BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
Reports are surfacing indicating that the South Korean government, following through with their predictions from last year, is seeking accommodation with the North Korean tinpot dictatorship. They are using the pending Winter Olympics, which South Korea is hosting, as an excuse to reach a accommodation with the nuclear-crazed Kim regime in Pyongyang. Meanwhile, the United States just announced that it will suspend a large joint military exercise with the South Korean government, which was meant as a show of force to the North Koreans, in the run-up to the South Korean-hosted Winter Olympics (which the North had already admitted it was boycotting).
These latest developments come on the heels of other related stories indicating that North Korea accidentally dropped a missile on one of its own cities in April of last year, and that the Chinese have been covertly doing business with the North Koreans–even helping the North Korean military to improve its defensive systems–as China was publicly claiming to be opposed to North Korea’s nuclear program.
Japan has also announced that it will follow South Korea’s lead on the issue of dealing with the North. To be clear: no one involved (with the exception of the Kim regime) wants a war on the Korean peninsula, least of all President Trump, who won on a campaign promise of keeping his focus squarely on American affairs. Trump has had but a few major legislative victories in his first year, but almost every policy and legislative victory he has enjoyed has been in the realm of domestic politics. As has been proven with every American president since Lyndon Johnson, sweeping domestic reforms and policy agendas are very often sidelined when foreign policy crises–especially wars–come to the forefront of matters. Trump has great incentive to seek a way out of the current imbroglio without looking bad.
The South Koreans would be the most negatively impacted by a war with North Korea, and I have gone into great detail in previous posts as to why they would be disinterested in stirring the hornets’ nest with the North. So, it makes sense that they are seeking an accommodation with the North. They cannot be depended upon to stand up to the North Koreans because, at the end of the day, they know that the North would either overrun them or, even if they managed to effectively resist, their country would be in tatters and their economic miracle will have been destroyed. This is not a future that any rational South Korean would seek. But, just because the future may be bleak, does not mean that it can be avoided. Fact is, the North Korean desire for “talks” with South Korea is a trap that will result in South Korea’s ultimate destruction and/or annexation by the North.
Of course, the Chinese have a series of reasons for seeking accommodation with the North. Despite the fact that I firmly believe the Chinese leadership is wary of Kim Jong-un and all of his eccentricities, the Chinese government does not want to see an American-led invasion of North Korea. Such an outcome would place a massive American army at their border. Since the so-called “Century of Humiliation,” the Chinese have been understandably obsessed with their territorial integrity–especially when an advanced, Western military could potentially be threatening that integrity.
During the first Korean War, just as it appeared the U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur was set to overrun the North, Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung sent 300,000 Chinese troops over the border into North Korea to prevent the American-led coalition from conquering North Korea. Mao had previously warned the Truman Administration that the Chinese would not tolerate any action that put an American force in proximity to the Yalu River, which separated the North Korean and Chinese borders. If the United States waged war upon the North today, it is likely that the U.S. forces would embrace a goal of regime change in Pyongyang. This means that an American force would be moving into North Korea, it would play to remove the regime that China has long supported, and the American force would be staying until the North Korean political and economic situation stabilized enough to prevent it from reverting back to a Failed State status. Also, the Americans would likely insist on unifying the two Koreas under Seoul’s command, meaning that a vibrant, democratic society would likely sprout up right on the border of China–something that no Chinese leader wants.
Besides, the Chinese enjoy using the North Koreans as a strategic lever to complicate American grand strategy. Any time that it appears the Americans are starting to recognize the threat that China poses them, the North Koreans conveniently begin acting out, distracting the world away from what China is doing, and forcing the Americans to come running hat-in-hand to Beijing, to try to get them to rein in their wayward North Korean ward. Moscow seems to be making a similar play in its dealings with Pyongyang, though the Russians have nowhere near as much pull with Pyongyang as does China.
Plus, the Chinese fear the instability that would follow from any invasion of North Korea. Invariably, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dispossessed North Korean citizens would come pouring across the border into China, thereby destabilizing the precarious “harmonious” social order in China. The Chinese government currently has strict migration control for Chinese citizens seeking to move into the prosperous cities from the countryside, imagine how tough the Chinese are on foreigners trying to gain entry to their country. An uncontrolled human wave of North Koreans would certainly have deleterious effects on China’s social and economic order–which, if imbalances in these two realms were created, would potentially threaten the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power. If the CCP’s monopoly of power were threatened due to instability caused by a ceaseless flow of refugees from North Korea, the Chinese government could engage in a severe crackdown on those causing political unrest, thereby creating a negative cycle of unrest that would likely lead to either a mass slaughter of people or the overthrow of the CCP.
Japan, which is also threatened by the North Korean military, is open to following South Korea’s lead of “giving peace a chance,” because, like the government in Seoul, Tokyo is fully aware of the high costs and the high risks that they would incur from looking at a more hostile action against Pyongyang. After all, the North enjoys lobbing all kinds of missiles over at Japan. It’s only a matter of time before the North seeks to make a show of force by actually attacking the Japanese.
Many who are reading this are probably shaking their head in disbelief. Why would the North Korean regime be so irrational? Such individuals should remember similar queries being postulated in 1939 about Adolf Hitler. To the world, Nazi Germany was rational. Until it wasn’t. Just read about the history of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who made “peace” with Hitler at Munich…only to have Hitler violate that peace almost immediately, thereby precipitating the Second World War.
For all of the cries that Kim Jong-un is merely interested in survival, you miss three key points: the North Korean’s state of mind; the continuity of historical violence and isolation that has been associated with the northern provinces of the Korean peninsula; and the pernicious juche ideology. Point in fact, as I have argued here repeatedly, Kim Jong-un wants to reunite the two Koreas under his rule. He views this as a test of his leadership and his regime’s legitimacy. After all, both his father and grandfather predicated their entire political lives to bringing the South to heel. They failed. After years of having his rule challenged (in his mind) by pro-Chinese elements within his inner circle (people like his uncle and his half-brother, both of whom he murdered), as well as by the United States, Kim wants to succeed where his father and grandfather failed. Young Kim wants to not only cement his legacy as the greatest leader of the Kim dynasty by reuniting with the South, but he also wants to (in his erroneous calculation) permanently remove the threat of regime change from the West.
According to Victor D. Cha, “juche” (though he more accurately dubs what’s practiced in North Korea today as, “neojuche revivalism”) is:
“A return to a harder-line, more orthodox juche ideology (defined as self-reliance) of the 1950s and 1960s, when North Korea saw its best days [It] denigrates as a mistake and as ideological pollution the failed period of experimentation and reform that was attempted at the end of the Cold War [It is also a] return to the principles and propaganda of the 1960s and 1970s, when in North Korean minds they were strong, but with an even harder line and more dogmatic form than before. This more conservative strand of juche continues to espouse complete loyalty and subservience to the leader, and in particular highlights the ascension to the throne of [Kim Jong-un]. It continues to espouse the uniqueness of the Korean race, the need for independence from external predatory powers, and the weakness of the South as puppets of American and Japanese imperialism […] It is reactionary […] The new ideology calls for a return to the core principles that made North Korea great during the Cold War, and discards the attempted periods of experimentation and reform as deviant turns that dirtied the minds and spirits of Koreans. [It] also stresses ‘son’gun’ (‘military-first’) politics [that] wholeheartedly associates the drive for nuclear weapons with the country’s achievement of ‘kangsong tae’guk’ (‘rich nation, strong army’). The result of all this is that North Korea is going back to the future–the next generation will inherit a revivalist and reactionary ideology from the Cold War that is more conservative, unrepentant, and ever more dogmatic.”
This juche or, neojuche revivalism, is from Kim Jong-un; it is a repudiation of the “reforms” that his father attempted in the 1990s and 2000s, and a return to the policies that dominated his grandfather’s reign. It is my firm belief that there is no separating this pernicious and hostile ideology away from the young Kim’s rule. In fact, I believe this is the source of his power in North Korea.
Thus, the Kim regime’s thirst for nuclear arms is not a bargaining chip as we understand it. The nuclear weapons are not about keeping the West back, so that Kim can enjoy his little fiefdom north of the 38th parallel. Far from it. This is about keeping the West away so that he can take the South by force. I have argued for months since the North Korean crises during the Trump Administration began, that Kim will continue progressing toward a fully capable nuclear weapons capability (the last real hurdle he must surmount is the creation of a reliable ICBM, which he is close to achieving). As that happens, he will need to buy himself time and he will always be working toward his goal of separating the South Koreans from their American partners. So, as I argued months ago, whatever happens with this current round of nuclear brinkmanship, the North will seek a cooling off of tensions. They do not yet have the nuclear arsenal they need to threaten the United States and Japan. But, they do still possess a military that is more than capable of launching a devastating lightning attack on the South with conventional means, which is why the South is so gung-ho about negotiating with the North. A ratcheting down of tensions now–with the Olympics as the backdrop–buys South Korea (temporary, though they don’t think it is) peace whilst giving the North the time it needs to make the final progress toward completing their nuclear program and then mass-producing the weapons they need to believably threaten the United States.
Once the North Koreans have their nuclear arsenal capability that will threaten the United States fully, they will march on the South. They have no more than 16-18 months left before the North can claim a fully functional nuclear capability (the nuclear warheads, the miniaturization tech, and the ICBMs basically all have to be mass-produced and proven to work when needed).
Even without nuclear warheads, as I’ve argued previously, once the North gets a fully functional ICBM, it can threaten the world with biological and chemical warfare, since the same missiles that can deliver a nuclear warhead anywhere in the world, can also deliver other weapons of mass destruction.
After the North gets its reliable ICBM capability (and after it mass-produces enough weapons), the Trump Administration will get a call from Pyongyang (or Beijing or Moscow), informing them that the North will launch nukes at any American city it wants–lest the United States withdraw from its partnership with South Korea. The goal has always been to permanently de-link the United States from South Korea, thereby isolating tiny South Korea, giving the North the advantage.
The options at that point for the Trump Administration will be far bleaker than what they are now. Whereas we might have to fight a costly campaign against a well-armed–though still manageable–North Korean force today, the presence of nukes and other WMDs in North Korea tomorrow would end the credibility of America’s military threat, thereby handing over the South Koreans to the Kim regime in Pyongyang (and the Asia-Pacific to China, who is acting as both arsonist and firefighter in this instance).
At that point, the United States would have to ask itself: is nuking a nuclear-armed North Korea possible (or even worthwhile)? Or, would the U.S. simply have to accept the new paradigm? If it did the latter, how would that impact the rest of America’s regional alliances? Moreover, how weak would America’s global position be relative to China’s? And, if the United States did opt to launch an attack against a nuclear-armed North Korea (since the Trump Administration has made clear that it will accept nothing other than complete de-nuclearization of North Korea)–whether we simply used our own nuclear weapons or sent in troops–how would both the Chinese and Russians respond? In the first Korean War, Russia armed up the North Korean military and provided advanced fighter protection while the Chinese sent frontline troops to repel the American invasion of North Korea (and their efforts succeeded, by the way).
Do not buy into the media myth that the North Koreans just “want to be left alone.” This is a similar line of thought to the oft-repeated (and erroneous) line that “Islam is peace.” As with all slogans, context matters. Yes, Pyongyang does want to reimpose the hermetic seal that it had historically placed the Korean peninsula in (before the West found Korea and before the Japanese did also). And, yes, Kim Jong-un would prefer to survive in power. But, no, the Kim regime will not accept a partitioned Korean peninsula (anymore than Ho Chi Minh would accept a partitioned Vietnam). Such a reality would not only be a permanent physical threat to the Kim regime (no matter how far South Korea pushed the United States away, or how many times Seoul made overtures of peace to the North), but a permanently partitioned Korean peninsula would also be a historical affront to the Kim regime in Pyongyang. So, North Korea wants to be left alone–but only after it reunites the Korean peninsula together.
And, as for the South Koreans. Right now, this is still a local affair. But, in a very short time frame, this will become a serious international issue that directly threatens the United States. So, they can buy peace for a little bit of time. But that peace will not avert war. Rather, in much the same way that Munich was, the “peace” deal between North and South would only induce greater conflict–especially since the agreement would humiliate the United States by distancing our South Korean ally from the their American partners. Even without actually invading, if the North manages to use diplomacy to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, the South Korean government will have signed its own death warrant…to be enacted at a time and date of Pyongyang’s choosing.
Whether it’s in 18 months or four years from now, the North is going to strike the South–and it won’t be a pinprick strike either. Kim Jong-un wants South Korea. It is a fundamental component of his regime’s existence. It cannot be removed from young Kim’s psyche until he settles the issue on his own. The course is set. There will be little deviation. Since, my initial hopes for a Manhattan-like Project that would deploy space-based missile defenses into orbit does not seem to be at hand, the Trump Administration must decide whether it can live in a world where the kooky Kim regime can permanently threaten the United States with nuclear retaliation or attack.
As Churchill said:
“If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without bloodshed;if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.”
If North Korea achieves its goal of full nuclear capabilities, given the rhetoric, history, ideology, and psychology of the Kim regime…no one will be safe. At that point, America’s only hope would be that the Chinese manage to effect regime change in Pyongyang. But, such a turn of events would only further complicate American grand strategy, not better it. In the case of North Korea, a preemptive strike sooner, rather than later, is our least bad (of awful) choices.