This is a local re-posting of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a few weeks ago. And Rex Tillerson’s recent comment that Obama’s ‘strategic patience’ approach to North Korea is over, just highlights my argument. He’s almost certainly wrong, even if he is saying it out of a frustration which most in the analyst community share. We all want to do some kind of game-changer to alter the arc of North Korean behavior, but the non-strategic patience options are all terrible unfortunately.
The Trump people are said to be considering all options, including kinetic choices or meeting with the North Koreans. An internal policy review is occurring. It all sounds very dramatic, but I’ll say for the record that, barring some bizzaro Trumpian meltdown, any major shift is unlikely.
Strategic patience – best understood as containment and deterrence – has more or less been US, South Korean, and Japanese policy toward North Korea for decades. Sure we didn’t call it that, but that’s pretty much what it has been. We’ve had lot of provocations over the years which reasonably warranted counter-strikes, just as we’ve had lots of chances to talk. Neither have worked. So we end up defaulting back to containment and deterrence – waiting for North Korea’s internal contradictions to bring its collapse, and constantly, frustratingly negotiating with the Chinese to cut, or at least constrict, the umbilical which keeps Pyongyang afloat. This is fatiguing and uninspiring, but just about every conceivable policy, barring bombing, has been tried, so I doubt Trump has anything new. Are the Trump really read to risk a major regional conflict?
The full essay follows the jump:
This essay is a local re-post of an essay I wrote last month for The National Interest. Basically this is my sketch of how to deal in the medium- and long-term with North Korea. North Korea is not going to collapse anytime soon. It has some source of strength we don’t fully grasp, and China is willing to bail out North Korea indefinitely. That means South Korea needs to start hunkering down – hardening itself – for a long-term conflict of attrition. There is not magic bullet – barring China pulling the plug, which, honestly, doesn’t look like it is going to happen soon.
So it’s time for South Korea to get more serious about winning the stand-off with North Korea and carrying the costs and inconvenience to do so. On the other hand, if South Korea only continues to manage North Korea, it will still be here in 20 years. If the ROK wants to win this stand-off – not manage, but win – then it needs to do a lot of things it doesn’t want to do, such as spending a lot more on defense, moving the national capital (so that it’s not right on the border, which makes it so vulnerable that South Korea can never hit back when North Korea provokes), consider drafting women (due to precipitous birth-rate decline), nuclear civil defense, and so on. This will be hard.
So far, South Korea has ducked these sorts of dramatic steps in the permanently short-termist expectation that North would just collapse one day, or that it could be bought off and somehow go away. But of course, it won’t. So if South Korea doesn’t still want to be ‘managing’ North Korea in 20 years, it needs to start thinking long-term now. For example, it should have moved its capital 40 years ago, like West Germany did during the Cold War, but it never did. And now North Korea has a massive city hostage it can threaten whenever it like to prevent South Korea from taking any kinetic action, like airstrikes on its missile sites. Yes, it will take a long time to unwind that, to decentralize South Korea, but then, North Korea is not going to collapse. Constantly hoping/expecting it would, and therefore taking no steps to check Seoul’s growth, is exactly the problem. Time to think long-term.
The full essay follows the jump:
Am I the only one who is amazed at how good North Korea seems to be at developing new military technology? They got to nukes despite all sorts of international efforts to block them. They’ve got an apparently pretty successful missile program. They beat South Korea to drones last year. And now they’ve got submarines, and ones that can launch missiles to boot! Wow. We seem to consistently underestimate the Norks – probably because everyone loathes them so much that we keep telling ourselves that the place is falling apart and will implode any day now. Alas, it doesn’t look like it.
I wrote the following essay, below the jump, for the Lowy Institute a few days ago on the SLBM test. My primary fear is that all these nuclear and missile advances raise the temptation for South Korea to preemptively strike before the Northern program really gets out of control in the next decade with hundreds of warheads and missiles. The Israelis did that in Iraq and Syria, and I could see the South Koreans mulling it too.
Increasingly it is impossible to see how this ends well. Where are we going? What is the exit from a North Korea seriously threatening the entire region? Jees…
The debate on missile defense in South Korea is accelerating. Increasingly it looks like there will be some kind of stationing of ‘Terminal High Altitude Area Defense’ (THAAD, pictured). This is almost certainly a good thing, because North Korea’s programs keep going and going; no one would really trust Pyongyang to adhere to a deal at this point anymore anyway; and North Korea is not in a nuclear rule-system, like the IAEA or NPT, so we really have no idea what’s happening in much detail. Remember that their HEU program was kept hidden pretty well and then suddenly revealed.
Given all this uncertainty, and North Korea’s established history of lying, especially about its nuclear program, missile defense strikes me as a no-brainer. It is clearly a defensive weapon too, so it does not add to South Korea’s ability to offensively strike North Korea. The North won’t really be able to credibly criticize the system as a ‘tool of imperialism’ or something (although they will certainly say that anyway). Also, in passing for IR theorists, I’d say this debate nicely illustrates both the security dilemma and the offense-defense balance debate.
The full essay follows the jump; it was first published in The Diplomat here earlier this month.