“A world that begins to witness the rebirth of trust among nations can find its way to a peace that is neither partial nor punitive….The first great step along this way must be the conclusion of an honorable armistice in Korea”.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, April 1953
Alphen, Netherlands. 25 January. What does Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Kim Jong-un really want? With the Winter Olympics due to start in the Republic of Korea it is a pressing question. Convention has it that Kim is using North Korean military power, and the threat of war that goes with it, to blackmail neighbouring states to ‘buy him’ off. I am not so sure. Indeed, my sense is that the ‘Dear Leader’ seeks nothing less than the re-unification of the Korean peninsula under his tutelage. He is emboldened in such an aim by the prospect of the new and exclusive strategic space China is clearly determined to carve out to the west of the Korean Peninsula, and quite possibly to the east and south. Seizing South Korea might not only solve North Korea’s chronic economic difficulties, but in time enable the DPRK to step up as a regional-strategic power to be reckoned with. So, could Kim possibly realise such an ambition?
Bear with me on this one. My job as an experienced strategic analyst is to consider strategic outcomes, the worst-case such outcomes might generate, and offer policy options to avoid them. It is up to politicians to then decide what course of action they choose. The first task is to get politicians most of whom are decidedly ‘un-strategic’ to realise there is a problem that might affect their bailiwick. European leaders needs to understand that at some point there will be a definitive political outcome for the Korean Peninsula and current events suggests that outcome might come sooner than many of them are willing to contemplate, mired as they in the desperate sogginess of maintaining their own declining status quo as the world changes around them.
The real threat to South Korea and regional peace is posed by the interaction of Kim’s national strategy and China’s regional strategy. Yes, the threat posed by Kim Jong-un to South Korea is manifold and is the main focus of DPRK strategy. However, with Pyongyang clearly making progress in its efforts to develop nuclear weapons and associated ballistic missile technology, that threat has of late intensified to the regional-strategic order, if not the global order. The good news is that with the Winter Olympics pending tensions have clearly subsided in the past couple of weeks. Pyongyang’s offer to participate in a joint team at the Olympics is seen by many analysts as a step back from nuclear brinkmanship and an outbreak of rationality that might just lead to meaningful talks about peace. Sanctions or no there is little sign that Pyongyang would be willing to enter into such talks or believes it has been weakened economically to the point where such talks, if they did take place, would bear fruit.
DPRK strategy: The conclusions of my analysis lead elsewhere. After the Olympics, having used the Olympics as a pawn to reinforce his ‘Korean’ credentials, Kim Jong-un begins again to rattle his supposed nuclear sabres. This ‘dual track’ approach by Pyongyang aims to heighten fears in the South of war and provoke a rise in anti-Americanism. Such an aim is not without prospect given the response of not a few South Koreans to President Trump’s bellicose and sometimes ill-considered ‘mine is bigger than yours’ responses to Kim’s provocations.
The threat of war acts powerfully on the Korean psyche. During the Korean War of 1950 to 1953 the US dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on the Peninsula (mainly on civilian centres in the north), compared with 503,000 tons dropped on Japan between 1941 and 1945. Most of this bombing took place between 1950 and 1951 less than a decade after the US had rejected Britain’s ‘area bombing’ of German cities during World War Two. Some 10% of the Korean population were either killed, missing or injured.
China’s strategy: Let me now turn to Beijing’s strategy the aim of which is clear; to create an exclusive sphere of influence that in extremis would be reinforced and enforced, if needs be, by China’s burgeoning military might.. So, what does China want? Beijing clearly does not want South Korea or the Americans to prevail over North Korea. This is why China is playing a pretend sanctions game in which it appears to punish Kim whilst at the same time propping him up.
Beijing is also masterminding the so-called ‘Belt and Road’ strategy to extend its influence landward across Eurasia. China also appears to have adopted what might be called a ‘Coast and Load’ strategy by which Chinese military power brandished and islands illegally seized to reinforce China’s wider ambitions in both the East and South China Seas (I suppose for Beijing the clue is in the name). China’s claimed Maritime, Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zones in the South China Sea are reinforced by Beijing’s clear intention to extend China’s writ beyond Taiwan and into the seas between Korea and Japan. And yet, China is the key to the nature of the strategic outcome that will be forged on the Korean Peninsula.
Which brings me back to Kim Jong-un and his ambitions. He is nothing if not an opportunist and his current strategy might best be described as laying the foundations for future strategic exploitation. The Supreme Leader clearly recognises an opportunity to exploit growing US-Chinese tensions over the Beijing’s extra-territorial ambitions, and other tensions, such as over trade. He is probably right to assume that at some point there will be a showdown between the US and China, and/or one of the major US allies in the region, such as Japan or the Philippines. He also wants to make the price for US conventional intervention in an emergency on the Korean Peninsula extremely high, hence the threats to Guam. If, at the same time, he also threatens key US bases on Okinawa he might also help create a split between Tokyo and Washington, or at the very least exacerbate existing tensions between US forces and the Japanese people.
Kim Jong-un’s ‘Schwerpunkt?’: If US-Chinese tensions in the region continue to grow and the ‘Coast and Load’ strategy prevails there might come a day when China feels sufficiently emboldened to block entry of US air and maritime forces into a wide area of operations off the Chinese coast and in a wider area-of-operations. In such circumstances Kim could well also feel emboldened to act by first provoking unrest in South Korea and thus weakening the US security guarantee. At this point the Republic of Korea would be vulnerable to attack. The wider geopolitical situation at such a time would probably lead China to decide to do nothing to stop Kim’s adventurism, even if Beijing did not explicitly condone such an attack.
Policy Options: An Asia-Pacific Harmel?
What to do? Time and peace are on the side of South Korea and it is sustaining those twin sisters that must be at the core of US strategy. Specifically, Washington actually do more of what it has been doing hitherto: seeking to establish parallel engagements of defence and dialogue not dissimilar to that crafted by Pierre Harmel in Europe during the Cold War of the late 1960s. In other words, the Six-Plus-One talks on denuclearising the DPRK need to be reinforced by Two-Plus-Two talks. On the Korean Peninsula Washington should encourage Pyongyang and Seoul to keep talking after the Olympics with China and the US together promoting such talks. Such an approach would also need to incorporate the following vital elements:
Deterrence: War is certainly a possibility in Korea, but not an option. First, Kim could only achieve his objectives via some form of war. Second, any campaign or operational analysis suggests inevitable mass destruction in the event of a war with South Korea’s capital Seoul dangerously vulnerable to massed artillery and missile attack.
Assistance: If deterrence is to continue to work the US needs to remain in significant military strength in South Korea. At present that strength is not in question. However, pressures will grow world-wide on US forces, particularly so given the military renaissance of both China and Russia.
Solidarity: The political relationship between the Republic of Korea and the US must remain demonstrably strong with North Korean efforts to undermine it resisted. The US will also need to reassure the South. South Korean leaders remember US support for South Vietnam during the 1965-1975 war. In the face of mounting domestic pressure the US eventually withdrew from Vietnam in the wake of a war that possibly killed up to 3 milling Vietnamese. South Vietnam was then overrun by Communist forces.
Regional alliances: Keeping the US sufficiently strong over time in South Korea will also depend increasingly on a strong US relationship with partners in the region. Canberra and Tokyo are already considering a new pact to counter an assertive China, and other such groupings are emerging implicitly organised around the US. The aim of such pacts must be to assist the US to maintain politically, diplomatically, and militarily credible security guarantees.
Dialogue: A sophisticated US-Chinese strategic relationship is vital for both regional and global peace. However, whilst the US and China are unlikely to ever forge a partnership the search for an enduring and stable peace on the Korean Peninsula will be the test of the relationship. Therefore, Washington must hold Beijing to its word and the US and China together reinvigorate the search for an enduring but stable peace on the Peninsula, rather than the enduring but unstable peace since July 1953 Armistice. To do that, US diplomacy will need to keep separate its handling of Kim’s ambitions on the Peninsula, and Xi’s ambitions in the wider region. There is some room for optimism. Evidence suggests that Chinese President Xi Jingping has little regard for Kim Jong-un and that a war on the Korean Peninsula is seen by Beijing as a potential nightmare. That the strategic implications for China would be profound are clear from a glance at a map. Worse, the strategic implications of an intensified emergency would be dire for the entire East Asia region.
Europe? This week in Davos Chancellor Merkel and President Macron banged on about the benefits of globalisation whilst conveniently forgetting that the interdependence they espouse also extends to security and defence. Far from being a “…a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”, Korea is at the heart of European defence, just as it was in the 1950s. Back in the 1950s the US called for West German rearmament so that the West could both maintain credible deterrence in Europe and ensure the American-led ‘United Nations’ could fight the war in Korea. Europeans today face a not dissimilar choice. If the US is to be maintained in strength, in what the 2017 National Security Strategy now calls the ‘Indo-Pacific’, and at the same time credibly maintain its defence guarantee to Europe Europeans will need to better help keep America strong where she needs to be strong. At the very least that means generating far greater military strength within the NATO framework. Sadly, the magnificent irrelevance of the EU’s recently announced PESCO initiative simply reinforced just how far many Europeans are from grasping strategic reality.