North America Korean Peninsula

Apocalypse soon?

David Martin Jones and MLR Smith analyse Trump’s thinking on North Korea

North Koreans read about Pyongyang’s missile launch

‘I shall return’, announced General Douglas MacArthur in March 1942 following the fall of the Philippines to the Japanese in the Second World War. MacArthur did indeed return, reconquering the Philippines and leading the Allies to victory in the Pacific in 1945.

Subsequently, MacArthur led the United Nations forces in Korea following the North’s invasion of the South in June 1950, halting the communist advance with the audacious amphibious assault at Inchon. This notwithstanding, President Harry Truman sacked MacArthur the following year for insubordination after he advocated invading northern China, which had sent the People’s Liberation Army to the aid of North Korea. MacArthur’s plan included atomic attacks against China, making the prospect all the more disquieting.

Currently, the spectre of General MacArthur haunts the peninsula because the strategic conundrum the Americans face today remains eerily similar to 1951: namely, how to curtail a recalcitrant North Korea without recourse to outright war and nuclear escalation? 

Missile etiquette

During his presidential campaign and after his inauguration, Donald Trump asserted that he would deal more forcefully with the Kim dynasty that has ruled North Korea since 1948. The policy seemed somewhat clearer when National Security Adviser, HR McMaster, stated that Pyongyang’s pattern of threatening and provocative behaviour ‘just can’t continue’. 

The ‘provocative’ behaviour is the North Korean nuclear missile threat. Its nuclear programme gained momentum after the end of the Cold War when communist states were becoming an endangered species. A nuclear capability was perceived as a deterrent to possible invasion from western imperialist powers. 

In the following years, the North has increasingly flaunted its potential nuclear delivery capability. Beginning in 2005 with its short-range Rodong missile the North Koreans have on a regular basis conducted live missile-firing tests into the Sea of Japan. The later generation Taepodong-2 missile platforms have an estimated range of more than 6000km, enough to bring the United States’ western seaboard within Pyongyang’s nuclear range. 

The difficulties of trying to deal with the North prompted the administration of President Barack Obama to adopt a posture of ‘strategic patience’. 

Such a posture, however, represented the triumph of the hope that North Korea might voluntarily de-nuclearize or spontaneously implode, over the actual experience of the regime’s rapidly growing nuclear confidence. The US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, rang down the curtain on this era of passivity on March 17, 2017, stating at a news conference in Seoul: ‘Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of security and diplomatic measures. All options are on the table’.

The Trump doctrine?

Starting in April 2017, with the cruise missile strike against a Syrian airfield, Trump’s apparent readiness to use military force to reinforce red lines has underscored this changed diplomatic calculus. 

But what does this mean for the complex security balance in East Asia? What outcome, short of a preemptive war, would suit the current administration and how might it actually differ from Obama’s now seemingly forgotten ‘pivot’ to Asia? 

In other words, there might be a new international policeman back on the block, but this is a hood that tough-minded cops like Truman and Eisenhower found particularly troublesome. The current security dilemma reflects, in fact, the conclusion to the forgotten war in the Asia-Pacific that left in its wake a divided Korea. The fallout from the atomic denouement to the Second World War saw a Soviet-backed Leninist regime in the North led by Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and a US-backed government in the South.

The unexpected loss of China to communism in 1949 followed by Kim Il-sung’s invasion of South Korea in 1950 meant that the Truman Doctrine, initially intended to contain Soviet-style communism in Europe, was rapidly rolled out to Asia, in the process embracing the Korean Peninsula, the ‘dagger pointed at Japan’s heart’. 

Frozen conflict

The Korean War never ended. It was frozen in time with an armistice in 1953 along the 38th parallel that fixed the current borders between North and South. It also drew the US into a structure of alliances in East and Southeast Asia, dating from the US-Japan Mutual Defence Treaty of 1952 that remains the cornerstone of US regional policy. 

Meanwhile, the juche or ‘national self-reliance’ regime of Kim Il-sung and his grandson Kim Jong-un became increasingly dependent on China. Mao and successive Chinese leaders viewed the Kimocracy as ‘close as lips and teeth’, and a buffer against the threat of a united peninsula under US influence. The informal China-North Korea alliance however has a downside. The North Korean regime signed the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, in 1985 but continued to develop bomb-usable plutonium from its heavy water reactor at Yongbyon, while China turned a blind eye. 

The Clinton administration contemplated a preventative war to enforce the non-proliferation regime as early as 1994, but instead negotiated an Agreed Framework where North Korea would abandon its nuclear aspirations in return for US aid and recognition. 

The framework broke down in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when the Bush administration identified North
Korea as a rogue state and Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father, fearing a fate similar to Sadaam Hussein, withdrew from the NPT and accelerated the regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. 

In an attempt to resolve this cycle of provocation and punishment a multilateral framework involving China, South Korea, Russia and Japan, as well as North Korea and the US, began meeting in 2003. These six-party talks led to a 2005 pact where Pyongyang agreed, again, to abandon its nuclear programme, and rejoin the NPT in exchange for food and energy assistance. The accord paved the way for Pyongyang to normalize relations with both the United States and Japan, and
negotiate a peace agreement for the Korean Peninsula. 

The talks, however, broke down in 2009. North Korea left them, and conducted multiple missile tests followed by a nuclear test in May 2009. After he assumed supreme leadership in 2011, Kim Jong-un expanded the missile and nuclear bomb programme, while China exercised minimal restraint on its alliance partner’s provocative actions against South Korea and Japan. By September 2016, North Korea had conducted five nuclear and innumerable ballistic missile tests prompting the US to announce its intent to deploy its Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea. Beijing considers the deployment a direct threat to its security interests because of the radar’s ability to monitor military activities deep inside China. . 

Changed narrative with the art of the deal

However, Trump’s announcement in April of an ‘armada’ heading for North Korea, the prospect of a US-Chinese ‘grand bargain’, and the intransigence of Kim Jong-un evidently prompted a rethink in Beijing. There is some evidence to suggest that China might now be pressing North Korea to curb its enthusiasm for a long-distance nuclear attack capacity. 

At the presidential summit in Florida in April, Chinese leaders indicated their readiness to push Pyongyang more heavily in return for an American abandonment of plans for a trade war.

A number of factors have now emerged that might lead Beijing to reappraise the ‘close as lips and teeth’ relationship between China and North Korea. China is particularly concerned that if the US acts successfully in Korea, then Washington will regain the regional ascendancy it lost during the Obama administration’s somewhat vacuous pivot to Asia.

Trump’s recent rhetoric, which he may be prepared to reinforce with military deeds and the odd bluff, serves to remind China that North Korea’s ballistic antics may imperil China’s commercial interests or lead to a nuclear Japan. It would seem that Trump is acting unpredictably and forcefully against Pyongyang on the assumption that, without war, he can achieve containment. 

The general aim, then is to remind China and its proxy of US strength and that the new president is willing to use it. Even so, China remains constrained by its desire to avoid regime implosion and so lose its buffer with US forces in South Korea. In the meantime, although Japan remains committed to the US, South Korea has a newly elected president, Moon Jae-in, who favours accommodation rather than confrontation with Pyongyang. 

Pyongyang has displayed considerable skill over its 70-year history in playing off its neighbours against each other, and while relations with China may have cooled, its links to Russia have warmed. Moreover, Vladimir Putin is not in as giving a mood as he once might have been when it comes to Trump’s avowed intention to stop North Korea ‘doing the wrong thing’.

Back to the future?

Ultimately, Trump either requires a Chinese-mediated return to the complete verifiable and immediate dismantlement of North Korea’s weapon programme, which was the basis for a six-party agreement in 2005, or it could break the current Mexican standoff with ‘a sea of fire’. 

In this aim, Trump and his generals seek to correct the misapprehension that the US is in decline rather than re-emerging from a self-imposed period of patience. Once the US has reasserted its capacity for deterrence then it will be able to talk to Russia and China from a position of strength to address areas of mutual concern from world trade to nuclear proliferation and radical Islam.

The second option, and the clear downside of this post-Cold War form of brinkmanship, would certainly alter regional geometry and, ironically, reverts to the nuclear solution that General MacArthur proposed in 1951 shortly before Truman sacked him and Secretary of State Dean Acheson opted for containment and regional stalemate. The MacArthur solution, which in 1950, while of course risky, might actually have been feasible, in 2017 looks more like Apocalypse Soon.