Monday, April 17, 2017

Korea

Soon three years have passed since I left Korea. Every time there has been a new crisis, my thoughts have wandered back to that strange space of feeling completely blasé and dead frightened at the same time. Some time at night with my window towards the north, I could wake up and hear loud bangs, thinking that the war had finally turned real. Then, the next morning, I would take the elevator down and buy a bottle of Martinelli's sparkling apple juice and a freshly baked bagel, reassured that it was really just another bad dream.

Yet, unlike under Obama, American self-control and sense of responsibility can no longer be taken for granted. In a weird way, that may be a good thing as it may finally bring peace to the Korean peninsula. The obvious problem is that it may just as well bring an apocalyptic end to a conflict that has been brewing for more than sixty years. Whereas the US could attack Syrian forces with relative impunity, any tactical strike on North Korea would most likely lead to a devastating counter-attack on Japan and South Korea. With thousands of artillery pieces hidden in the mountains just north of Seoul, the casualties could soon be in the millions.

When North Korea shot down an American spy plane over international waters in 1969, Nixon of all people decided not to retaliate precisely for this reason. Instead Nixon, like Obama, chose the middle road of “strategic patience”. In my view, that road is still open even as it will mean prolonged suffering for the hundred thousands of North Koreans imprisoned in labour camps and an ever growing stockpile of nuclear weapons. Were it not for the risk of miscalculations, simply adding more North Korean nuclear weapons, or even ICBMs capable of reaching the continental United States, will not fundamentally change the stalemate. Over the years, North Korea has proven to be a highly rational actor and knows very well that actually using any of those weapons would mean a certain end to its regime.

However, mistakes do happen, and for that reason, I see two fundamentally different options going forward, one immensely more preferable than the other. The first one would be for Trump to directly engage in bilateral negotiations with North Korea with the clear aim of bringing about a permanent peace treaty and a formal end to the Korean War. Instead of making denuclearization a precondition for such negotiations, the United States would simply accept North Korea as a nuclear power for now and hope that, over time, political normalization and peace on the Korean peninsula will bring about regime change in the North. The second option would be a massive preemptive nuclear strike, both on Pyongyang and a range of military assets around the country. Such a strike would decapitate the North Korean military command structure and end the Kim dynasty in one single blow.

Understanding that these represent the two maximum options, it is not surprising that every president from Eisenhower to Obama have tried to avoid further destabilization of the peninsula. Whereas a non-nuclear preemptive strike would merely infuriate the North Korean leadership and probably quickly escalate into a total war, a first nuclear strike of course comes with extreme risks of its own, in particular the risk that China would turn their nuclear arsenal on the United States (my guess is that they would not). Moreover, both domestically and globally, public opinion would most likely turn extremely hostile against the United States following such an attack. 

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