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?
This essay is a local re-post of an essay I wrote last month forThe 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.
I know the only thing people want to talk about now is Trump, but here is a parting review of Obama in Asia. I wrote this a few weeks ago for the Lowy Institute. All in all, I’d say he did about as well as you could expect.
There are no good solutions to our challenges out here, just as there were none to communist power in the 1950s. Hawks calling for ‘toughness’ and ‘leadership’ should remember that rollback was a catastrophe (in the Korean War) that almost ignited WWIII. We then settled for ‘hanging tough’ until communist power imploded, which it did. The contemporary Asian analogue of hanging tough is Obama’s ‘strategic patience.’ Everyone criticized it, but no one has a better option that isn’t hugely risky. So stop complaining about strategic patience until you’ve got a better, genuinely workable idea.
This is a local re-post of an essay wrote for The National Interest about 10 days ago. Basically, I’m curious why the Chinese are making such a huge deal out of THAAD missile defense. They’ve been bullying South Korea relentlessly for a year or so now over this. But THAAD doesn’t even impact them, as everyone knows now. That graphic over, from the Heritage Foundation, nicely illustrates that.
So the big question is why. Why is China making a huge deal of something where it’s so obviously on the wrong side of the debate? (Everyone can see North Korea’s nuclear missile program and South Korea’s obvious need for a ‘roof.’) Why does China think something this minor – THAAD has no impact on Chinese strategic forces – is worth wrecking a decent relationship with South Korea, one of the few regional states that is not that scared of China’s rise? Is this coercive diplomacy to prove Chinese regional hegemony, with South Korea being the first target to be bullied into knuckling under? Is Vietnam next? Or does China really care about North Korea so much that it wants NK to be able to blackmail South Korea with nuclear missiles?
I can’t believe that latter explanation is right. To me, this is China feeling its oats. It’s rising; no longer feels it has to keep its head down per Deng’s early advice. Now it’s number 2 in the world, on the way to being the world’s largest economy. So it’s going throw its weight around, and the states closest to it will feel the hammer of its prestige-seeking fall first.
The standard first line of reviews like this is to bemoan North Korea and China. I do a little of that here, but tried to look beyond facile predictions that the US and China will fight in the South China Sea shortly. Asia is a pretty status quo place, so the only big ‘disruptors’ are the usual suspects – the Kim family of North Korea and Donald Trump. The Chinese and the Japanese aren’t really interested in rocking the boat much, so they’re barely mentioned, curiously enough. For example, the next time North Korea does something dumb, we can count on China saying that we should all calm down and maintain stability – in other words, do nothing. One thing I do wonder about is if the left wins the South Korean presidency this year, will it dramatically change South Korean foreign policy by accommodating (read: appeasing) North Korea?
Part 2, next week, will focus on South Korean security issues in the new year.