“If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War
In college, I had a professor tell me that rogue states would be the US’ greatest challenge in the 21st century. While I sharply disagreed, I understand where she was coming from. As an East Asia and Korean expert, she constantly had North Korea on her mind. And even if she wasn’t, her thinking wouldn’t exactly wasn’t exactly uncommon in the post-9/11 era. The past 16 years have been a time of unchallenged US hegemony and military power, but also a time of US failures against far weaker opponents. Indeed,the “David disrupts Goliath” narrative has been a familiar DC think tank talking point for years now. The typical lines goes something like “The US bested the Soviet Union, but it couldn’t defeat 3rd world insurgents with decades-old weaponry”. We’ve spent nearly 2 decades in the Middle East trying to prove that assertion wrong, and in doing so we’ve forgotten how to handle the 1st world armies with first-rate weapons. We have failed to recognize just how much these revisionist states have closed the gap between us and them, and how our geopolitical reality is shattering in slow-motion. All of this is a rather roundabout way of bringing me to my point that 2017 is the year where the world pivots from the post-9/11 era to an era requiring a far more eloquent strategy than dropping Hellfire missiles on caves. In Asia, this means viewing every approach through the lens of Sino-American competition. North Korea is no longer a North Korea problem, it must be approached as part of our broader China strategy. We cannot continue to allow ourselves to focus on foreign policy issues as if they exist in a vacuum, devoid of any greater geopolitical importance. There is no better, and no more necessary place to end this thoughtless approach than the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea may be a violent, uncontrollable, nuclear-armed Hermit Kingdom, but their role in great power politics remains the same as the many terror groups the Soviets funded during the Cold War. North Korea is a distraction, a curtain for China to hide behind that eats up American resources and throws a wrench into any Sino-American confrontation. North Korea stirs up public fear, all the while China continues to bide its time and amass resources for its push towards hegemony in East Asia. However, just because China uses North Korea to distract us doesn’t mean it has much more control over Pyongyang than we do. North Korea is not so much a Chinese puppet as it is a convenient loose cannon firing in the right direction. For years we have ignored the North Korean problem just as we have ignored a rising China because both are complex problems that we thought we could wait out. Now we can push the problem down the road no longer, China is rising, and North Korea is screaming about fire and brimstone from atop a nuclear-tipped ICBM.
Addressing North Korea means addressing a rising China, and vice versa. While neither country is fond of one another, strategically, they both matter a great deal to each other. The popular portrayal of Kim Jung-un as a spoiled toddler throwing a tantrum gives power to the argument that, like any screaming toddler, the US shouldn’t encourage such behavior by giving it attention. North Korea and China want the US to leave the peninsula, leaving East Asia to East Asia, as the Imperial Japanese used to say. Furthermore, the violent tantrums thrown by the regime are hardly random, nor are they pointless, as they all have a place in regime stability and security. In the past, the regime has used nuke tests and military actions to manipulate the US into giving it aid during particularly hard times, and Kim Jong-un seems particularly fond of using such grandiose displays of power and aggression to solidify his rule. In fact, all the young Kim seems to appreciate is loyalty and brute strength, eliminating the possibility of nuclear negotiations regardless of circumstances within the Hermit Kingdom. Now that Kim has nukes and the ability to rain fire down upon his enemies around the world, I see little reason for him to want to give them up. After all, autocratic countries that have given up their WMD programs have a rather low survival rate. Kim may be a drunken autocrat in a country dominated by backwards ideology, but he and his regime are far from stupid.
North Korea will no doubt fail one day, but whether that failure comes before or after a war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula is the real question. The Trump administration has promised a quick resolution to the North Korean problem, but I doubt there is any plan or willingness to do anything that would require a serious commitment. Trump has proven himself a paper tiger and years of sequestration have left the American military deprived of the resources to undertake such an exhaustive endeavor as North Korean regime change. Moreover, Chinese leadership may be divided on loyalty to Pyongyang, but there is little doubt for the need of a buffer state between US allies and the wide-open plains of Northern China that have been the preferred invasion route of the Middle Kingdom since time immemorial. Therefore, we must begin to view North Korea as China views North Korea, as a means to an end in a grander scheme rather than an isolated problem. For too long we have tried to lean on China to help solve North Korea, but as we have grown weaker, China no longer feels the pressure it once did to help us out. Now, maintaining an ally in the North and pushing the US off the peninsula and out of East Asia is China’s priority. It is simply no longer in China’s strategic interest to end the Kim regime until it can diminish US presence and influence in East Asia. If we allow that to happen, we will see many more autocratic and dangerous regimes arise as the Western order falls, and that is far more dangerous than a single rogue state. The truth is, there is no end to North Korea from the outside, and active regime change can and should no longer be our goal. Rather, we must focus on containment of the North Korean regime, its nuclear technology, and its enabler.
In summary, the rogue state of North Korea is no longer the chief challenger to the US-backed order in East Asia. American hegemony is slowly being eroded and replaced by revisionist powers, and East Asia is no different. China has now begun to assume the mantle of challenger for hegemony in East Asia and no longer has the will or interest to maintain the US-backed order that abhors North Korea. In addition, the success of the North Korean nuclear missile program leaves little doubt that there must be a total shift in US policy towards the Hermit Kingdom. Our previous attempts at negotiation and isolation have failed and we can no longer attempt to wait out North Korea, nor can we hope to end the regime on our own terms. Therefore, our North Korea strategy must become part of a broader China strategy(if we ever get around to developing one), and treat North Korea as a symptom of a much larger cancer rather than an isolated tumor in an otherwise healthy body. Prevention must be replaced with containment and where we can, we must make them bleed. The century of Sino-American conflict has officially begun, and North Korea is its first major battle.