When North Korea Falls

The furor over Kim Jong Il’s missile tests and nuclear brinksmanship obscures the real threat: the prospect of North Korea’s catastrophic collapse. How the regime ends could determine the balance of power in Asia for decades. The likely winner? China
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What Now, Lieutenant?

But middle and upper-middle levels of the American military worry less about an indiscriminate artillery attack on the South than about a very discriminate one. My sources feared that in the aftermath of the KFR’s missile launches in July, the Bush administration might actually have been foolish enough to react militarily—which might have been exactly what Kim Jong Il was hoping for, since it would have allowed him to achieve a primary strategic goal: splitting the alliance between South Korea and the United States. How would that happen? After the United States responded in a targeted fashion to the missile launches or some other future outrage, the North would initiate an intensive five- or ten- minute-long artillery barrage on Seoul, killing some Americans and South Koreans near Yongsan Garrison (“Dragon Mountain”), the American military’s Green Zone in the heart of the city. Then the North would simply stop. And after the shell fire halted, the proverbial question among American officers in a quandary would arise: What now, Lieutenant?

Politically speaking, we would be trumped. The South Korean left—which has been made powerful by an intrusively large American troop presence and by decades of manipulation by the North—would blame the United States for the carnage in Seoul, pointing out that it had been provoked by the Americans’ targeted strike against North Korea. The United Nations and the global media would subtly blame Washington for the crisis—and call not so subtly for peace talks. With that, the KFR would get a new lease on life, with more aid forthcoming from the international community to keep it afloat.

Which is why some of the military and civilian experts I spoke with argue for economic warfare against the North. Stop helping the regime with humanitarian aid, they say. The North Korean population has been on the brink of starvation for decades. The forests are denuded. People are eating tree bark. Stop prolonging the agony. Help the KFR collapse.

Of course, one problem with this strategy is that it could end up making North Korea’s direst military options more likely; as noted, regimes like this one, in the latter stages of collapse, are apt to behave irresponsibly, possibly resorting to WMD. Another problem is that we can’t do much to squeeze the North Koreans economically; it’s China, not the United States, that is really keeping the regime alive. The Chinese are already in the process of gaining operational control over anything in North Korea that has strategic economic and military value: mines, railways, and so on. Thus, any soft landing for the KFR would more likely be orchestrated by Beijing than by Washington, even though the Chinese might not mind saddling the Americans with the short-term military responsibility of stabilizing a collapsed North Korea.

After Reunification

If the peninsula could be stabilized after the fall of the KFR, this Greater Korea would have an instant, undisputed enemy: Japan. Any Korean politician would be able to stand up in parliament and get political mileage out of an anti-Japanese tirade. The Japanese know this, and it’s helping fuel their remilitarization. (The Japanese navy, in particular, has been emphasizing the latest diesel submarines and Aegis destroyers.) In July, there was a saber-rattling contest between Tokyo and Seoul over disputed islets that South Koreans call Tokdo and the Japanese Takeshima, in what the Koreans refer to as the East Sea and the Japanese the Sea of Japan. Harsh words were exchanged after South Korea sent a survey ship to the area. The United States has a history of underestimating historical-ethnic disputes: in the 1980s, it paid insufficient attention to ethnic tensions in Yugoslavia; more recently, it mistakenly downplayed Sunni-Shiite tensions in Iraq. It should not make the same mistake in Asia.

Here it is useful to review Korean history. In the medieval era, the Koreans fought wars against Chinese dynasties like the Sui and the Tang. But later on, following the rise to power of Korea’s own Choson Dynasty, in 1392, Japan gradually caught up with China as Korea’s principal adversary. There was a brutal Japanese violation of the peninsula at the end of the sixteenth century, culminating in an orgy of rape and murder, and a savage occupation at the beginning of the twentieth, which ended only with the Soviet and American conquests. (The Japanese effect on the peninsula has not been all negative: South Koreans may have trouble admitting it, but Japanese colonialism in the early twentieth century nearly doubled the life expectancy of the average Korean.)

Reunification would provide at least one benefit to Japan. As Park Syung Je, an analyst at the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul, explained to me, a unified Greater Korea might serve to balance against an even more significant threat to Japan: a rising China. But this Greater Korea would still be a linchpin of China’s twenty-first-century Asian economic-prosperity sphere, a more benign version of Imperial Japan’s Co- Prosperity Sphere of the 1940s. America could be pushed to the margins. Although Korean businessmen would resist economic domination by China, lingering anti-Americanism in South Korea might outweigh that resistance—especially once the generation that still remembers the sacrifices of American servicemen during the 1950s disappears entirely. America’s large troop presence will have granted Korea a free society, just as a similar American presence helped to make Germany a free society. But younger generations of South Koreans may remember U.S. troops only negatively—and what is more indelibly inscribed in the Korean national memory is America’s support for the Japanese occupation of Korea following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and 1905. (This was in exchange for Imperial Japan’s support of America’s occupation of the Philippines a few years earlier.)

Greater Korea’s troubled relationship with China may ultimately be determined by what America does, and specifically by the degree to which the United States can get Japan to recognize its war guilt. If Washington continues to maintain a military alliance with Tokyo without Japan’s publicly coming to terms with its past, Greater Korea will move psychologically toward China. President Bush’s recent love fest with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at Graceland may have played well in the United States, but it was seen as an insult in South Korea because of Koizumi’s earlier visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the Japanese war dead—including war criminals. If the United States continues to treat Japan as a golden stepchild, then China and its implicit ally, Greater Korea, will have a tense relationship with Japan and its implicit allies, the United States and India. But because of its own manifold business interests in China, America could only balance against China very delicately.

China Versus America

With so many complex and subtle interests to weigh here, what should the American strategy be over the long term? South Korean army Colonel Chung Kyung Yung, a professor at Seoul’s National Defense University, says that after the KFR collapses and the North is stabilized, the wisest thing for the United States to do would be to keep 10,000 troops or so on the peninsula. Such a contingent, he told me, would serve as a statement that the United States is not abandoning Korea to a militarily resurgent Japan. The best way to stabilize Asia, Chung emphasizes, would be to prevent Greater Korea—which would be fragile in the period after the North’s collapse—from becoming a source of contention between China and Japan. Peter Beck, the director of the International Crisis Group’s North East Asia Project, agrees. “Because the United States is the furthest away of all these powers,” he told me, “it should be perceived as the least dangerous—the one power without territorial ambitions.”

Unfortunately, South Korean politics might make it more difficult to keep American troops on the peninsula long term. Yes, it’s true that of the few prominent statues of foreigners in the country, two are of Americans (General Douglas MacArthur and General James Van Fleet, the father of the South Korean armed forces). And it is also true that, because of late-nineteenth-century missionary activity, American-style Protestantism is practically the dominant religion in South Korea. (If North Korea collapses, expect Christian evangelism to quickly replace the Communist regime’s Juche ethos of self-reliance: Pyongyang was once the “Jerusalem of Asia” for missionaries.) And yet despite all this, the South Koreans have largely convinced themselves that they need to be as worried about the Americans as they are about the Chinese—just as they have convinced themselves that they should be as afraid of the Japanese as they are of the North Koreans. The fact is that South Koreans may not want any American troops in their country.

Already the American air and ground troops who would defend the South if the KFR were to attack are facing increasing restrictions on their training, because of South Korean political pressures. The A-10 squadron that would be flying nonstop sorties near the DMZ in the event of a war had to train in Thailand this past winter, because of limitations Seoul placed on its flight patterns. This is all part of yet another frustration that U.S. troops in South Korea must endure: having to be on a war footing in order to defend a government that wants to be defended but publicly pretends otherwise.

The truth is, many South Koreans have an interest in the perpetuation of the Kim Family Regime, or something like it, since the KFR’s demise would usher in a period of economic sacrifice that nobody in South Korea is prepared for. A long-standing commitment by the American military has allowed the country to evolve into a materialistic society. Few South Koreans have any interest in the disruption the collapse of the KFR would produce.

Meanwhile, China’s infrastructure investments are already laying the groundwork for a Tibet-like buffer state in much of North Korea, to be ruled indirectly through Beijing’s Korean cronies once the KFR unravels. This buffer state will be less oppressive than the morbid, crushing tyranny it will replace. So from the point of view of the average South Korean, the Chinese look to be offering a better deal than the Americans, whose plan for a free and democratic unified peninsula would require South Korean taxpayers to pay much of the cost. The more that Washington thinks narrowly in terms of a democratic Korean peninsula, the more Beijing has the potential to lock the United States out of it. For there is a yawning distance between the Stalinist KFR tyranny and a stable, Western-style democracy: in between these extremes lie several categories of mixed regimes and benign dictatorships, any of which might offer the North Koreans far more stability as a transition mechanism than anything the United States might be able to provide. No one should forget that South Korea’s prosperity and state cohesion were achieved not under a purely democratic government but under Park Chung Hee’s benign dictatorship of the 1960s and ’70s. Furthermore, North Koreans, who were never ruled by the British, have even less historical experience with democracy than Iraqis. Ultimately, victory on the Korean peninsula will go to the side with the most indirect and nuanced strategy.

The long-term success of America’s basic policy on the peninsula hinges on the willingness of South Koreans to make a significant sacrifice, at some point, for the sake of freedom in the North. But sacrifice is not a word that voters in free and prosperous societies tend to like. If voters in Western-style democracies are good at anything, it’s rationalizing their own selfishness—and it may turn out that the authoritarian Chinese understand the voters of South Korea’s free and democratic society better than we do. If that’s the case, there may never actually be a Greater Korea in the way that we imagine it. Rather, the North’s demise will be carefully managed by Beijing in such a way that the country will go from being a rogue nation to a de facto satellite of the Middle Kingdom—but one with sufficient contact with the South that the Korean yearning for a measure of reunification will be satisfied.

Keep in mind that Asia—largely because it is so economically dynamic—is politically and militarily volatile. Its alliance structures are not nearly as developed as those in Europe, which has NATO and the European Union. Conflicting nationalisms are expressed in Asia through more than just soccer games. Thus, the question of whether it’s to be the American or the Chinese vision of North Korea’s future that gets realized may hinge on political-military decisions made in the midst of an opaque and confusing crisis.

North Korea and the Future of Asia

Before I left Seoul, I met with a local military legend. Retired General Paik Sun Yup, now eighty-six years old, was the 1st Infantry Division commander during the Korean War and worked hand in hand with General MacArthur. When we spoke, Paik insisted that crisis-driven political-military decisions here will ultimately determine the balance of power throughout Asia, the most important region for the world’s economy. “This peninsula is the pivot,” he said.

When I reflected on Paik’s words later, it occurred to me that while the United States is in its fourth year of a war in Iraq, it has been on a war footing in Korea for fifty-six years now. More than ten times as many Americans have been killed on the Korean peninsula as in Mesopotamia. Most Americans hope and expect that we will withdraw from Iraq within a few years—yet we still have 32,000 troops in South Korea, more than half a century after the armistice. Korea provides a sense of America’s daunting, imperial-like burdens.

But South Korea also provides a lesson in what can be accomplished with patience and dogged persistence. The drive from the airport at Inchon to downtown Seoul goes through the heart of a former urban war zone. South Korea’s capital was taken and retaken four times in some of the most intense fighting of the Korean War. Korean men and women who lived through that time will always be grateful for what retired U.S. Army Colonel Robert Killebrew has called American “stick-to-itiveness,” without which we would have little hope of remaining a great power.

In the heart of Seoul lies Yongsan Garrison, a leafy, fortified Little America, guarded and surrounded by high walls. Inside these 630 acres, which closely resemble the Panama Canal Zone before the Americans gave it up, are 8,000 American military and diplomatic personnel in manicured suburban homes surrounded by neatly clipped hedges and backyard barbecue grills. I drove by a high school, baseball and football fields, a driving range, a hospital, a massive commissary, a bowling alley, and restaurants. U.S. Forces Korea and its attendant bureaucracies are located in redbrick buildings that the Americans inherited in 1945 from the Japanese occupiers. Korea is so substantial a military commitment for us that it merits its own, semiautonomous subcommand of PACOM—just as Iraq, unofficially anyway, merits its own four-star subcommand of CENTCOM.

The United States hopes to complete a troop drawdown in South Korea in 2008. Having moved into Yongsan Garrison when Korea’s future seemed highly uncertain, American troops plan to give up this prime downtown real estate and relocate to Camp Humphreys, in Pyongtaek, thirty miles to the south. The number of ground troops will drop to 25,000, and will essentially comprise a skeleton of logistical support shops, which would be able to acquire muscles and tendons in the form of a large invasion force in the event of a war or a regime collapse that necessitated a military intervention.

Patience and dogged persistence are heroic attributes. But while military units can be expected to be heroic, one should not expect a home front to be forever so. And while in the fullness of time patience and dogged persistence can breed success, it is the kind of success that does not necessarily reward the victor but, rather, the player best able to take advantage of the new situation. It is far too early to tell who ultimately will benefit from a stable and prosperous Mesopotamia, if one should ever emerge. But in the case of Korea, it looks like it will be the Chinese.

Photograph by EPA/Corbis

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent at The Atlantic and the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis. His latest book, Imperial Grunts, was published in paperback last month by Vintage.
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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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