Watching the current situation unfold on the Korean peninsula, it’s hard not to think, “We’ve been here before,” or “Been there, done that..” While it’s always a dangerous idea on anyone’s behalf to ratchet up tensions in that corner of Asia, this seems particularly the case now, with Donald Trump in the White House. However qualified Mattis is, Trump has the final say on what happens, and he is dangerously inexperienced.
With that said, here are a few thoughts on the Korean situation.
1. As evil as the regime is, its collapse might be worse than its existence, at least currently. Reports of gulags that make Stalin’s look like Disney World, concentration camps, mind control practiced by the state, the mass rape of women and children; all of these things are of course horrifying, and should make any person of goodwill tremble with indignation. The regime, which has the Orwellian “Democratic People’s Republic” as its name, deserves to be destroyed, morally speaking. But thinking pragmatically, we have to ask what could replace it. Were the Pyongyang government to collapse, the meager system of public distribution still in place would disintegrate, probably causing even wider starvation than is currently being experienced. Collapse would mean that the few nuclear devices Pyongyang controls would likely vanish in the chaos, probably to be sold by whoever obtains them to the terror group offering the most hard cash.
Collapse would throw the region into chaos. A refugee crisis, potentially bigger than any other, would erupt. No one can predict what millions of fleeing North Koreans would be met with at China’s border, and South Korea would have no way to handle the flow.
2.The North Koreans will not start a war, at least not on purpose. The regime thrives off of confrontation and anti-Americanism, mixed with anti-Japanese rhetoric and outright racism against non-Koreans. The Kim family has long held itself up as the defenders of the Korean people against an evil outside world dominated by “American imperialists.” With the collapse in the 1990s of most public services, the diversion of nearly all wealth to the military under the state’s Songun policy, and the continued immiseration of the North Korean people, this claim is all the regime has to legitimize itself in its people’s eyes. Therefore, they will constantly issue threats and make dangerous provocations, but they will not do anything that they believe will cause a war, which they know they will lose handily.
Everything in North Korea is done for regime survival: the personality cult, the mass terror, the theatrics of the Mass Games, and more are all based on protecting the standing and privileges of Kim and his inner circle. Starting a war is simply not in their interest. However, there is the potential that the dangerously insulated regime could miscalculate and do something that provokes a war.
North Korea won’t, we can be sure, lob missiles at South Korea or Japan or the U.S. We should continue any covert operations to disrupt their missile testing, but it is a waste of time to install missile defense systems against them. It is up to the leaders in Washington, Beijing, Seoul, and to some extent, Tokyo and Moscow, to make sure war doesn’t break out.
3.War would make everything worse. In some instances and places, war is necessary, our Civil War and World War II being the most obvious examples, with George H.W. Bush’s first Gulf War being perhaps another. Intervention in Rwanda by someone could have helped prevent a genocide, or at least end it sooner. A no-fly zone in Syria, while not a war, would be a military action that could be a relief for hundreds of thousands of suffering civilians. The Korea situation, though, is not one of those instances.
If war breaks out there, it could lead to some sort of limited nuclear conflict. But the nukes are the least of the potential worries; a bigger threat is Pyongyang’s conventional army, which could destroy much of South Korea more quickly than we could neutralize them.
4. Peace will destroy the North Korean regime; the U.S. should give North Korea what they (say they) want, i.e. to hold bilateral talks, and figure out some way to sign a peace treaty with the rogue state. This is hard, because the U.S. was never technically at war with NK; it was a UN action. The armistice agreement was between several countries, and the UN maintains the UNMIK there. North Korea purposely tries to make it impossible for a peace treaty to end the war, because, as mentioned above, their only legitimacy comes from animosity towards the U.S. They demand that the U.S. sign a treaty, and refuse to sign with the UN or other disputants. Still, the U.S. should find a way to sign some sort of treaty with Pyongyang. This will remove any legitimacy the regime has, and make it impossible for them to continue their evil existence much longer.
5. Manage the transition. Once North Korea no longer has the U.S. as it’s bete noire, the regime’s control will begin to slip further and further, until transition becomes inevitable. That is good, but, like I was mentioning above, collapse would cause untold suffering.
Once the North Korean leadership “wins,” it will know it has lost, and the U.S. and, especially, China, can begin to make changes in North Korea behind the scenes. How this happens would have to be worked out, but it would require some mutual trust and understanding of benefits between the U.S. and China. There is a lot of common interest for stability in the region.
China cares less about human rights than South Korea, Japan, or the U.S. (which, under the Trump administration, is also not that much). Still, during the transition, this is one of the things that these countries (pushed by NGOs like Human Rights watch, as well as the UN system) can begin to ensure. China has an interest in keeping the North Korean people fed, because they don’t want a refugee crisis at their border.
As I stated above, these are just a few disparate thoughts on the situation in North Korea. They are more about the general US/NK relationship than the specifics of what Trump and Tillerson are talking about, but I think they are germane. Any comments or criticism are welcome, of course.
Image: Kids searching for food in North Korea, via Wikimedia Commons.