Besides the tragicomedy of Donald Trump’s insistence on going into overdrive on false news about his conversations, speeches, memos for his son and the like, there are real, dangerous, complex strategic issues that must somehow get onto that man’s schedule. North Korea remains one of those. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look through history and peers nervously into the future.
Twenty years ago, the writer had a chance to visit an exhibition of artefacts and scale models in the Seoul National Museum in Korea, of what the Koreans had called their fortified frontier villages. Many hundreds of years ago, these villages had been established along the northern rim of the ancient Korean state, and the artefacts in the exhibition ranged from weapons to household pottery, tools and everyday farming implements. The day I visited, the exhibit hall had been packed with Koreans, all busy soaking up some history – and, just coincidentally, getting some not so subtle political education simultaneously.
The accompanying descriptions of the various installations – printed in Korean, Chinese, Japanese and English and pasted on the walls – read something along the lines of the following: These frontier fortified villages were a bulwark to protect the sacred motherland against the depredations of those horrible invading Chinese, Mongols, Tatars, Jurchens, Manchus and other barbaric groups – or words to that effect. I could read the English, fathom out the Japanese more or less, and pick out the very occasional Chinese word, so I assume the texts were roughly the same. Not subtle, that stuff.
The key, of course, is that Korea has been an extraordinarily nationalist society for a millennium or more – even as they have been less than lucky with the god of geography’s choices of neighbours for them. In sequence, in more recent times, they have had to contend with Japan, China and Russia, all of whom, at various points along the way, have vied for control and fought over the peninsula.
Following the Russo-Japanese War, by 1910, the Japanese had become firmly in control of the peninsula. Then, in 1945, at the end of World War II, as the USSR entered the war in the Pacific in the last few days of conflict, the agreement between the USSR and the US was that both of those allied nations would accept the Japanese surrender in Korea. The Russians would do so north of the 38th parallel of latitude, while the Americans would take the flags and swords to the south of it.
Back when the aura of an alliance to defeat fascism and establish the UN still hovered over everything, the general idea was that this division was to be just a temporary thing. Once pacified, the two occupying nations would move forward with national elections and unification of the peninsula, notwithstanding the fact that the USSR had been harbouring and training the future northern dictator, Kim Il Sung, for years. Once the war ended, they sent him forward with the Red Army to seize their half of the peninsula.
In the meantime, the Americans drew down their occupation forces to a near-skeleton level (as they focused mainly on the occupation and rebuilding of Japan with an increasingly shrunken US military, after the demobilisation of the forces, post-World War II). Even while watching developments in the north, they encouraged Korea’s first-ever election in the south (probably not totally free and fair, but who knows, really), and the Christian-educated Syngman Rhee gained the presidency of a backward, largely agricultural landscape.
However, the power dynamic in northeast Asia changed dramatically in 1949, with the ascendancy of Mao Zedong’s communist party and People’s Liberation Army throughout the near-entirety of China, forcing the nationalist government to flee to the island of Taiwan. With Russian encouragement (and presumably from the Chinese as well), Kim Il Sung’s army invaded the southern half of the Korean peninsula, perhaps also encouraged by a statement from Secretary of State Dean Acheson in 1950 that defined a US defence perimeter in Asia in a way that seemed to exclude South Korea.
However, by another accident of history, as the invasion began, the Russians were boycotting the UN Security Council for the UN’s failure to allow the new Chinese government to take up the Chinese seat. As a result, the Security Council opted for a military response to the invasion – collective security as defined under the UN Charter’s Article 51. Nevertheless, by this time, the overwhelmed South Korean forces and a residual American military force had been pushed back to a final perimeter hard by the port city of Pusan in the southeast.
The US – now UN forces – staged a surprise landing at Inchon near Seoul and drove northwards out of their Pusan staging area. Soon enough they had beaten back the North Korean forces and pushed on through much of the peninsula, right up to the Chinese border at the Yalu River. At this point, Chinese troops entered the fighting, along with Russian fighter pilots. The fighting seesawed back and forth until an armistice was reached, but only after the fighting had rendered much of the peninsula a devastated ruin.
But, crucially, right at the beginning of the Cold War, this fighting also demonstrated that even in the nascent nuclear age, war would not necessarily escalate to the final level of military power – the fighting stayed limited to the Korean peninsula. Ironically, the fighting also ended within a short distance – allowing for the vagaries of actual topography – of that original 38th parallel where the fighting had begun.
In the years that have followed, South Korea gradually became one of the new global economic powerhouses, with an economy that is now the envy of most nations and something of a model for economic development for emerging economies. After years of largely authoritarian rule, it has also finally evolved into a noisy, bumptious democratic state.
At the same time, North Korea has become the globe’s only hereditary state socialist “kingdom”, as Kim Il Sung gave way to his son, Kim Jong-Il, who then begat Kim Jong-Un, the current “Young Leader”. Its political universe and economy are rigorously controlled; famines have been regularly reported in the rural areas; and the country maintains a standing army of over a million under arms. And along the way, it has been developing a sophisticated missile programme and now a complementary nuclearisation effort aimed at weaponising those shiny new ICBMs.
This developing scenario threatens to thoroughly destabilise the regional – and increasingly, global – strategic landscape. Over the years, various multinational efforts have attempted to negotiate a cessation of this weapons march forward, in exchange for the temptations of more trade, more investment, and the provision of conventional fuel for electric power generation; but that old ultra-nationalist, self-reliant urge, now rechristened “Juche” by North Korea, has been the guiding force for this nukes-and-missiles effort. That, and the dream, of course, of reuniting the peninsula under northern rule.
Fast-forward to the present. Restraining North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programmes has also become a virtually sacred cause for the new American president. When Donald Trump first came into office in January, he had thundered that North Korea’s nuclear missile efforts would not happen; they would never happen. Period. Then he first tried to farm out the task of reeling in Pyongyang to China; insisting the Chinese had the easy ability to stop North Korean developments if only they chose to do so. The North Koreans have responded to that melange of bravado and attempted subcontracting by testing yet more – and bigger – missiles. More often.
So far, the Chinese response has largely been to push back at the Americans by saying that this dispute is a US-North Korean fight, and their preferred solution would be to see the two sides step back from the precipice. The North Koreans would end testing, but the Americans and South Koreans would cease their joint military exercises and stand down on that new emplacement of the THAAD anti-missile system the US has lately put into place in South Korea. So far at least, nobody has embraced this plan.
Kim Jae-In, the new and rather less confrontational and controversial South Korean president (than his impeached predecessor), meanwhile, has been careful to demonstrate calm and resolve to his nation. But he has also maintained a potentially conciliatory posture towards a nation that has the power to quite literally level Seoul with conventional artillery and rockets. Seoul is, after all, an urban space that houses much of the nation’s business and government, and around 15-million people; and it is located just 50km from the Demilitarised Zone – the DMZ – that divides the two states.
The Japanese, despite their druthers about Korea and Koreans historically, have lined up closely with the US and South Korea and offered their criticism of those missile tests – especially as they are now encroaching on the Japanese exclusive economic zone in the Japan Sea. Meanwhile, the Russians have chosen to stay a bit back from the current Korean peninsula tension, but they have chosen to exercise their military muscle on their western frontier near American Nato allies, as if to issue a reminder that some decisions (such as an attack on North Korea) would have consequences in areas ostensibly far away from where the obvious point of tension is.
And, as for the United States and the Trump administration? Consistent with their rhetorical ambiguity, confusion and clumsiness in other spheres, they have been all over the map on the strategic direction towards North Korea. A short summary of the many positions, as staked out by key administration figures – besides the president and his Queens playground-esque language of, “We’ll handle it, we’ll handle it,” if China can’t or won’t – generates the following grab bag of positions:
- US Ambassador to the UN Haley: All options are on the table;
- Secretary of State Tillerson: No, regime change in North Korea is under consideration; we seek talks;
- CIA Director Pompeo: Regime change is on the table;
- And Vice President Pence: No talks. No siree, Bob.
Given such a selection, no wonder the North Koreans may feel their efforts can continue, at least as long as the Trump administration is unable to speak with one voice among itself.
Of course, the North Korean issue is not something that can be viewed in isolation. For the Chinese, as long as the question remains in its current circumstances, North Korea would probably be seen more as an irritant and a distraction than any form of existential threat. They have, after all, those larger plans of military expansion into the South China Sea and the launching of a “blue water” navy into the Pacific, as well as their “One Belt, One Road” initiative into central Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
The Russians, meanwhile, are focused closely on Eastern Europe and the Middle East (in addition to sowing problems for Western elections, of course) and somehow digging out from under the sanctions regimen now being strengthened by the US with the newly enacted law just passed by Congress. For them, North Korea may even be useful in keeping the US focused away from Russian efforts elsewhere to some degree.
For the Japanese, about the worst thing that could happen would be a unified Korea – with nuclear weapons and missiles, regardless of whether the capital is in Pyongyang or Seoul. The Koreans, regardless of where they live, must contemplate the baleful possibility that an enraged America – following the North Korean test of a missile and a warhead – might even follow the appalling advice of someone like Senator Lindsay Graham, who believes war is now probably inevitable.
And for America itself, while the current administration knows it doesn’t like what it sees, so far at least, it hasn’t figured out what to do about it. But then, people have been so busy in Washington these days dealing with all the lies, half truths and prevarications oozing out of the Oval Office; they simply have not had time to get their act together on North Korea. Maybe some day the adults will take charge? Maybe. DM
Photo: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) speaks with North Korean Premier Park Pong-ju (R) during a parade for the ‘Day of the Sun’ festival on Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, 15 April 2017. EPA/HOW HWEE YOUNG