Normalized crisisTwo weeks ago, thanks to President Donald Trump’s bellicose warnings, the world seemed to be tumbling toward a possible war on the Korean Peninsula. And now, just as suddenly as the brouhaha started, we have returned to quiet. Yet in a profound sense, nothing has changed.
About two weeks ago, Trump reacted to a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report that North Korea had successfully miniaturized its nukes to fit on intercontinental ballistic missiles. According to former CIA Korea analyst Sue Mi Terry, for years, it had been commonly understood that the North might have had nukes small enough to be placed on shorter-range missiles. South Korean intelligence suggests South Korea and Japan may have been under a North Korean nuclear threat for as long as four years. But no one knows if any of these small nukes can survive launch and re-entry. As a result, Trump came up with his “fire and fury,” “locked and loaded” warnings, while his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, told the world that the United States was not North Korea’s enemy.
Although we Westerners do not discuss “face” as much as we once did, face still gravely matters in Asia. At one point, Trump appeared to be backing Kim Jong-un into a corner, so the North Korean leader had to respond in kind or lose face. The good news is that Pyongyang’s threat to send four missiles near Guam came with the caveat of required review and approval by the supreme leader. That gave Kim a face-saving opportunity to step aside from a potential military confrontation. Meanwhile, Trump’s confusing behavior caused Russia and China to consult with each other as the stiffest round of UN sanctions went into effect.
Unexpectedly, Trump was distracted last week by a white nationalist rally and resulting tragedy in Virginia. Trump outraged much of America with his impromptu statements, and suddenly, concerns about North Korea’s weapons largely evaporated as the president and American media chased after the shiny objet du jour.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in used Liberation Day to publicly assure his nation that the U.S. military would initiate no war in Korea without his government’s permission. His statement came as a bit of surprise to some White House staffers, illustrating the Trump administration’s dismal understanding of foreign policy. Regardless of America’s disorganized foreign policy, the Korean situation remains precarious given the underlying factors of the peninsula’s division. North Korea is still developing nuclear weapons.
During the next crisis, we may hear again from North Korea “experts.” Western academia and think tanks now even have a handful of truly dedicated experts on North Korea. Too often, these authorities focus on China or some other nation but are called upon to speak on Korea. Many of these people are taken in by China’s siren song that all we need are negotiations to resolve the Korean conflict.
The problems with the Chinese solution are many, including its failure to come to grips with unchanging realities. Specifically, and most fundamentally, North Korea’s raison d’être is to reunify the nation under its rule. As such, it cannot recognize the legitimacy of South Korea. It cannot sit down with Seoul as an equal to negotiate a peace treaty. Pyongyang can negotiate a permanent solution with Washington, but never with another Korean government. However, a peace treaty without Seoul as a cosignatory is meaningless.
Contrary to many Western experts’ opinions, regime survival is not Pyongyang’s primary objective, only an obvious requirement needed to achieve unification on its terms. To North Korea, a peace treaty with Washington is a means of persuading the United States to remove its armed forces from Korea. In that way, the North may later unify the country.
The latest twist to the unification strategy is for the North’s nukes to eventually blackmail the United States from protecting South Korea at the threat of losing one or more American cities. This kind of intimidation does have limits. The North knows it would be suicidal to actually send a single strike of missiles into America. Nonetheless, the latest thinking is that the West may have to accept the unacceptable and recognize North Korea as a nuclear power. In exchange, it will have to behave like other nations at the “big boys’ table.”
However, there is a good chance that Pyongyang will secretly develop second-strike capability as part of its quest to force the American military out. That effort will take considerably more time and resources, during which time the Kim regime may be overthrown by a domestic revolt. Until then, we may expect North Korea to repeatedly challenge the world after luring the South repeatedly into false periods of peace.
Ultimately, it’s up to North Korea to politically mature. To embolden the North Korean people to make necessary changes, the South Korean government must more aggressively penetrate Pyongyang’s information isolation. At the same time, Seoul and its Western allies need to remain mindful of what is actually in play rather than simply reacting to each ensuing “crisis” as a new event.
*The author is owner of Onsite Studios, publisher of the Korean Economic Reader and author of two books on doing business in Korea.