Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.
What is the goal of the United States with regard to the Korean peninsula?
The answer commonly given is that it is the denuclearization of North Korea. It is a response that has been hyped for some time by officials of past American administrations as well as the present one.
Unfortunately, it’s the wrong answer and always has been.
The overarching goal should be regional security and stability for all of Northeast Asia. That of course redirects the focus from being exclusively on North Korea, even though it is the only nuclear player that is currently threatening to upset the geopolitical applecart in the region.
The attention needs to be on that larger question, which includes the concerns of other states in Northeast Asia as affected by Pyongyang.
If one agrees that regional security and stability in the region is the desired end-state — who would disagree? — then the question becomes how to achieve it.
AN ACHIEVABLE END-STATE
It is all but a declared fact that denuclearizing North Korea is unachievable. And for a variety of reasons involving regional stability, overthrowing the Kim regime in North Korea is undesirable.
The favorite tactic of the South Korean President Moon Jae-in administration is economic engagement with Pyongyang to mitigate tensions. But that smacks of appeasement – and it wouldn’t accomplish what the liberal politician naively seeks anyway.
What is left is détente – just as the West and its European allies were able to establish with the former Soviet Union and then China. We ought to endeavor to do the same with Pyongyang since we have already a modus vivendi détente with both Beijing and Moscow.
But détente is merely a word, and, because Pyongyang regularly violates any agreement when it becomes inconvenient, a specific definition as it would apply to North Korea is needed.
To begin with, détente must proscribe all overt or covert hostile acts — by either side. Further, just as Pyongyang has alliances with Beijing and Moscow, the Seoul-Washington alliance must remain firmly in place.
After all, it was the North that attacked the South in 1950 and — historical revisionists notwithstanding — it was Pyongyang’s forces aided by Beijing’s “volunteers” that pushed a totally unprepared and unsuspecting South Korean army and its handful of American advisors down to the Pusan Perimeter.
Economic engagement with the North by anyone — though it is to be expected that China and Russia would cheat — must continue to be prohibited, for while such projects, particularly those involving the South, would certainly keep tensions down as long the Kim regime benefited from them, they are nothing short of geopolitical bribery. Plus, there would be an ever-increasing price to pay to keep Pyongyang’s provocations at bay.
Moreover, sanctions ought to remain in place as long as the North maintains its arsenal of nuclear weapons and associated delivery systems. Even so, there is a way around this, although it would not be easy and it would be time-consuming.
It is decidedly in China’s interests to keep North Korea as a buffer between itself and liberal democratic capitalist South Korea
Just as South Korea has a patron — for the time being — in the United States, North Korea has always had and likely will continue to have for the foreseeable future a protector in China. And it is in China’s best interest to keep North Korea nuclear-free to prevent an arms race by either Japan or South Korea — or both.
Not much has been written or discussed about how this fact can be parlayed into a viable détente for the peninsula. Yet, just consider one possibility.
One prospect is an agreement between China (as patron of North Korea) and the United States (as protector of South Korea) to come to ensure the security of each of their client states. Such a pact would provide a safety net and a nuclear umbrella for both countries on the Korean peninsula. Beijing would serve as the security guarantor for Kim Jong Un in the North as much as Washington would for any government of the South.
Could it really be that simple? Professional diplomats and partisan hacks would likely argue against it. Perhaps it is not that simple a task – but it certainly does not have to be as complicated as the three decades of failed attempts by the ersatz experts would have us believe.
Beijing would doubtlessly be in favor of such as arrangement for it is decidedly in China’s interests to keep North Korea as a buffer between itself and liberal democratic capitalist South Korea. As proof of that, merely look at the concern evidenced by Russia these days at the expansion of NATO on its western borders, seen as a creeping threat to its own security.
And preventing other countries in the region – Japan and South Korea – from developing nuclear weapons to counter those of North Korea would surely be a boon in Beijing’s eyes. For that to be avoided, however, Pyongyang would have to agree to divest itself of its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems.
WOULD NORTH KOREA AGREE?
At first glance, an agreement between China and the United States to each guarantee the security of its own ally might seem like an ideal solution. However, there are some dynamics that argue against that. While it is indeed beneficial to Beijing, Pyongyang chafes at being seen as “the little brother” of the Middle Kingdom.
Moreover, relations between the two countries are like a roller-coaster, up and down over time as the Kim regime has played China against the Soviet Union and has asserted its independence from its so-called “big brother.”
It is all but a declared fact that denuclearizing North Korea is unachievable
In recent times, Pyongyang has ignored Chinese advice not to conduct nuclear tests or launch missiles. On one occasion, Pyongyang’s actions angered Beijing so much that China actually backed UN sanctions against North Korea.
There are at least two geopolitical considerations affecting the Kim regime’s willingness to denuclearize. First, the reason the weapons were developed in the first place — to threaten the United States with second-strike capability and to gain equal political footing with Washington as a nuclear power — makes it difficult to contemplate a return to non-nuclear status.
Secondly, it is far from certain that the Kim regime would trust Beijing to back up any promise of external safeguards should some situation on the peninsula warrant it. The question is whether China is still willing to confront the United States militarily as it did during the Korean War nearly 70 years ago.
UNITED STATES CARELESSNESS
There is another obstacle on the other side of the equation. History clearly demonstrates that Washington’s negotiators have not been up to the task of dealing with clever and slippery adversaries in Asia.
Beijing and Pyongyang have used the West’s own words against them. This is despite the United States having the advantage of often employing its own native tongue as well as having a plethora of linguists to guide it when dealing in either Chinese or Korean.
The issue seems to be that American negotiators fall prey to their own perceptual biases or wishful thinking and fail to consider how their own words can — indeed, often are — used against them once the ink is dry on any signed document. It is as though there has been little to no linguist due diligence as to potential disadvantageous alternative meanings.
There is absolutely no reason to believe that the language skills employed by the West’s mediators have improved in the last few years. The politically-appointed American diplomats and negotiators need to keep in mind that they are not dealing with well-understood Western countries like Britain, France, or Germany.
The United States and its allies are dealing with cold brutal dictators of countries where life is cheap. It is a different ballgame in Asia, and Washington is decidedly out of its league. American envoys have yet to do their homework.
In the meantime, the North has its bomb and the United States has its sanctions.
Edited by James Fretwell
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.What is the goal of the United States with regard to the Korean peninsula?The answer commonly given is that it is the denuclearization of North Korea. It is a response that has been hyped for some time by officials of past American administrations as well as the present one.
Robert E. McCoy is a retired U.S. Air Force Korean linguist and analyst/reporter who was stationed in Asia for more than fourteen years. He continues to follow developments in East Asia closely. Mr. McCoy’s book Tales You Wouldn’t Tell Your Mother is now out. He can be contacted via his website http://musingsbymccoy.com/ which also lists his previous essays and has personal vignettes on Asia (Tidbits) not published elsewhere.