Drawing Lines: Taiwan and North Korea

BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT

There’s been a lot of talk from many “experts” these years about the impossibility of a U.S.-North Korean entente. Admittedly, I was skeptical back in 2017. But, the Trump Administration’s initial push to ratchet down tensions on the Korean peninsula with the historic Singapore Summit proved me wrong. Again, heading into the second summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald J. Trump, there appeared to be many experts saying that Trump had unlocked the necessary component to making peace.

They were wrong again.

But, unlike previous presidential attempts to mitigate the North Korean threat through diplomacy, the Trump method appeared to prevent the total collapse in positive relations that historically followed the breakdown in talks. In fact, there appears to be a line that neither Kim nor Trump are willing to cross. Not only has Trump moved the needle with North Korea in terms of positive relationship-building, but there was apparently an attempt by North Korea to work more closely with the long-time American ally of Taiwan.

Kim Jong-un Does Not Want to Be China’s Lapdog Forever

Last year, North Korea offered to sell Taiwan, China’s greatest rival (and China is, at least on paper, North Korea’s primary benefactor), submarines that would have potentially threatened China’s perceived advantage in submarine warfare capabilities over their long-time foes in Taiwan. This indicates what I have long suspected: that the young Kim is disinterested in being a supplicant to Chinese power (for their part, the leadership in Beijing views North Korea as nothing more than another tributary state for their new age empire).

Kim understands that, while China has long supported his family’s regime in North Korea, there is little love-lost between Pyongyang and Beijing (lest we forget that Kim Jong-un murdered his half-brother, who was purportedly angling to topple Kim by using Chinese intelligence assets to do so. After all, the half-brother was protected Chinese state security when he was murdered).

Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un has continuously trolled the Western media by having his propagandists claim that those involved in the (apparently failed) outreach to the United States were brutally murdered–only to have those people reappear, unscathed. In effect, Kim has been tweaking the Western “mainstream” media in order to humiliate them–in much the same way that President Donald Trump often does. This, in my view, signaled that while talks had broken down between Pyongyang and Washington, there was a still a chance that they could resume.

Of course, in May of this year, after 522 days of not having tested any missiles, North Korea launched a short-range missile from the Hodo Peninsula in North Korea. Yet, this short range missile “strike” test was nowhere near as caustic as the ones that preceded the famous Singapore Summit between Trump and Kim in 2018. Remember, Kim was testing at that time intercontinental ballistic missiles that, if North Korea had worked out the bugs through further launches, could have threatened the United States.

More recently, as the Trade War between China and the United States intensifies–and as Washington remains intransigent on getting another historic meeting with Kim–North Korea is forced to kowtow to China, their only benefactor on the world stage. Let us be clear: if a different regime were in power in North Korea, it is not known if Pyongyang would be any less conciliatory with their Chinese neighbors. Judging from Chinese history, Korea has routinely supplicated itself at the altar of Chinese imperial power (as many Koreans have said of their country over the centuries, “[They] are a shrimp among whales.”

Nevertheless, as the Trade War gets more tense, now that China’s President Xi has met with North Korea’s Kim, one can expect that Xi will attempt to play nice with Trump while North Korea gets more aggressive. This is the nature of dealing with China: it is never in a vacuum and Beijing is always looking to distract the United States (after all, most Chinese leaders view the United States as a large child that is strong but ultimately naïve and can be easily distracted and tricked by China’s purportedly more mature leaders).

Remember: it is common wisdom among Western foreign policy officials that China and North Korea are linked and, if an American president wants to deal with North Korea over their illicit nuclear weapons program, they must first get China fully onboard with their plans (which, of course, will never actually happen).

But, it is not so clear that Kim Jong-un desires or intends for his regime to remain totally subordinated to the wishes and whims of Xi Jinping’s China. He does so because he needs a consistent supporter on the world stage. Yet, Kim has not only gone out on a proverbial limb to meet with Trump, but he has also attempted to get closer with Vladimir Putin of Russia.

And, while there is a budding Sino-Russian alliance, please keep in mind that it is entirely (right now) an alliance of convenience with several hurdles that must be overcome before it could be anything resembling the kind of alliance that the United States enjoys with, say, the United Kingdom or Canada (and should Russia accept a role as being China’s Canada then woe be unto them).

The greater question should be: if North Korea is so tight with China, then why is North Korea’s leadership so intent on spreading out diplomatically, and seeking out the assistance of the other two great powers on the geopolitical chessboard today–the United States and Russia?

I believe that Kim does not want to remain totally beholden to Beijing.

That he is desperate to make new alliances that will both secure his reign while at the same time increase his geopolitical leverage. If I am correct, then, the Trump Administration must move forward before Kim has no choice but to seek a greater accommodation with China–if only out of fear of what may befall his regime by the intractable Americans.

Move U.S. Forces From South Korea to Taiwan

Clearly, North Korea already has nuclear weapons.

The goal for any American rapprochement with Pyongyang should redound down to preventing North Korea from developing a larger arsenal and from continuing their current arc of aggression against the West. Kim seeks his nuclear arsenal for two reasons: first, regime survival. Second, to prompt reunification with the South. The latter, unless willingly agreed to by the South, cannot happen–and should not be allowed to occur under force of North Korean nuclear arms. But, should the Trump Administration make this fact plain to North Korea then, I believe, we can move forward.

The next step would be to begin removing the 28,000 U.S. military personnel from the Korean peninsula and handing more responsibilities off to the competent forces of the Republic of Korea. The current leadership in Seoul has already made cogitations of reducing American responsibilities in South Korea as a sign of goodwill with their wayward North Korean brothers. Plus, the constant American presence on the Korean peninsula means that China will always be twitchy about protecting the regime in Pyongyang. Removing these forces to just over-the-horizon creates some breathing space for everyone–and puts China on the defensive (which is where we want them).

The fight today for the United States is not with North Korea (at least it should not be). The focus of our military-industrial-intelligence complex, such as it is, must be on countering the rising Chinese threat. For decades, the tiny democracy (like Israel) of Taiwan has lived under threat of constant invasion and destruction by the Chinese living just across the narrow Taiwan Strait. In the 1970s, the Jimmy Carter Administration naïvely ceded Taiwan’s status as a sovereign state to Beijing, meaning that Taiwan’s independence was only ensured by the largesse of a fickle United States.

Thus far, Washington has generally stood by Taipei. But, as the Chinese grow wealthier and stronger–and as tensions between the mainland and the United States increase–it will be harder for the United States to deter Chinese aggression toward the island democracy. In effect, Taiwan exists in a similar condition that South Korea has existed in for years.

Now, however, there is a way (regardless of how unpalatable to American neoconservatives this solution may be) to potentially ratchet down tensions with North Korea without going to war again on the Korean Peninsula. Although, the Chinese are more intent on warring with Taiwan to reclaim it. For Beijing, this is an emotional issue that will never go away until they resolve it (by removing any hint of American influence there).

So, should Washington enter into a tentative deal with Pyongyang, and begin removing U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula, those forces should not return to the United States. Instead, they should be redeployed to Taiwan. And, Washington should immediately recognize the sovereignty and independence of Taiwan from China.

The goal should be to create a defensive perimeter that both protects true U.S. allies, stymies China’s overall rise as a true Pacific power, while at the same time giving Beijing some breathing space. By ceding ground in South Korea we might do just that. And, by placing U.S. forces on the far more important Taiwan, we will still effectively contain China. After all, China needs Taiwan in order to extend its reach into the Pacific and to create a buffer zone that keeps unwanted U.S. influence far from their territory. By holding Taiwan, the United States prevents China from accomplishing this primary strategic goal.

Besides, as I’ve written before, “There is not one-China, two-systems. There is one China with its Communist system and one Taiwan with its democracy.” We’ve spent decades undermining our Taiwanese ally in order to play nice with China. Now that the new cold war with China is on (and will not desist for some time), it’s time for the United States to regain the upper-hand.

Reinforcing Taiwan with American military units and equipment and officially recognizing Taiwan as an independent state will throw China’s leaders through a loop and force them to call their bluff on the matter. Plus, moving U.S. forces from South Korea as a sign of good faith toward the recalcitrant North; allowing South Korean leaders to negotiate fairly with North Korea, while headache-inducing, will further harm Chinese regional ambitions.

After all, if Kim sees that he’s getting what he wants: regime survival without having to rely on China and without having to fight the Americans, he will (as he has shown in recent years) be less inclined to follow Beijing’s fanatical lead.

Besides, the United States is first-and-foremost a maritime power that operates on-the-horizon. It was never intended for American forces to set up permanent shop in South Korea, thereby making those nearly 30,000 U.S. troops a sudden continental power. Our defensive perimeter against China’s rise should be at sea, in and among the friendlier island-democracies of the region, such as Japan and Taiwan.

Therefore, as the general cold war with China increases, Beijing will find its dreams of reconquering Taiwan stymied and its main vassal in northern Asia less willing to do its bidding–weakening China’s position relative to the United States’ position.

It’s time to draw-down U.S. forces from South Korea and move them on to Taiwan, only then can the United States build a proper defensive perimeter around China in the Asia-Pacific and only then will Washington be playing to its traditional strengths as a maritime power.

COPYRIGHT © 2019 THE WEICHERT REPORT. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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