There is a solution to the North Korean problem, but it does require China, the US and North and South Korea to compromise. There may be a real basis for a settlement, but one no-one wants to contemplate it, least of all the Americans.
The dilemma Is this:
- the Chinese have consistently said they have two major concerns on the Korean peninsula:
- that if there were to be a united Korea, they would have US troops on their border, something they will never countenance; and
- that if there was a collapse of the North Korean regime, there would be a flood of refugees into Northern China, which they would feel obliged to not only manage, but also finance.
- The Americans increasingly seem to feel holding-on to Korea is part of their DNA in spite of the fact it seems to be leading to a nuclear exchange in North Asia which will have catastrophic consequences for the whole world. This is made doubly dangerous as we seem to have psychologically unstable leaders in the White House and the Kremlin who, for separate reasons, appear to believe this situation is to their benefit.
Any solution though involves compromise on all sides, something that has been sadly lacking until now. So what might the compnents of a settlement look like?
- The US offers withdrawal of all its troops from South Korea in exchange for joint security guarantees from China and the US.
- In return, China cuts off ALL trade to North Korea, and forces Kim Jong-un to resign and flee to a third country, with the US and China guaranteeing Kim and the major players of his regime immunity from prosecution, a safe passage and financial support indefinitely.
- Korea holds free and fair elections under the supervision of the UN for the whole of the Korean peninsula.
- The UN puts into the Korean peninsula a peace keeping force of 250,000 troops to guarantee security while this process is taking place, but excludes troops from North and South Korean, US, China, and Japan. This could be paid for by Korea, Japan, the US, China, and ASEAN, plus a small special levy on all UN nations as avoiding nuclear war benefits all nations.
- Both south and north Korean troops would be disarmed in the lead up to the elections. Thereafter, the united Korean armed forces would be pledged under their new constitution to be a pacifist force not unlike the current Japanese armed forces.
There are clearly a number of implications to this, most of which are canvassed below…
There are workable options for Korea to avoid war, but it requires compromise on all sides including the US
Michael J. Liley
In September 2017, the world appears closer to a nuclear exchange than at any time since the end of the Second World War. The apex of this tension is the rogue state North Korea which also happens to have developed nuclear weapons and is rapidly moving towards acquiring the means to deliver them across oceans.
This situation has turned out to be an early test for the new Trump Administration in the US. Unfortunately for world peace, Trump, and North Korean Leader, Kim Jong-un seem to have similar narcissistic personalities, with both behaving unpredictably and prone to taking things personally. This, of course, makes the situation much more unpredictable than if it had been between more “normal” personalities. Although this is a very dangerous situation, I would like to suggest that with creative thinking and goodwill on all sides, there is a potential solution.
China and the US will be the key to any solution, and both have a great deal to lose should we all end up in war. Donald Trump is not afraid to tell anyone who will listen that he is a master deal maker. Here, with North Korea, there may be the biggest deal he could ever make, but his understanding of world affairs is seemingly so naïve, and he doesn’t seem to listen to his senior diplomats, especially since he has emasculated the State Department for ideological reasons. He more than ever needs them but does not seem to have much faith in them, while at the same time growing the military budget by tens of billions annually.
Meanwhile, China appears to be taking a back seat, feigning cooperation with the US, but in reality, doing very little to restrain North Korea. The cutting off of the North’s trade in coal (the North’s biggest export earner) with China early in April 2017 together with recent additional sanctions, may be a sign of things to come, but there needs to all embracing actions which will starve the North Koreans out. China is still a long way from that.
China and the US will be the key to any solution, and both have a great deal to lose should we all end up in war. Donald Trump is not afraid to tell anyone who will listen that he is a master deal maker. Here, with North Korea, there may be the biggest deal he could ever make in his life, but his understanding of world affairs is so naïve, his decision making is very erratic and unpredictable which only serves to destabilize the situation. The fact that he has emasculated the State department does not help at a time when he needs their expert advice more than ever.
There is no obvious way that North Korea could be stopped by military force. At the moment, North Korea is showing off its military hardware, including nuclear weapons. The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, is exhibiting these capabilities to deter the West (and China) from taking any meaningful action to curb his recklessness. Yet the North Koreans are more and more prepared to be provocative, which ranges from military parades and test-firing various rockets, and threatening to fire off nuclear warheads to the west coast of the US, and recently even to Australia.
Most military experts keep reassuring us that Pyongyang does not currently have the capabilities to carry out such threats, although this is changing rapidly and Kim is increasingly sourcing his rockets from rogue suppliers in the Ukraine. However, it is true that these same military experts gave the same reassurances before the initial Korean nuclear tests, and then the first firings of their intercontinental ballistic missiles. The US is using every means it can to sabotage the development of these capabilities particularly by hacking their systems, seemingly with some success. But if nothing is done to destroy this developing capability, Pyongyang will eventually acquire the means to destroy the US (and Australia).
For the first time since the invention of the Atomic bomb, a nuclear exchange seems like a real possibility. Clearly, this is something that neither China nor the US, together with their Allies, can tolerate. Meaningful action is needed and needed urgently.
This situation is very dangerous, both in the short and long term. The World is watching, and if the North Koreans are seen to be getting away with thumbing their noses with impunity at the great powers, this is a very serious and dangerous position for all of us to be in. The implication from this is that any little tin pot regime which acquires nuclear weapons in the future will think they suddenly will have equal status to the established nuclear powers, and then who knows what might happen? Further, if nothing is done by the US and China, it will give every crazed dictator a reason to go after the nuclear option because they will then think they will be propped up (unintentionally) by the great powers. It is urgent that China and the US act in unison on this for everyone’s sake.
China and US face several options. First, bomb North Korean nuclear, artillery and rocket sites. There is no guarantee this would be successful and it would almost certainly provoke retaliation against South Korea and possibly Japan. Although the Allies have estimated they could destroy the North Korean arsenal within a couple of hours, they also believe over this period it would allow North Korea to launch artillery attacks on Seoul (the capital of South Korea and just over 50 km from the North’s border and so well within artillery range) with a population of some 10 million people. It is estimated that over this two-hour period, there would be upwards of 200,000 fatalities in Seoul alone, let alone the rest of the country.
Secondly, China and US could invade North Korea. This would make the invasion of Iraq look like a Sunday afternoon picnic, with heavy casualties on both sides, with no guarantee it would avoid a nuclear exchange.
Thirdly, special forces could assassinate Kim Jong-un much in the same way as they assassinated Osama Bin Laden in anticipation that this would lead to a people’s uprising. Most experts though appear to believe that this would more likely lead to one of his hard line Generals taking over, which may lead to an even more unstable situation.
Fourthly, China and the US could sponsor a UN resolution banning trade with North Korea for all member states and impose sanctions on all third parties (like Chinese Banks) who violate the ban. Although this would eventually lead to the regime’s collapse, it would take some time, and there is no guarantee in the meantime that the North Korean government would not set off military strikes in retaliation.
In reality, there is probably going to need to be a combination of all of these options, but the one thing they cannot do is sit on their hands and hope the problem will go away. it is urgent that the US use diplomacy to get China on board, and jointly formulate a plan. What sort of deal could result?
In 2017, China is involved with 95 percent of North Korean international trade. China could force the collapse of the North Korean regime by closing their borders and jointly penalise, with the US, any other country (or organisation) which supports them in any way. This would lead to the regime’s collapse within days. They then would need to negotiate a settlement probably including a safe passage for all the major leaders of the regime to a third country with guarantees about their immunity from prosecution. This assumes though that a desperate regime would not take military action in the meantime, but there are no risk-free options in this situation.
The settlement could lead to a militarily neutral Korean peninsula which includes the withdrawal of all foreign troops (US and Chinese), the withdrawal of the THAAD missiles from South Korea, and neither China nor the US would any longer provide nuclear guarantees. Within 12 – 24 months, there would be free and fair elections for the whole of the Korean Peninsula, overseen by perhaps a neutral entity like the European Union. In return, the united Korea would have to undertake to adopt a pacifist constitution, not unlike the Japanese one adopted after World War 2, with security guarantees from both the US and China. The new Korea would be allowed armed forces but only to be used in self-defence, just as the Japanese are able to do today.
In the interim, a UN administration would be set up to run the country and to supervise elections. An international military and police force would be assembled to keep order but would specifically exclude US, Chinese, and Japanese personnel, and a UN appointed Administrator would run North Korea in the meantime. Once elections were held, and a constitution approved by the people, it would be up to the new Korean Government to define the way forward.
In this, the new united Korea could learn much from the German unification process in 1989-1990. For starters, they should avoid much of the huge reconstruction costs the Germans suffered by basically allowing the market, in large part, to finance it. In the German case, they allowed parity between the Deutsch mark and the East mark virtually straight away when at the time of unification the market value of the East mark was a between a half and a third the value of the West German currency. This meant that there was very little incentive for western companies to invest in East Germany, so much of the huge cost of reconstruction was born by the West German taxpayers which constrained growth of the unified German state for more than a decade. This cost far more than it need have, and left no permanent incentive for the market to move to the east to help reconstruction.
The best way for a united Korea to handle this would be by having a federation with two currencies. This would give a huge incentive for South Korean, Japanese, European, US and Chinese companies to move operations to the north as it would be much lower cost to operate than almost any other country in Asia, North America or Europe. This would rapidly allow the north to grow and develop until the exchange rates eventually come together, maybe over a 40-50 year period. This would be highly advantageous for South Korea also as it would allow them to have a low-cost economy from which they could run their considerable manufacturing capabilities with a population which speaks the same language, in the same cultural milieu, and which would increasingly operate under the same laws. The subsequent additional taxes generated by an increasingly prosperous North would largely support the building of the significant infrastructure which would need to be constructed to get the population out of poverty and into productive work.
This would be highly advantageous for South Korea also as it would allow them to have a low-cost economy on their doorstep. From here they could run their considerable manufacturing capabilities with a population which speaks the same language, in the same cultural milieu, and which would increasingly operate under the same laws. The subsequent additional taxes generated by an increasingly prosperous North would largely support the building of the significant infrastructure to get the population out of poverty and into productive work. It would also mean substantially reduced spending on defence on both sides of the border, the savings of which could be channeled into further economic development.
It is said there are two major things that worry China about Korean unification. First, a failed state on its border with accompanying refugee problems, starvation and death. China thinks it would be obliged to pick up the tab for fixing this which would be a major cost to its treasury for very little benefit. Secondly, it does not want a successful democratic state on its borders occupied by US troops and hostile to its interests.
This solution addresses both of these issues by disarming Korea, having all foreign troops withdrawn, getting the new state to renounce an aggressive armed state and nuclear guarantees, and provides an orderly transition. Just like Germany. It would create a new prosperous state with prospects of high growth for many years to come, and for which China will no doubt be its major trading partner. It would also provide stability – the thing China values above all else. In other words a much better solution for both China and the rest of the world.
A unified Korean state would be brilliantly positioned to become the new Asian economic super-tiger and a potentially politically stable one at that.
Now that would really be to China’s advantage.
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