‘America First’ and North KoreaBack in April, President Trump characterized his North Korea policy as “maximum engagement, maximum pressure.” This was widely interpreted to mean that the United States would be more aggressive in seeking international cooperation — especially from China — to strengthen economic sanctions against North Korea while simultaneously seeking to engage the Kim Jong-un regime in talks about denuclearization.
While “maximum pressure” includes unilateral actions by the United States to target individuals and institutions that enable North Korea to continue developing nuclear weapons and missiles, China’s active cooperation is critical since it is, by far, North Korea’s biggest trading partner.
The policy of outsourcing resolution of the North Korea problem to China is bound to fail. Many have already articulated the reasons that international pressure and tougher sanctions won’t work, so I won’t repeat the familiar argument.
But what if the current North Korea policy succeeds? This is what should really worry the U.S. government.
Let’s imagine that the United States gets everything it wants: the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea. But the current regime’s legitimacy and status are inextricably entwined with the viability of its nuclear weapons program.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that nukes are the Kim regime’s raison d’être. Domestically, it cannot hope to survive if it’s seen kowtowing to American “imperialist” pressure. As such, denuclearization can only come about with regime change in North Korea.
Say regime change somehow magically happens without military conflict or a catastrophic implosion that leads to the chaotic splintering of North Korea. And assume that the new North Korean government agrees to denuclearize. What type of government would this be? In all likelihood, a pro-China one. After all, Beijing would necessarily have played a critical role in removing the Kim regime and replacing it with a government that wasn’t as recalcitrant.
A replacement North Korean government would require both financial and political, perhaps even military, backing from China. In the process, Beijing would have made sure that the new government answered to its bidding.
If this happens, South Korea will be forced to look to China for national security since China controls North Korea. Furthermore, with a tamed North Korea, what’s the justification for the continued U.S. military presence in South Korea? Eventually, there will be growing voices within South Korea, encouraged by China, to demand the withdrawal of American troops.
Worse, it’s an open secret that China wants direct access to the East Sea and North Pacific for its navy. Don’t be surprised if a Chinese naval fleet permanently parks off one of the northeastern ports in North Korea.
This will also make potential Sino-Russian naval military cooperation in the East Sea much easier to imagine, since Vladivostok is just a stone’s throw away. After all, if the United States, Japan and South Korea can conduct joint military exercises in the region, why not China, Russia and North Korea?
What will that do for Japan’s national security posture, and more importantly, where does this leave the American strategic posture in East Asia, arguably the most important region in the 21st century?
For South Korea, this means any hope of reunification will have to go exclusively through China. Note that South Korea’s trade volume with China is already two times greater than its trade with the United States, and it is bound to grow exponentially in this new situation. This means that South Korea will be increasingly dependent on China for its economic wellbeing as well as national security.
So the United States ends up with a North Korea that is, in effect, a Chinese puppet state and a South Korea that no longer needs the United States and is heavily dependent on China. Remember that this is the logical, best-case outcome from the standpoint of America’s current North Korea policy.
The success of the current policy will mean China has dominant influence and strategic positioning on the Korean Peninsula, with a reduced American role in Asia proper and its military relegated to Japan. I see how this is great for China’s growing hegemony in the region, but how is this good for America?
President Trump promised he would pursue an “America First” policy, putting national interests at the forefront in any dealings with foreign nations. This is not what’s happening here because the Trump administration has allowed itself to be convinced by manufactured urgency about the North Korean nuclear threat and has failed to re-examine the options strategically through the G-2 lens in which the United States and China are fiercely competing for primacy in defining the new world order.
There are better North Korea solutions that truly put America’s interest first and foremost, but they are only visible when you step back and examine the problem with a long-term strategic vision rather than the continuing myopia over the nuclear issue.
This is a classic case of missing the forest for the trees — America’s North Korea policy should be more than just a North Korea nukes policy. For the moment, unfortunately, the Trump administration’s current North Korea policy is more of a “China First” policy than an “America First” policy.
This is the first of a four-part series of Venerable Pomnyun Sunim’s views on North Korea.
*The author is a Buddhist monk engaged in humanitarian and human rights work in North Korea. He is also founder and chairman of the Peace Foundation, a national security policy think tank in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Venerable Pomnyun Sunim