It’s not just that South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is a strategic liability – it’s also a sinkhole where prudence goes to drown. The United States needs to stop parroting South Korean goals.
“The real goal should not be reinforcing the fact that we will defend our allies, which we will, but it should be emphasizing for everybody the possibilities of peace, the possibilities of reunification, the possibilities of a very different future for the people of the Republic of Korea and ultimately North Korea,” Kerry said, referring to South Korea by its official name.
I just don’t understand why the United States bows to South Korea’s insistence on unification, when such a confrontational policy is irrelevant to more comprehensive goals of American strategy and to American security.
The reason we must be so circumspect is that Kim Jong-un has us over a barrel. It is common knowledge that he can flatten Seoul and may well be able to overrun South Korea. If he proceeds, Washington will be left with very few and very tough options: either using nuclear arms or engaging in a large-scale conventional war, drawing on our worn-out army in a faraway country—all this just as our economy requires retrenching.
The United States finds itself so cornered because of an overly ambitious foreign policy and the absence of clear priority setting. Washington keeps investing in forcing regime changes and promoting democratic governments across the globe—at huge human and economic costs, with very meager results—as is all too evident in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Instead, promoting security should be the first order of business, and preventing the spread of nuclear arms must top these concerns.
What does this all have to do with North Korea?
If the United States applies the “Security First” doctrine (which I spell out in a book with the same title) to China, it would stop lecturing it about human rights (which yielded very little), rest demands that it let its currency float, and park the long list of demands laid out under the rubric of making China into what, in our judgment, is a “responsible stakeholder” in the U.S.-defined world order. Instead, Washington would make it clear that its first, second and third priority is to prevent a nuclear arms race in the region. It would remind China that if North Korea keeps threatening its neighbors, then Japan may well develop nuclear arms of its own (given the large amount of plutonium it already has, it could do so very quickly). The United States would indicate that given the importance it attributes to security, it would respond very favorably to various Chinese concerns, if only China would use its considerable leverage to defang the North Korean military nuclear program. For instance, Washington would commit to not moving U.S. troops beyond the demilitarized zone to the border of China, should the North Korean regime collapse and the two Koreas become united. The United States might even consider letting all of the new Korea to serve as a buffer zone, free from foreign troops.
The United States is conducting diplomacy like politics, like a South Korean, with narrow interests defining bloated, disingenuous rhetoric that looks like strategy, but is really just a shopping list of goals whose realization would only destabilize the region. And when that crisis ensues the United States would have to defend that same coterie of South Korean oligarchs, with nothing to show in return. At least China gets something more tangible.
In spite of Kim Jong Un’s recent assertion that the military is his “first, second and third priority”, it is observable that North Korea is moving away from a military-first policy (Songun, 선군) towards a focus on the principle of self-reliance (Juche, 주체) and economic development. Such a strategy can be perceived as a necessary one, considering that the country’s economy is laboring under crippling shortages and inefficiencies, and as domestic legitimacy remains fundamental to any leadership transition, even one buttressed by Kim blood ties. Rason has remained both physically and economically peripheral to North Korea, but it may be the key for the new direction in the hermit kingdom.
In the North Korean Special Economic Zone (SEZ) of Rason, the location for the two port cities of Rajin and Sonbong, economic development is moving forward as Chinese businesses have invested in the establishment of businesses and infrastructure, especially since 2009. That year, for example, the Chinese Chuangli Group invested $3.8 million in the renovation of Rajin’s Pier No. 1, which is part of a North Korean lease to China. Chinese reporters visited in December 2010, both plugging business and asserting that there was room for further growth. Also, in anticipation of the North Korean leadership transition, China has made significant investment efforts in exchange for stability guarantees from Pyongyang. An example is the Yanbian Tianyu International Trade Company, who quadrupled the size of a bazaar market as part of this policy. Huanqiu Shibao reporter Cheng Gang again travelled to the zone in early March 2012 to drum up Chinese interest in the zone and to affirm that the DPRK had not entirely closed down to the outside after Kim Jong Il’s death.
China invests in Rason because of the geopolitical opportunities and challenges that rise from the zone. Under the Changjitu plan, Rason comes into play, as the economic development in North Korea enhances the prosperity of China’s Jilin province. Moreover, economic growth in North Korea is, in itself, already beneficial to China. The Special Economic Zone enhances domestic economic stability in the DPRK. Such stability is crucial for preventing a collapse of the North Korean regime, which would gravely damage China’s political and economic interests. [iv]
Regarding China’s naval ambitions, Rason is of great importance to China as the ports provide it with access to the East Sea. Above I pointed out China’s problematic access to the sea in the South China Sea and East China Sea and its consequent search for alternative routes to gain access to the Pacific. In the Northeast region China has no coast, as it is landlocked by Russian and North Korean territory. Thus the access to the East Sea greatly enhances China’s naval possibilities in the Pacific.
At the moment China uses the renovated port in Rajin, which primarily allows the transportation of coal from Jilin province to other Chinese coastal cities, such as Shanghai. In regards of Chinese military activity in Rason, in January 2011 it had been reported that Chinese troops have been stationed in Rason, said to protect the facilities and Chinese residents. These were the first Chinese troops to be stationed in North Korea since their withdrawal from the DMZ town of Panmunjeom. Furthermore, in August 2011 a Chinese flotilla consisting of two PLA Navy exercise warships visited the North Korean east coast port city of Wonsan. Such a visit was the first of its kind since 15 years and it was said to mark the cooperative relations between the Chinese and North Korean navies.
The United States is above such old-fashioned territorial obsessions as China and South Korea are dueling over. The United States is more concerned about trade, and the impact the extension or curtailment thereof would have on the global economy and the American market, not petty feuds between oligarchs in East Asia.