North Korea: The really serious options on the table
East Asia geopolitics is in flux, still centered on Beijing but complicated by Pyongyang's nukes and transitions in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo
The National People’s Congress in Beijing made it clear that China in the 21st century as led by Xi Jinping now relies, as a state, on the “core” leader’s “four comprehensives” as the letter of the law.
The “four comprehensives” are to build a moderately prosperous society; deepen economic reform; advance the law-based governance of China; and strengthen the Communist Party’s self-governance.
No foreign-policy adventure/disaster should be allowed to interfere with the “four comprehensives,” which, extrapolated, are also linked to the imperative success of the New Silk Roads (One Belt, One Road), China’s ambitious outreach across Eurasia.
But then there’s supremely unpredictable North Korea. And the notorious Lenin line resurfaces: “What is to be done?”
Pyongyang has successfully tested land-based, mobile, solid-fueled intermediate-range ballistic missiles. When operational, this development translates into a North Korean first-strike capability difficult to track, as well as the means to absorb an initial foreign attack and retaliate with – nuclear-tipped? – missiles.
Four North Korean missiles recently – and deliberately – aimed at the Sea of Japan constitute a clear message: We are able to hit US military forces in Japan and we can defeat any missile defense deployed or to be deployed by the US, Japan and South Korea.
Patience or bust
US Secretary of State “T Rex” Tillerson has officially proclaimed that the era of US “strategic patience” concerning North Korea is over, and “all options are on the table.” Yet this does not necessarily mean a new war in the Korean Peninsula led by President Donald Trump, which would be an absolute folly with horrific consequences, and all for nothing. Pyongyang carefully protects its crack team of engineers, who would put a nuclear program back on track in no time.
Team Trump knows very well that Seoul – extremely vulnerable to the North’s military machine – would veto military strikes against North Korea, as would Beijing.
It’s significant that Chinese media have chosen to emphasize Tillerson’s “moderate” tone on North Korea – while duly signaling the
failure, once again, of trademark US sanctions policy.
Every major world actor knows that the abandonment of “strategic patience” plus a deluge of additional sanctions will inevitably lead to Pyongyang, in a flash, selling fissile material in the global black market for ready cash.
And overwhelming pressure on North Korea may lead to the lethal counterpunch of that country accumulating up to 50 nuclear weapons capable of hitting anywhere in South Korea and Japan by 2022.
So the only reasonable option is what for Washington, so far, has been anathema: to sit down at the negotiating table with Pyongyang and hammer out a definitive peace treaty to replace the current armistice that suspended, but did not officially end, the Korean War. That is what I heard over and over again when I visited North Korea for Asia Times.
And it should be crystal clear: peace treaty first; then the end of sanctions; then North Korea ending its nuclear-weapons program. That also happens to be what the Chinese government wants; Beijing is terrified of a war sooner or later disturbing the currently frozen – albeit dissolving – status quo.
The problem is that Team Trump – just like the previous US administration of Barack Obama – assumes that Pyongyang, under pressure, must relinquish its nuclear-weapons program before the negotiations start. Wishful thinking, as anyone who has been to North Korea knows. North Korea is for all practical purposes a nuclear power. The only way it might get on the road to becoming a “normal” nuclear power, like for instance Pakistan, is for the Korean War to be finally over.
The ‘invisible’ Tokyo-Beijing gamble
But then there’s a fascinating parallel development, as relayed by European Union diplomats directly dealing with Asia. Japanese industrialists mostly don’t buy Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative old-guard xenophobia concerning China. Japanese exports to China are actually rising compared with Japanese exports to the US.
Former minister Ichiro Ozawa, aka “Shadow Shogun,” president of the Liberal Party and former leader of several opposition parties, is plotting to unseat Abe in the next general election. He is calling for the merger of his Liberal Party, the Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party, saying, quite rightly, “We can’t win if we fight separately,” adding that the three parties “can unite on basic policies” as they all call for shutting down nuclear plants, scrapping the new national-security laws and rejecting the next increase in the consumption tax.
As important, the LP, DPJ and SDP strongly favor Tokyo-Beijing rapprochement, and Ozawa’s pedigree as a “friend of China” is well established.
In December 2009, when he was secretary general of the ruling DPJ, Ozawa famously led a group of 600 Democratic parliamentarians and businessmen to China. At the beginning of his political career as a Liberal Democratic Party member of parliament, Ozawa was the closest political ally of prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, who is most remembered for normalizing Japanese relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1972. It is from “Kaku-san” that Ozawa inherited the title of “Shadow Shogun,” and it is to this day that Ozawa believes that his mentor was scapegoated for the Lockheed scandal and driven out of office because he saw close China-Japan relations as as key to East Asian peace and prosperity.
Meanwhile in South Korea, after the debacle over the impeachment of conservative president Park Geun-hye, there are considerable forces warming up to Beijing. A political majority in South Korea favors economic cooperation with China – for instance, in the aeronautics industry – coupled with an Asian entente to solve the North Korea problem.
The most probable winner of the next presidential election to be held on May 9 is Moon Jae-in, a firm supporter of the Sunshine Policy of closer contacts and economic cooperation with Pyongyang and no revival of the military pressure inaugurated by former president Kim Dae-jung and pursued by Seoul from 1998 to 2008.
Facts on the geopolitical ground spell out massive unpopularity of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile system possibly to be deployed by the end of next month in South Korea.
When Tillerson urged Beijing to refrain from creating economic policies that could hinder the deployment of THAAD, that could have been coded language acknowledging that Beijing has moved heavy electronic-warfare jammers up to positions where THAAD may be rendered useless against a possible North Korean response.
And that ties in perfectly with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently describing Beijing and Pyongyang as being as close as “lips and teeth” – though, of course, teeth can sometimes bloody lips, and China has also called on North Korea to suspend nuclear and missile activities in exchange for a halt in US and South Korean military exercises. “The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming towards each other,” Wang said on the sidelines of the recently concluded National People’s Congress in Beijing, defining it as China’s task to “apply brakes on both trains”.
Doing it the Asian way
Beijing could possibly deliver calibrated economic pressure on North Korea (suspension of coal imports) and at the same time imprint on Washington the necessity of dialogue, eventually bringing both parties to the table.
At the Obama-Xi Sunnylands summit in 2013, Xi stressed a “new type of relations between major powers,” based on “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”. It hasn’t happened – yet.
But absent a torrent of off-message late-night tweets, the Trump-Xi summit at Mar-a-Lago, Florida, next month might well deliver a compromise.
Meanwhile, the Tokyo-Beijing track, invisible to the Trump-Xi track, could be laid with Abe out of power.
The first major consequence of a Tokyo-Beijing rapprochement might be a negotiated solution for North Korea that would include a “soft” end of the Kim dynasty.
However it happens, South Korea would likely refuse a lightning-quick reunification, German-style. North Korea would remain as the same state for at least another decade, with Chinese cadres, including influential members/associates of the Politburo, helping remaining technocrats in the North to step beyond the Kim dynasty.
Under this optimistic scenario, after one century of hardcore conflict, Japan and China might aim for some sort of reconciliation – call it a historical compromise – very much aligned to Xi Jinping’s ideas, now that he’s finalizing being completely in charge of the People’s Liberation Army and totally in control of the Communist Party machine.
A mix of Japan’s high technology and China’s industrial solidity would mean a quick overtaking of the US, an economic-policy convergence beyond the short-term profitability of financial speculation, stressing economic balance, with the priority being job preservation and solidarity-based social policies.
Talk about a major intellectual advance of the East over the West. But first, gotta talk to Pyongyang.