Mattis and Tillerson are flawed, but they are neither incompetent nor insane (unlike their President and the rest of the Cabinet). I consider “Mad Dog” Mattis too aggressive, but he is experienced, knowledgable and thoughtful. Tillerson is compromised by his Russian connection, and has no government experience, but he is a capable strategic thinker, with a broad understanding of world affairs, and lots of negotiating and relationship-building experience. Their decision to grasp the nettle of North Korea deserves fair consideration rather than knee-jerk “resistance.”
The Korean war never formally ended: hostilities were suspended in 1953 by an armistice, but there was no peace treaty. For sixty years North Korea has been a client state of China, and South Korea has been protected by U.S. treaties and troops. As we all know, North Korea has become increasingly isolated, impoverished and bellicose while South Korea has flourished. Apart from minor skirmishes there has been little loss of life, and there have even been periods of rapprochement between the two Koreas. In recent decades, however, North Korea has persistently developed nuclear weapons and missles, which are now capable of reaching Tokyo and U.S. bases in Japan as well as South Korea. Economic sanctions have hobbled North Korea’s economy but have failed to deter its nuclearization. The U.S. has periodically sabre-rattled but in essence has continued, decade after decade, to “kick the can” of this “frozen conflict” down the road, in the hope that North Korea will eventually see reason or collapse due to economic failure and/or political unrest. Meanwhile, as North Korea’s nuclear capabilites have continued to grow the crisis has gone from bad to worse.
There are several reasons why this conflict has remained unresolved.
- First and foremost is the fact that a shooting war could easily cost millions of lives. North Korea has massive conventional artillery formations that could obliterate Seoul, which is just 35 miles from the border, even without going nuclear. And its nuclear weapons could reach Tokyo as well as anywhere in South Korea. This is spelled out in detail in a recent New York Times article, The Risks of Pre-emptive Strikes Against North Korea.
- The other big reason is the fact that China, despite grave concerns, has continued to support the North Korean regime, as for example by providing them with essential food, fuel and weapons. China has grave reservations about the North Korean regime, but so far it has been more worried about losing its strategic buffer with the American troops in South Korea and about dealing with hoards of refugees when North Korea does collapse. A treaty requires China to come to the defense of North Korea in the case of an unprovoked attack; which could obviously precipitate World War III. This Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder gives more details.
- South Korea wants reunification, on its terms, but is also anxious about the cost and difficulty of integrating millions of desperately poor and badly educated northerners into its first world society. This would be much more difficult, in every respect, than the reunification of Germany, which was itself quite challenging.
- North Korea says that it will never give up its nuclear capability, which it sees as giving it respect and attention as well as protection from attack.
The risks of doing nothing, however, continue to grow. From Trump’s “America First” perspective the lives currently at risk — unless China is drawn in — are mostly those of South Koreans and Japanese. If North Korea is given time to develop longer range missles this will include Hawaii, and eventually the U.S. West Coast. Trump’s team may have calculated that now is the time to precipitate a crisis, before the U.S. itself is held hostage. If this is their thinking they get no cheers from me!
But there’s also a legitimate up-side to grappling with the situation now. If a “deal” can be struck with China on how to handle North Korea it may be possible to manage North Korea onto a less dangerous path and de-fuse the conflict. I’m not particularly optimistic, mind you! But the “new broom” status of the Trump administration gives it a unique opportunity to break the log jam that has frozen the Korean conflict into an increasingly toxic spiral. Thus my single cheer: for having the nerve to come to grips with the single most dangerous situation on the planet.
I still doubt that China will come on board; that Japan and South Korea will allow enough freedom of action; and especially whether North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons. I’m terrified of the nightmarish risks. And I have grave doubts about whether Mattis and Tillerson will be able to manage their erratic and impulsive boss. But I’m prepared to give them credit for trying.
Update April 3, 2017: Good overview from Al Jazeera. Trump blustering that if China doesn’t do something about North Korea “we will.”
Update April 4, 2017: CNN reports that a White House source says that “the clock has run out” on the North Korean nuclear program, just before Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi, while General John Hyten, commander of US Strategic Command says that, “Any solution to the North Korean problem has to involve China.” Mixed messages, but the ball is still in play.
Update Sept. 1, 2017: Good article in National Review, starting with the important idea that a problem without a solution isn’t a problem at all, it’s a fact. Unfortunately, however, the “solution” proposed in the last paragraph is nonsense.
Update April 20, 2018: So yes, DT will meet Kim Jong-un. This is better than starting a nuclear war with him. But there’s every reason to think that DT is being played for a fool (like every previous U.S. administration, it must be acknowledged), after which the danger will be redoubled. Kim Jong-un will not give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons, by Evans J.R. Revere, Brookings Institution. “North Korea wants to resuscitate the approach it pursued in every previous nuclear negotiation: Launch a lengthy, complicated negotiation to get agreement on actions each party must take, and use this process to buy time for the development of the North’s nuclear weapons program.”
Update April 29, 2018: I’m not quite ready to add a second cheer, but I have to admit that the meeting of the Korean leaders was historic. The Washington Post reminds us that North Korea signed denuclearization agreements in 1992, 1994, 2005 and 2012, received substantial benefits, then reneged. But that article also acknowledges that, “this time may be different.” It would be too ironic to award the Nobel Peace Prize to a leader who accomplished a peaceful result by threatening nuclear war, but if DT comes away with an effective and enforceable agreement I will begrudgingly give him three full-throated cheers.
Update May 3, 2018: This essay isn’t from an authoritative news source but the facts are known and I find the argument persuasive: that Kim’s charm offensive probably reflects an ultimatum from China. There’s every reason to believe that China doesn’t want North Korea to have nuclear weapons, and the essay presents evidence that the pressure of sanctions is finally biting. If so, this could be the real deal!