by R.Lesnoix for The Saker Blog
Peace between North Korea and the United States would be a welcome development. Both have nuclear weapons and have been threatening each other with the use of these until recently. With the proximity of China, Russia and Japan, each with their own interests, renewed fighting in and around the Korean peninsula could rapidly escalate. Such an escalation would spell trouble for the entire world, even if these countries would not directly get involved in any fighting. The economic consequences alone will be felt all around the world.
Peace however, is one of those concepts that is all to easily manipulated or abused. Just remember the Nobel peace prize Obama received. During his administration the United States were at war every single day. The perception of desiring peace has superseded actually achieving peace or even working towards it. We have been conditioned to consider it such a worthy goal that parties should be willing, in our minds at least, to set aside all their differences, shake hands and be friends from now on. When ‘our’ opponent (typically referred to as an enemy of ‘the West’) refuses to back down we subconsciously condemn them, no matter how reasonable their position. As a result we see ‘our’ side enter so called peace negotiations with a host of demands combined with a public-relations campaign aimed at painting the opponents as the bad guys for not-compromising-in-order-to-achieve-peace. It is conveniently ignored a compromise per definition requires both sides to give up something.
This is exactly what we have seen come from Washington with regards to the prematurely aborted peace summit between Trump and Kim. The American conditions are tantamount to a surrender demand. Perhaps they have utterly misjudged the effect of their diplomacy-by-tweets on the North Korean leadership and they are now trying to save face. Or Trump heard something when speaking to Moon he really didn’t like. Unfortunately for them they were already being called out on it and not just by North Korea either. The likely effect is to weaken, not strengthen, the US position in the region. It should make many wonder, including South Korea, whether the Americans want peace on the peninsula at all. Even if the North were to acquiesce to a de facto capitulation it would only move the frontline farther north towards China. How does that really benefit the South? The remarkably callous dismissal of the summit and the flippancy of Pence’s remarks should set off the red flags in Seoul.
The problem the two sides would face at the Singapore Summit is that they have opposite goals. It is hard to see how a middle ground, acceptable to both, can be found. The situation on the Korean peninsula is complicated in many ways. There should be no doubt however that the overriding imperative of the North Korean leadership is to stay in power. They have no incentive to abdicate in any way or weaken their position. If they do get rid of their nuclear weapons, as the United States demands, they are signing their death warrants. Their own statements make clear they comprehend this. The US has a dubious reputation when it comes to honoring agreements. It’s a side effect of their electoral system that new presidents, especially if they are of the other party, try to undo much of what their predecessor did. When the mutual dislike is as severe as between Trump and Obama, the new president may even go well out of his way to dismantle the others legacy. To be clear, it’s not just Trump.
Iraq’s Saddam Hussain got rid of it weapons of mass destruction and what did he get in return? An invasion and the gallows. Remember the first Gulf War from 1990-1991? Coalition forces preparing and training in the Saudi desert to deal with chemical weapons attacks. The media frightened us all with stories of how Saddam’s would inflict mass casualties and not just among coalition soldiers. The United States and its western allies knew how real the danger was. They were the ones who had provided Saddam with these chemical weapons and he had used them before against the Iranians and against the Kurds. This taught the US a valuable lesson. Before starting a regime change operation, make sure you declaw the country in question by making them give up their WMDs. Offer them a sweet deal, preferably draped in the protective cloak of the UN.
Saddam took the bait and he ended up hanging from a rope. Khadaffi did, and he got the sharp end of a bayonet. Assad did and he was nearly overthrown. He survived and now faces repeated accusations of using chemical weapons he doesn’t have anymore. Iran made a deal to end its nuclear weapons program. Once again the United States lives up to its notoriety. They’ve recently renounced the JCPOA and are threatening not only Iran, but also the other parties in the agreement, some of whom are supposedly their close allies! John Bolton even had the gal to propose a deal for North Korea along the lines of the one made with Libya. Even Trump seemed to recognize how dumb that was and quickly retracted it. But today he doubled-down on Bolton’s proposal. It’s become clear that the best way to keep the Americans from attacking you is by holding on to your WMDs. How can you deal with such a nation?
Contrary to popular opinion, Kim is not a madman and the North Korean leadership is not stupid. They understand all of this all very well. North Korean unilateral denuclearization will not be the outcome of a peace summit. Both sides say they want to meet to ensure ‘peace’ but they have altogether conflicting interpretations of the concept. The Korean War of the 1950s officially never ended. In 1953 a ceasefire agreement was reached. Since then serious fighting has been avoided but there have been clashes, sometimes with substantial casualties. A ceasefire agreement is not a peace accord. It merely means both sides agree not to shoot at each other while it is in effect. Either side could end it whenever they want. What North Korea now apparently wants is to ultimately end the Korean War with a formal peace accord.
The principal parties of the war were the two Korea’s. The North received support from China and Russia, the South from the US and its allies. While the three superpowers have their own interests in the manner of the resolution of this conflict, ultimately it is up to the two Korea’s. They will try to get as much as possible in return off course, that’s why they are currently negotiating one on one. It will be South Korea who will decide how this plays out, not Trump and not Kim. South Korea wants peace and stability. They would like the constant threat to end. They want to improve relations with their northern neighbor and find a way to move forward. Kim will offer them this. He will require something in return off course. The genius of it is it will be almost impossible for the South Koreans to refuse.
When the Korean War was fought in the ’50s the troops fighting for the South fell under overall command of the United States, including the armed forces of South Korea. This has never been revoked. Up to this day there is the absurd situation of the entire South Korean army with around 600.000 active duty soldiers and several million reserves falling under the command of a US general. The total number of American troops in the country is a few tens of thousands. The South Korean leadership doesn’t like this one bit. Up until now they haven’t been able to put an end to this because if they did it may well have meant the withdrawal of all US troops from the country. Without these the chances of renewed hostilities by the North increased. So they endured the humiliation of having their entire army commanded by a lower ranked foreigner. Should the two Korea’s finally come to a mutual understanding and really make peace, the need for the Americans to keep this command, or even stay in the country, goes away as far as the South Koreans are concerned.
The beauty of it for the North Koreans is that a peace accord between the two Korea’s will only be possible if South Korea takes back full command of all troops stationed in their country. There’s no other way. Peace with South Korea means very little if the country does not have control of their own military. The value of such a peace will also significantly decrease if the US keeps troops stationed in the South, especially if these do not fall under the command of the South Korean government. Given the overt hostility shown by the US towards the North and the track record of the US of respecting agreements, the presence of these will force the North to guard against them and maintain most of its current military posture. This would certainly hinder further reconciliation between the North and the South.
The South Koreans don’t need these US forces to deal with the North Korean army. They possess both the numbers and the quality to deal with the mostly obsolete North Korean forces. There’s no doubt that US assistance would be a welcome addition but it is not crucial. When the two Korea’s make peace, it is more than likely both will stand down significant portions of their troops. This will decrease tension and make a new conflict between them far less likely. Which would also mean even less need for the US soldiers to stay. The Americans have themselves considered withdrawing their troops several times in the past. It would be perfectly reasonable for the North to request from the South that they take back full control of their armed forces before any agreement between them can be made. It would also be reasonable if the exact content of the accord would depend on whether or not the Americans stay in the South. And it would be reasonable for South Korea to agree.
And if the US were to leave the country, I have no doubt that China and Russia would be more than willing to offer certain guarantees on their security and further sweeten the deal for South Korea. There is a good deal to win and relatively little to lose. By directly engaging with their Southern counterparts and not the US, Kim has opened the door not only to finally making peace, he has also given China and Russia a way to dial back US military presence in the region, including the THAAD antimissile defenses recently deployed to South Korea. The Americans claim these are aimed at North Korea but that’s not how these other two powers see it. The goal for Kim is to make peace with the South, get the US out and have China and Russia act as guarantors thereby ensuring not only his regimes survival, but also of strengthening the ties with China and Russia.
There may even be a role for Japan in this. They should embrace the opportunity of reducing the tensions in the region. With all those US bases in their country, they could become a target themselves in case of renewed hostilities on the Korean peninsula. All the other major players, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea would benefit from this North Korean approach. Even the US would benefit although they are unlikely to see it that way themselves. The South Korean government will have a choice to make, peace with the North which might push away the US or maintain the current relations with the US and risk squandering the chance of finally making peace with the North, as it is highly unlikely that Trump and Kim will ever come to a mutually acceptable accord. The overriding consideration for the government of South Korea should be the avoidance of renewed fighting, now and in the future. Given the belligerent rhetoric from Trump and the conciliatory gestures from Kim towards the South, this may well be the time to unleash themselves from the US.
Trump, on the other hand, wants to keep his troop in South Korea. He sees the country as a big base aimed at China and Russia where he can deploy his THAAD antimissile systems and conduct military exercises close to Chinese and Russian borders. He is interested in South Korea only as a tool to constrain these two. He wants the North to abandon it nuclear weapons and open themselves up to US inspectors so they are much less of a threat to the US. It will also set up the North for some sort of punitive expedition which will undoubtedly take place not long after. The US does not want peace in the world. It prefers a certain degree of tension, limited war and operations-other-than-warfare. Korea is one of the areas they want to keep simmering so as to have an excuse for maintaining or increasing their military presence. How this benefits either North or South Korea or their people doesn’t enter the thinking. So why would either agree to a peace on the conditions now imposed upon by Washington? South Korea is presently in a position to stand up to Trump and make peace with the North on their own terms. The ball certainly is in their court. They will decide what comes next.
What is at stake here is that there are two different conflicts that need resolution. The first is an end, finally, to the Korean War and a mutual reduction in armed forces. This is between the two Korea’s. The rest don’t really matter here, not in practical terms. The second is a resolution of the hostilities between North Korea and the US. This goes well beyond the legacy of the Korean War. These two now have their own conflict. The Americans have been deliberately causing unrest, uncertainty and conflicts in several regions of the world. Their policy towards North Korea constitutes part of a bigger strategy in which the North is merely a means to an end. They don’t actually want peace and quiet. Trump will try to merge these two different peaces together. He will insist on conditions that are impossible for the North to accept. If the South is foolish enough to make their own peace dependent on America’s peace they will likely end up with nothing. Kim will do his best to keep the two peaces separate and will urge the South to act on its own behalf and not be held hostages to the concerns of the US. If he can get the US to sign an acceptable peace accord too, so much the better. Trumps ego could go both ways here; either he doesn’t want to appear to be backing down to Kim, or he wants that Nobel peace prize to flip off Obama once again. I doubt it will happen, but who knows what Trumps mood of the day will be? Kim’s main focus though will be peace between the two Korea’s.
The United States has proven itself to be completely unreliable when it comes to keeping deals made with adversaries. Will South Korea realize they are almost equally unreliable when it comes to keeping deals made with friends and allies? How Trump has been treating his European allies lately should give them pause for thought. Let’s hope they have the courage to finally divorce themselves from the US which may at one time have been its savior, but which is at present an anchor threatening to drag South Korea down with them.