by Geoffrey Fattig
The recent North Korean missile and nuclear tests represent a dangerous escalation in the security dynamic in north-east Asia. The successful nature of these latest demonstrations of North Korean weapons technology implies the threat posed by the DPRK has become much more serious. With leading media and conservative figures in South Korea beginning to call for reintroduction of nuclear weapons into South Korean territory, and North Korea signaling its intent to carry out further weapons tests this year, we are reaching a point where the dangers of a new conflict breaking out are similar to when the first nuclear crisis erupted in 1994. Yet the stubbornness of the key players in the region – the US, South Korea and China – to deviate from the test-sanction-test cycle to address the North Korean Problem means the situation will get worse before it gets better.
The UN’s current attempt to increase sanctions on North Korea is, in the words of former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg, “very foolish”, because such measures will take all sides further from a solution. Far from causing the Kim 3.0 regime to reconsider its course of action, harsher sanctions guarantee North Korean efforts to develop nuclear and missile programs will continue unabated. Economic assistance from China, provided because regime collapse is viewed by Beijing as a greater danger than a nuclear armed North Korea, allows the DPRK to thumb its nose at the international community and whatever punitive measures may come as a result of the latest nuclear test.
Rather than looking for new ways to perpetuate a losing strategy, the Obama administration needs to throw out its playbook and figure out how to get China, the major power-broker in the region, to maximize its influence over Pyongyang. This requires recognition by the U.S. that fear of a unified Korea with U.S. troops stationed on its north-eastern border is at the forefront of Chinese strategic thinking. Until that fear is alleviated, Beijing will remain unwilling to throw its weight behind North Korea denuclearization.
For that reason, it is time for the United States to seriously consider withdrawing its military from the Korean Peninsula. While the American military presence has helped maintain the status quo since the 1953 armistice, what good is a status quo in which the threat of renewed conflict continues to escalate? The military is the United States’ key source of leverage over North Korea, yet all sides are aware that offensive strikes against the North are unfeasible: no-one wants a new Korean War. So the American troops are in the position of causing friction by their mere presence, even as their possibility of being deployed is minimal.
Not only does the American military presence preclude China from taking a harder line against the North’s repeated violations of UN resolutions, it also allows North Korea to justify its course of action in the name of self-defense, while absolving South Korea from making tough but progressive decisions. One example is Seoul’s non-negotiable stance on the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea, even though resolving this hotbed of conflict would be a key breakthrough for inter-Korean relations. As long as Seoul can count on American military backing, it has no reason to seriously sit down and discuss such issues. The presence of ROK-US forces also hinders the effectiveness of any economic engagement strategy by South Korea to stimulate change in the North.
The undeniable risk in withdrawing the troops is that it would make an unstable situation even more so. If, however, it was done as part of a wider peace agreement that included resolution of the West Sea issue, tough verification measures for North Korean denuclearization and pledges by the Chinese government to cut off economic assistance should Pyongyang renege on its end of the deal, it could represent the best chance for turning the page on 60 years of hostility. Such an agreement could also include funding for infrastructure development projects within North Korea, with the financial burden being shared by other members of the Six Party Talks. The goal of such an approach would be to create an environment where the gains to a cooperative North Korea would outweigh the losses of continuing down the current, tired path of weapons development.
China is the sole outside actor with real leverage on the Peninsula, and for all the publicity about the Obama administration’s foreign policy ‘pivot’, this is one area where they clearly require the active participation of the Chinese government in resolving the issue. Showing willingness to restructure the existing security dynamic may be the kickstart that diplomacy desperately needs. Unless the Obama administration is able to respond to the game-changing nature of the latest North Korean tests with some groundbreaking diplomacy, ‘strategic patience’ may turn out to be nothing more than sitting back and waiting for the next war to begin.