How long will peace last?
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
A huge war may be coming our way. Deeply imbedded in the ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China is the ideological conflict between liberalism and communism. Who knows how the dispute will end? It may spiral out into a military war.
If China reaches a point in which it feels cornered in the Sino-U.S. trade negotiations, it could drag in North Korea. When China joined the 1950-53 Korean War 69 years ago, its goal was to block the United States from taking control of the Korean Peninsula. Through that proxy war, it successfully blocked the United States from reaching its doorstep.
If China drags the North into the trade war, the stakes aren’t bad for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Pyongyang did say it would wait until the end of the year for Washington to present “a new calculus” in the denuclearization talks, but it appears the regime isn’t hesitating to use military force to get what it wants. Pyongyang test-launched a new type of short-range ballistic missile last month and the North’s state media has been reporting on Kim’s recent visits to military factories.
Last week, the state newspaper Rodong Sinmun published an analysis on satellite programs in other countries, prompting speculation that it’s considering an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch soon. Yet North Korea isn’t alone in flexing its military muscles. The United States hasn’t eliminated its military option against the North either.
Prof. Graham Allison of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government compared the China-U.S. dispute to the Thucydides’s Trap. Among the 16 instances throughout the past five centuries in which a rising power has instilled fear in an established power, 12 cases led to war, he said. During an interview with the Lowy Institute in 2017, Allison warned that the United States was “sleepwalking toward war with China.”
Since Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China has vastly grown on the economic front. In 2017, its manufacturing output jumped back up to 35 percent. That fanned China’s communist government to hope to become a global superpower in all realms.
But there were side effects to China’s astronomic growth. Throughout that process, China stole other countries’ technology and didn’t hesitate to pressure regional neighbors when it deemed they were getting in the way of its development. In a free and open world, China failed to peacefully get along with others.
South Korea knows this from experience, having been retaliated against for deploying the U.S.-led terminal high altitude area defense (Thaad) antimissile system. In order to claim the South China Sea, China built airstrips on artificial islands and landed military aircrafts on them. At a state like this, Korean cargo vessels that pass through the South China Sea to ship goods to Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, Africa and Europe may soon be forced to receive permission from Chinese authorities to use the sea route.
In turn, the United States is taking its own measures to counteract China’s growing influence in the South China Sea. The United States regularly deploys warships to the area and has joined hands with Japan, Australia and India to build a free and open Indo-Pacific. A passage from the “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report” published by the U.S. State Department on June 1 reads that China, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, “seeks to reorder the region to its advantage by leveraging military modernization, influence operations and predatory economics to coerce other nations.” Another part says, “We will not accept policies or actions that threaten or undermine the rules-based international order — an order that benefits all nations.”
If Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Seoul this month before the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Osaka, Japan, he may pressure South Korean President Moon Jae-in not to side with the United States in the China-U.S. trade dispute. But U.S. Ambassador to Korea Harry Harris said last Wednesday during a local information technology conference that South Korea should choose “a trusted supplier” because decisions made today regarding 5G networks will have “national security implications for decades.” Harris was basically trying to tell Seoul not to use products and technology from China’s telecoms giant Huawei. Seoul is currently sandwiched between two superpowers and is being forced to pick a side.
At a time when the chance of a proxy war looms over the Korean Peninsula, military force should be our final recourse. Yet South Korea’s military readiness is growing weaker by the day. South Korea’s Defense Ministry announced on June 3 that it’s chief, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, agreed with Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan that Seoul has made significant progress in its preparations to take over wartime operational control. Both sides were said to have agreed that after the wartime control transfer, a Korean four-star general will head a new South-U.S. joint military command and that the current Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command will move to Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi. The first test of Korea’s readiness to assume wartime control will be held this August, through a computer simulation exercise led by a four-star Korean general. Two more tests will then be held, and if South Korea passes them all, it will hopefully regain wartime operational control by 2022, the year Moon leaves the Blue House.
Yet the South borders a nuclear weapons state and it remains murky whether the regime will actually denuclearize. We can’t cross out the possibility that a proxy war may unfold on the Korean Peninsula if the China-U.S. trade dispute grows more intense. At a sensitive time like this, should the South rush to take back wartime operational control? Prof. Park Hwee-rhak of Kookmin University’s Graduate School of Politics and Leadership wonders, “Is it that hard to wait until the North Korea issue is resolved?”
If a four-star Korean general leads the South-U.S. joint military command, Park continued, Washington would have less responsibility over the defense of South Korea, which means that if Pyongyang were to attack the South, there would be a lower chance the United States would retaliate as actively as before and send more troops to the peninsula. It would be difficult for the South to even draw an operation plan in case of war if the United States refuses to reveal top military secrets to the South Korean commander. The real question is, will the United States be willing to put its troops’ lives in the hands of a South Korean commander?
The South Korean military is struggling with its own problems. It technically can’t call North Korea an “enemy” because the Defense Ministry deleted its reference to the North’s government and military as such in its latest white paper published in January. Educational guidelines for military personnel no longer contain information teaching about hostility, too.
Officers with a lack of experience have been appointed to top military positions regardless of the order in which they were commissioned, and one result that’s ensued from these critical issues is that the top military echelons have all become “yes-men.” Never have I heard of an officer who made a formal complaint about the inter-Korean military agreement signed on Sept. 19 of last year despite a cascade of criticism from military pundits.
Conscripted soldiers are now allowed to use cellphones in their barracks and go off base after work on weekdays for personal affairs up to twice a month, which has led to a growing sense of individualism in the military. Now there’s talk about no longer forcing new recruits to march 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) in full combat gear, long known as a rigorous rite of passage. A recent petition on the Blue House website asked for a commander to be penalized for punishing his soldiers after they failed to qualify as special forces by cutting back their vacations.
Last Thursday was Memorial Day, a day to remember patriots and fallen soldiers who put their lives at risk for their nation. The sad reality we face today, nearly 70 years after the Korean War, is that the hard-won peace may not last very long.