North Korean Purge Opportunity for America to Extricate Itself from Potential Conflict

It doesn’t pay to be number two in North Korea.  In December the young dictator Kim Jong-un executed his uncle, Jang Song-taek, supposedly Kim’s top advisor.  Now Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, who climbed atop Jang’s corpse, has been relieved of his important positions.

Choe’s fall is particularly important because, though he was an aide to Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, he rose rapidly under the younger Kim.  Dumping Choe reshapes the political environment of Kim’s making.

While Kim’s dominance in Pyongyang does not guarantee the regime’s survival, it dampens hope for any change outside of Kim.  Today’s Korean Winter isn’t likely to give way to a Korean Spring. 

Moreover, nothing suggests that the North’s communist monarchy is about to give way.  Many observers have waited a long time for regime collapse in the North.  They probably will have to wait a lot longer.

So far Kim Jong-un doesn’t appear to be much interested in reform.  If anything, he is more committed to his government’s nuclear weapons program and confrontational foreign policy than were his predecessors.

North Korea’s policy toward the South has oscillated wildly, but has headed mostly downward.   The North also appears to be preparing a fourth nuclear test.  The DPRK recently test-fired two medium-range missiles, predicting “next-stage steps, which the enemy can hardly imagine.”

The Obama administration obviously is frustrated, and reportedly is considering easing preconditions for resuming the long-stalled Six Party Talks.  However, it’s unlikely that renewed negotiations would lead anywhere.  Which has left the major U.S. response to tie itself closer to its South Korean ally, loudly reaffirming that America will defend the Republic of Korea if necessary.

Washington needs to reflect first on why the North is such a problem for America.  A small, impoverished, and distant state, even with a handful of nuclear weapons (but no delivery capacity), obviously is no match for the globe’s superpower.  Ordinarily the former wouldn’t be interested in the latter.   

But the U.S. maintains a defense treaty with and garrison in the ROK, routinely deploys naval and air units around the DPRK, regularly conducts military exercises in the South, and constantly threatens war against the North.  Pyongyang can’t very well ignore America. 

Thus, going home should be the foundation of U.S. policy toward the Koreas.  When Washington agreed to a defense treaty with the South 61 years ago the latter was in no condition to defend itself from renewed attack.  But everything has changed since the end of the Cold War.  Today Seoul doesn’t need conventional back-up.

Nor does the U.S. military commitment help solve the nuclear issue.  American forces have become nuclear hostages, conveniently placed within striking distance of the North.  They also reinforce Pyongyang’s natural paranoia, increasing its perceived need for nuclear weapons.

Washington should loosen military ties with South Korea and extricate itself from a potential Korean conflict.  The U.S. should terminate the “mutual” defense treaty, withdraw the permanent garrison, and end the periodic threats.

Doing so would knock Washington down several notches on Kim’s enemies list.  Withdrawal also would reduce Beijing’s perception that the U.S. is seeking to contain China in cooperation with the ROK.

As I point out in my latest article on National Interest online:  “Having demilitarized America’s role on the peninsula, Washington then could engage the North with less controversy—opening simple consular relations, for instance.  U.S. policymakers would gain a small window into an alien society, as well as a direct communications channel.”

North Korea, so full of human tragedy, marches on with a new communist king at the nation’s head.  There’s little any other country can do to bring peace, stability, and prosperity to the DPRK.

However, the U.S. could, and should, reduce the possibility of the North interfering with America’s peace, stability, and prosperity.  By going home.  Where America’s soldiers and other military personnel belong.