On New Year’s Day, Kim Jong-Un announced that he pretty much won the Korean War. He told the United States that he had nuclear missiles ready to go at the push of a button, then pivoted to extend an olive branch to South Korea, offering to send a North Korean delegation down to the Winter Olympics in Seoul in hopes of thawing diplomatic relations. And today, after several days of bi-lateral talks—the first serious such talks in literally years—he seems to have made good on that promise: North and South Korea have announced a symbolic first step towards a favorable resolution to the Korean War: Not only will North Korea compete, but the two alienated countries will march together under one Korean flag.
And not only will they march together, they’ll compete together: The sworn enemies agreed to form a joint North and South Korean women’s ice hockey team.
So we just lost the metaphorical battle for the Olympics and basically lost the war.
This reminds us, or should, that despite America’s overwhelming firepower, Kim Jong-Un wields the most powerful weapon in the region: Peace. We’re at the guy’s mercy. Unlike the United States, he can end the war any time he wants, and he’s sending serious signals he wants to head towards some kind of peaceful resolution. It might not sound like that to us here in the United States, but that’s because at the end of the day we’re the only ones who really care what the United States gets out of all this.
Think about it: Literally no one wants a war, let alone nuclear war. Both Koreas, Japan, China, and Russia want a peaceful and prosperous Asia Pacific. North Korea doesn’t simply want nukes just so it can bomb people. It wants nukes so it doesn’t have to kowtow anymore to the U.S. nuclear threat in order to grow its economy. That’s been the plan all along: If KJU can render the U.S. military presence moot through a combination of nuclear deterrence and diplomatic and economic overtures to the other countries with stakes in the region, none of those countries would have much of a reason to keep us around. This is especially true if we’re seen as an antagonist in the region, a role Mr. Trump has made clear he wants to play.
The United States might take the most Olympic medals home from South Korea, but, as I pointed out in an earlier column, we’ve quietly lost the Korean War. This is both good news and bad news for us, though depending on the temperament of our leaders it might also be really, really bad news.
First the Good News
Over the last nine months I’ve made it a personal mission to reassure Americans that Donald Trump’s incompetence and unstable emotional state won’t express themselves in a nuclear launch. That is, we won’t start a nuclear war simply because Donald Trump says to. I can’t stress this enough: Please, please let go of this fear. I’ve read the same think pieces and listened to the same podcasts you have, but beyond that I’ve worked in geopolitical intelligence next to some of the country’s leading Korea analysts. I won’t rehash those arguments in detail, but if you’d like to learn more why I believe this so strongly you can check out my pieces on it here and here.
The short of it is that the chain of command isn’t as rigid or robotic as poor reporting has made it seem, and the U.S. military won’t do what would literally be the worst thing in the history of the world simply because one day Donald Trump decides he wants to nuke North Korea. If you have your doubts, check out the above articles.
Anyway, the Korean War technically never ended. It’s been going on for decades. But in the last year or so, President Trump completely blew it. This should be good news for people who fear nuclear war, especially in the wake of the terrifying ICBM false alarm in Hawaii last weekend. Even if we end up “losing” the Korean War thanks to diplomacy in the Asia Pacific, we will have in a sense won, because it will have come without anyone firing a shot. Plus, if this proves to be the case, then the United States would actually deserve to be commended for its role. We’ve secured peace on the peninsula for decades, checking North Korean aggression both diplomatically and militarily until the North and South resolve their seemingly unresolvable conflict.
It should also go without saying that we don’t want nuclear war, and even though North Korea has nukes pointed at us, a peaceful resolution with South Korea would greatly reduce the risk of any military confrontation. In the end, we’d likely just have to live with North Korean nukes pointed at us, as we live with the Chinese and Russian nukes that already threaten us with annihilation at any moment.
When it comes to North Korea, though, there are no guarantees. This recent gesture towards reconciliation might be a feint. “I believe that North Korea wants to buy some time to continue their nuclear and missile programs,” the Japanese Foreign Minister said. “It’s not the time to ease pressure towards North Korea.”
Perhaps. But if South Korea eventually does take Kim Jong-Un’s overtures at face value—which we saw today is a very real possibility—then peace negotiations will in the near future begin in earnest. This would in effect, guarantee that the U.S. won’t launch a first strike of any kind against the North, nuclear or conventional. Some reporting refers to these as “limited” or “tactical” strikes, but those are fictions. They aren’t real options: The odds and costs of escalation are far too steep. We have those stories out there mostly because they’re an integral part of our nuclear deterrent.
Our ramped-up military presence in the region is there for a similar reason, but it’s also an act. As I’ve pointed out before, any strike on North Korea—call it what you will—risks a horrific war, which, with a nuclear China technically still allied with the North, might have consequences I don’t want to think about. There’s almost zero chance that we would launch any sort of first strike, and I wish journalists would be more responsible about this.
Anyway, peace on the peninsula would more or less eliminate all threats for good. We want that peace, and we’ve made it plain we’d take it at basically any cost. That’s the paradox of war: It’s a last resort for achieving the ultimate goal of peace.
So no real nuclear threat to the U.S., and little threat of any military conflict in general. That would be the good news.
The Bad News
If the two Koreas can achieve regional stability without the help of the United States, our military presence in the region will over time become less and less relevant. True, the two countries probably won’t ever completely trust each other, but America’s role in the region will change in major ways. It already has: North Korea’s nuclear capability, if it can strike the U.S. mainland (as it very well might be able to), might have already neutered any U.S. military threat. We wouldn’t risk sacrificing major cities.
Beyond that, if other countries in the region begin to see us as an antagonizing force that stands in the way of peace, they will cool to us. Kim Jong-Un knows this, and it’s highly likely he’ll demand South Korea reduce the U.S. military presence in the country as a bargaining chip in any bilateral peace talks. His New Year’s speech drew a clear distinction between his intentions for South Korea and for the U.S.
This leads us to the bad news: We’re ceding hegemony over the second-most powerful trading bloc in the world to China.
This very week multi-lateral talks with North Korea are going down in Vancouver. But get this: Only North Korea, South Korea, the U.S., Japan, and Russia are participating. China isn’t. In fact, the Chinese Foreign Minister denounced the talks, and also trashed the United Nations Command, as being of a “Cold War mentality” that will “split the international community and harm the joint efforts that could properly solve the nuclear issue on Korea peninsula.”
China seems to be pivoting more and more towards North Korea. If Kim Jong-Un, with China at his back, can slowly force an aggressive U.S. to back down while pushing South Korea towards peace, this opens room for China to replace us as the regional hegemon. China has the second-largest economy in the world, Japan the sixth, and South Korea the eleventh.
We’d be kicked out of the club. This is why Mr. Trump has failed us: He has no interest in diplomacy, and doesn’t understand the power of peace. He didn’t appoint a South Korean Ambassador until, get this, last month. But that didn’t stop him from continually threatening the North with nuclear annihilation.
And he didn’t get ambassadors for Japan and China until July.
If you were in their position, what would you think of someone like that? Would you think they value peace above war? Would you want to negotiate with them?
Trump and the neophyte hawks he’s surrounded himself with have been very, very stupid. This is what might have already lost us the war, an end that’s looking more and more inevitable.
Which leads me to…
The Really, Really Bad News
This is a simple question: How will the United States react if we get thrown out of the club? Do we go quietly, or are our regional interests more important than peace on the peninsula?
This isn’t easy to answer. After all, our military presence in the Asia Pacific serves two ends: The primary end isn’t to protect South Korea; it’s to control the balance of power so we can bend regional trade, military, and economic polices to our benefit. Protecting South Korea is a guise for our military presence. (As is protecting Taiwan.)
Would peace on the peninsula give the lie to this guise? That is, would we maintain a strong military presence in the face of peace, or, worse, at the risk of preventing peace, in order to maintain regional hegemony? If so, what might that lead to? It would really piss off China, for one thing. If we don’t back down at the expense of peace, it would actually increase the likelihood of military conflict.
That’s all to say that at the most pessimistic, if our national interest in hegemony outweighs our national interest in regional peace, a war in Asia might be inevitable.
This is a very real and woefully underreported threat, and it’s not limited to any administration, be it of Obama or Clinton or Sanders or Cuban or Winfrey. But the Trump administration is particularly ill-suited and poorly disposed to peace.
Me, though? I’m a good news guy.