BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
The last time that the South Koreans hosted the Olympics was in 1988. It was to be South Korea’s unveiling to the world that they had become a truly powerful, Westernized state–a stark contrast from their North Korean “brothers.” For their part, the North Koreans opted to engage in a reign of terror directed at South Korea. This came in the form of the 1987 bombing of KAL 858, a jumbo jet airliner belonging to Korean Air (a South Korean-based airline) flying from Baghdad to Seoul. The goal of the attack was to sow as much uncertainty and terror in the weeks and months leading up to the Olympics of that year, that the world would shun South Korea, and the South would never fully be welcomed into the international order.
Thankfully, North Korea does not (as yet) seem to be planning a similar hostile action for the current Olympics being hosted by South Korea. The North Korean leadership has gotten smarter. Why risk war (when they are not yet ready) if they could just cleave South Korea away from its American partners? For some years, there has been a degree of discordance between South Korea and the United States over just what, exactly, should be done to handle North Korea. For its part, the United States has held onto a program of strict de-nuclearization. South Korea, which exists in a permanent state of limbo as to whether they will awaken one day to a major North Korean invasion and assault on their country, favors maintaining an advanced military purely for defense whilst dealing with their wayward North Korean brothers diplomatically.
Yet, for years, the various attempts by South Korea at cowing the North’s drive for dominance on the Korean peninsula have done little to dissuade the North from its obvious (and persistent) intention of uniting the Korean peninsula under Pyongyang’s rule. Presently, the North is but 18 months away from achieving its obsessive quest for nuclear arms. All that stands in the way of the North’s ultimate goal is a lack of reliable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) with which to threaten anywhere–especially the United States–in the world with nuclear or other WMD attack. The North assesses that once it has reliable ICBMs, and mass produces them, then it can keep the United States back; it can likely prevent the Japanese from threatening them; and it can most assuredly get the South Koreans to effectively surrender to them, lest they incinerated in a nuclear hellfire.
Until that point, however (which, again, is 18 months away before they have a working ICBM and maybe an additional 6-12 months until they can build a handful of these weapons), North Korea remains vulnerable–especially with the bombastic American leadership of Donald Trump. The North Korean regime is playing for time. It is not seriously altering its routine military training schedules; it is yet again reaching out to its South Korean brothers, in an effort to cleave them diplomatically away from the United States, with the hope that they could sow as much confusion and discord between those allies, that the South Koreans will essentially isolate themselves until North Korea has a fully functional nuclear arsenal.
Without a serious coordination and unity of purpose between the United States, Japan, and South Korea, the diplomatic defense of South Korea will falter, leaving a chasm through which North Korea can travel. The North Korean diplomatic gambit–showing up at the Olympics, and playing nice with the South Koreans–is already working. Everyone knows that the South Koreans fear the ramifications of what would befall their country, should diplomacy with the North fail. The South fears that President Trump is both far too bombastic and inexperienced to effectively prevent another Korean War. What the South clearly misunderstand is that Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy as a ruler of North Korea is heavily predicated on reuniting the Korean peninsula under the rule of the Kim regime.
Right now, North Korea is winning. What’s more, the South Koreans are so frightened over the prospects of a destructive war with North Korea that they are willing to believe that the United States’ call for complete de-nuclearization in North Korea is both unreasonable and provocative. In their eyes, then, Pyongyang is behaving more rationally than Washington. One hopes that the South Koreans are right. However, decades of North Korean aggression, coupled with their insatiable thirst for nuclear weapons, implies that simply throwing all hope into a peaceful strategy is dangerous, to say the least. And, with the North poised to acquire the capability to threaten the United States directly with nuclear and WMD attack, this is no longer just a regional issue.
Some may speculate that this is, in fact, a secretly coordinated strategy between Washington, Seoul, Beijing, and Pyongyang to bring a more peaceful resolution to the ongoing discord. But, I suspect that this is not the case. After all, the American policy of de-nuclearization has not only been maintained by the Trump administration, but it has been amplified through rhetoric and action. No, I suspect that the North Koreans are wedded to their destructive course, the Americans have entrenched in their inflexible position, the South Koreans will do–and say–anything to preserve their homeland, and the Chinese are indifferent to their fates, caring only about furthering their strategic interests (which are usually inimical to the United States’ national interests).
To show you how serious the break between the United States and South Korea is, American Vice-President Mike Pence was in South Korea for the opening ceremony, and he was seated directly in front of Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s trusted sister. It was humiliating, with the image of the fiery North Korean leadership sitting above and behind the American vice-president–almost as if the North Koreans were breathing down America’s neck. The South Korean government claims the incident was a diplomatic snafu, yet, the result is the same. Never doubt the power of the image, and therefore, perception in politics.
America’s position on the Korean peninsula is rapidly fading. This would not be an entirely bad prospect, if it was a situation that was either of our creation or that benefited the United States. However, the reduction in importance of the Americans in the eyes of the South Koreans actually encourages Pyongyang to remain on its destructive course. Further, the true manipulator of events here is none other than China, which most explicitly desires to see the United States removed from the Korean peninsula–a region that is essentially in China’s proverbial backyard.
And, make no mistake, should North Korea continue its diplomatic feint, South Korea will inevitably be inclined to grant both China and the North Koreans their wish in seeing the termination of the South Korean-American alliance, and the physical removal of most (if not all) American troops from the peninsula. This would then set the tables for a North Korean assault into South Korea, in a make-or-break move to reunite the peninsula under Kim Jong-un’s leadership.
These are dark days indeed for the United States in Asia. The South Koreans have fallen for the North’s (and China’s) trap. They are now distancing themselves from the United States and their Western allies. Inevitably, the hammer (and sickle) will strike down on South Korea, and the Kim regime will get its wish: an end to the Korean War in Pyongyang’s favor.
Be ready, friends: in the coming months and year the North will continue to walk softly until it believes it has separated the South from the United States fully (and/or until the Americans become distracted with something else). One way or the other, war is all but assured at this point, as it is unlikely that President Trump will favor the humiliation of America at the hands of either North Korea or China (or South Korea for that matter). The amount of military equipment and resources that have been deployed (and continue to be deployed) to South Korea indicate that the Trump administration is going to enforce de-nuclearization at all costs–even if it must go it alone.