If it came to a war, China would probably figure that rivals Japan and South Korea would be damaged, materially or economically; North Korea would probably survive; Taiwan would be warned; America would face huge costs of all sorts; a horrified Europe would sermonize and watch; and an unscathed China would fill the resulting economic, security, and political regional vacuum. Insane thinking? Perhaps — but not therein unlikely.
2) Our regional allies are on the same page.
It is hard to know whether South Korea hates Japan more than it fears its lunatic neighbor to the north. Affluent and leisured Western societies in general often exhibit guilt, romance, or simple naiveté toward backward nations that hate them. Such animus from foreigners makes no sense to rational Westerners, who always look inward to find ways of persuading monsters abroad of their own good intentions — even as they in contrast take for granted, or resent, kindred Western powers. Elite ignoramuses on campuses are more likely to wear Che T-shirts than those of Margaret Thatcher, even though Cuba once had nukes pointed at the U.S. while Thatcher’s Britain helped to win the Cold War and lessen the threat of a Soviet strike on the United States. Barack Obama has found hundreds of ways to aggravate allied Israel and Great Britain in a way that he would never do to an increasingly Islamist Turkey.
Had South Korea’s government marshaled its popular culture against the North, dropped the cheap and easy ankle-biting of Japan, curbed its periodic fits of anti-Americanism, and simply focused on defense and strategic investments designed to deter the North, and commensurate with its now huge economy, it would be far safer today. Instead, its corrupt “Sunshine” policy, various profit-making enterprises contingent on cheap North Korea labor, and periodic bribe-paying have only emboldened the North. The plea that the next Korean War would be fought on Korean soil by Koreans aided by outsiders is true; but in this age of appeasement that fact is not a good argument to enlist allied help (e.g., a contemporary post-Vietnam, post-Iraq American is just as likely to respond, “I agree: so we do not wish to fight someone else’s war on their land, as we did in 1950, given that the more humane answer is to let the concerned parties find their own diplomatic solutions.”) Whatever one thinks of Obama, it is unwise to bluff him with threats of being ambiguous about U.S. military assistance: he is only too happy to oblige, as the hapless Iraqis learned in 2009 when we simply left for good.
How odd that South Korean elites often resent Japan, whose capable navy will help them in extremis, and the U.S., whose land, air, and sea forces are essential to South Korea’s existence. Perhaps deluded nationalists in the South dream that a Sunshine policy will insidiously both elevate and moderate the North, to the point that decades in the future it will by osmosis append itself to South Korea — with the result a unified powerhouse on the Korean peninsula that might have a population and economy commensurate to that of Japan’s. Something must explain the passive-aggressive attitude of the South toward both its existential enemy North Korea, and its only hope of foreign salvation, Japan and the United States.
3) The U.S. has clout in the region.
America should have clout — given that the U.S. military is formidable beyond imagination, a weakened American economy is still by far the world’s most productive, and it saved South Korea in the past by taking a frightening toll on the Chinese and North Korean militaries on the peninsula. But fairly or not, after the last four years, bad actors worldwide have sensed a predicable pattern in U.S. foreign policy. Stung by Afghanistan and Iraq, and trapped in multicultural, UN rhetoric, we talk loudly and carry a small stick. Iran learned that the more the U.S. announced deadlines about ceasing nuclear proliferation, the less they had to worry about consequences. (So much so that President Obama apparently worried about saying a single word of encouragement to the million Iranians who hit the streets during the spring 2009 protests).