For anyone who seriously studies or even observes North Korea, these are depressing times.
The time has come for the world to accept the ugly truth: Pyongyang has nuclear weapons. It has made significant progress and continues to make further progress in developing long-range missiles and the capability to fit nuclear warheads on those missiles.
And it will not abandon its weapons – no matter how large the bribe being offered. As long as it possesses them and can hold South Korea and Japan (and increasingly, the United States as well) hostage, no one will ever dare to invade it first.
Whether one thinks that North Korea has chosen this path strictly to defend itself from the military might of the world’s sole superpower or that it has done so in order to use it as an offensive weapon in order to reunify the Korean peninsula under its terms is irrelevant. The truth of the matter is that North Korea does not have any incentive to give up what it has spent decades trying to achieve.
Furthermore, barring any unforeseen changes that occur within North Korea itself, there is no reason to believe that North Korea will cease to exist anytime soon.
North Korea does not have any incentive to give up what it has spent decades trying to achieve
Chinese leaders believe that, even with all the trouble that North Korea causes, the status quo is preferable to seeing the North Korean regime go.
It finds the prospect of having an American-allied unified Korean peninsula on its southern border disquieting. And North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs ensure that the United States remains distracted from China’s other interests in the region, such as Taiwan’s uncertain fate and its ever growing control of the South China Sea.
As such, the best option that remains to contain North Korea and to ensure that it does not use its weapons is for the allied nations to form and strengthen multilateral alliances that resemble NATO. Unfortunately, however, that is much easier said than done.
Japan’s remilitarization is a sensitive issue in Asia as well as within Japan itself. The South Koreans and the Japanese still do not get along due to historical grievances and territorial disputes, and the majority of South Koreans and Japanese citizens do not have much of an appetite for arming themselves with nuclear weapons.
On top of that, a significant number of American voters have grown weary of military alliances – many often citing NATO members’ refusal and/or inability to pay more for their own defense. It is highly unlikely that American voters would be happy about being entangled in yet another multinational defense treaty, especially one in Asia – a region that most American voters do not understand or even care for.
Since a meaningful Asian multilateral alliance remains a pipe dream, the only realistic option that is left is to strengthen and upgrade existing bilateral alliances. This should be easy to do. However, these are not normal times and even something that simple is proving to be difficult to achieve.
THE TRUMP EFFECT
With U.S. President Donald Trump treating foreign policy as though it were a freshman English class that he can just improvise on the fly, his often ill-thought-out and off-the-cuff comments have not only strengthened China’s resolve to maintain the status quo, but have also begun to do lasting damage to the U.S.-ROK alliance.
In direct response to Trump’s Pyongyang-like rhetoric, South Korean President Moon Jae-in recently stated publicly that his administration would do everything to prevent war from breaking out on the Korean peninsula. He used the phrase “by all means.” He also went on to say that no military action could take place without Seoul green lighting it first.
Although it goes without saying that no sane person wants to see a war break out – it would be horrific – President Moon’s statement weakened the allies’ negotiating position and has seriously dented their credibility in future negotiations with North Korea.
A meaningful Asian multilateral alliance remains a pipe dream
In any negotiation with Pyongyang, there has to be a stick and a carrot: Moon Jae-in basically grabbed the stick and flung it as far away as he possibly could.
It was bad enough that Donald Trump’s bluster and inability to follow through on his own rhetoric about “fire and fury” had the effect of fanning the notion that the United States was, indeed, a paper tiger. Moon Jae-in confirmed it.
If Donald Trump had a functional State Department or even an ambassador in South Korea, he might have been told that recent developments in Seoul should be of concern to him; that he needs to immediately speak with President Moon Jae-in in order to ensure that both Seoul and Washington are reading from the same script.
In a twist of fate that is so incredible that not even the most imaginative satirists could have foreseen it, while Pyongyang’s foreign policy appears determined and resolute (it doesn’t hurt that Beijing has its back) and overseen by clear-thinking strategists, it appears to be amateur hour in both Seoul and Washington.
While Moon Jae-in fantasizes about signing a peace treaty with a nuclear weapons-free North Korea by 2020, Donald Trump thinks that tweeting that military solutions are “locked and loaded” makes him a successful and tough leader.
There is another ugly truth that world now has to accept. At least for the next few years, neither Seoul nor Washington – those that are most invested in securing peace in Northeast Asia – is going to be able to properly deal with North Korea. And if those that are most invested cannot or will not deal with North Korea, then no one can or will.
It appears to be amateur hour in both Seoul and Washington
At least for the next four to five years, while the U.S. and South Korea continue to be run by unqualified leaders, Kim Jong Un can breathe easy. For a regime that is beset by droughts, floods, malnutrition, and sanctions, that news is as good as it gets.
Meanwhile, while Kim Jong Un solidifies his rule and continues to arm himself with more nuclear bombs and missiles, millions of North Koreans will remain enslaved, and millions of South Koreans will remain his hostages. The United States will continue to lose influence in Northeast Asia.
The next crop of South Korean and American leaders – whoever they turn out to be – will need to do better. Much better. Murderous tyrants cannot be allowed to win.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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