The Umbrella Solution
The cooperation spiral outlined above has numerous intricate steps that can be sequenced in different ways, but may ultimately be too complex and difficult to negotiate and adhere to. Alternatively, diplomats may have to focus on the “heart of the matter.” As stated above more than once, it is most feasible to exchange denuclearization for security assurances. Recall that President John Kennedy gave over a “non-invasion pledge” to the Castro regime as part of the agreement to remove Soviet missiles. Sen. Rand Paul strongly hints at this approach with his latest peace proposal on the North Korean Crisis, wherein he innovatively suggests that Chinese soldiers be invited to return to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas—a location they left in the late 1950s. Paul may or may not realize that many Chinese strategists have actually come to a very similar conclusion. Thus, in my survey of Chinese perspectives on the North Korean nuclear issue from earlier this month, it was evident that at least three major Chinese foreign-policy analysts—Yan Xuetong, Wang Xiaobo and Dai Xu—have all explicitly endorsed the notion of extending a Chinese security umbrella in some form. That Beijing is warming to such ideas was, moreover, suggested by an unusual English-language editorial in Global Times (环球时报), reposted on the official Chinese military website on April 12, 2017, that emphasized China’s growing power and its willingness to protect North Korea. I have advocated myself for this type of solution since publication of my 2015 book in which I pointed out the strange paradox that the peninsula might actually be stabilized by a return to the stark 1950s-style superpower deterrence of bipolarity. However, there is a problem with this approach and that is primarily that Pyongyang may not trust Beijing enough to accept the umbrella even if offered.
The Moscow-Tokyo Solution
What could strengthen the umbrella considerably would be the addition of yet another major military power, namely Russia, to form a phalanx of strong countries defending North Korea. That’s not so strange given the gradually warming military ties between China and Russia. Plus, Russia might bear some substantial responsibility for the advent of a nuclear North Korea in the first place, since it first gave over a nuclear reactor in the early 1960s and trained the first generation of Pyongyang’s nuclear scientists. Consider also that Russian president Vladimir Putin did meet with Kim Jong-un’s father, so there could be precedent. Also consider that Moscow has a history of protecting various unsavory regimes, such as Syria. Could the prestige benefits of welcoming a couple squadrons of shiny Chinese J-10 interceptors or the fearsome Russian Bastion coastal anti-ship system based in North Korea be enough to convince Kim to shutter and then trade away his nuclear arsenal? Of course, North Korea could only enjoy the new stature of this proposed “Triple Alliance” (Russia/China/North Korea) if it agreed to denuclearization. This proposal could gain additional legs if there were various economic carrots that accompanied the proposal and here Japan could be extremely helpful. What if Tokyo were to agree to overhaul North Korea’s energy infrastructure or its health care system or its transport infrastructure? No doubt, the richest country in the region could do much to help the poorest country in Northeast Asia if it agreed to denuclearize. Yet so far the Japanese leadership has been sadly content to see its poll numbers increase substantially based on rising fear during the current crisis and even advocated recently in the opinion pages of the New York Times that “more dialogue with North Korea would be a dead end.” To actually remove the imminent danger that now threatens Japanese cities with destruction, Tokyo must move beyond discussing abductees and applying more “sticks” to a more constructive and dynamic promotion of “carrots” in order to achieve denuclearization—or at least a “freeze” on testing. This last solution rests on the premise that the United States and China have largely failed to make progress on the North Korea nuclear issue, but that other powers—both Russia and Japan in particular—have major cards to play in order to calm down the current tensions.
This article has focused on carrots rather than sticks, not least because the vast majority of other articles in the Western media are firmly highlighting the need for stricter sanctions and increased deterrent capabilities. However regrettable, I will concede that it may indeed be necessary to reintroduce U.S. battlefield (tactical) nuclear weaponry back into South Korea, in part to stave off the growing calls for South Korean nuclear weaponry. Tighter sanctions, particularly as implemented by Beijing and Moscow, might be helpful as well. However, such coercive policies need to be embedded in a framework that outlines and emphasizes a better, nonnuclear future for North Korea. If there is to still be a chance at denuclearization, that future for North Korea must mean a substantially more secure and prosperous situation for the Kim regime as well. For realists like the readership of TNI, these circumstances are all rather obvious, but we had better help educate our neoliberal and neoconservative colleagues, who seem so eager to reinforce “regime change options,” thus careening recklessly toward engaging in (nuclear) hostilities with “Rocket Man.” If there ever was a fool’s errand in American diplomacy—and there have been all too many of late—a catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula would take the ultimate prize.
Lyle J. Goldstein is professor of strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government.