on Xi and Kim.

After 25 years of failed diplomatic initiatives – direct negotiations; “Group of Six” negotiations; trade offers; economic and personal sanctions – President Trump is left with a short list of bad options.

1. More of the same with the likelihood that Kim will develop a significant stockpile of nuclear weapons capable of hitting South Korea and Japan, as well as intercontinental nuclear missiles aimed at Alaska and Hawaii within a year or less. The gate is fast closing. Western sanctions have no effect.

2. A Chinese boycott of North Korea severe enough to cause Kim to give up his missile and nuclear programs, or more likely, to precipitate regime change. In exchange for Chinese action, the United States might be expected to support Chinese rights in the South China Sea, or perhaps to abandon Taiwan.  A Russian voice might also need to be bought.

3. A “decapitation attack” – perhaps an assassination; perhaps a targeted military strike. This would have to be coupled with a concurrent strong outreach to alternative military leaders. And a prayer.

4. A “counter force” attack designed to take out the nuclear and missile sites, as well as most of the 1000 artillery pieces aimed at Seoul. The Pentagon’s assessment is probably not much different from that of numerous think tanks – with 10 million living about 35 miles from the North Korean border in Seoul, the first week toll would be in the hundreds of thousands, despite thousands of bomb shelters and decades of preparation.

For what it is worth, the South Korean stock market – voting for Option 1 –  is up 18% Year to Date, substantiating Karl Marx’ claim that “the last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope”. If Option 2 fails within the next month, some version of Option 3 seems most reasonable.


www.RightinSanFrancisco.com  – 7/7/17

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