They say that most of the world’s real dangers arise not because of what people don’t know but because of what they do «know» that just ain’t so.
As a case in point, consider three things about Korea that the bipartisan Washington establishment seems quite sure of but are far removed from reality:
Delusion 1: All options, including U.S. military force, are «on the table.»
- Everyone knows there are no military «options» the U.S. could use against North Korea that don’t result in disaster. The prospect that a «surgical strike» could «take out» (a muscular-sounding term much loved by laptop bombardiers) Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities is a fiction. Already impractical when considered against a country like Iran, no one believes a limited attack could eliminate North Korea’s ability to strike back, hard. At risk would be not only almost 30,000 U.S. troops in Korea but 25 million people in the Seoul metropolitan area, not to mention many more lives at risk in the rest of South Korea and perhaps Japan.
- Hence, any contemplated U.S. preemptive strike would have to be massive from the start, imposing a ghastly cost on North Koreans (do their lives count?) but still running the risk that anything less than total success would mean a devastating retaliation. That’s not even taking into account possible actions of other countries, notably China’s response to an American attack on their detestable buffer state.
Delusion 2: North Korea must be denuclearized.
- Whether anyone likes it or not, North Korea is a nuclear weapons state outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and will remain so. Kim Jong-un learned the lessons of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. Because Kim has weapons of mass destruction, especially nukes, he gets to stay alive and in power. If he gives them up, he can look forward to dancing the Tyburn jig or getting sodomized with a bayonet, then shot. That’s not a difficult choice.
Delusion 3: If the U.S. presses China hard enough, Beijing will solve the problem for us.
- There is no combination of U.S. sanctions, threats, or pressures that will make Beijing take steps that are fundamentally contrary to China’s vital national security interests. (Here, the «vital national security» of China means just that, not the way U.S. policymakers routinely abuse the term to mean anything they don’t like even if it has nothing to do with American security, much less with America’s survival.) Aside from speculation (which is all it is) that China could seek to engineer an internal coup to overthrow Kim in favor of a puppet administration, maintaining the current odious regime is Beijing’s only option if they don’t want to face the prospect of having on their border a reunited Korean peninsula under a government allied with Washington.
- After Moscow’s experience with the expansion of NATO following the 1990 reunification of Germany, why would Beijing take credibly any assurances from Washington (of which there is no indication anyway) not to expand into a vacuum created by a collapse of North Korea? Quite to the contrary, it has been suggested that if China refuses to deal with the North Korea problem on Washington’s behalf, then the U.S. would do it on its terms, presenting Beijing (in the description of former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton) with «regime collapse, huge refugee flows and U.S. flags flying along the Yalu River.» Adds Bolton, «China can do it the easier way or the harder way: It’s their choice. Time is growing short.» If under such a scenario U.S. forces end up on China’s border, suggests Bolton, they wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon. Don’t be so sure. In 1950, the last time American forces were on the Yalu River, they weren’t there very long when hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers crossed into Korea. Keep in mind that happened when China didn’t have nuclear weapons but the U.S. did.
The seemingly weekly rise and fall of the decibel level of bellicose rhetoric coming out of Washington and Pyongyang obscures the realities behind these three delusions. Little change can be expected from Pyongyang, whose policy at least has the virtue of simplicity: «if you do anything bad to us, we’ll do something really, really bad to you.»
So then, what are the prospects Washington could jump off the hamster wheel and come up with something besides threats and sanctions? The omens are not auspicious. Just before he left the White House, Steve Bannon violated the taboo surrounding Delusion 1: «Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don't die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don't know what you're talking about, there's no military solution here, they got us.» Then he was gone.
But let’s be optimistic. There have been reports of direct «back channel» contacts between North Korea and the U.S. at the United Nations in New York. Even Bolton suggests that some kind of accommodation could be made to China in the form of a pullback of U.S. forces down to the south, near Pusan, so as to be still «available for rapid deployment across Asia.» (Certainly, that’s one idea. Here’s a better one: how about getting us out of Korea entirely and not having Americans available for deployment across Asia?)
The definitive clarification should have been the Beijing-based Global Times editorial of August 10, 2017 («Reckless game over the Korean Peninsula runs risk of real war»), universally seen as reflecting the position of the Chinese government:
«China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten U.S. soil first and the U.S. retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the U.S. and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so».
That means that if Kim attacks the U.S., he’s on his own. If we attack Kim, we’re at war with China. In the latter case, while Russia would not likely directly join the fray we can be sure Moscow would provide China total support short of belligerency. Put mildly, this would not be in the American interest.
There is one, and only one overriding priority that should now guide U.S. policy on Korea. It’s not regime change in North Korea – despite that regime’s loathsomeness – or even the wellbeing of South Korea or Japan. It’s avoiding Kim’s developing a missile system capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the United States. How close North Korea might be to such a capability is the subject of wildly conflicting estimations. (Regarding the American lives hung out on the DMZ, there’s a simple solution to ensuring their safety – get them the hell out of there.)
But what about South Korea and Japan? Our «alliances» with them are a fiction. The U.S. guarantees their security but other than cooperating on the defense of their own territory they do nothing to safeguard ours, nor can they. The U.S. derives no benefit in continuing to make ourselves a target on account of a place that’s more than five thousand miles from the American mainland.
It’s time that «America First!» meant something. As a start, Washington could take seriously Beijing’s proposal for a double-freeze. On the one hand, Pyongyang would suspend its nuclear and missile programs, in particular halting tests of weapons with potential intercontinental range. Washington and Seoul would suspend joint military exercises, including practicing so-called «decapitation strikes« aimed at North Korea’s leadership.
If protecting our own territory and people is American officials’ top priority, and not, as they implausibly claim, «regime change» in North Korea, it’s hard to see why a double-freeze would not be a sensible first step. It would be largely up to China to see that the North Koreans complied with their part of the deal. If they did, perhaps it could lead towards a long-overdue settlement of this Cold War-era standoff and, in time, a reunited, neutral Korea. If not, all bets are off – but we’d be hardly worse off than we are now.