Reports that North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb in early January caused consternation bordering on panic in both Washington and the East Asian capitals. That reaction appears to have been a bit excessive. The available evidence indicates that the explosion was far too small to be a thermonuclear device. Most likely, it was the test of a fission warhead (a smaller atomic bomb), similar to tests that North Korea had already conducted on three previous occasions—including one as far back as 2006.
Nevertheless, the incident is unsettling. Once again, Pyongyang appears to have ignored the protests of neighboring countries and the broader international community. North Korea also defied a series of U.N. resolutions when she decided once more to cross the line into forbidden atomic technology. Perhaps even more worrisome, the North Korean government again disregarded explicit warnings from its only close ally, China, to refrain from such conduct.
The latest episode continues a pattern that we have seen far too often. Whenever North Korea wants to gain attention (and diplomatic and economic concessions) from the United States and her East Asian allies, she engages in ostentatiously provocative conduct. That stage is typically followed by a North Korean offer for constructive negotiations. Although negotiations usually ensue (the desultory six-party talks that have taken place over the past 13 years are a good example), they rarely produce much of substance. A few years later, the dreary cycle repeats itself.
In any case, the countries in the region expect the United States to manage the problem. That is a curious and, for America, a potentially very dangerous expectation. It is odd that the United States, whose homeland lies thousands of miles away from the Korean Peninsula, is expected to take primary responsibility for deterring a second Korean war and preventing a nuclear-armed North Korea from engaging in rogue behavior. It is especially odd when other strong, capable nations, including Japan, South Korea, and China, which have far greater interests at stake, apparently intend to stand back and let the United States incur the bulk of the risk.
Washington needs to change that dynamic immediately.
The United States is in the current uncomfortable situation largely because of her regional and global leadership role dating from the immediate post-World War II period. U.S. hegemony in East Asia was a crucial part of Washington’s global strategy, and the alternatives did not seem very appealing. Until well into the 1970’s, South Korea was too poor to do much even for her own defense, much less for the broader security of the region. Expectations for Japan were a somewhat different matter, but U.S. officials did not fully trust their old adversary, even after she became an ally in the global Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union and the rest of the communist world. China was an outright adversary, and the other countries were too small to matter much.
Moreover, Washington quite deliberately encouraged its allies—in both Europe and East Asia—to take two courses. One was to follow America’s lead regarding policy on all significant international issues. The other was for them to help carry some of the burden of collective defense but also to remain dependent on the United States for key aspects of their national defense, so they could never adopt an independent course regarding policy. U.S. officials were especially adamant about that aspect with regard to Japan.
Although the demand for dependency and subordination has eased slightly with the Soviet Union in its grave for more than two decades, the relationship between the United States and these allies remains largely the same. Any move by Japan or South Korea to acquire such lethal weapons as long-range bombers or long-range ballistic missiles (to say nothing of a nuclear deterrent) would be met with great U.S. displeasure. For their part, both countries have gladly enjoyed the tangible benefits of such free riding. Today, South Korea spends a mere 2.4 percent of her GDP on defense. Japan spends one percent. That frees up a great deal of financial capital for productive civilian investment.
Neither Seoul nor Tokyo dares challenge the United States on important regional issues or seeks to acquire weapons contrary to Washington’s wishes. The trade-off, though, is that Washington must provide a reliable shield—including a nuclear shield—for those dependent allies. And that greatly increases our risk of exposure.
Washington needs to abandon the attempt to isolate Pyongyang. We’ve tried that approach for more than six decades, and clearly it has not worked. Instead, we should now propose a “grand bargain”: Such a settlement would include a peace treaty formally ending the state of war on the Korean Peninsula, the lifting of all except narrowly defined military sanctions against the North, U.S. diplomatic recognition of the North Korean regime, and the phased withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the peninsula. In exchange, Pyongyang would agree to place its nuclear program under international safeguards and extend diplomatic recognition to South Korea. Such a settlement would give North Korea most of what she says she is seeking. Yet, given South Korea’s great economic power and military potential (not to mention the assets that Japan could bring to bear), the North Korean military threat should be manageable if Pyongyang accepts the grand bargain. And if North Korea turns down the deal, we would be no worse off than we are now.
The other change that Washington needs to make is to inform South Korea that all U.S. troops will be withdrawn from the peninsula and the “mutual” defense treaty will come to an end. Only the timing should be an issue. If a peace accord is reached with North Korea, the process of withdrawing U.S. forces and terminating the defense treaty should take only two to three years. If Pyongyang rejects the grand bargain, Washington would need to stretch out the withdrawal and the termination of the defense treaty to six or seven years, to give the South Korean military more time to adjust. But the end result should never be in question.
When the United States intervened to save South Korea during the Korean War, South Korea was an utterly impoverished country. Moreover, that weak Republic of Korea faced not only a heavily armed North Korea but a North Korea backed militarily by both Moscow and Beijing. Today, South Korea has twice the population and a technologically sophisticated economy 40 times the size of North Korea’s much more primitive economy. Seoul is fully capable of building whatever military forces it deems necessary to deter Pyongyang from launching an attack, or failing that, to crush North Korean invaders.
Moreover, Pyongyang does not enjoy the support that it once did from its great-power allies. Its alliance with Moscow is decidedly limited and uncertain. There is no evidence whatsoever that Moscow is interested in backing Pyongyang in a second Korean war. And North Korea’s alliance with Beijing has become an acute embarrassment to the Chinese. Indeed, Chinese officials seem increasingly interested in the economic benefits that close ties with South Korea might provide. Relations between those two countries have become rather cozy over the past few years. It was symbolic of that trend that South Korean President Park Geun-hye shared the most prestigious spot on the dais (along with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping) at ceremonies in Beijing last year marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. South Korea is no longer an isolated, war-ravaged waif that needs an American security blanket.
A final area in which the United States needs to explore the possibility of policy change regarding North Korea involves China—and the desirable policy change is more than a little Machiavellian.
Not only has North Korea’s behavior been a growing embarrassment to China; it is posing a danger to China’s security interests. The last thing China should want is a war on the Korean Peninsula. Yet Pyongyang’s dangerous, irresponsible behavior increasingly heightens that risk. Beijing has significant leverage, since it provides a substantial portion (by some estimates more than half) of North Korea’s food and energy supplies. China’s leaders would be wise to consider whether, under some circumstances, it might be appropriate to terminate such aid to North Korea, even though taking that step might topple Kim Jong-un’s regime. Specifically, Chinese leaders should ask themselves whether further North Korean atomic- or ballistic-missile tests might warrant such action.
But given the dangers of instability and resulting refugee flows out of North Korea into China, Chinese officials are understandably reluctant to take firm measures that might destabilize Kim’s government. They are even more wary of taking the more drastic step of directly ousting him. In addition to the inherent worries about unleashing chaos in North Korea, Chinese leaders almost certainly fret that the United States would seek to exploit a North Korean meltdown to expand U.S. influence on the peninsula. After all, Washington took full advantage when the Soviet satellite empire in Eastern Europe evaporated. Today, all of those countries are members of a U.S.-led NATO. Chinese officials have followed those developments closely and are determined that nothing similar will happen in their region.
If American leaders want China to incur the risks entailed in adopting a more hard-line policy toward North Korea, they will have to give reliable assurances that no comparable attempt at geopolitical exploitation will take place in Northeast Asia. That is why Washington’s willingness to end not only the U.S. troop presence on the peninsula but the alliance with Seoul is crucial. Otherwise, Beijing will likely suspect that, in a few years, it will have to confront a united Korea in a U.S.-led alliance directed against China. Even worse, it might worry about confronting U.S. air and naval bases in what is now North Korea. Rather than face such a prospect, Beijing will continue to prop up an annoying and even dangerously volatile North Korean buffer state—and that poses a danger to the entire region. U.S. leaders can ease Chinese worries, but that step will require explicitly muting Washington’s own regional ambitions.
The latest crisis involving Pyongyang creates ample reasons for alarm, but it also affords a crucial opportunity for creative diplomacy by Washington. It can finally move U.S. policy toward North Korea off autopilot, where it has been for decades. It can also end a patron-client relationship with East Asian allies that is increasingly unhealthy for both sides. Let’s hope that U.S. policymakers have the wisdom to seize this opportunity for change.