Advice for the U.S.' Korean Strategy

Beijing Review, No.18, May 4, 2017 | 作者: Shi Yongming | 时间: 2017-05-24 | 责编: Wang Jiapei
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U.S. President Donald Trump has shown his iron-fist stance toward Pyongyang for the first time since taking power. The Trump administration has allegedly sent an American aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, to "provide a persistent presence in the waters off the Korean Peninsula," according to an announcement by the U.S. Navy on April 20.

Against the backdrop of the recent U.S. air strike on a Syrian Government military airfield and the U.S. bombardment of so-called "Islamic State" extremists in Afghanistan with the "Mother of all Bombs," some analysts perceive conflict on the horizon of the Korean Peninsula.

Nonetheless, a number of pundits weren't surprised to see a decrease in overall tensions despite Pyongyang's display of its new intercontinental ballistic missile on its "Day of the Sun" holiday celebrations on April 15.

Since North Korea conducted its latest nuclear tests in 2016, the development of its nuclear weapons program has shown clear signs of acceleration. Consequently, its next nuclear test may be imminent. U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies have shown that North Korea has made advanced preparations for a new nuclear test. However, the event in question has yet to occur. If Washington and Seoul are not to blame for having wrong intelligence, one may assume that the test has been postponed because the latest meeting between Chinese and U.S. heads of states may have helped change the situation.

Pyongyang's dilemma

After the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his U.S. counterpart, it seems that the U.S. policy toward Pyongyang has changed. On one hand, Washington has continued its policy of pressuring Pyongyang militarily. On the other hand, the U.S. has claimed that as long as North Korea stops its nuclear weapons tests and ballistic missile launching, it is willing to have talks with Pyongyang and will not seek regime change in the country.

That is a big shift from former U.S. President Barack Obama's policies. Pyongyang now has two choices: to continue its nuclear policy and confront with the United States, or to abandon its nuclear program and negotiate for its national stability and future economic development. But at present, Pyongyang's motives are opaque. Although Pyongyang hasn't conducted its sixth nuclear test, it has declared that it is "fully prepared for war." North Korea has not dispatched a positive response to U.S. appeals for dialogue or to Chinese special envoy Wu Dawei's request for a visit to Pyongyang. On the contrary, on April 16, Pyongyang attempted to launch a missile which failed after a few seconds. Regardless of whether that outcome was intentional—due to technical defects or a result of a cyber-attack by the U.S.—the fact that Pyongyang decided to go through with it at all demonstrates their unbowed attitude.

The reasons for Pyongyang's refusal of the U.S.' overtures are clearly evident. After its fourth nuclear test, Pyongyang repeatedly extended an olive branch to Washington, promising to halt nuclear test as long as the United States stopped joint military drills with South Korea. However, the Obama administration at the time refused the idea. As a result, Pyongyang accelerated its nuclear program and was therefore subject to ever more severe economic sanctions from the United Nations. It is subsequently hard for Pyongyang to accept the U.S.' current demands. However, North Korea's relatively restrained behavior in the recent days can also be interpreted as a desire to hit the brakes.

Pyongyang must make a choice--to continue its confrontational approach or to stop its risk-taking behavior and change its strategy. A rational decision would be to choose the latter option.

But it might not be so easy for North Korea to make such a decision. For Pyongyang, a shift from current strategies carries big and often unforeseeable risks. This risk is a direct result of the country's survivalist philosophy which it has employed for the past few decades.

Systematic restructuring

When talking about the Korean Peninsula's nuclear issues, many people simply attribute it to Pyongyang's "insanity." It is easy to put the blame on the weak for all problems. Such conclusion could only prevent us from getting a full picture and the root cause of the problems of our times and is not conducive to finding a solution. This topic epitomizes the problems inherent in the Korean Peninsula's evolution from the age of imperialism, to the reconstruction of the international order after World War II (WWII), the Cold War era, and to the post-Cold War international system. Settling the problem in a peaceful way would involve changes to the overall international order.

In short, Western imperialists' aggression toward East Asia after the industrial revolution resulted in an enfeebled China and a powerful militarized Japan. During this process, the Korean Peninsula became a colony of Japan, and the Korean people lost their independence. Although Korea recovered their territory after WWII, the Korean Peninsula fell apart into two states. They then became pawns to large international powers due to the outbreak of the Cold War between the East and the West. The fierce confrontation between South Korea and the North Korea eventually resulted in a full-scale war in the early 1950s.

After the war, South Korea chose to rely on the United States for protection while North Korea began to establish its own security system based on support from the socialist camp led by the Soviet Union. North Korea and China established the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance Between China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 1961, which stipulated that in the event of one of the contracting parties being subjected to an armed attack by any state or several states jointly, the other contracting party shall immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal. Nonetheless, the two countries never formed a working mechanism on how to carry out such "alliance." On the contrary, in response to North Korea's nationalist sentiment, China voluntarily withdrew its troops from the country in 1958.

The defects of North Korea's independent security system were gradually exposed after the end of the Cold War. After China adopted its reform and opening-up policy in the late 1970s and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, North Korea almost lost all strategic support from the socialist camp. Therefore, in 1991, the two sides of the Korean Peninsula tried their hand at reconciliation by signing a non-aggression pact as well as the Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in 1992. Thereafter, South Korea established official relations with China. However, the United States refused to normalize its relations with North Korea, using the nuclear issue as its point of contention, which eventually halted the reconciliation process on the Korean Peninsula after the Cold War.

The United States' policy on North Korea after the Cold War is a part of its global strategy. No matter what kind of changes the U.S. Government has made to its policy, its ultimate objective is to create a sustained global empire. After a series of wars, the United States aims to tell the world that "those who submit will prosper, and those who resist shall perish."

Thus, it is hard for Pyongyang to forge a detente with Washington. We don't know how the United States can move forward on this issue under the Trump administration, but it is clear that the future of the Korean Peninsula is now in their hands. In face of North Korea's rapidly increasing nuclear capabilities, Trump must make decisions which guarantee the security of the United States. During his meeting with President Xi, Trump has shown good intentions and changed his campaign narrative on China. Everyone is watching how he will deal with Pyongyang. Nevertheless, to help Pyongyang make the much desired choice, concerted effort from the whole international community is needed.



Shi Yongming is an associate researcher of the Asia-Pacific region at the China Institute of International Studies.


Source: Beijing Review, No.18, May 4, 2017.