The awkward and obviously unintentional collapse of the talks between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump on February 28 in Hanoi, Vietnam, is a setback only if one is seeking a sham deal that avoids the core issues. If we seek a genuine solution to the issue of North Korean nuclear arms, and even more important a reconfiguration of northeastern Asian political geography that will make the area far safer, then this is a welcome tossing aside of theatrical props and posturing that, if pursued tenaciously, will probably achieve its goal.
How should we score the second round in what now clearly will be a prolonged but substantial process?
First, the United States has lost nothing. North Korea remains an advanced nuclear state, whose possession of Tritium isotopes suggests thermonuclear ambitions.
Second, the walkout and Mr. Trump’s remarks that China’s leader Xi Jinping “could have been more helpful” puts China on the problem side, and not the solution side. Previous administrations and their Korean experts clung to the idea that if we could improve relations with China, sometimes by offering massive concessions, they might somehow step in and fix things for us. No, the Chinese proved adept at helping Kim develop his weapons while at the same time convincing Washington they might also help dismantle them.
That self-contradictory way of thinking mean combining an acquiescent policy toward China’s numerous violations of treaties and international law with a hard line toward North Korea.
Now, we have got China and North Korea where the United States wants them. Pyongyang knows that the embargo, already wreaking havoc, will be enforced even more strongly.
Here, however, is the magic: Because Trump has stated that the failure of this round of the talks is owed in part to the unhelpfulness of China’s President Xi, Beijing now faces most likely imposition of greatly increased tariffs and genuinely essential but difficult demands regarding trade mechanisms that will not be dropped at the last moment as a sign of good will—as we are so accustomed to doing.
In the past we have hoped that China would help us pressure North Korea, which meant we had simultaneously to be generous with China while penalizing North Korea. Now with China and North Korea both blamed by the U.S., perhaps the best way for Beijing to get the United States off its back would be by genuinely squeezing North Korea, for example by closing North Korea’s backdoor trade channels with China. With the whip in American hands alone, the two quondam allies will suffer together. This chastisement, moreover, can continue indefinitely and will, if Washington shows the same steel it did in walking out.
China and Korea are in the economic press, which steadily grows more and more powerful. What then?
Caught in this pincer, North Korea will likely opt to make a run for it by coming to terms with the United States. By doing so, Pyongyang will free itself of a long unwelcome embrace with China, a country Korea has long distrusted. The distinction between the two civilizations has been clear for thousands of years. Although recently, we should add, China has carried political historical research which identifies the proto-Korean state of Goguryeo (37 BCE-668 ‘CE) as proto-Chinese. This finding is worthless as scholarship, although it is an indirect assertion, perfectly understood by all Koreans, that the roughly co-terminous territory of North Korea and ancient Goguryeo, has in fact been Chinese since ancient times, thus indicating that China will therefore be historically justified if it annexes North Korea in a conflict.
The Korean view of China is nowhere clearer than in the late fifteenth century diary of Ch’oe Pu, called Record of Drifting Across the Sea. Ch’oe, cast away in China finally finds some local literati whom he dazzles with his mastery of Chinese classics, poetry composition, calligraphy, etc.—far superior to theirs—which confirms the long-standing view that while they may have borrowed certain things from China, the Koreans mastered them better than the Chinese. When camaraderie seems to be developing, his Chinese hosts question Ch’oe about his country’s military. Ch’oe, Korean to the marrow of his bones, presents a frightening (and inaccurate) description of Korea’s massive fortifications, immense army, advanced weapons, and so forth.
In a complementary way, the Chinese have long condescended to Korea or tried to bring her firmly into her political orbit. How much China really cared about Korea, however, is clear: only two members of China’s highest political elite in 1950, General Peng Dehuai and the Chairman himself, Mao Zedong, favored intervening to save North Korea, with the rest—Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao. Liu Shaoqi, all the absolutely top leaders—were persuaded that just conquered China already posed sufficient challenges without a war. Needless to say, Mao carried the day. Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, was deeply pro-Soviet and anti-Chinese. When the war ended, China wanted to leave some troops in Korea. Kim Il-sung, who wanted no such “reassurance,” expended no small diplomatic effort to send them packing.
Neither of these sets of attitudes is likely to change even if American Korean negotiations become difficult. Sources indicate that Kim himself has decided on the current policy. He understands that although the talking may be tough, the final result, a sort of entry into the world community for his country independent of China, will be well worth it. Nor is China the only consideration. As a member of the world economy, North Korea will have the ability to grow and raise her standard of living on her own.
What will the agreement be that gets Pyongyang out of the predicament created by the Chinese hug? Here is where we must be cautious. I have never believed that total verifiable, irreversible denuclearization was possible. If China can have several thousand nuclear missiles aimed at U.S. and allied forces (and a few at Pyongyang too, no doubt), clearly North Korea is not the major threat, though still a source of great concern. Pyongyang and Seoul are going to have to agree, in the final stages, what is a reasonable nuclear arsenal for North (and I would argue South) Korea as well.
Our model should be that of minimal deterrence followed by our allies France and England. Minimal deterrence means having a small but credible nuclear force that can destroy – and thus deter — an aggressor, but far too small to be used to start a war. Such a capability threatens no one. One does not start a war with one nuclear submarine, no matter how advanced. It does keep out trespassers. It is this author’s belief that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan should deploy such a capability immediately.
Some argue against nuclear weapons because they may lead to accidental war. This is true, and true for most weapons. Secrecy and confusion about such arms can also lead to instability and miscalculation. The most stable and least risk-prone order is based on a declared and transparent array of deterrent weapons, perhaps associated with an alliance, and having clear controls and rules of use. Numbers may be minimal to accomplish deterrence. Finally, the constraints inherent in such systems work against chaos and impulse.
In Asia, China’s nuclearization has so far induced North Korea and India to build such weapons as well, If Japan, South Korea and Taiwan likewise join the nuclear powers in a structured way, then the balance that prevented any first strike in the West for nearly fifty years will be replicated in the East. The danger of war will be greatly reduced by what might be “deterrent proliferation.”
This argument is no more than recognition that the mirage of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament has disappeared. Its only effect has been to allow dangerous and aggressive states to acquire such weapons, while others—all of Europe, Japan, and so forth—are subject to possible blackmail. “If you do not do this, we will use our weapons to destroy you; you have no escape.”
So, a second component at this stage may be a rebalancing, so that countries like Sweden, threatened by Russia, resumes its long extant nuclear program sufficiently for defensive purposes. Or a Taiwan where conventional capabilities are unlikely to deter. The United States should therefore encourage the formation of deterrent pairs, in which each partner constrains the others, and give up the idea that the United States alone will provide extended nuclear deterrence, which it will not.
Australia is a superb example of such a country, with much to deter. Australian scientists help build the bomb, and Australian National University was made world class to lure them home. Britain’s nuclear weapons were tested on the Australian continent. Remembering their country’s complete military isolation between the fall of Singapore in February 1942 and the battle of Midway in June 1942, during which time the Japanese bombed northern Australia continuously and sent submarines into Sydney Harbor, such political figures as the long-serving prime minister Robert Menzies and prime minister John Gorton, a war hero, insisted that Australia should be nuclear but the United States at that time was still smoking its nonproliferation pipe. Today things have changed. It is thought that Australia is purchasing the French Barracuda class submarine because it is nuclear capable. Should tensions rise too high, or actual conflict emerge, Australia would certainly go nuclear. This author believes that, in the interest of peace, deterrence, and its own security, Canberra should do so now. Something like the control that nuclear balance exercised over Western Europe in the Cold War would be replicated.
Such realignments would make nuclear war far more unthinkable than it is today, Let us turn now to other aspects – first, the extremely consequential rearrangement for the better of northeast Asian strategic geography.
That Kim’s primary aim is to end a destructive dependence upon China and bring his country into a more congenial international environment is ultimately speculation. Let us stipulate it for a moment, though. Under such situations, one can envision economic progress in North Korea, as well as a gradual process of reconciliation between the two Koreas, which had been one country since 1392. This would eliminate one of the most dangerous trip-wires remaining from Cold War times. Because all are threatened by China, one can likewise envision a gradual drawing closer of both Koreas with Japan, no doubt easier with the South where some thawing is evident.
Likewise, as North Korea distanced herself from China, her ties with Russia might well revive. A single initially north-running border creates a wide strip that connects Korea directly to Russia, with no passage over Chinese territory. Leaving North Korea along this border one is quickly in Vladivostok, and thereby connected to the vast Russian rail net over the northern half of East Asia. The last thing China wants is a continuous land route between north Asia and Europe that does not cross her territory. Such a connection would render Russia an independent player.
(Map by Mia Bennett)
That China and Russia will exist peacefully as the co-hegemons of the Pacific seems unlikely, both for broad geopolitical reasons and also geographical reasons. Although China has a long Pacific coast, access to the Pacific in conditions where it is being opposed, is effectively impossible, blocked by chains of Japanese islands, with the Miyako Passage the only possible route. This passage, however, is already being fortified by the Japanese so that, if needed, it can be made impassable.
And Korea? The western side of the Korean peninsula flanks to the north the long approach, five hundred miles at a minimum, from the Pacific Ocean to the Yellow Sea to the Korea Bay, Bohai, and other bodies of water, around which are arrayed Pyongyang, Tianjin, Beijing, and other key cities. Korea could close the exit from these key bodies of water, well inland with only one way out, using submarines, mines, and other means, thus completely incapacitating the northeast part of China that contains a cluster of strategically important cities, as well as the land route into the area of the Changbaishan and Manchuria, long areas of Korean settlement and today thought to be claimed by both Koreas. Russia’s borders form something like a hand enclosing these areas. These neighbors, the two Koreas and Japan, are simply too strong for China to conquer. Again, a dangerous trip wire cluster of borders would be simplified and made safer.
Finally, let us again turn to the United States. The shifts I have described would greatly reduce the need for Washington to take a decisive role in the defense of these crucial northeast Asian states, whose position would overmatch China’s. That development would in turn reduce dangers to the south, from the last Japanese islands, to Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and so forth. Even India, not directly affected would be more secure, for were China to encounter a Northeast Asia contingency, it would have to divide its forces lest trouble develops in Southeast and South Asia, and vice versa.
Nor are these actions in which the United States would be the prime actor. They reflect the natural strategic dictates of the sea and land geography, thus suiting the interests of the countries involved, who would certainly develop themselves in a newly favorable environment.
So, if successful, where are the Trump-Kim talks headed? The answer is quite broad. To no less than the end of the Cold War in Northeast Asia, and as we have seen, quite likely beyond. A concert of Asia? A pipedream. Perhaps, but perhaps not. For if the current talks are continued and yield a compromise that, as I have already stressed, will discard the impossible obstacle of insistence on the meaningless and unverifiable complete de-nuclearization of Korea. Quite the opposite: for real balances of power to emerge that will keep the peace, more countries will have to acquire minimal nuclear forces. Otherwise the stage is set for blackmail and hegemony by their possessors.
The question: how tenacious will Washington be in tightening the economic wrestling lock it now has on both China and Korea, to the point where both genuinely renounce their goals of world power (China) and nuclear great power status (North Korea) in return for a neighborhood reasonably safe to live in. The U.S. diplomatic establishment has never been known for the required degree of immovable strength: from Roosevelt in Europe, to Nixon in China, to Kissinger in Paris negotiating Vietnam, to Obama averting his eyes from a Chinese territorial grab, still showing no sign of being reversed, that encompasses a greater area than the Third Reich did at its peak in Europe and is every bit as dangerous.
Maybe by applying the requisite toughness on the relatively small Northeast Asian area of Greater Korea (84,500 square miles—roughly the United Kingdom), it will be possible to make some difficult and seemingly small breakthroughs that will gradually spread to spur strategic rearrangement of a whole hemisphere.