The Real North Korea Disaster Isn't War (But Collapse)

January 3, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Skeptics Tags: North KoreaChinaMilitaryTechnologyWarU.S.History

The Real North Korea Disaster Isn't War (But Collapse)

What happens then? 

To ease China’s concerns the United States should indicate that if the Koreas reunited, then American forces would go home. Washington would not seek to use Beijing’s forbearance against the PRC. If China accepted a reunited Korea, then the latter would not become a base for American military operations.

Seoul could reinforce that message by pledging military neutrality. (Robert Kelly of Pusan National University terms it “Finlandization,” after Finland’s careful policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union during the Cold War.) The ROK would trade with everyone, including China, Japan and America; the many personal and cultural ties between the South and United States would remain. But South Korea would be an independent military actor, rather than act as a tool of American foreign policy.

This is the best, indeed, perhaps “only way,” as the Carnegie Endowment’s Michael D. Swaine put it, “to clear the path for China to exert is full influence against its neighbor.” That would mean threatening North Korea with economic isolation to back a U.S. proposal for security guarantees, economic development and political integration in return for denuclearization. This would be the ultimate deal by a president who prides himself on his dealmaking ability. He should put it to the test in Korea.

This still would be a second best solution, but that is no objection. Essentially every proposal involving North Korea, other than assuming the Tooth Fairy or Great Pumpkin is going to magically appear and solve the problem, is second best. It may be unfair to give the PRC a de facto veto over the ROK’s future, but the latter exists in a bad neighborhood, surrounded by three larger and at times hostile powers. Geopolitical accommodations are inevitable.

Nor does the ROK have any claim to a continued presence of American troops after reunification. Continuation of the alliance might be in Seoul’s interest, but it certainly is not in America’s interest. Indeed, today the South is capable of providing for its conventional defense. With the U.S. republic essentially bankrupt as it faces an entitlements tsunami, it cannot preserve every existing defense commitment simply because they exist. Of course, even a reunited Korea might feel uncomfortable next to an overwhelming China, but America’s military policy should reflect domestic security, not foreign charity. Moreover, the ROK has options, including building its own nuclear deterrent (perhaps preserving weapons acquired from the North) and working to improve its ties with Japan as well as Russia and India as possible counterweights to the PRC.

The future is uncertain, and nowhere is that truer than regarding North Korea. The United States and South Korea should explore creative alternatives to a hostile North Korea with a growing nuclear arsenal. Chinese domination of the peninsula’s north is one such alternative, a second best far superior to the status quo.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (Cato Institute) and The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (coauthor, Palgrave/MacMillan).

This first appeared in November.