This is partly a comment response to a Straits Time opinion article on the ever-ongoing North Korean crisis, but it is mainly a blog post that reflects my basic understanding of the crisis.
There isn’t a perfect solution to this six-decade old problem but there are two broad approaches to dealing with it: diplomacy and military.
The Military Approach
I agree with Zala that the military option isn’t perfect because “a pre-emptive military strike (is) virtually impossible.” A pre-emptive strike is only considered pre-emptive if North Korea can be completely disabled of its ability to retaliate. The sites of all nuclear missiles’ launch points in North Korea is probably not known. Without this piece of intelligence, Japan and Korea are set to be devastated by a nuclear retaliation by North Korea. Not to mention that there are also artillery pieces on the northern side of the 38th Parallel Demilitarised Zone that possess strike range covering South Korea’s capital, Seoul.
Due to the lack of political courage by Trump’s predecessors to conduct a pre-emptive strike while it was still feasible, it is now virtually impossible to conduct one. The Western world needs to recognise that their (American) leaders had made a mistake and seriously consider a military option because it will only become increasingly costly as inaction continues to persist. Some pacifists might think that this is a positive development, but this line of thinking will cause the world to accept a settlement that permits North Korea’s permanent existence one day. North Korea will not, of course, exist peacefully. It will transgress international laws as it sees fit and remain unassailable due to its nuclear arsenal. Indeed, nuclear arsenal is the Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card to flaunting international laws – unless the state is vulnerable to sanctions like Iran.
The hope, therefore, would be to plug North Korea’s economy into the global economy upon reconciliation. That is, in my opinion, highly unlikely. This is because, through the regime’s isolation, the Kims understand that the ignorance of the masses is the biggest pillar supporting their dynasty. Juche will therefore continue to be an inviolable principle in North Korea – at least for the decades to come.
All my speculations on how the complete denial of the military approach would be a bad choice depend on one assumption: The current Kim will not die before the next one can become a ruler himself. Assassination or natural death, it matters not as long as he dies. Trump, of course, cannot be expected to pray for Kim’s natural death because it would be irresponsible. A proactive solution would be assassination. If he is confident, a covert military approach can then be considered. He must, however, be wary. A failed assassination would drive Kim into a corner where he would retaliate out of fear and exasperation. This would be the worst possible scenario because the world will face the wrath of North Korea’s full nuclear arsenal. Whereas in a failed attempt to conduct a pre-emptive strike, most of North’s nuclear arsenals can be destroyed, minimizing the impact of North’s retaliation.
I personally do not find the resolution of North Korea’s coexistence with the world very troubling, because North Korea isn’t a direct existential threat to Singapore – although it will threaten the rule-based order that Singapore can most ideally survive in. However, I do know that Japan and South Korea will be unable to accept this geopolitical arrangement. Not to mention, there exist the liberal humanists and democratic evangelists, mostly in the Western world, who would abhor such an arrangement. A pre-emptive strike may be virtually impossible, but that does not mean that US shouldn’t strike at all. The option must, as Trump himself had recognized, be open on the table.
The Diplomatic Approach
Admittedly, a diplomatic approach should be considered before a military approach. The perfect diplomatic solution would be to bring North Korea onto the negotiating table and agree to denuclearise. However, just like the perfect military solution, this is also virtually impossible. The impossibility of this approach can, to some extent, be substantiated by its track record. The diplomatic approach hasn’t worked for the last half a century but this fact doesn’t seem to sink in for many people today. The status quo is that many of the western leaders and geopolitical pundits are holding onto the glimmer of hope given by Iran’s case. Doing so is an act of living in denial, because the difference between the two contexts is crippling. Indeed, “the sanctions on Iran forced it to negotiate because the Iranian economy was reliant on Western economies, particularly in Europe. In the case of North Korea, that reliance is on China, both in terms of Pyongyang’s exports of things like coal and also, and most crucially, for its imports of fuel.” President Trump is probably aware of this, which is why he was in favor of the China plan. However, that is no longer the case. Trump hit the stonewall while trying to get China to rein in North Korea, so now he’s back to square one.
The China option, however, is an indispensable ingredient in the current and only diplomatic formula of “sanction and negotiate” to get North Korea to denuclearise, simply because North Korea is only dependent on China for its economy. However, just as this article has stated, “For China, North Korea still serves as a very useful buffer between its own border and South Korea, a US military ally that hosts over 28,000 US troops. Nuclear weapons are an insurance policy for Pyongyang against any attempt at regime change. That insurance policy works in China’s favour too. So in order for negotiations to begin, the sanctions need to put pressure on North Korea. For the sanctions to work, China must be on board. For this to happen, the US needs to give China a reason to cooperate. Therefore Washington will need to make some serious concessions to China to get it to apply serious sanctions on North Korea.” In essence, North Korea and China are in a symbiotic geopolitical relationship that is stable. A darn good reason is therefore needed for China to give up on it.
The article also outlined some of Zala’s suggestions on what these reasons should be which I shall quote extensively here:
“China’s favoured option is a reduction of joint US-South Korea military exercises and a freeze in the deployment of ballistic missile defence in the region, such as the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system. Both are difficult for the US without it appearing to abandon one of its key allies (with an obvious impact on Washington’s reputation with other allies).
Similarly, the US could move to reduce the tens of thousands of troops that it currently deploys in South Korea and Japan, both of which make China nervous about a future conflict, particularly over Taiwan. If either of these options is to work, it would need to appear as if the decision to reduce troop numbers and cooperation came from South Korea and Japan themselves.
Relatedly, reducing or even freezing arms sales to Taiwan would be an obvious way of conceding ground to China. The Trump administration is in a particularly weak position here, having just approved a sale of US$1.4 billion (S$1.9 billion).
Finally, easing off the pressure on China in relation to its activities in the South China Sea could also help encourage Chinese cooperation on sanctioning North Korea. This would not have to be a total back-down on the issue. Instead it could involve limiting the US response to public condemnation only and avoiding military manoeuvres and freedom of navigation operations.
None of these options is foolproof and it would be impossible to guarantee that they would result in full and sustained sanctions from China. All would be psychologically painful for American decision-makers as it would amount to a public acknowledgement of China’s claim to great power status.”
These are, in my opinion, great ideas. However, I feel that these moves are: Too diplomatically costly for US to stomach or too tokenistic for China to take seriously. I think there is a more impactful and genuine reason that US can give China, and that reason is the recognition of China’s status as a global superpower.
China is on its peaceful rise, and the US doesn’t want to recognise it because it threatens the American hegemony. That’s the real reason behind the unfounded excuses like how China isn’t a benign power compared to the US. Well, with the American administration descending into a corporation, this comparison ought to be re-examined thoroughly.
Accepting China’s status as a global superpower alongside US is not a change beyond the boundaries of parochial western mindset and/or lingering white-man superiority complex. That’s because it is simply coming to terms with an evolving geopolitcal reality.
Accepting China as a superpower does not set a dangerous precedent for another Cold War. On the contrary, not doing so will set the stage for it; a denial of China’s power puts America on a collision course with China. America should not see this recognition as equivalent to admitting defeat. This notion is only conceivable if China’s economy or military power has actually outdone the US’. Recognising China’s status in advance merely endorses China’s peaceful rise. If this is communicated clearly, it would create a power-sharing geopolitical stability where both powers can share the heavy responsibilities of being the global sheriffs. America has shouldered this burden for a long time, always oscillating between isolation and engagement due to American voters’ exasperation and obligation in each stage respectively, hence giving US the nickname “The Reluctant Sheriff”. America should find a partner to share this responsibility so that the world does not have to suffer a temporal power vacuum from time to time. With regards to North Korea, greater trust and partnership between the superpowers would be immensely useful. The partnership would compel China to pressure North Korea seriously and keep it in check like a baby sitter. North Korea isn’t listening to China now because it knows that the symbiotic relationship still stands where China needs North Korea. However, if China can have the reassurance that the US will not curb China’s rise, the condition for using North Korea as a buffer against US would become obsolete. Once the incumbent Kim witness such a development, he will have no choice but to bow down to China and become an obedient little baby in the presence of his oriental and strict baby-sitter.
There are 2 approaches to solving the North Korea Crisis. The diplomatic approach should obviously be considered first. With the current diplomatic formula, it would be virtually impossible for a perfect diplomatic option to emerge. The fomula can change for the US to build a rapport with China and accept it as a fellow superpower in a global power-sharing geopolitical landscape, which would then conceivably produce a perfect diplomatic solution. It is, however, to my understanding that such a paradigm shift is extremely difficult due to the insurmountable demand for a change in western’s attitude towards China. However difficult it is, we should try anyway because of the resulting stability and resolution that it is capable of producing. If the US fails to change its diplomatic fomula, then it must recognise that it is unable to solve this peacefully, as evidenced by the track record of such an approach in the last half a century. The military approach will hopefully emerge if the diplomatic approach doesn’t change, because prolonging the status quo will only make the military approach increasingly consequential due to the North’s nuclear proliferation. I therefore urge the Trump’s administration to decide whether it wants America to accept China’s superpower status in advance. If the answer is no, I urge the administration to shake itself clear of denial-mindsets and decide on a military option among the many that I’ve broadly outlined above. The last thing that should happen is Trump passing this off to the next President; the increasing cost of the military option will only further justify inaction, with the world becoming increasingly fated to accept a permanently disturbing existence of North Korea.
The writer of the Straits Time Article , Benjamin Zala, that I’m referenced from is a research fellow in international relations at the Australian National University.
Image credit: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/north-korean-soldier-defects-to-south-korea-by-crossing-the-heavily-mined-demilitarized-zone-10319756.html