Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 1

By Robyn Lim

North Korea, taking advantage of America’s preoccupation with Iraq, is out to provoke a new nuclear crisis–seeking assurances that it will not be next on President Bush’s hit list, and demanding to be rewarded yet again for bad behavior. The United States, anxious to keep Kim Jong Il from unleashing a crisis until the Iraq problem is settled, has responded with the carrot of seeking a diplomatic solution, and promises not to invade North Korea. The stick is the U.S. new policy of “tailored containment” involving sanctions as well as interdictions of North Korean missile exports by sea. But no sanctions policy can work without China’s support.

Therein lies the rub. It’s illusory to think that Beijing will cooperate. China’s vital interest in relation to the Koreas is to exert dominant influence over the process of reunification. Thus Beijing has every reason to keep propping up the regime in Pyongyang, lest it collapse and events spin out of control.

Moreover, South Korea now seems to see China rather than the United States as its protector. Outgoing President Kim Dae Jung has already said that tailored containment will not work. And President-elect Roh Moo-hyun hinted during the election campaign that South Korea would remain neutral in a war between North Korea and America. Many South Koreans now see the 37,000 U.S. forces forward deployed in their country not as protectors, but as obstacles to reunification. What then is Washington to do?

Some say that it should play the Japan card against China. That is, it should remind Beijing that China’s sotto voce support for North Korea’s development of missiles and weapons of mass destruction will inevitably entail large costs–mainly because Japanese confidence in U.S. strategic protection will be so undermined that Tokyo will see the need to develop its own nuclear weapons.

But there is no Japan card for Washington to play. Beijing knows that nuclear capability in Tokyo would be as unwelcome in Washington as in Beijing. After all, the United States has in the past moved vigorously to dissuade its allies, notably South Korea and Taiwan, from acquiring nuclear weapons. The Chinese also probably comprehend that if Japan opted for nuclear weapons, the matter would also be hugely divisive in Japan itself.

It would make more sense if Washington told Seoul that it does not keep its forces where they are not wanted. At a time and in a manner of its own choosing, the United States should offer to draw down its ground forces from South Korea. This presence is a relic of the Cold War, which now represents a hostage to North Korea, and inhibits the United States from pursuing a hostile policy towards Pyongyang. After all, America’s only vital interest in the Korean peninsula is the defense of the U.S. homeland against North Korean missiles–a capacity Pyongyang is expected to possess quite soon.

Some might think that such a policy would play into the hands of Pyongyang’s Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. But keeping U.S. forces in South Korea against the wishes of the government in Seoul would also further Pyongyang’s agenda. Moreover, this isn’t Saigon in 1975. Global and regional strategic circumstances are vastly different from what they were then. Currently, withdrawing exposed U.S. ground forces from the Korean peninsula would not inhibit Washington from pursuing a threatening policy towards Pyongyang, which would become even more threatening once Saddam Hussein is removed from power in Iraq. For example, U.S. policy could entail a threat to Kim Jong Il that he can expect a nuclear weapon down his bunker if he threatens the United States or its allies with weapons of mass destruction.

Moreover, if the United States were to offer to withdraw its ground forces from South Korea, that would force all the other major players–China, Japan and South Korea–to think hard about what they wanted and what they were willing to do. (Russia is now so weak in the Far East that it is little more than an interested onlooker, even though President Putin is trying to play skillfully from a weak hand.) Presumably those major players understand that stability on the Korean peninsula has for decades depended on America’s maintaining forces there.

If Washington displayed willingness to remove its ground forces from South Korea, China, South Korea and Japan would be forced to focus on the fact that stability in Korea is their problem, not America’s. After all, America’s only vital interest in East Asia is to maintain a balance of power that suits its interests.

These rapidly moving events on the Korean peninsula are taking place against the backdrop of large strategic and economic changes. Milestones include the end of the Cold War, which saw the collapse of Soviet power and China’s greatly enhanced strategic latitude. By that time, China had decided to pursue capitalism. Moreover, South Korea achieved economic ascendancy over North Korea, which responded (like Iraq) by developing missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

For its part, with the German example in mind, South Korea fears the costs of reunification, and wants to stave off collapse in the North. South Korea, not least because of its burgeoning economic ties with China, now enjoys better relations with Beijing than does Pyongyang. Moreover, Koreans on both sides of the DMZ hate Japan, resenting its ironfisted occupation of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Many South Koreans would like to inherit the North’s nuclear weapons, because then they could threaten Japan.

Japan, for its part, doesn’t seem to know what it wants. For fifty years, it has been able to ignore its security problems, or expect the United States to resolve them. The main reason for U.S. intervention in the Korean War in 1950 was to protect Japan. Yet during the Cold War, Japan saw no pressing need to improve its relationship with South Korea. That complacency outlived the Cold War, despite the olive branch held out by Kim Dae Jung. Thus it took only the publication of a nationalist textbook in Tokyo to unleash a new round of anti-Japanese nationalism in South Korea.

For Japan, the coming to power of Roh Hyun-moo is bad news indeed, since he has little love for the Japanese. He has already apparently rebuffed an emissary from Japan. Rising tension between Tokyo will give North Korea ever more opportunities to drive wedges between South Korea and Japan.

Growing tensions on the Korean peninsula seem likely to push South Korea into closer alignment with China, while Japan is moving closer to the United States. But Japan’s strategic trajectory remains unclear. A more unilateralist approach, motivated by either strength or weakness, cannot be ruled out. Japan is certain to face some hard choices soon–for example if the United States were to ask it to interdict ships carrying North Korean missile exports.

In the rapidly unfolding Korean drama, U.S. policy must be based on an appreciation of the broad and enduring interests that are to be protected–the maintenance of a balance of power in East Asia that suits America’s interests. Current circumstances require tactics to be adjusted to suit the interests at stake. That means that American policy must force the other major players to think hard about what they have at stake, and what they propose to do.

Robyn Lim is professor of international relations at Nanzan University, Nagoya, Japan.