Ken Burns’ exceptional documentary on the Vietnam War reminds us once again that the conduct of U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific region has been less than flawless. The millions of victims of that needless conflict, including fifty-eight thousand American servicemen who made the ultimate sacrifice, should never be forgotten. As Ambassador Don Gregg recently wrote in a letter to the New York Times , the Burns documentary and the lessons of Vietnam have much to teach about avoiding “misguided decisions,” in the current Korean nuclear crisis. U.S. misunderstandings and misdeeds in Asia did not begin with Vietnam, however. Even as we always remember the unalloyed triumph of the Pacific War over Japanese militarism first and foremost, one need only reflect on the bloody Philippines intervention from the late nineteenth century or peruse the magisterial work Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna to learn about U.S. military operations in China during the early twentieth century, in order to glimpse the rather ambiguous foundations of U.S. hegemony in the region.
During the mid-1960s, the main concern for American strategists was, as it remains today, the misbegotten project of hemming in Chinese power. That project, crystallized in the 2011 announcement of the “rebalance,” badly soured U.S.-China relations, making it that much harder to reach practical consensus on key issues of bilateral concern, notably with respect to Korea. It is worth asking how much more progress could have been made on the Korean issue if U.S. and Chinese diplomats had not spent the last decade locked in verbal combat over the fate of various, rather meaningless “reefs and rocks.”
Yet, the main responsibility for today’s awful predicament on the Korean Peninsula must fall squarely on the George W. Bush administration that recklessly linked North Korea to the 9/11 attacks and sent Kim Jong-un’s father on a headlong rush for the bomb that culminated four years later in Pyongyang’s initial nuclear test. In an ironic and dangerously perverse twist of fate, some of the same incautious thinkers that dreamed up and pressed the “Axis of Evil” doctrine in the first place are now in positions of influence regarding the present crisis. The press was all too busy unraveling the fiasco of the Iraq War to ascertain its second order effects in Northeast Asia, much less to call to account those responsible. Is it any wonder that President Donald Trump’s speech before the UN in September had an eerie similarity in tone to Bush’s infamous 2002 speech? By now, Americans are quite sick and tired of neoconservative bromides that make for ringing rhetoric, but have had disastrous policy outcomes. However, to put disasters into true perspective, a new Korean War would quite obviously make the Iraq War look like a garden picnic.
Instead, Americans now seek practical solutions—call it the “Art of the Deal” if we must—that should empower creative diplomats rather than just military planners. Of course, the U.S. armed forces have a key role to play in assuring deterrence and also applying some reasonable pressure, serving as the “iron fist within the velvet glove.” Deterrence has worked and will continue to work: a small demonstration of the power of the U.S. military deterrent, for example, was the picture of a U.S. Navy nuclear-attack submarine pulling in for a stop at Busan, South Korea, that graced the cover page of China’s newspaper Global Times (环球时报) on April 26, 2017. However, the tendency everywhere visible for Americans to simply hope that the U.S. military could somehow make North Korea suddenly disappear is completely far-fetched and downright dangerous in so far as it feeds the bunker mentality in Pyongyang and leads Kim Jong-un to press his missile brigades to adopt hair-trigger practices as part of the well-known “use’m or lose’m” problem in nuclear strategy. With the recommendation that American strategists begin to discuss diplomatic solutions in earnest (and the hope this is well underway behind the scenes), this Dragon Eye will focus on four diplomatic initiatives that could help move this situation back from the edge of apocalyptic war.
Before elaborating these proposals, however, it will be essential to dismiss two unfortunate myths. The first is that any negotiations with North Korea are bound to fail . That conclusion is primarily derived from the experience of the 1994 Agreed Framework, and recent analyses of that episode show more than a little blame also belongs with the U.S. side regarding haphazard implementation. That critical agreement may well have been killed for ideological reasons, as one expert rendering reveals. A second extremely widespread myth concerns the supposed viability of new and enhanced sanctions to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The logic is flawed on many levels, not least that North Korea is a very different country than Iran. But the core problem is actually that nobody knows how to “collapse” a regime possessing nuclear weapons. Perhaps Pyongyang suddenly caves and becomes malleable. Alternatively, perhaps the Kim regime calculates the end is near and so places all bets on the desperate, irrational gamble of (nuclear) war. In short, the sanctions logic of ever intensifying pressure puts far too much stock in the rational mind while ignoring the fact that irrational and passionate impulses are everywhere evident in human behavior—to the point that such impulses may be called “normal.” With a healthy respect for a rational and reasonable negotiated solution to the current crisis, the discussion below outlines four possible structures for a negotiated settlement.