THOMAS FLICHY DE LA NEUVILLE | THE WEICHERT REPORT
In recent months, the United States and North Korea have seemed poised for full-on warfare. The issue at hand is whether the United States can live with a nuclear-armed North Korea. And, if we cannot, what can be done about it? Since neither the Trump Administration or Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, seem willing to compromise on their hardline stances, it is necessary to elucidate some reasons why I believe that the United States should ultimately defer military action against the North.
Here are 8 reasons why the United States should not go to war with North Korea:
1. The war of words between American President Donald J. Trump and Kim Jong-un benefits both leaders. It enables the United States — which is currently withdrawing from the world — to give the illusion of strength. On the other hand, the tough-guy rhetoric of Kim-Jong-un allows him to negotiate the next nuclear agreement from a more advantageous position.
2. The Korean peninsula has always been the unfortunate bridge linking Japan with China. As such, Korea has historically been subjected to antagonistic external forces influencing the fate of its kingdoms. The kingdom of Koguryo in the north was opposed to that of Baekje in the south-west. After resisting Chinese pressure for a long time, the northern portion of the peninsula was transformed into a military post for China. As early as the seventh century, the Chinese established four military commanderies (plus the Koreans are ethnically Han, linking them in a signficant way with the ethnic Han who rule China). Later, the peninsula was attacked by the Japanese Maritime Empire. Korea is thus the historical theatre of proxy wars. But very often in Korean history, the proxies have mimicked war, in order to avoid fighting for real–which is what I suspect is happening between the United States, China, and North Korea today.
3. The bluster of Kim-Jon-un must be put into historical perspective. Since the 1850s, travel accounts in Korea have highlighted the importance of provocation among North Koreans. The French Catholic missionary Charles Dallet (1829-1878) wrote:
“The Koreans always speak with a very high tone, and the meetings are extraordinarily noisy. Shouting as loud as possible is a sign of good manners. Now those of the two northern provinces are stronger, more savage, and more violent than the other Koreans.”
4. Korea presents itself as an ancient theatre of the struggle between maritime empires and continental powers. In 1894 and 1895, Mainland China opposed the Japanese maritime power here. A few years later, tsarist Russia was beaten by Japan in Korea (the Russians lost access to the vital Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, which ultimately resulted in the Russian naval position in the Pacific being shattered by the Japanese at the Battle of Tsushima). Today, the American naval power has replaced that of the Japanese empire. Even if the maritime and continental empires have gauged themselves for millennia on the Korean peninsula, they have rarely waged war in this place.
5. Despite on-going tensions, the idea of complementarity between the two Koreas has long been present in the media of both countries. The traditional expression namnam pungnyŏ, for example, suggests that the ideal Korean couple is that of a southern man (namnam) and a northern woman (pungnyŏ). So, as you can see, the Korean people themselves are disinclined to war with each other (despite the provocative language from the Trump Administration or the aggressive actions of Kim Jong-un).
6. China is now the only country in the world to maintain close relations with both North and South Korea. China’s policy towards the peninsula can be summarised into three trends: reducing tensions over the North Korean nuclear issue; maintaining China’s traditional ties with North Korea; and increasing economic cooperation with South Korea. As for the North Korean nuclear program, it is a major security issue for the Chinese authorities–not because it poses a direct threat to China, but because of its possible consequences for regional, nuclear proliferation. There is already talk in some quarters of allowing for Japan to fully militarize and acquire nuclear arms (dittos for South Korea).
7. The latest economic developments of the two Koreas could surprise us: South Korea has become close with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Conversely, thanks to the massive black market that operates out of North Korea, the North has been increasingly integrated into the globalized liberal economy since the 2000s. Indeed, economic negotiations are increasingly made in dollars or yuan.
8. There exists a schizophrenic image of Korea in the Western mind. On the one hand, Korea is the “country of the calm morning,” and on the other hand, it is “the kingdom of the hermitages.” This is both confusing and overly reductionist. It is perhaps to the extent that Korea represents a marginal space in our collective consciousness that we are struggling to extricate ourselves from simplistic discourses about this country.
In short, China has no interest in destabilizing the Korean Peninsula, in so far as a war would spawn large migrations on its territory. The United States is still too much entangled in the Middle East to concentrate its entire forces in the Pacific. Moreover, its domestic problems are currently a priority.
As for Japan, it has no interest in the reunification of the Korean peninsula: a challenging giant would immediately emerge (a unified Korean peninsula, with the South’s economic dynamism, the North’s extra manpower, and with close ties with their fellow ethnic Hans in China–along with their historical antipathy toward Japan–would not bode well for the Japanese position). For these various reasons, current tensions must be qualified. In qualifying the current tensions with the above list, I would hope that decisionmakers could see why they should not agitate for greater conflict with the North–and why I suspect that a deal will ultimately be brokered.
Thomas Flichy de La Neuville teaches geopolitics at France’s prestigious Saint-Cyr’s military academy. He has also recently been named as a Research Professor at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. Neuville has published numerous articles on international relations, some of which have been featured in The World Post.