Image: North Korean flags fly in Pyongyang. (Image via Flickr Creative Commons)
Apparently, the naval fleet that Trump officials said was moving in on North Korea last week was in fact headed in the opposite direction. The mix-up, while embarrassing for the White House, might actually point to a solution for the six-decade-old standoff.
That solution: let the ships keep sailing, and let them take the U.S. presence on the Peninsula with them.
It’s well known that China has long supported North Korea, despite an international sanctions regime intended to choke Pyongyang into submission. Any talk of a collapsed North threatens a potential flood of North Korean refugees streaming into the rust belt that is China’s north east.
Besides, from Beijing’s point of view, North Korea provides an essential buffer from the U.S. ally that is South Korea. A collapse of the North would almost certainly spell a takeover by the far more affluent South. That would potentially put U.S. forces on China’s doorstep. Imagine Chinese forces stationed along the Rio Grande and you get a sense of China’s concern.
But what if the United States were to withdraw? Candidate Trump floated that idea during his campaign, arguing that Washington should instead turn its focus to addressing domestic challenges like jobs, healthcare, infrastructure, and immigration. Longtime allies like Japan and South Korea, Trump argued, should look to their own protection, even if that means gaining nuclear capability.
The North lauded the statement.
But Trump, as with many of his previous assertions, appears to now be backpedaling. In Japan, Vice President Mike Pence assured leaders there and in South Korea of America’s enduring commitment to the alliance. Which almost certainly means that the conflict will endure as well.
Impoverished though it is, North Korea has amassed one of the world’s largest standing armies. Add to that a battery of missiles pointed at Seoul, a city of 25 million just 30 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone, and you get a sense of the stakes. And that is to say nothing of the country’s nuclear capability.
It’s no wonder Obama warned Trump that North Korea would prove his most serious challenge. In an interview with National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, New York Times reporter David Sanger noted that Obama’s warning included the prediction that North Korea could gain the ability to strike the continental United States during his presidency.
What is Trump to do? While he can fire off Tomahawks at Syria, and drop the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan without serious consequence, any such move in Korea would lead to destruction on a scale not seen in generations.
But if the United States were to extract itself from South Korea, as candidate Trump urged, it would dampen Beijing’s concerns of a hostile element on its doorstep and could open a channel to bilateral dialogue with Seoul over how best to resolve the Korean crisis. Granted, what shape that dialogue (or any possible agreements) would take isn’t clear.
A column by Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal proposed various strategies for resolving the Korean crisis. One involved the United States ramping up defense capabilities in South Korea beyond the recent installation of the THAAD missile system, in case of Chinese intransigence. The other strategy posited Beijing “inviting” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on an “extended luxury vacation” and replacing his government with one that is pro-Beijing.
While the first scenario points to increased tensions and the likelihood of conflict, the second would, Stephens acknowledges, effectively make the Korean division permanent. Ask South Koreans how they feel about that.
Indeed, it is surprising in all the coverage of the North Korean conflict how little attention is paid to where Seoul stands. After months of protest by millions of South Koreans, the nation impeached conservative President Park Geun Hye, daughter of former president and strongman Park Jung Hee, who is credited with laying the foundation for South Korea’s economic success.
The younger Park, now in jail awaiting sentencing on charges of corruption, pursued an aggressive policy toward North Korea. Her likely replacement, who many believe will be the more left-leaning Moon Jae In, is widely presumed to favor a softer stance toward Pyongyang, potentially putting Seoul in opposition to U.S. policy and, in a geopolitical twist, more in line with where Beijing may be headed.
In China, there is a rising chorus of discontent regarding the nation’s alliance with the North. A New York Times article noted that one of the country’s most respected historians of the Korean War, Shen Zhihua, recently gave a speech that was shared across the internet. In it, Shen describes the alliance with North Korea, once seen as being as close as “lips and teeth,” as having outlived its usefulness.
“Judging by the current situation, North Korea is China’s latent enemy and South Korea could be China’s friend,” Mr. Shen said.
Once heretical, such voices are increasingly making themselves heard in China, suggesting that relations between Seoul and Beijing, which have soured in recent years, could shift. And any potential rapprochement between South Korea and China may be aided by the utterances of Trump, who in a display of ignorance told the Wall Street Journal after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping that Korea “once belonged to China.”
That’s a line long used by China to justify its presence on the Korean Peninsula. Trump’s remarks will not win him any friends in Korea, whatever side of the DMZ, where history is the third rail of international relations.
From this vantage, it’s the United States that presents the key obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the Korean crisis. It also means, contrary to most narratives in the U.S. media, that the North is not the sole bellicose actor in this drama.
In a recent article for The Nation, noted historian Bruce Cummings reminds readers as much. He writes of deals struck with North Korea and then rejected by successive U.S. presidents, deals that promised progress on halting the North’s nuclear program and reducing the potential for war. He also makes note of the nuclear threat posed by the United States.
“North Korea is the only country in the world to have been systematically blackmailed by U.S. nuclear weapons going back to the 1950s, when hundreds of nukes were installed in South Korea,” writes Cummings. “Why on earth would Pyongyang not seek a nuclear deterrent?”
Among the world’s flashpoints, none perhaps rival North Korea when it comes to bad options. The Peninsula is a true Gordian knot. But instead of turning to the sword to slice through an already divided land, Trump -- along with the Peninsula -- may fare better by sheathing his weapons and retuning home.
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