North Korea’s “Artificial Earthquake”: What is to be Done?

Foreign policy has been awfully quiet these days. President Obama has been murdering people left and right on a whim, and nobody in Washington seems to care. You can imagine what the reaction would be in Washington if a Republican had been the one flaunting the rule of law. The Economist has a good article on this development if anyone is interested.

One newsworthy item that concerns American foreign policy has been centered on the Korean peninsula, a place that the United States first became involved militarily during the 1950’s. Given that our government is currently mired in two foreign occupations at the peripheries of the Islamic world (Afghanistan and the Balkans) as well as being embroiled in conflicts along the Sahel (thanks to President Obama’s attacks on the Libyan state), one should naturally be curious as to why the current affairs of the Korean peninsula are of interest to the United States government.

To make a long story short, the US government currently has some 50,000 troops stationed along the border of the North-South divide (drawn up in the 1950’s after a devastating war was fought between communist and conservative factions within Korea, China, and the United States), and has an alliance with the South that guarantees military help in case of a war with the communist North. The later state is actively attempting to build a nuclear weapon.

As a rule, I think it is appropriate that when citizens of a republic hear about other nations and events, the subject matter ought to revolve around how beautiful the geography of a said nation is, or how beautiful the women are, or how bad the food is, or which team won the national championship, and in which sport. That American citizens are hearing about a possible escalation of military tension in the region is, by itself, not a bad thing nor a surprising thing, but when our military and our tax dollars are suddenly involved in the escalation itself, then American citizens have ample cause to be worried, angry, and tense. These are not qualities that are often sought out by individuals on a daily basis, and when a government that claims to be republican in nature begins to cause these said psychological factors within it’s borders, then citizens ought to question the supposed republicanism of their government.

Here is a beautiful political map of North Korea:Notice how the state is divided up into provinces? Of course, in a nation like North Korea, these regions have no autonomy whatsoever, as everything is controlled by the central capital, Pyongyang, due to the communist ideology that influences North Korea’s philosophy on government.

Check out South Korea’s political map:The South Korean state is largely divided up the same way as North Korea, but of course the South allows much more regional autonomy than does the North. This has not always been the case though, as the South Korean government was largely an authoritarian, right-wing proxy of the United States during the Cold War. Today, however, South Korea is a full-fledged democracy, has largely unfettered markets, and is considered to be a card-carrying member of the developed world.

Because of the socialist nature of the North Korean state’s institutions, it is necessarily authoritarian domestically and isolationist abroad. In fact, the only ally in the world that North Korea has is China, an authoritarian government that is currently undergoing a long and unnecessarily arduous process of liberalization. Recently, the North Korean government has undergone a regime change after the previous dictator died. One of his sons (surprise surprise) has been named successor and is out to prove his worth. North Korea just recently conducted a third nuclear test, prompting condemnation from around the world.

If we combine this act with other hostile acts directed mostly against Seoul and Washington, we have a situation on the Korean peninsula that could very well serve as an epicenter for another regional war. Check out this regional map, which highlights all of the regional players (the US, is of course nowhere near the region):

Both Koreas have engaged in the usual tit-for-tat that accompanies such skirmishes and citizens in the free South have taken to the streets again, but this time the talk has toughened on both sides and war is a very distinct possibility. As mentioned, the North is currently trying to legitimize a new leader, while the South recently fired its relatively moderate Defense Minister and replaced him with a hardliner.

The Japanese have largely let the United States and South Korea do the work so far, but the Japanese state is probably very alarmed at the recent actions of the North Korean government, not least because of the test-firing of a mid-range missile that the North Koreans launched over the Japanese islands back in 2009 (the North Koreans also fired a missile over Japan in 2006).

The two major powers in the region, China by geographic default, and the U.S. on account of the U.N.-mandated war they fought in the region in the 1950’s (the President at the time, Harry Truman, a New Deal Democrat, used the U.N. mandate as an excuse to lead a war without the approval of the U.S. congress, and thus started a precedent in this country that continues to this day).

Both powers have lots of policy options that are being hotly contested and promoted. In the United States this is fairly normal, but the fact that the Chinese state-run media is publishing a wide array of opinions on North Korea should signal to American policymakers that the issue of China’s alliance with North Korea is anything but set in stone.

From Caixin, a major state-run news agency, Si Weijiang gives us one opinion that compares the North Korean government to “dogs,” and wonders aloud why the Chinese government is even aiding and abetting the North Korean communist state at all.

That the North Korean regime is embarrassing to China is not something that should be considered newsworthy, but one thing that is certainly keeping the Chinese from simply abandoning North Korea is the issue of the 50,000 American troops stationed on the North-South border. What China fears most, at this point in time, is “a sudden collapse [in North Korea that] would open the door to rule by South Korea, ‘and that will put an American military alliance on the doorstep of China'”, according to a report in the New York Times. That there is currently a public discussion going on at all in China should be an encouraging sign to Western observers, but for the United States this is, unfortunately, viewed with suspicion and disdain for the most part.

Consider the reaction of Will Inboden in Foreign Policy, who thinks that the United States should use “leverage” against the North Korean regime:

“A realistic approach to negotiating must include leverage. For the United States, the most effective entry point for negotiating with an adversarial regime begins with assessing what kind of leverage we can bring to the negotiating table, and what kind of negotiating posture it would give us. Such a leveraged posture could include inducements we possess that the other side desires, or coercive instruments that are either in place and the other side wants lifted, or that haven’t been triggered yet and the other side wants to avoid.”

Policies and ideas such as the one advocated by Inboden are counterproductive to peace, prosperity, and stability on the Korean peninsula, as they only serve to antagonize not only North Korea but the Chinese government as well.

On top of the provocative position advocated by Inboden, Foreign Affairs Senior Fellow Evan A. Feigenbaum actually places a large part of the blame at the doormat of Beijing. He opines that

“[…] China has shown scant appetite for coercing North Korea, and that seems unlikely to change in a fundamental way. Indeed, while Beijing may well be privately telling the North to knock it off, those private messages have been sweetened by public displays of even-handedness and calls for ‘mutual’ restraint.”

Statements like this, especially when they come from influential and prestigious think tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations, certainly do not help to ease tensions in the region. Indeed, if this statement from Li Xiguang, an influential journalist in China who works for the Global Times, is any indication of popular sentiment, then U.S. policy wonks suffer from a major case of Hayek’s knowledge problem. Li’s article calls for the continued use of North Korea as a buffer zone between China and South Korea. He opines:

“China should work harder to keep peace between the two Koreas because an independent and peaceful North Korea could serve as a buffer zone between China and the US […] But China should do more to push North Korea to transform itself from a ‘nuclear crisis country’ to a ‘peaceful developing country’, which could prevent the US, Japan and South Korea from taking advantage of any confrontational incident to ferment a war.”

Statements like this one should be telling to foreign relations experts, as such statements make clear that the United States’s policies of provocation, leveraging tactics, and sheer coercive power have had absolutely no positive effect whatsoever on the issue of Korean unification. In fact, such policies have actually been detrimental to the reunification of the Koreas, and detrimental to the image of the people of the United States in the eyes of a large swath of the world’s population (in China).

That wonks like Inboden and Feigenbaum are still taken seriously by congressional foreign policy staffers is a testament to the uselessness of Washington to the cause of peace and liberty in the world today. Despite the absence of creativity and good intentions in Washington (and Beijing for that matter), there are always people out there who are just a little bit smarter than everybody else, and there are ideas that are just a bit more logical and well-reasoned. Consider the policy proposal issued by Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute:

“[…] the United States could undermine Chinese support for North Korea by giving South Korea five years notice that it will abrogate the U.S.-South Korean security alliance. This alliance is an anachronism from the early years of the Cold War before South Korea’s economic miracle, when North Korea was backed by both the Soviet Union and communist China. If given time to beef up its military before the U.S. withdraws, the now wealthy South Korea could easily defend itself from the impoverished North. Furthermore, because South Korea refuses to significantly open its markets to U.S. goods, the United States is essentially paying a rich nation to defend it.

Thus, even if North Korea collapsed, the Korean peninsula was reunited, and South Korea ruled the unified country, China would no longer have to fear a U.S. alliance on its border. With this greater threat eliminated, China might very well rather deal with a more rational, wealthy, and stable united Korea, rather than have to prop up an erratic and bellicose North Korea. Thus, Chinese might very well have an incentive to end assistance to the North – the only thing that keeps the regime from collapsing. Also, a U.S. withdrawal from the South would greatly diminish the possibility that the United States could be embroiled in a brush-fire war over a peninsula that was of questionable strategic value even during the Cold War.

China, South Korea, and the United States could all benefit from the disintegration of North Korea. Thus, everyone – except North Korea – would benefit from a more realistic U.S. policy toward the Koreas.”

Unfortunately, the atmosphere in Washington is, has, and always will be, much more hostile to creative ideas that deal with war and peace, because the very nature of government is that of coercion over cooperation, law over liberty, and power over prosperity. Indeed, given that we are now able to see differences of opinion being published in the Chinese press, one may almost argue that the difference between the United States and authoritarian China is not as pronounced as one may be led into believing…

The United States, as a republic, needs to heed the advice of scholars like Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute, who recently opined that :

“[…] the best outcome in the next several years likely is the status quo. Negotiations may not hurt, but they are unlikely to provide any discernible benefit […] The ever more assertive Beijing obviously believes that stability matters more than anything else. Indeed, the Chinese have been expanding investment in the North. The result has been to discourage reform. Nothing is likely to change in the near future. Washington should step back and leave the issue to the North’s neighbors. The only Americans within easy reach of Pyongyang’s weapons are the thousands of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. Given the South’s manifold advantages over North Korea, an American military garrison is unnecessary. The troops should come home. Then Washington should adopt a policy of benign neglect towards the North. Let Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing bear the risk of implosion, war, or proliferation”.

When the American troops leave the Korean peninsula, then perhaps we may see the peaceful unification of Korea. Until our boys are able to come home though, the Korean peninsula’s military tensions will continue to be in the back of smart and savvy American’s minds for quite some time. Pity, as I’d much rather be thinking about a beautiful Korean girl and a glass full of hot cocoa being sipped by yours truly on a foggy, chilly morning at a Korean beach retreat north of the 38th parallel…

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