The Korean Games of Thrones

by Victor Davis Hanson// National Review


The time for pious American lectures is over.


North Korea

North Korea seeks respect on the cheap — and attention and cash — that it cannot win the old-fashioned way by the long, hard work of achieving a dynamic economy or an influential culture.


Over the last quarter-century, it has proved that feigned madness and the road to nuclear weapons (Pakistan is another good example) provide a shortcut to all three goals: It is now feared, in the news, and likely to receive another round of Western danegeld.


Setting off a bomb (as opposed to merely bragging that it soon will do so) seems to stave off a Western-style preemption of the sort that eventually liquidated Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi.


Unlike both Iraq and Libya, North Korea had two other indemnity policies that so far have ruled out Western preemption: 1) a nuclear neighboring patron like China, and 2) a nihilistic conventional artillery and missile arsenal aimed at a nearby rich Westernized South Korea. An outmoded, conventional, short-ranged asset would be largely irrelevant in most military landscapes, but it is not when based just 35 miles from Seoul (which exchanged hands five times from the beginning to end of the Korean War). Consequently, the unpredictability of Beijing and the possibility of an attack within hours on Seoul — which would end up like Dresden in 1945 — enhanced North Korea’s small nuclear arsenal.


What then is North Korea’s ultimate objective?


Most obviously, a permanent landscape of crisis, in which it can periodically test a more sophisticated bomb than the last, threaten to incinerate a Western city, and launch a missile into Western airspace. If done symphonically, periodic “crises” are then created, envoys pour into the region, the U.N. goes into panic mode, the EU weighs in, “wise men” meet, China is jawboned — and a brand-new, revised, updated, and superior aid “package” is delivered, with stern warnings not to try the con again.


Thus the latest Korean Caligula gets global attention, his praetorian guard is assured of its continued privilege, and China offers its Cheshire smile to signal that Armageddon is avoided.


This shakedown can continue indefinitely — or at least until too many other countries (see Iran) emulate North Korea and too many players make the game too expensive and too dangerous. Or it can continue until a true breakthrough in missile defense nullifies all North Korean offensive capability, or until China sees the growing costs outweighing its heretofore undeniable benefits.



As a rule, China finds it worthwhile to exploit anything that proves unsettling to Washington, that ties down American conventional troops and strategic assets in Asia and the Pacific, and that can potentially create problems in Asian democracies. China clearly enjoys the subterranean tensions among Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States.


China plays the proverbial no-good neighbor (I’ve known one or two) who cuts loose the tether on his pit bull, soon hears a commotion in your environs, wanders over to your farm to express both shock and regret that his man-biter “somehow” got loose, sort of apologizes, and then, once you get the message, leashes the crazed dog and trots home — until he seeks even greater chaos next time.


China knows there are downsides to this dangerous gambit. It does not want a trade war with the U.S. It does not want its rivals in the region sharing anti-ballistic systems that can make irrelevant its own first-strike nuclear threat. It certainly does not wish a nuclear Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan. Its party elite want business-as-usual relations with the U.S: Their kids stay in American colleges, and they keep buying safety-valve homes, from Beverly Hills to Seattle.


It is said that Beijing may fear most a collapsed North Korea. It would clearly lose a good source of servile labor and coal. It would also struggle with an influx of refugees and be juxtaposed to a unified capitalist and Westernized Korean peninsula with, potentially, a Japanese-like economy and population and a high-tech military buttressed with old North Korean manpower and residual nukes. Think of the difference in clout between Germany 1987 and 2017.


If we have step-by-step reactions to North Korea, China is likely to have responses to our own responses. It may even be surprised by prior American inaction. (Certainly China would never put up with a nut-house in South Korea who bayed about nuking Beijing as he sent off ballistic missiles and stocked up on nuclear technology from the U.S.)


Perhaps some smart U.S. diplomat could present China with a ten-step plan of escalation (maybe starting with banning entry to Chinese elite students and ending with a nuclear Japan) and then offer China a way to solve the crisis through its own diplomacy (supposedly), as it shows off as a responsible world player.


South Korea

Ostensibly Seoul understands that without the U.S., South Korea long ago would have been absorbed by North Korea, and Kia and Samsung would have remained pipe dreams.


But such acknowledgement is not always the way of human nature (and nations are simply collective humans). The wealthier and more powerful South Korea becomes, the more it resents the exploitive role of Japan in its distant past and perhaps even at times the blunderbuss way the United States saved South Korea in the Korean War.


When it sees no logical way out of its own dilemma with North Korea, Seoul’s occasional impulse is to chafe at its benefactor the U.S., as if Washington, with no real threat to the American homeland, would be willing to gamble with the soil of South Korea.


Privately, South Korea knows that if it goes too far in frustrating Washington, and U.S. troops leave the DMZ, then it will be on its own. So South Korea seeks to thread the needle — publicly assuring Washington of a unified front while privately appealing to Korean nationalism in encouraging yet another sure-to-fail Sunshine policy.


On a deeper level, some in South Korea publicly state their fears of a costly North Korean meltdown but dream all the while of a united Korea that would be powerful enough one day to play off Japan, China, and the U.S.


Barring all that, South Korea is willing to make concessions as in the past to the north to continue the status quo, although it is really clueless about the degree to which Pyongyang’s new missiles make the U.S. not just a patron and an ally but also an autonomous strategic player whose interests soon may not all coincide with Seoul’s.



If the crisis continues, Japan will probably face unpalatable choices. Recall the Obama administration’s past efforts to reduce the American deterrent: On a hot mic, Obama promised to be “more flexible” with Putin by acceding to Russia’s goal of preventing missile defense in Eastern Europe. Given this, Japan was already worried about whether it was firmly beneath the American nuclear umbrella. Obama foolishly believed that supposedly sophisticated allies do not stoop to count their patron’s nuclear weapons; in contrast, Tokyo certainly believed that as a non-nuclear ally of America’s, it deserved more nuclear assurance than did Putin’s one or two failed clients in Eastern Europe. Understandably Japan is not fully convinced that the U.S. still considers Tokyo the moral equivalent of San Francisco, at least not when a new rogue player like Pyongyang enters the nuclear game.


Japan chafes too under South Korean obsessions about its sordid past in Korea. It does not completely trust South Korea’s promises to line up against North Korea, and it fears that Koreans would choose a pan-Korean accord or even unification over a lockstep front with Japan.


So far, no one has stopped North Korea from threatening Japan. South Korea almost cries crocodile tears, China is amused, and the U.S. seems impotent. If the Korean game of thrones continues, Japan will ultimately decide to obtain its own deterrent (Japan recently named its new impressive carrier the Kaga, the name of a WWII-era carrier that played a major role in the attack on Pearl Harbor). That decision may range from genuine rearmament to, ultimately, a nuclear airborne strike force.



Iran may become more worried that the old Obama–Iran deal that green-lighted a ten-year trajectory to a bomb is now passé, given that the North Korean model might halve the wait time. So far, North Korea has paid no price for obtaining, testing, and threatening the use of a nuclear weapon — and it is a small, failed, and resource-starved state, not an oil-rich Iran with delusions of reestablishing Shiite and Persian grandeur.


One of the most compelling reasons to stop North Korea is to convince Iran that Pyongyang’s acquisition of a nuclear bomb was a fluke never to be repeated — rather than a precedent to be exploited. If North Korea continues its aggression, the game of thrones will be repeated in the Middle East as nations begin contemplating nuclear deterrence against a rogue state. Why there has not been a resumption of an absolute global trade embargo against both North Korea and Iran is one of the strangest historical developments of the young century.




Putin’s Russia is like a humiliated and defiant Germany of the 1920s, blaming others for the crack-up of the Soviet Union, much as Germany scapegoated Versailles. The result is that Putin sees any small U.S. setback as a small credit in a Russian ledger of otherwise red ink. He enjoys the short-term, anti-Western antics of North Korea more than he fears the long-term consequences of another nuclear power on his border. He remembers Libya mostly as a double cross in which Susan Rice received Russian help in policing no-fly zones and delivering humanitarian aid to oppose Qaddafi, only to subvert the U.N. resolutions and wage a full-scale bombing campaign intended to force regime change.


Putin sees Syria as proof that American sanctimony is often not backed by force. In theory, he should prefer Obama-style impotence (ripe for exploitation), but he resents the lectures and may privately admire quiet and predictable American deterrence more than he relished pious weakness. In sum, Putin for now does not need American help elsewhere, and so he sees no need to help with Korea — if in fact he could offer any pressure on Pyongyang. Of course, if he found some cheap way to bother China without helping the U.S., he surely would.


United States

Three past decades of American policy toward North Korea largely fulfilled its aims of ensuring that the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations did not have a shooting war with North Korea, as each successively kicked the can of an unhinged Kim down the road to the next American government.


Trump may not be so lucky — North Korea grew hungrier after gorging on each successive morsel of appeasement.


In theory, our strategic objectives are age-old and transparent: the continuance of post-war non-nuclear and democratic Asian success stories like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan; complete containment of North Korea in hopes it will settle down to some dangerous but not quite crazy status like that of Pakistan; and a useful China that plays the role of deterring North Korea the same way that India corrals Pakistan.


For now, we do not prefer nuclear Asian democratic allies. We do not want a trade war with China. And we do not want the implosion of North Korea and a humanitarian crisis exceeding that in Syria. We may actually be ambivalent about eventual reunification as well.


Currently the U.S. accepts two guiding principles in the crisis: It is unacceptable to have a nation like North Korea point deliverable nukes at the U.S. No great power can endure such an existential threat or such constant blackmail. And, second, no American president wants a war that destroys Seoul.


In between those no-go lines, as mentioned, lie a series of possible escalations: trade sanctions against China, cancellation of visas for Chinese notables, a ban on Chinese real-estate acquisitions in the U.S., serious missile defense, a new Asian NATO-like alliance, and ultimately the specter of nuclear Asian allies (in extremis the worry is not so much nukes per se but the possession of them by non-democratic powers).


Trump has saber-rattled, but so far the North Koreans are not convinced that he is not a combed-over version of Obama, endlessly talking about what is “unacceptable.”


Ultimately, China alone can pressure North Korea, and America alone can pressure China. It is time to stop lecturing both about what is supposedly in their long-term interests. We must accept that both nations do what they do because — at least in the short term — they like it and see benefits from it. The aim of the United States is to disabuse them of such thinking, while speaking ever more softly with an ever-bigger stick.

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