If incendiary bluster slides into military conflict, the populations of South Korea and Japan are in harm’s way.
What is clear is that apocalyptic rhetoric coming from the White House has deeply alarmed America’s own allies in the region. “Military action on the Korean Peninsula can only be decided by South Korea and no one else can decide to take military action without the consent of South Korea,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in felt compelled to say on Tuesday. “The government, putting everything on the line, will block war by all means,” he further declared.
If the front-line state in the American alliance confronting North Korea won’t go along with Trump’s approach, his bluff has already been called. As Hugh White writes from Canberra, Australia: “[Trump’s] threats to use force to stop North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile program will prove empty because his only military options could escalate into the biggest conflict since 1945. So America will not just end up living with an ICBM-armed North Korea. It will find its leadership in Asia sharply diminished in the eyes of both its allies and its rivals.” That diminution, White goes on, likely means that “prudent allies will rely less and less on the U.S. [and] ambitious rivals will push harder and harder to erode U.S. leadership and assert their own.”
Strategists in Japan are already thinking of alternatives to the nation’s sole reliance on the American defense umbrella that might either lead their country into a war they don’t want or expose them to a North Korean attack they cannot resist. Writing from Tokyo, Hideshi Takesada proposes that Japan “develop the capacity to attack enemy bases in North Korea with conventional weapons ― both as a deterrent and preemptively if a threat is imminent.” For Takesada, that includes both cruise and ballistic missiles as well as “early warning satellites that are not dependent only on the United States.”
Aside from its recent military threats, the U.S. has been leaning on China to pressure North Korea. Though China supported the toughest sanctions so far imposed by the United Nations, there is a growing belief that Beijing is biding its time as America’s credibility erodes because it sees the North Korean standoff as beneficial to its long-term strategic aim of weakening the U.S. alliance system.
Yun Sun argues: “Compared with the tension and danger associated with the North Korean nuclear crisis, the collapse of North Korea and the potential prevail of American influence on the Korean Peninsula evidently represents a bigger problem for Beijing. In this sense, China will not and cannot meet Trump’s criteria of ‘solving’ the North Korea problem because the cost-benefit analysis simply does not support such a move.” Linking the North Korea issue to trade relations, she says, in the wake of a new U.S. probe of China’s trade practices authorized this week, will not trump China’s strategic concerns.
Writing from Seoul, Seong-Hyon Lee doubts that a recent editorial in China’s state-run Global Times ― arguing that Beijing would remain “neutral” in any conflict between the U.S. and North Korea ― reflects official policy. He asks whether China and North Korea still see each other as allies. “The answer,” says Lee, “is yes,” because “China and North Korea have had a formal alliance, which obligates China to come to North Korea’s defense when the latter is under attack, since 1961.” He acknowledges that “there has been a deluge of news reports that China’s patience with its former Cold War ally has hit its limit and that China is now regarding North Korea as a strategic liability rather than an asset,” but concludes that “even though North Korea has recently been a discomfort for China, China is not ready to ignore its bigger strategic value, let alone give up on Pyongyang.”
Finally, Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (which designs America’s nuclear weapons) and one of the few Westerners who has inspected North Korea’s nuclear facilities firsthand, offers a sweeping review of the history of the North Korean crisis over several decades, three Kims and six U.S. presidents.
Hecker concludes: “It is not that diplomacy with Pyongyang has failed over the past 30 years but rather that Washington has not carried out diplomacy effectively. It has vacillated between negotiations and threats. A close look at the record shows that although Pyongyang has never given up its drive for a nuclear deterrent, nuclear progress slowed significantly during times of diplomacy and accelerated during times of isolation, sanctions and threats.” He also faults Washington for failing to coordinate effectively with its allies or with Beijing. “Whereas it has relentlessly chastised China for not doing enough to rein in Pyongyang, it has expected China to work against its own national interests. It has not heeded Beijing’s advice that Washington must first address Pyongyang’s security concerns.” As for the present Trump administration, Hecker believes only urgent “face-to-face” exchanges with the North Koreans, not ramped-up military threats, are the path forward. “Washington must listen as well as talk,” he counsels.
The most sensible proposal for moving forward comes from former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who has tied all these concerns together into a comprehensive strategy. Gates proposes that the U.S. first sit down at the highest level with China to make it clear it is not seeking regime change in North Korea and will end hostilities by offering a peace treaty to Pyongyang. In return, North Korea would have to essentially freeze its nuclear and missile programs, guaranteed by intrusive Chinese inspections. If China does not agree, the U.S. and its allies will be compelled to “heavily populate Asia with missile defenses” against the North Korean threat — something that China fearsbecause radar scans can undermine its own security.
If Gates’ strategy were to work, it would mean a new 21st century security arrangement for East Asia that makes China an indispensable partner of the U.S. and its neighbors in the region instead of an inevitable enemy. If it fails, either the American post-war alliance system will fracture under the strain of differential security risks — with Japan and South Korea fending for themselves ― or it will consolidate into a new superpower rivalry that divides Asia and the world. Both outcomes “bad!” as Trump would put it.