Other than the fear of a nuclear war during the first fifteen years of the Cold War, and more recent threats from terrorists, the United States has been immune from concerns of attack. Consequently, it is difficult for us to imagine what it must be like to have mortal enemies on one’s borders. Europeans understand the threat. Asians do. African nations do as well. But, since the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 the United States has had generally friendly relations with its two neighbors. But, that is untrue for most of the world. Now, it increasingly appears that the prospect of war in East Asia is a possibility, if not a probability.
Kim Jong-un may be a kid, he may be stupid and a nut, but as the dictator of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he has nuclear weapons and commands the world’s largest army – larger than China’s and more than three times the size of the U.S. He has to be taken seriously.
In a February 4th TOTD, entitled “Kim Jong-un – A Tinderbox,” I wrote that North Korea was warning that it planned a third nuclear test. Eight days later they did just that. While the magnitude of the tremor, as measured by the U.S Geological Survey, was bigger than their previous detonations, it is its possible miniaturization that is most troubling. North Korea recently launched an Unha-3 rocket, capable of reaching the United States and capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. On March 11, Kim Jong-un said that the armistice ending the Korean War had been invalidated and that he was “bracing for a showdown.” Pyongyang declared that a “state of war” exists with South Korea, which is literally true, as no truce was signed in 1953. Two days ago, the Country said it would be putting all of its nuclear facilities to work expanding their nuclear weapons arsenal.
But it is not just North Korea that is disrupting East Asia. Following its devastating defeat in World War II, Japan renounced the right to wage war, or even to possess a military. Defensive forces, created in 1954, were, according to an article in Tuesday’s New York Times, constrained from acting in “too offensive a manner.” But that is changing. In late December, the Country elected Shinzo Abe, a conservative who has increased military spending. Mr. Abe is calling for rewriting the postwar Constitution to scrap restrictions on the military. While that idea remains unpopular, opinion polls show Mr. Abe has strong public support. Japan’s southern islands, known as the Senkaku, have been under dispute from China. “China is in their face,” is the way MIT political scientist Richard Samuels put it, “The mood has shifted toward giving more legitimacy to the guys in uniform.”
In February, 280 Japanese soldiers participated in war games with American marines in a mock invasion of San Clemente Island, off San Diego. As Martin Fackler, writing in the Times, noted: “There is only one country that Japan fears would stage an assault on one of its islands: China.” Even for the only country to feel firsthand the force of atomic explosions, the moderating influence of the passage of time has served to mute the horror of that moment. Today’s Japanese soldiers are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of World War II’s solders. Many of them are too young to have known those who fought in World War II.
But it is the Korea Peninsula that seems most combustible. The Peninsula, Mr. Kim declared, has reverted to a “state of war.” The Korean conflict ended in an armistice sixty years ago this July. Whether North Korea is blustering or whether they are mobilizing troops, South Korea’s newly elected President Park Geun-hye is taking no chances. In a message to the South’s generals, she said: “If the North attempts any provocation against our people and country, you must respond strongly at the first contact with them without any political considerations.” (Emphasis mine). Ms. Park does not want a repeat of the somewhat feeble response by her predecessor in 2010 to the shelling of one of Yeongyeong Island, just seventeen miles from Seoul, which killed two soldiers and wounded twenty.
In response to the Pyongyang’s provocative words, the United States sent two B-2 Stealth bombers in a practice run over South Korea. F-22 Stealth fighter jets were also deployed. Separately, the Department of Defense sent the USS McCain, an Aegis-class guided missile destroyer to be positioned off the southwestern coast of the Peninsula. The five largest armies in the world are located in Asia, with North Korea, South Korea and China all on the list. (The other two are Vietnam and India.) North Korea, with a population of 25 million, has a total military of 9.5 million. South Korea has a population of 50 million and a total military of 5.2 million. In contrast, the United States, with a population of 315 million has a total military of 2.3 million, and China, with a population of 1.2 billion, has 4.6 million. The Peninsula is armed.
However, the real question is, what role will China play? When one looks at the region on a map, the Korean Peninsula looks like a natural appendage of China. The border between the two countries stretches for 880 miles, part of which is protected by a fence and by two rivers. The North Koreans don’t want their people leaving and the Chinese don’t want them arriving. China has been amassing military forces, including jet aircraft, tanks and personnel carriers along the border. According to one report, the PLA (Chinese People’s Liberation Army) is now at ‘Level One’ readiness, its highest. Additionally, they have been conducting live-fire naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, off the west coast of South Korea.
China, which has long been North Korea’s biggest ally, has recently been vocal in opposition to their announcement of restarting the nuclear facilities at the Yongbyon complex and their aggressive verbosity. Since North Korea is dependent on China for food, oil and electricity, their opinion matters. While China has limited imports and has frozen assets in two North Korean banks, they have not abandoned their ally. A group called 38 North: Informed Analysis of North Korea wrote on March 29: “No, China will not abandon North Korea, at least in response to the recent nuclear test.” Rather, their thinking is that Beijing’s policy has “evolved form a one-dimensional policy based on ‘friendship sealed in blood’ to a multi-dimensional one that seeks diverse strategies – including punishment – to manage different types of risks surrounding the Korean peninsula.” China fears regime change, as that could cause massive defections into China’s Northern provinces.
The resemblance between today in East Asia and the first decade of the Twentieth Century in Europe is eerie. Electricity, autos, planes and the telephone were all reasonably recent inventions. World trade had created national wealth on a global scale. The opulence of the rich – Downton Abbey – was a manifestation of the enormous differences between rich and poor. The desire for material goods blinded people to the risks of a combustible world. Weapons’ technology had surpassed the abilities of generals to understand the consequences of their fire power. Other than the Franco-Prussian Wars of 1870, the Continent had been relatively free from major wars since Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Today, trade has brought riches to countries across the globe. Technology has birthed giant leaps in communication and the internet, shrinking distances between all parts of the world. We have weapons of such awesome power, their use could destroy mankind. The divide between rich and poor has been widening. Seeking material comfort has replaced seeking meaning. In 1914, small nations on Europe’s periphery catapulted the major powers into a war that no one really wanted. Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General, declared that tensions as are such that the world must negotiate with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Negotiating with dictators is a futile exercise, as history teaches. Nevertheless, we must be wary lest a small country in East Asia doesn’t cause a repeat of August 1914.
In a world of proliferating weapons capable of unbelievable destruction, President Reagan’s decision to establish a Strategic Defense Initiative seems uncannily prescient. Eliminating nuclear weapons would be a wonderful ideal, but because they have become ubiquitous such wishes will remain only that – wishes. The concept of a missile defense shield may seem akin to living in a fortified castle, but the alternative – of being vulnerable to attack, of living in a straw house during a hurricane – is far worse. I have never understood the policy decisions that caused first President George H.W. Bush and then President Clinton to talk down these programs. They were restarted by the second President Bush, but then curtailed again under President Obama…until the emergence of this latest threat, which reasserted the need for a missile defense shield. If we cannot control offensive weapons – and history suggests we cannot – we should concentrate on defense.
Following the devastation caused by World War II, and the concomitant rise of the Soviet Union, a policy of containment ensued. The term ‘containment,’ in a foreign policy sense, derived from George F. Kennan’s article in Foreign Affairs in 1947. He concluded: “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” There is an irony in that the policy traces itself back to a man who later retracted the concept. Nevertheless, the policy extended through the start of the Vietnamese War. President Lyndon Johnson, citing the domino theory, used the policy of containment to justify the build-up in Vietnam in the mid 1960s. With the collapse of South Vietnam, the policy of containment fell into disrepute.
A second article in Tuesday’s New York Times quoted a former North Korea policy adviser to President Bush, Michael Green. He noted that since there has been a lack of success in curbing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, the White House has little choice, but to pursue a policy of containment, no matter the name given it. That sounds right to me. Certainly, we do not want to get drawn into what could be a conflagration of frightening dimension.
”Thought of the day” by Sydney Williams