Scuttlebutt: Viewing Korea From Pt. Arena
North Korea has been getting a lot of attention lately as they ramp-up their nuclear and missile capabilities in an effort to scare away what they see as the wolf at their door. That wolf, of course, is the United States military.
The U.S. has some 35,000 personnel at 83 sites in South Korea. Along with some regional partners, we have just concluded the largest war games rehearsal yet of the semi-annual “exercises”, as they are called. This involved about 17,000 American troops and more than 300,000 South Koreans. South Korean F-15K and KF-16 fighter jets flew alongside the U.S. Air Force's B-1B strategic bombers.
The nuclear submarine USS Columbus was next to join the exercises. USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier also joined the war games. This is all in addition to the newly-installed advanced anti-missile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea.
Japan, a regional U.S. ally, has also expressed concern over militant rhetoric from North Korea and conducted its first-ever civilian air raid drills recently after Pyongyang launched a barrage of missiles into the sea near Japanese territory.
I certainly don't wish to sound like an apologist for the North Korean regime. North Korea is likely the last place on Earth I would like to live in or visit. Nevertheless, it is never a bad idea to understand the motivations behind an adversary's behavior. Let us not forget that the Korean War is not over. We have a very long cease fire—kind of.
Kim Jong Un may be a little narcissist who is much more concerned with power than he is with peace, yet can you blame him for being worried about a massive military exercise by an adversary taking place on your border when you are technically at war with them? Just for fun suppose Congress appropriated the money for The Wall and it irritated Mexico enough to allow North Korea to hold military “exercises” on our southern border. No problem, Mexico advises, it is merely defensive in nature to thwart your aggressive behavior?
Of course, that is silly to imagine, but think of having a North Korea nuclear submarine cruising the California coast. How about something like the Carl Vinson, likely the most lethal fighting machine ever created, maneuvering off Tijuana.
Critics of the war games are told that they are merely defensive in nature, but let's face it, once bullets start flying no side is ever being “defensive”. Each side is on offense. Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, the U.S. military commander there, told CBS' 60 Minutes, "What it takes to go from the condition we're in at this moment to hostilities again is literally the matter of a decision on North Korea's side to say ‘fire.'"
Conservatives in South Korea are now calling for the U.S. to place tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea. By the way, can someone explain to me what a “tactical” nuclear weapon is and how it is OK to use them, but not “big” ones?
The U.S. is virtually begging China to help by increasingly squeezing North Korea's economy until Kim gives in or the country implodes completely into chaos. That won't work. First of all Kim doesn't strike me as the “give in” type. And the last thing China needs is a huge refugee and humanitarian crisis on their border. As we have seen all over the world chaos often leads to something worse than what preceded it. The other possibility following a fall of the Kim regime would be for South Korea to re-unite the peninsula, leaving a U.S. ally (with potentially tactical nuclear weapons) on China's border.
What does China have to gain from any of those scenarios?
A peace treaty to end the war would be nice, but currently we are playing this you-put-your-gun-down-then-I-will-put-mine-down game. You can see how well that is working out.
China supports the so-called dual suspension approach in which the U.S. would no longer hold war games and the North would suspend nuclear activities. This would be step toward a peace treaty.
The U.S. claims that military exercises with the South Koreans are part of the U.S.-South Korea defense treaty and are in compliance with the 1953 armistice. North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile tests are banned under multiple UN Security Council Resolutions. OK, but would you be surprised to learn that North Korean leaders view the United Nations as an instrument of U.S. policy—particularly in 1953?
Former Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and China hawk, John Tkacik, said the dual suspension proposal is a Chinese ruse. Tkacik said Trump should counter China's dual suspension ploy by threatening to re-introduce American nuclear weapons to South Korea. The U.S. removed nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula in 1991 to convince North Korea not to move forward with its nuclear weapons programs. That was five presidents ago for us and the time of Kim Jong un's grandfather, Kim Il-sung. Maybe we should investigate that possibility again. At least it would give China a good reason to support our position more solidly. They can't be too thrilled about huge U.S. war games on the shores of “their” continent just as we would not be if ones were held on “our” continent.
I'm afraid that I am not very confident about the direction we are heading. Our President is utterly clueless about foreign relations and prefers to go with his instincts, as he likes to say. The fact that he is so concerned about looking like a tough customer and is used to playing zero sum games in business means he has no ability to perform as a statesman. In fact just using the word to describe Trump seems completely out of place.
I wish I had the simple and obvious answer to all this, but I don't. Perhaps no ones does at this point, but ramping up the rhetoric and an increased military build-up doesn't look like a road to peace.