The launching of yet another ballistic missile test by North Korea dramatizes the conundrum we face in dealing with Kim Jong-un. The trajectory of the missile – it traveled around 430 miles and landed some 60 miles from Russia, in the Sea of Japan – limns the trajectory of North Korea’s course in its confrontation with what Pyongyang views multiple threats to its sovereignty.
Previous missile tests landed off the Japanese coast: this one splashed down close to Russia. It’s no coincidence that Vladimir Putin was at that moment in China, speaking at the “One Belt, One Road” conference, the Chinese version of the Davos conclave. The test also underscores a major misconception – held by many in the US, including the Trump administration – that China is North Korea’s ally, and can effectively rein in Kim Jong-un. This launch is a rebuke to both Moscow and Beijing, one that can be easily understood given some grounding in the history of Pyongyang’s relations with those two powers.
While it is true that the Chinese supported Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, during the Korean war, subsequent relations with the fiercely independent North Koreans were contentious, to say the least. Starting in 1952, Kim Il-Sung inaugurated a series of purges aimed at the pro-Chinese faction of the ruling Korean Workers Party: this culminated in 1956, when leaders of both the pro-Chinese and pro-Russians factions were expelled. The purges left a trail of executions, while several of the expellees fled to China.
During the cold war era, Kim IL-sung deftly maneuvered between Beijing and Moscow, playing off the growing competition between the two communist powers, and significantly siding with the Russians when the Sino-Soviet split went public. They heartily disliked Gorbachev, and when he visited South Korea, snubbing the North, and threatened an embargo if they didn’t submit to inspection of their nuclear facilities, relations were practically severed. Moscow cut off military aid to Pyongyang in 1989. Post-Soviet Russia has supported Western efforts to sanction North Korea for its nuclear brinkmanship, albeit stopping short of endorsing military action.
Chinese support for Pyongyang during the Korean war was not unconditional: Mao himself was said to have disdained Kim Il-sung as a “foolish ruler” who should be deposed. Kim Il-sung, for his part, was openly hostile to China’s “Cultural Revolution,” denouncing it as “unbelievable idiocy,” while the radicals around Madame Mao’s Red Guards and the Gang of Four mocked the North Korean despot as a “fat revisionist.” Relations improved after Mao’s death and the ouster of the Gang, but the idea that Beijing, acting as a “big brother,” can effectively rein in Pyongyang betrays ignorance of the history between the two nations.
Today, Pyongyang is as hostile to the Chinese and the Russians as it is to the United States. All are seen as conspirators in the plot to subvert North Korean sovereignty, with Moscow and Beijing portrayed as collaborators with what the North Koreans see as the main danger to their security: the United States.
The road to peace on the Korean peninsula won’t be paved by China, or any other interlocutor. What is required are direct negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. Critics of this view point to the failure of past efforts – the six-party talks involving China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, and the US – as evidence that this path is futile. Yet none other than President Donald Trump has suggested a new way of approaching the problem: a meeting with Kim Jong-un, which he says he would be “honored” to hold:
“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it, If it’s under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that. Most political people would never say that, but I’m telling you under the right circumstances I would meet with him. We have breaking news.”
While House press secretary Sean Spicer downplayed Trump’s proposal, and numerous “experts” said such a meeting is unlikely, not to mention unwise, Trump the deal-maker has stumbled on what could be the solution to a longstanding problem. For what the North Koreans yearn for, aside from simple security, is recognition, and what better way to recognize both North Korea’s sovereignty and status than by meeting with Kim Jong-un?
The six-party talks, which have been ongoing since 2011, have failed for two reasons: 1) The US position has been to set up all sorts of preconditions before any real progress toward the demilitarization of the Korean peninsula can take place, and 2) the North Koreans are not interested in negotiating with the other five powers – they want to talk to the boss.
If ever there was a time when the situation on the peninsula has been “under the gun,” as Trump puts it, it is now. For all their bombast, the North Koreans have said they are open to the possibility of direct talks. Now is the time to break the logjam and make a real breakthrough on this previously intractable front.
It’s timely because political developments in South Korea may force Washington’s hand. The election of Moon Jae-in as South Korean president represents a sea-change in Seoul’s politics and the direction of the country. Moon campaigned against the deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system, the installation of which has provoked a Chinese boycott of South Korean companies. The new President, who was a prominent supporter of the so-called Sunshine Policy – scotched by George W. Bush and his neocon advisors – wants to revive talks and economic engagement with the North. He has said that South Korea must be able to “say no to the United States,” and this can only push the US toward a more reasonable stance. After all, our entire rationale for facing off against Pyongyang is the alleged necessity of protecting Seoul from North Korean aggression, which is supposedly imminent. Yet now the South Koreans are asking: Who will protect us from our protectors?
Direct talks between Kim Jong-un and Trump could potentially lead to more than a tamping down of the current crisis: it might be the first step toward a comprehensive solution to the Korean conundrum. Remember, the Korean war ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. If the truce breaks down, could we defend the South? The answer is an unequivocal no. Our troops on the peninsula are sitting ducks, in effect hostages who would be almost instantly overwhelmed by the advance of the 1.5 million-man North Korean army. In the event of war, Seoul would be incinerated within minutes: millions would die. What kind of “defense” is that?
As I write, the US is engaged in provocative military exercises off the coast of North Korea, while close to 30,000 US troops continue to occupy the South. If Pyongyang is paranoid, well then perhaps they have good reason to be. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement that the US policy of “strategic patience has come to an end” sent a signal to Pyongyang that war is imminent. No wonder the South Koreans elected a President who is willing to “say no” to the Americans.
Trump has said we can’t afford to pay for the defense of South Korea, and that they should be footing the bill for the THAAD anti-missile system. Yet the real issue goes way beyond a question of monetary costs. The human costs of “defending” South Korea are simply too high: the military reality is that we cannot effectively defend Seoul against an attack from the North. Kim Jong-un knows this. Our generals know it – and so do the South Koreans.
It’s time to face reality. In short, it’s time to end the Korean war. Direct negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, followed by the signing of a peace treaty at long last formally ending the conflict, is the only alternative to disaster. This would be the portal to peace on the peninsula, ending in a win-win for both the US and the Korean people: the withdrawal of US troops from the peninsula so that the Koreans can pursue their destiny without foreign interference.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.