Realism on the Korean Peninsula: Real Threats, Real Dangers

August 13, 2003

Realism on the Korean Peninsula: Real Threats, Real Dangers

The communist regime of North Korea now deploys ballistic missiles capable of striking Japan and, possibly, the western territory of the United States.

The communist regime of North Korea now deploys ballistic missiles capable of striking Japan and, possibly, the western territory of the United States. It may have a couple of nuclear warheads developed from spent fuel diverted from a nuclear reactor located north of the capital city of Pyongyang. The 1995 agreement between the United States and the regime of Kim Jong-Il ostensibly froze that regime's nuclear weapons production in return for the future reconstruction of two additional nuclear reactors, the provision of many tons of fuel oil and food, and a reciprocal agreement that the North Korean communists would allow UN and IAEA inspections to determine the extent to which spent nuclear fuel was in fact diverted from the Yongbon nuclear reactor in contravention of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signed by the North in 1985.

The current American administration has sought to secure an agreement among the regional actors-China, Russia, Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) on a multilateral approach to ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons. The aim is to have a unified position to take away the North Korean gambit of playing each of the parties against the United States to avoid making the concessions required to end its nuclear program. A critical part of that strategy has been securing the cooperation of the Chinese government in pushing the communist regime in North Korea to agree to what are termed "multilateral" negotiations.

Ted Carpenter of the CATO Institute wrote last week (  how foolish such a strategy was, arguing that China could exercise little, if any, influence over the regime in North Korea, frightened as North Korea was by the hostile attitude of the United States and its deployment of U.S. military forces in both the Republic of Korea and the region. Carpenter and his colleagues at CATO have argued for nearly a quarter of a century that U.S. forces should withdraw from the Republic of Korea, not because we are not defending that country, but because the North is insufficiently reckless to initiate hostilities regardless of the U.S. presence, and, all things being equal, the U.S. military should simply withdraw from the ROK and the region. Ironically, many on the left argue that the US military presence in Korea is actually preferred by the DPRK because it acts as a brake on a possible invasion of the North by rogue elements within the ROK military. While both positions are fanciful, the impact of a constant refrain from Carpenter, and his CATO colleague Doug Bandow (see his essay in In the National Interest, at , that U.S. military forces in the ROK should unconditionally come home, undermines the security and freedom of the region and leaves the impression of a United States now tired of its security commitment to Seoul.

The CATO Institute argues that a large U.S. military establishment, by definition, requires a large and powerful U.S. central government, high taxation, and powers inconsistent with our Bill of Rights and Constitution. Ironically, the unwarranted power of the United States government over private property and the chipping away at our liberties is a problem identified by CATO with which I concur. 

However, Carpenter has long advocated a unilateral withdrawal of our U.S. forces from the Republic of Korea, under the guise of arguing that such a reduction of U.S. forces would save tax-payer dollars, as well as U.S. lives, should there be an armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula. 

In fact, Carpenter, in conversations I have had with him, readily agrees that a U.S. withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula might very well precipitate an invasion by the communists in the North with the aim of quickly capturing Seoul and then suing for peace in an agreement that would eventually give control over a unified country to the communists.

Apart from the fact that U.S. forces withdrawn from the ROK would be redeployed elsewhere in the U.S. and thus save the U.S. taxpayers nothing and given that U.S. military forces deployed overseas and at home have declined by over 1 million soldiers since the end of the Cold War, a withdrawal from the ROK by the United States would do nothing except cause another Korean War, kill millions of Korean civilians and soldiers and place in danger the ability of Japan to maintain its economy in the face of a Korean Peninsula in communist hands. As every Commander of U.S. forces in Korea since 1979 has told Congress in public testimony, Japan is not defensible if Korea is taken by the communists. A blockade of trade routes to and from Japan would become a realistic weapon in the hands of the PRC, not dissimilar to a blockade of Taiwan by the PRC portrayed by Patrick Robinson in Kilo Class.

Given this context, let us examine Carpenter's assertion that China has no authority over North Korea. While Carpenter and I agree that a nuclear North Korea is a problem the Chinese want desperately to go away, I believe the PRC has the capability to significantly help in the achievement of that goal. 

The economy in the North is highly dependent upon trade with China and sends thousands of guest workers to be employed in China. China supplies a North's high percent of the required fuel and food shipments, provides major economic and financial assistance to the North, including almost its entire military assistance and has a mutual defense treaty with the regime in Pyongyang.  Though the figures are uncertain, they tend to support the conclusion that upwards of 75-90 percent of the economy of the North is supported by the PRC.

Now, it may be that the Communist hardliners in Beijing have supported both the North's missile program and nuclear weapons work in a double game of both claiming to be in favor of a non-nuclear Korean peninsula and the NPT, as well as working to provide the communist North with a coercive nuclear and ballistic missile capability. But it is about time the apologists for the Chinese were finally made to decide whose side they are on: the side of non- and counter-proliferation or the side of spreading weapons of mass destruction. It is also time, as the President has noted, for the government in Beijing to figure out which side it is on and whether its rhetoric about a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula is real or not.

We have already seen how Beijing has worked with both the former Iraqi government and the mullahs in Iran on weapons programs. It is all together proper and fitting, therefore, for the Bush Administration to work to reverse these Chinese tendencies and seek China's cooperation to stop, rather than cause, proliferation. Too often the assumption in the foreign policy establishment has been that that Chinese have some right to proliferate weapons, at which we will "wink", as we make excuse after excuse for their behavior.

For example, Joe Cirincione at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace charged that the combination of U.S. missile defenses and nuclear forces-"first the shield, then the sword"-- was undermining China's deterrent, though it remains unclear what it is China was deterring the U.S. from doing. More likely, the PRC is concerned the U.S. is more likely to come to the defense of its allies in the region if we maintain both a missile defense and a nuclear deterrent, rather than a nuclear deterrent alone. Failing to deter potential Chinese aggression would be an open invitation to further military adventures, certainly not a sensible U.S. policy to follow. 

The Bush Administration is thus pushing the PRC to make a choice between continuing its proliferation policies and finally shaping up. In my view, the Chinese communists in Beijing have all the power they need to stop not only the missile deployments and sales of the Kim Jong-Il government, but its nuclear programs as well.  The key is what future the Chinese government officials now with the upper hand in Beijing decide: to pursue a China that fully integrates with the development of the Pacific region, its investment, trade and growth, or a China that seeks hegemonic control over the Pacific and its future.

The Bush administration is absolutely right to insist that China begin to play a positive role in counter-proliferation policies designed to contain the spread of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.  For too long, the North Korean communists have sought to negotiate with the United States alone so any U.S. requirement that the North abide by in agreements to get rid of its nuclear weapons will be met with North Korean insistence that such terms are too onerous or "unfair". With a unified front with Japan, the ROK, Russia, and China, the U.S. would then allow the North less wiggle room to renege on its obligations and less ability to play one member of the coalition against the other. If all members of the group can agree that the North Korean nuclear program must be curtailed, stopped and then destroyed, then they will be more likely to push for an agreement that meets those ends.  Having secured agreement among the negotiating five-the Republic of Korea, Japan, PRC, Russia and the United States-the leverage that can be brought to bear on the North Koreans could be formidable.