Much of what is written about the North Korean crisis seems to me little more than fantasy. Let us examine the mythologies.
1) China is a responsible partner in checking North Korea and, of course, does not want war.
It may well be true that China’s communist apparat wishes to avoid a war, or even the escalating tensions of a war-like environment that in theory could depress profits and endanger profitable Chinese commerce. But there is very little support in history for the rationalistic notion that mutually profitable relationships thwart suicidal wars.
Diplomatic grandees claimed in 1913 that Europe’s interconnected trade, rails, and tourism were such that no German nationalist would be so foolish as to endanger a mutually profitable system by invading France and Belgium. The Somme and Verdun followed. By early 1941, Hitler was warned by some of his planners that Germany’s new de facto ally, the Soviet Union, was sending to Berlin (often on credit and with free transportation thrown in) almost every resource that the Third Reich requested. No matter; Hitler invaded in June 1941, Stalingrad followed, and Nazi Germany never was able to steal as much Russian wealth through invasion and occupation as it had in the past simply bought on credit.
Of course, China is amused by North Korea’s latest theatrics. Kim Jung-un’s brinkmanship causes endless apprehension for China’s existential enemy, Japan. It reminds South Korea that the peninsula will never be united by a pro-Western capitalist south. And it reveals the United States as a sort of impotent and neurotic busybody that eventually offers concessions and pays bribes in direct proportion to its serial announcements that it has quit doing just that.
And what if all the insane North Korean threats are credible?
We dismiss that nightmare, but in autumn 1950 Mao made it repeatedly clear that as U.S. forces neared the Yalu River, he would intervene with massive ground troops. What a silly threat, Gen. Douglas MacArthur assured us as he promised Americans that their boys would be home for Christmas dinner. After all, China was not nuclear; it had no independent air force; it was still in revolutionary turmoil; its North Korean pawn was all but annihilated after Inchon; an unpredictable America had recently dropped two atomic bombs; and China’s poorly supplied conscripts would be slaughtered by overwhelming American air and artillery power.
Yet intervene Mao did, supplied with superb Russian weaponry, thousands of Russian advisors (and combatants), and protected under the Russian nuclear umbrella. Stalin, in the manner of China’s present pique with Kim Jung-un, “disapproved” of Mao’s risk-taking, but ultimately found war less a downside than the upside of pain inflicted on its rival, the U.S. And as far as North Korea’s thinking, it may well be preemptive in nature — in the manner Sparta “feared” Athens and believed that things were only to get more one-sided and disadvantageous in the future.
If sanctions continue and the Danegeld is truly cut off, then North Korea might figure that now is as good a time as any to start something that might end without its own annihilation — and result in a situation no worse than its present slow strangulation. Kim Jung-un’s much publicized youth and inexperience, the belated assertiveness of untried South Korean president Park Geun-hye, and the perception of an underwhelming U.S. president, secretary of State, and secretary of Defense all are force-multipliers that increase the likelihood of conflict.
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).
How many times has the U.S. warned Bashar Assad to step down? Barack Obama’s off-mic quip to Dmitry Medvedev, promising Mr. Putin that he would be more flexible after the election, was a reminder to the world that in the second term Obama would no longer fear the supposed right wing Neanderthals in his midst and thus could conduct the proper sort of foreign policy that he only dreamed of in the first term. “Leading from behind,” as our allies learned in Libya and France has sensed in North Africa, has little to do with any leading at all. North Korea may fear the U.S. to the degree that the Libyans who slaughtered American diplomatic personnel fear a reckoning, that the Argentinians fear American condemnation should they restart the Falklands War, or that Hezbollah and Hamas are terrified of American reaction should they replay the 2006 Lebanon conflict.
Yet the truth is that America could have enormous clout in one unmentionable way. In the post-Cold War era there was a rough understanding with the communist world, particularly with Red China as it pertained to the Koreas. We would ensure that our Pacific clients would not go nuclear — Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan — and China in turn would harness North Korea. Note also that our allies could make thousands of nukes like they do Hondas and Kias in a way Pyongyang could only make a few, and badly at that. Moreover, nuclear North Korea is a long way from the United States and Europe, while Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are quite close to China, which already has enough temperamental nuclear states on its borders like Russia, India, Pakistan, and soon Iran.
The influence that America has in this psychodramatic, but nevertheless high-stakes stand-off is to apprise China that we no longer have reservations about regional powers tending to their own security needs, in response to North Korea’s nuclear banter. Note here that the U.S. does not fear nuclear weapons per se — consider the case of nuclear and democratic Britain, France, India, and Israel — just the combination of them with renegade and illiberal states, something that would not be true of a Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan.
4) All would lose equally in a new Korean War.
There are all sorts of scenarios that entail terrible death and destruction. They are predicated on North Korea launching, from fortified bunkers and in the first three or four hours of the conflict, tens of thousands of missiles and artillery shells, many of them perhaps laced with chemical and biological weapons, on allied ground troops in the DMZ, Seoul’s commercial hub, and American assets off the coast. This is a nightmare to be avoided at all costs if possible.
But note the Korean War was not the Vietnam War, in the manner that Iraq 1991 was not Iraq 2003-8. The U.S. would not be fighting a counter-insurgency war, but one entirely punitive, largely from the air and sea in open skies rather in jungles or labyrinths like Fallujah, with an ally on the ground of some 50 million people more worried about too few rather than too many Americans.
The truly nightmarish scenario is not what North Korea would do before its arsenals were neutralized, but the gruesome toll from the unimaginable barrage of U.S. missiles and shells that would rain down on the North, and the vulnerability of North Korean ground assets to unfettered U.S. airpower. Ground-to-ground fighting would largely be conventional and in the open, and mostly the responsibility of the South Korean military. The resulting ruination might easily resemble Japan after the recent tsunami. Yet in Strangelovian terms, the North would lose the war, and lose it very badly — a fact welcome to almost everyone worldwide except the 100,000 or so of the North Korean nomenklatura.
In sum, we don’t know what will happen in Korea. But do not assume that China is working for peace, that war is just too unprofitable to break out, that South Korea is well-integrated with its allies, that concerned parties listen to the U.S., or that an unthinkable and nihilistic war could neither be won nor lost.
Repeating conventional wisdom does not make it true.