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North Korea and Our Extremely Limited Options

I don’t know how adamant the Chinese leadership is about the issue, but I suspect that it would rank rather high as a national security issue. If the price of winning over China on Korea is a pledge to withdraw U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula after Korea was made whole, would neoconservatives embrace the trade-off, or damn the administration that made such a deal as selling out America’s interests in Asia and allowing China to expand her sphere of influence? ~Greg Scoblete

Anything is possible, but it is very likely that most American hawks generally and not just neoconservatives would be appalled by the suggestion of an American “retreat” from Korea and what would inevitably be called the “sell-out” to China. That would probably be the reaction to such a trade-off, even though there is arguably already no reason for U.S. forces to be in South Korea 57 years after the ceasefire. South Korea is considerably more populous and wealthier than the North, and it is more than capable of providing for its own defense. As Haass’ op-ed makes clear, there are no realistic options for compelling changes in North Korean behavior. The sanctions route has been tried and has been shown once again to be completely useless. Military retaliation would almost certainly lead to rapid escalation and a disastrous war.

It is all very well to talk about a future unified Korea, and there is nothing wrong with discussing this with China and South Korea, but if we lack the means to bring this about it is mostly just an expression of hope for what might be. Haass’ discussion of North Korean regime change isn’t very different from Haass’ belated enthusiasm for the Green movement, which he started arguing was critical to changing the Iranian regime at the time when it became clear that the movement was in no position to do this and was in any case not all that interested in being America’s cat’s paw. As in Iran, we cannot wish away the predicament by pretending that our solution is regime change, especially when there is no readily available means to change the regime. If neoconservatives want to claim this sort of wishful thinking as their own, they’re welcome to it.

Considering how poorly Haass seems to understand Chinese self-interest in connection with the Iranian nuclear issue, it is also not a good sign for his recommendations that almost everything in his proposal hinges on correctly understanding and appealing to Chinese self-interest. Perhaps China will intervene in the succession struggle after Kim Jong Il dies, but the kind of North Korean government that will suit China is one similar to the one led by Kim Il Sung: a government that heeds Chinese recommendations and does not create problems for Beijing. Such a pliant client North Korea could be an improvement, but it isn’t necessarily going to lead to the sort of settlement Haass has in mind.

Haass’ practical recommendation that Congress pass the South Korean free trade agreement to “send a message” demonstrates how limited our options are. I am skeptical that pushing ahead with a free trade agreement would meaningfully signal U.S. solidarity with South Korea. Trying to tie a trade agreement that isn’t really connected to the relevant security issues would probably end up sending a very mixed message. There would still be strong, concerted opposition to the agreement coming from labor and other groups, and it would not be very popular with an electorate that is generally dissatisfied with the effects of previous free trade agreements. Instead of showing American solidarity, this would create the impression that the country was evenly divided over support for South Korea, when that would be a significant exaggeration of any divisions that may exist. Having framed support for the agreement as proof of U.S. support, the strong opposition the agreement would certainly encounter could unintentionally signal the opposite of what Haass intended.

South Korean President Lee may have hinted at a desire for regime change in North Korea, but it is not at all clear that Lee would be willing to risk renewed warfare to make this happen. Any sustainable policy would have to enjoy the support of a broad consensus of South Koreans, but South Korean opinion over the last two decades has generally been trending against confrontational policies and the alliance with the U.S. The sinking of the Cheonan may have temporarily changed some minds, but on the whole Haass is arguing that the U.S. should press the South Korean government to pursue a course that is increasingly unwelcome in South Korea.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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