Each U.S. president appears to announce their own unique North Korea policy. President George W. Bush had “Axis of Evil.” President Barack Obama had “Strategic Patience.” President Donald Trump has “Maximum Pressure, Maximum Engagement.” But, while the labels change between administrations, U.S.-DPRK (Democratic People’s, Republic of Korea, or North Korea) dynamics have remained remarkably unchanged.
The Korean War was suspended in 1953 by the Armistice. The unending and precarious truce, however, has been characterized by occasional low grade skirmishes on or near the border. More often though it has been characterized by verbal name calling. Periodically, we are hit by a barrage of accusations and counter accusations, threats and counter threats. Each side demonizes each other and promises to destroy the other. War is threatened but the cacophony reliably fizzles away until the next joint military exercise and the next missile or nuclear test. It is The Great Perpetual Propaganda War.
The reason it has become a perpetual is that the objective of the U.S. North Korea policy is to maintain U.S. presence in ROK (Republic of Korea or South Korea) on a permanent basis, using the North Korean bogeyman as the justification. North Korean aggression and threats have to be reliably present to legitimate the U.S.-ROK Alliance. The specter of North Korea invading South Korea renews the alliance yearly.
Vice versa, the other reason it has become perpetual is that the objective of the North Korean government, particularly the Kim Dynasty, has been to maintain its grip on North Korea on a permanent basis, using the threat of another US invasion and the promise of ultimate liberation of the south as the justification. The Kim Dynasty has created a Martial Law State with the Marshal at the apex. The specter of the final war of liberation with the Evil Empire is used to renew their power yearly.
During the Cold War, the fulcrum of discord between U.S. and North Korea was anti-communism. With the demise of the Communist Block and the increasing transformation of the North Korean economy (and the southern capitalist victory in the economic sphere), North Korea has become isolated. The new fulcrum of discord has for the last two decades vacillated between North Korean nuclear weapons development and their human rights abuses. Whatever the politics of the day, the evil North Koreans with nukes intent on unification by force is used to justify the necessity of the U.S.-ROK Alliance.
Why is U.S. so committed to ROK? Is it altruism? Rather, the special relationship which defines the U.S.-ROK Alliance is a great strategic asset to the U.S. There are about 100 US military installations throughout South Korea. With Opcon, the large, well equipped, and technologically advanced South Korea military could become an extension of U.S. military. Too South Korea supports U.S. foreign policy in the international arena. On the whole, the US-ROK Alliance represents a U.S. foothold onto mainland Asia and is instrumental in helping to contain both China and Russia, two potential super power rivals, in the region and on the world stage. That was also true before the collapse of the Communist Block. Nothing has changed.
That is why U.S. has failed to denuclearize North Korea. Given how intractable the problem has been and given our persistent failures, the easier conclusion to make might be that U.S. has actually succeeded. Though not articulated, we have protected our U.S. national interests as defined above on the peninsula. That is likely of greater value to the U.S. than denuclearizing North Korea. We demand they denuclearize, but we never give them a good reason to do it. We’ve promised to talk peace, but we have never delivered peace. Instead, we ratchet up economic and diplomatic blockade after each long range missile or nuclear test. In short, success is failure. U.S. national interest is preserved in Korea.
Today, however, we are witnessing the beginning of a new age. Before, the U.S. mainland was never under direct threat of North Korean attack. North Korea did not have many long range missiles nor did they have the bomb. Thus, in case of a conflict, the fighting (and the damage) would have been mostly localized to the Korean peninsula. Koreans would have suffered gravely once again, but damage to the U.S. would have been largely limited to some casualties among the 28,000 or so U.S. troops stationed there.
Now with the advent of North Korean long range missiles and ICBMs, North Korea may have the ability to hit Guam, Japan, Hawaii, Alaska, and possibly the continental U.S. Additionally, with nuclear weapons, they can also do serious damage. President Donald Trump has said, “It won’t happen” and we are applying “maximum pressure” without “maximum engagement.” And the media is also dangerously abuzz with articulating various war scenarios as if it could be as easy as Iraq. But like many of Trump’s tweets, the jingoist threats of war will likely fizzle away.
So will we go to war? Probably not. Simply stated, there is no military option, if there ever was one. North Korea can do too much damage and the risks of involving China are high. Further with ICBMs, even the mainland U.S. is not safe from war. So the much talk of war and threats are samo samo rhetoric which is the basis of the Great Perpetual Propaganda War. Actually fighting a war and winning will eliminate the reason d’etre for the US-ROK Alliance.
At this point, rather than war, it is likely that North Korean nuclear weapons will become normalized, a fact of life. North Korea probably has already jumped over the precipice. It has crossed the finish line into the safe zone, protected by the ultimate deterrent. Once again, there is no military option.
Then would or should the U.S. sign a peace treaty and withdraw in exchange for North Korean denuclearizing? If not, would or should the U.S. sign a peace treaty and lift sanctions in exchange for a freeze on testing and long range missile launches? The answer is no on both counts. If the U.S. did either, it would recognize North Korea as a nuclear power. If we signed a peace treaty, South Koreans may question the Alliance. It is doubtful if our policy stance will shift.
More likely, North Korea will keep their nuclear weapons but the conflict over North Korean nukes will continue and define a new kind of Cold War.
Going forward, the next best strategy for the U.S. North Korea policy may be a containment policy. North Korea must be prohibited from trading in nuclear and missile technologies. We will continue to perfect the blockade. We will continue to demonize the government. We will continue to enact sanctions. And on the propaganda front, we will continue to promote internal discontent and hope for an implosion. We may only tone down painting North Korea as irrational and lead by a madman, because MAD does not work with irrational actors.
In conclusion, it will be samo samo.
Interestingly, what all this means is that even if North Korea gave up nukes, there would still be discord and North Korea’s security would not improve. Whether North Korea gives up nukes or not, North Korea needs to be the bogeyman of east Asia. Even without nukes? Sure, then democracy and human rights would take center stage. North Korea will never have peace. Thus, they don’t have the incentive to sign a peace treaty either, though, if it relieves them of the sanctions regime, they might give it a try.
However, there is still a need to denuclearize North Korea and all parties should continue to work toward that end. A nuclear North Korea presents multiple risks. The potential for war always exists in the Great Perpetual Propaganda War. An accident or war could be catastrophic. Additionally, if North Korea were permitted to become a nuclear power, ultimately it could unleash the proliferation genie on the world with its many risks. Peace and denuclearization are still desirable.
Thus, as elsewhere, I would propose creating a Comprehensive Peace Regime for Korea centered around the notion of a neutral Korean peninsula.
As for US South Korea strategy, as friction rises between South Korea and China regarding the deployment of THAAD and as other measures are introduced ostensibly to counter the North Korean nuclear threat, China is becoming an emergent factor legitimizing the U.S.-ROK Alliance. In case North Korea implodes and ROK is able to take over the territory north of the 38th parallel, China could become the new bogeyman legitimating the US-ROK Alliance and indeed legitimating the possible US-ROK-Japan Tripartite Alliance. Thus, US policy will likely continue to try to promote discord between China and its neighbors. THAAD is helping that along.
Photo Credit: A composite image of North Korea provided image of the Science and Technology Center, Juche and missile themed political poster, and exhaust fumes from a Space-X rocket launch.