By Graham Fuller
It’s hard to make up a character like Kim Jong Un—his demeanor that reeks callow youth, corpulent self-indulgence, bathing in the adulation of his attendant military brass who sport the highest crowned military visors in the business, the adoring public applause as he presides over another reckless missile shot or nuclear test—a virtual caricature of the dictator’s personality cult in modern times.
It would be more amusing if the strategic import of the issues at stake were not so high—North Korea’s increasing ability to strike neighbors with missiles (eventually nuclear-tipped) such as South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, and eventually US territory.
Psychological profiles of Kim Jong Un, the third generation of a maverick dynasty, seem to highlight harsh and seemingly irrational policies—in the most politically isolated country in the world. And young Kim seems vying with President Trump in trying to appear as the most trigger-happy leader of all.
But behind the headlines there are some fundamental realities at play which often get lost amidst the media drama.
1. Any leader who can acquire nuclear weapons can readily achieve a position of near untouchability in the face of external great powers who might otherwise might seek regime change by force. With nukes at play the stakes simply become too high. Kim is not “irrational” here.
2. The proliferation of nuclear weapons is likely to continue into the future as ambitious states, either out of self-promotion, or in reaction to threats from neighboring states, seek to join the nuclear club. And by definition, any member of the club predictably seeks to close the door to any potential new members behind them. And membership is never “fairly” allocated. Thus the list of potential nuclear states is considerable—and we’re talking about mid-20th century technology here— such as, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, South Africa, Germany, Iran, Saudi Arabia, conceivably Brazil, and Egypt. And there are others. Of course the international community should strongly resist each new aspirant to the club in principle, but the way of the world is such that the club will nonetheless grow. Specialists offer divergent arguments as to whether this makes nuclear war more, or less likely in the future.
3. It is increasingly difficult for the US to unilaterally determine membership in the nuclear club, or to forcefully block new members. The US finds common cause with China and Russia at the very least in most of these cases.
4. North Korea is first and foremost a “Chinese problem.” The two states share a long border, and China is North Korea’s largest trading partner. China can wield the single greatest influence over Pyongyang, although perhaps not enough to convince North Korea to divest itself of its nukes.
5. China has reason for ambivalence. It will never stand still for a war on the Korean peninsula that will result in a new US-led unified Korean state right on its border. The US, in a similar situation, would never tolerate Mexico or Canada to be dominated by China.
6. China is unquestionably unhappy about the nuclear crisis that North Korea has created . It generates a high degree of regional instability and provokes the US into throwing its strategic weight around in China’s own neighborhood. Worse, a war with North Korea that goes nuclear will make China (as well as South Korea, Russia and Japan, among others) victim of huge nuclear fallout over their heavily populated regions. More than any other country, China wants this crisis to go away peacefully.
7. China could do more, as Washington claims, to block Kim Jong Un’s irresponsible behavior. But do what exactly? Close its borders and lose absolutely whatever remaining influence it has over North Korea? Allow domestic turmoil to explode in North Korea that will lead to massive refugee flows into China (and Russia)? Or could Beijing decide to simply take over North Korea militarily? That would be an act of war, of course, and a highly dangerous move in which China could easily find itself nuclear victim.
One intriguing thought is whether China possesses the covert capability of stimulating a “palace coup” within Pyongyang. Such a move would be designed to replace the Kim dynasty with a new leadership more open to international ties and modest reform in return for abandonment of nuclear ambitions—all under some form of Chinese alliance and assistance. But such a Chinese covert action would be exceptionally hard to pull off; the possibility has certainly occurred to Kim’s entourage and the least hint of loyalty to China in high places would be swiftly and ruthlessly punished. (Indeed, Kim had his half-brother Kim Jong Nam assassinated in Kuala Lumpur airport earlier this year—who was seen as too close to Chinese leadership and a potential rival to Kim Jong Un himself.
Would Washington welcome a pro-Chinese coup in North Korea? While China would be the major geopolitical winner, it would eliminate the dangerous “loose nukes” problem that seizes Washington’s primary attention.
The problem is that most of the top North Korean leadership probably supports Kim’s nuclear policies as the best insurance for the preservation of the communist regime as a whole against outside threat. The nukes represent a powerful bargaining chip in any future negotiations with the outside world. North Korea’s interest in negotiations in past has been largely rebuffed by Washington over the years as not leading to the elimination of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.
8. The US can no longer expect to be the main architect of any new East Asian political order. That will be China’s role, with considerable input from Japan, Russia and South Korea among others.
(We in the US also tend to be unaware of the major geopolitical role Russia has historically played in East Asia and in Korea: Moscow possesses a huge Pacific waterfront, long land borders with China, a small land border with North Korea, and long interaction and a running territorial dispute with Japan. The Kim dynasty is also more the product of Soviet, rather than Chinese policies after World War II; Moscow heavily supported the North Korean regime over the years.)
9. A number of thoughtful US observers have concluded that there is no specifically military solution to the North Korean problem. Even right-wing nationalist Stephen Bannon, once Trump’s major strategic advisor, stated bluntly that until someone explains how to avoid the killing of one million people in South Korea, war is unthinkable. Aside from nuclear weapons, North Korea has thousands of artillery pieces, rockets, and a large air force capable of shelling South Korea’s sprawling capital Seoul—located close to the North Korean border where nearly 30,000 US troops are stationed as well. No South Korean leadership can permit US war strategy to sound the certain death knell for a million of its own citizens.
10. High level fulminations and fiery rhetoric notwithstanding, if a political solution can be achieved, Washington almost certainly will find it more distasteful than will any other country in the world. A political solution will inevitably end up “permitting” North Korea to maintain an element of nuclear weapons. It will almost surely require an end to US military exercises and presence in South Korea. Yet South Korea itself will almost certainly accede to any genuinely peaceful solution. At the same time such a solution also advances Chinese strategic dominance in East Asia by one more major step. Some degree of the de facto neutralization of the Korean peninsula would likely emerge. That is a net strategic loss to Washington—as long as the US remains determined to maintain a dominant military presence in East Asia.
North Korean nationalism runs high— as does their domestic propaganda. Unlike Americans, North Koreans have not forgotten the sweeping devastation inflicted by the US on the North in the Korean War (1950-53) in which more bombs and napalm were dropped on the North by the US than on all other Asian targets in the Pacific during World War II; virtually nothing was left standing and the country was reduced to famine. Five million people on all sides died in the war. And yes, it was a war started by North Korea. But whether the degree of utter devastation of the North was appropriate raises questions; the account of events makes for grim reading.
Highlighted now by the Korean crisis, many US realists understand that a historical and geopolitical turning point is under way as US strategic dominance in East Asia is almost certainly fading in a new era of global politics. Powerful new economic skeins among North and South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia are being woven that change the strategic face of the region. That situation will not be greatly affected by how shrewd (or unshrewd) the president in the White House will be.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com