North Korea Moves to War Footing

It seems like we’ve all seen this movie before.  North Korea feels affronted and blusters; South Korea and the United States respond with negotiations and a concession or two; China and Russia seek a peaceful resolution (plus the survival of their buffer neighbor); and Japan just wants the problem to go away, which it does—until the next time North Korea feels affronted.

But this time North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has ratcheted up tensions beyond the country’s usual bluster.  On March 11 North Korea invalidated its sixty-year armistice with South Korea.  And after the participation of two B-2 nuclear-capable bombers during a joint exercise between American and South Korean forces, on March 29 Pyongyang declared a “state of war” between it and South Korea, threatening to strike not only its southern neighbor, but also the United States (nominally Alaska, Guam, and Hawaii, since North Korean missiles can only reach that far).  With a modern military of its own, South Korea has vowed to respond if attacked.  And, of course, there are about 25,000 American troops stationed in the country, too.

So what strategy should the United States pursue in this latest crisis on the Korean Peninsula?  Surely, in crafting its approach, Washington should keep in mind its most important long-term interest in the region which, in my opinion, is the strengthening of the American alliance with South Korea and Japan.  That alliance is crucial to counterbalance a rising China and resurgent Russia in Northeast Asia.  But to arrive at a practical strategy for this crisis, it is informative to start by considering some strategic extremes and what effect they may have on that alliance:

The United States could advance an escalatory strategy to demonstrate to North Korea that it cannot continue to bluster at every perceived slight.  And if war comes, so be it.  The United States has adequate anti-ballistic missile defenses aboard Navy warships to defend Hawaii and Army air defense batteries could be dispatched to protect Alaska and Guam.  Of course, Seoul may not feel as secure if North Korea launches a large-scale conventional attack or nuclear weapons against it; but more likely Pyongyang will take more limited military action.  Such an outcome would likely lead South Korea and Japan to further bolster their defenses, though perhaps not with nuclear weapons (unless North Korea uses them first).  And a militarily stronger South Korea and Japan could better maintain the balance of power in Northeast Asia, removing some of the burden from the United States.

At the other end of the spectrum, the United States could adopt an appeasement policy—giving North Korea what it wants in exchange for a de-escalation of tensions—and return to waiting for Kim Jong-un’s regime to collapse.  While appeasement may not please the American ear, it is an option that would remove the specter of armed conflict and would be practical if one believes that time is on one’s side.  Of course, there may be a big knock-on effect: America’s guarantee of extended deterrence would ring a bit hollower in South Korea and Japan (not to mention in Taiwan, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia).  Still, South Korea and Japan would likely further bolster their defenses, this time probably with nuclear weapons.  In this case, the balance of power outcome in Northeast Asia might still resemble the former, but the level of trust among South Korea, Japan, and the United States would likely suffer.

Ultimately, the approach the United States will take is likely to fall in between the two extremes.  The Obama administration’s “strategic patience” is one.  It seeks to break the cycle of North Korean bluster by simply waiting for North Korea to back down and seek negotiations without any concessions from South Korea or the United States.  Kim Jong-un is now putting that strategy to the test.  In the meantime, the United States deployed F-22 fighters to South Korea on Sunday.

However this crisis ends, South Korea and Japan are likely to strengthen their armed forces.  In the long run, that should benefit the United States, if it can keep the alliance strong.  So, in dealing with this crisis, Washington would be wise not to take an approach without first learning and integrating the views of South Korea and Japan—because not only will they bear most of the consequences (both intended and unintended) of any strategy to deal with North Korea, but also the United States would benefit from avoiding any approach that may create divisions between it, South Korea, and Japan, and in doing so inadvertently weaken the alliance that is so vital for the broader regional balance of power.

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Will Economics Still Prevail Over Politics in Asia?

Most people today closely associate Asia with robust economic growth, fueled by expansion in infrastructure, manufacturing, and services.  Even though there have been bumps along the way, notably during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997–1998, both before and after that crisis hundreds of millions were lifted out of poverty.  Throughout the 1990s, many Asians even spoke of a special set of Asian values that contributed to their success.  And while some values have proved to be double edged, many came to see at least one of them reflected in Asia’s general attitude toward international relations—a preference for consensus over confrontation.  That preference, the theory goes, gave rise to the notion that economic development should take precedence over political competition, paving the way for greater regional and regime stability.

Indeed, it may be better said that much of Asia came to choose economic development over political competition not because of any special set of values, but rather because of weariness with many decades of conflict.  Now, after three decades of relative peace and economic prosperity, armed conflict seems a distant possibility to many Asians.  Even on Taiwan, which faces increasing diplomatic isolation and periodic Chinese threats of forced unification, most Taiwanese are relatively nonchalant about the possibility.  And, until recently, something similar could be said of Japanese, who viewed Russia’s territorial claims on their northern territories with greater concern than those of China on the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands, if you happen to be in Beijing).

Besides, after the Cold War ended, many Americans believed that their continued engagement with Beijing and in the region would relieve the tensions associated with China’s rise and defuse the need for any arms race in Asia.  From the Chinese perspective, their country’s rise would not be a cause for concern among its neighbors, as it would be simply reasserting its traditional (and rightful) place in Asia.  Indeed, China’s rise would benefit all Asians.  And, in any case, surely no country—least of all China which has so greatly benefited from the extended period of peace—would have much incentive to upset its own economic growth with the potential for conflict.

But clearly those expectations have their limits.  China has grown increasingly strident in its maritime disputes with Japan and the countries that ring the South China Sea.  Meanwhile, China’s dam building on the Mekong River without the consultation of its Southeast Asian neighbors has not endeared the country to those on the Indochina peninsula.  And with Chinese influence spilling into the Indian Ocean, India has grown nervous too.  It turns out that not all of China’s neighbors share its unreserved fondness for the way things were during imperial China’s heyday.  Hence, tensions across Asia have increased as Chinese behavior has become more assertive, matching its enhanced economic and military prowess.  And so, many Asian countries have begun to rearm, most recently Japan, which shifted its military focus southward and boosted its defense budget for the first time in over a decade.

For a time, it did seem as though the prospect for war in Asia had been entirely banished to the shadows.  However, it has become apparent that the ever-greater certainty of peace had bred a sense of complacency that long-simmering tensions would ultimately be amicably resolved or indefinitely postponed.  Today, some of those tensions have resurfaced.  Politics still matter and once again threaten to take primacy over economic ties.  Hopefully, with the renewed attention devoted to them, Asia can put some of these tensions to rest and return to its economic development.  Otherwise, they are likely to augur ill for the future.

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