Tag: korean peninsula

The North Korean Threat: Disengage and Defuse

Americans lived for decades with the fear of instant death from a Soviet nuclear strike. The People’s Republic of China has acquired a similar, though more limited, capability. Nothing happened in either case, because even evil people who acted like barbarians at home refused to commit suicide abroad. 

So it is with North Korea. A Defense Intelligence Agency report that Pyongyang may have miniaturized a nuclear weapon for use on a missile has created a predictable stir. Yet the analysis was carefully hedged, and Washington’s top security leadership, ranging from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper dismissed the seriousness of the threat.  

If the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was lucky, it could successfully launch its longest range missile, topped by a warhead with explosives rather than a nuclear weapon, without the rocket blowing up or falling back on the DPRK. With additional luck, the missile might hit somewhere in Alaska or Hawaii, though Pyongyang would have little control over the actual strike zone. 

But if the missile “worked” in this way, the North’s luck would quickly end. The United States would launch several nuclear-topped missiles and Pyongyang, certainly, and every urban area in the North, probably, would be vaporized. The “lake of fire” about which the DPRK has constantly spoken would occur, all over North Korea. Pretty-boy Kim Jong-un wouldn’t have much to smile about then. 

Deterrence worked against Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. There is no indication that it won’t work against the North Korean leadership. There always is a risk of mistake or miscalculation, but that properly is a problem for Pyongyang’s neighbors.  

The latest DPRK crisis should trigger a policy shift in Washington. Once the immediate furor has passed, the Obama administration should begin bringing home the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the Republic of Korea, and then end America’s formal security guarantee. Once Washington no longer confronted the North, the latter would turn its ire elsewhere. 

The ROK should take over its own defense, while building a better relationship with democratic neighbors, most obviously Japan, which also has been threatened by the North. At the same time, the Obama administration should hint at a rethink of Washington’s traditional opposition to the possibility of South Korea and Japan building nuclear weapons. China should understand that failing to take strong measures to curb its ally’s atomic ambitions could unleash the far more sophisticated nuclear potential of America’s allies. 

North Korea is a practical threat to the United States only to the degree which Washington allows. Better policy-making would reduce America’s role in Pyongyang’s ongoing tragic farce.

Stop Rewarding North Korea

To a degree almost impossible to imagine just a month ago, North Korea has won international attention, dominated events in Northeast Asia, and embarrassed the United States. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has played into Pyongyang’s hands by responding to the North’s provocations. Now Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting East Asia, beginning Friday, where the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will dominate the agenda.

Rushing off to the region on a high-profile trip is another mistake. Whatever Secretary Kerry does or says is likely to be seen as enhancing the DPRK’s stature. Better for him to have stayed home, phoning his counterparts as appropriate. 

No doubt the Obama administration hopes to craft a diplomatic answer to what is widely seen as a crisis. However, Washington dare not reward the North for its caterwauling, even if Kim Jong-un suddenly adopts the mien of a serious leader of a serious nation. Rather, Secretary Kerry should hold out the possibility of engagement, even diplomatic relations—but only if Pyongyang chooses to behave like other nations. No more providing benefits in response to threats. 

Moreover, the secretary and other U.S. officials should stop responding to every new North Korean development, big and small. America is a superpower with the ability to vaporize every acre of the DPRK. The North is impoverished; its people are starving; its military is antiquated. Its leaders are evil, not stupid or suicidal, and have neither the ability nor the incentive to attack America. Washington should respond to the next North Korean provocation, whether verbal challenge or missile test, with a collective yawn. 

Hope continues to breed eternal that China will tame or replace the Kim regime. No doubt Beijing is frustrated with its nominal protégé. However, the Chinese government will act only if it believes doing so is in China’s interest. Insisting or demanding will achieve nothing. Secretary Kerry must seek to persuade Beijing, an unusual strategy for Washington, which is used to dictating to other nations. 

North Korea is a human tragedy, but its belligerent behavior is primarily a problem for its neighbors, not the United States. Washington should give Pyongyang the (non) attention that it so richly deserves.

North Korea’s Cute Leader Isn’t So Cuddly

North Koreans might be impoverished and starving, but Pyongyang has entered the Internet age. Unfortunately, the new leadership isn’t using its skills to make friends. 

Thirty-year-old ruler Kim Jong-un has followed his “Great Leader” grandfather and “Dear Leader” father, so some of us call him the “Cute Leader.” But he’s not proving to be warm and cuddly—at least toward the United States. 

The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea recently posted an animated YouTube video showing Manhattan in flames after a missile attack from an unnamed country. The images are cribbed from the video game Call of Duty and the audio is an instrumental version of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s “We Are the World”—so it’s not exactly an ILM-quality production. Scrolling across the pictures is Korean text reading, “It appears that the headquarters of evil, which has had a habit of using force and unilateralism and committing wars of aggression, is going up in flames it itself has ignited.”

The DPRK video—removed from YouTube because of copyright violation but still available elsewhere—occasioned hand-wringing and worries that maybe the United States should take the threat seriously. However, the threat is nothing new. Pyongyang previously issued posters showing missiles hitting America’s Capitol Hill.

The North Koreans aren’t the only people to view Washington as the Center of All Evil. However, most of the rest of us, especially here at Cato, don’t view foreign missile attacks as a particularly good solution to political disagreements.

How to Respond to North Korea’s Latest Threats

Relations between North Korea and the world are off to a familiar start in 2013. Last week, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution tightening sanctions on Pyongyang in response to its missile test last December. The reclusive regime responded by predictably issuing threats against America and its allies. It seems likely now that Kim Jong-un will order a nuclear test in the next few weeks. What will follow? The kabuki dance continues. 

If North Korea does indeed detonate a nuclear device, the United States and its allies should avoid reacting hysterically. As I counseled on the missile test in December, provocative acts by Pyongyang do not deserve a response from Washington. The North carries out these tests to upset its rivals. The White House’s reserved response to the missile test was an encouraging sign. Any nuclear test warrants only an extended yawn. 

But what can Washington do to ultimately prevent North Korea from developing its nuclear program further and force it to engage the international community? I authored a piece running today at the National Interest that provides a few suggestions: 

The United States should not push for renewal of the Six Party talks. The North announced that it would not surrender its nuclear weapons until “the denuclearization of the world is realized.” This may well be yet another negotiating ploy. However, Washington and its allies should take it seriously.

Instead of begging Pyongyang to return to negotiations and requesting China to make Pyongyang return, the administration should indicate its openness to talks but note that they cannot be effective unless North Korea comes ready to deal. No reward should be offered for the North’s return to the table. 

Third, the United States should spur its allies to respond with the only currency which the Kim regime likely understands: military strength. Washington has had troops on the peninsula for nearly 63 years, far longer than necessary. That has left the ROK and Japan dependent on America. They should take over responsibility for dealing with the North’s military threats.

Washington should unilaterally lift treaty restrictions on the range and payload of South Korea’s missiles, a bizarre leftover from Seoul’s time as a helpless American ward. The administration also should indicate its willingness to sell whatever weapons might help the ROK and Japan enhance their ability to deter and even preempt a North Korean attack. The changing security environment should cause Japan to formally revise the restrictions placed on military operations by its post-World War II constitution.

I have a number of other policy recommendations in the full article, which you can find here

North Korea: Déjà Vu All Over Again!

North Korea wants to deal. Or, more likely, North Korea wants to be paid to deal. Washington has reached another agreement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The North promises to—again—halt nuclear tests and uranium enrichment, and the U.S. will—again—provide Pyongyang with food aid. The so-called Six Party talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, are—again—expected to resume.

It is better for the U.S. and Northeast Asia if North Korea is talking rather than shooting, as it was two years ago, when it sank a South Korean naval vessel and bombarded a South Korean island. However, Washington should have at most modest expectations: the DPRK has given no indication that it desires to yield the only weapons which allow it to command the world’s attention. Moreover, the ongoing leadership transition in Pyongyang makes it unlikely that anyone has either the desire or authority to challenge military priorities.

The U.S. should step back as it encourages resumption of negotiations. Other than following through with its promised food shipments, Washington should leave aid to private NGOs and the North’s neighbors. More important, American officials should inform both the Republic of Korea and Japan that the United States will be phasing out its forces in both countries, leaving them with responsibility for their own security. They should plan accordingly.

Removing America as the focus of regional attention would highlight the roles of other nations. Reaching a peaceful settlement on the peninsula would be primarily an issue between South and North Korea. Encouraging the DPRK to avoid confrontation would be primarily a responsibility of China. Supporting any new security and economic regimes that might result would be primarily a task for Japan and Russia, which are historically involved and geographically near.

The latest U.S.-North Korean agreement is more cause for skepticism than celebration. It could lead to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but is more likely to trigger a repeat of history: interminable talks with only minimal practical results. That would still be better than a war, but still would warrant only minimal effort by Washington.

Who Should Defuse the Korean Bomb?

Fear of war has become a new constant for the Korean peninsula.  On Monday South Korea initiated a military exercise in the Yellow Sea and North Korea threatened to retaliate.  Seoul went ahead without any response from the North, but the region retains the feel of a bomb with an unstable fuse.

In the short term Washington has no choice but to uphold its alliance obligations to the South.  However, Pyongyang’s increasingly erratic behavior offers a dramatic reminder of the most important cost of the unilateral security guarantee:  the threat of war.

The alliance was created at a different time in a different world—1953, after the conclusion of a war which had devastated the peninsula.  Only U.S. military support preserved South Korea’s independence.  Since then the South has developed economically and is well able to protect itself.  The U.S. should begin turning over defense responsibilities to Seoul, with an expeditious withdrawal of all American troops.  The defense treaty, with America’s promise to forever guard the South, irrespective of circumstance, should be turned into a framework for future cooperation in cases of mutual interest.

The U.S. no longer can afford to maintain Cold War alliances as if the Cold War still existed.  Commitments like that to South Korea are expensive, since they drive America’s military budget.  More important, as we see in Northeast Asia, alliances also increase the possibility of war for the U.S.  It is time to update America’s military commitments to reflect today’s world.

Needed: A New U.S. Defense Policy for Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has resigned, just eight months after leading his party to a landslide victory.  The Democratic Party of Japan meets Friday to replace him.  The finance minister, Naoto Kan, is the favorite, though nothing is certain.  The party is an amalgam of factions and the party secretary general, Ichiro Ozawa, who did the most to bring the DPJ to power, also is stepping down.

Prime Minister Hatoyama was hit by a campaign scandal—a regular of Japanese politics.  But the most important cause of his resignation was his botched handling of American bases on the island of Okinawa.

In early 1945 Okinawa became the first part of the Japanese homeland to fall as the U.S. closed in on imperial Japan.  Washington held onto the island after the war and loaded it with military installations.  Only in 1972 was Okinawa returned to Japanese sovereignty.  Despite some reduction in U.S. forces, American military facilities still account for roughly one-fifth of the island’s territory.

Okinawans long ago tired, understandably, of the burden and have been pressing for the removal of at least some bases.  The DPJ campaigned to create a more equal alliance with America and promised to revisit plans by the previous government to relocate America’s Futenma facility elsewhere on the island.

However, under strong U.S. pressure Hatoyama reversed course.  He said the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula reminded him about the value of America’s military presence.

Japan’s military dependency is precisely the problem.  American taxpayers have paid to defend Japan for 65 years.  Doing so made sense in the aftermath of World War II, when Japan was recovering from war and Tokyo’s neighbors feared a revived Japanese military.  But long ago it became ridiculous  for Americans to defend the world’s second-ranking power and its region.

Of course, having turned its defense over to Washington, Tokyo could do no more than beg the U.S. to move its base.  After all, if Americans are going to do Japan’s dirty defense work, Americans are entitled to have convenient base access.  Irrespective of what  the Okinawans desire.

Unfortunately, Hatoyama’s resignation isn’t likely to change anything.  The new prime minister won’t be much different from the old one.  Or the ones before him.

If change is to come to the U.S.-Japan security relationship, it will have to come from America.  And it should start with professed fiscal conservatives asking why the U.S. taxpayers, on the hook for a $1.6 trillion deficit this year alone, must forever subsidize the nation with the world’s second-largest economy?

Cliches about living in a dangerous world and defending freedom are no answer.  America is made not only poorer but less secure when it discourages its friends from defending themselves and when it accepts their geopolitical conflicts as its own.  To coin a phrase, it is time for a change.

And not just with Japan.  There’s also South Korea.  And especially the Europeans.  It’s not clear who they have to be defended from, but whoever their potential adversary or adversaries may be, the Europeans should defend themselves.  The Obama administration is impoverishing Americans to support a growing welfare state at home.  Americans shouldn’t have to help pay for the Europeans’ even bigger welfare state at the same time.

The U.S. should maintain a strong defense.  Of America.

Washington should stop subsidizing the defense of prosperous and populous allies.  When the Constitution speaks of “the common defense,” the Founders meant of Americans, not of the rest of the world.  A good place to start ending foreign military welfare would be Japan.