North Korea’s strategy has always been to force the United States out of the Korean peninsula and push the South Koreans into a deal that leads to reunification of north and south. This strategy derives directly from North Korea’s founder, Russian-trained Kim Il-sung. And it is the strategy his grandson is following today.
Remember that North Korea promoted upheaval in the South and launched an invasion on June 25, 1950, expecting to take over the southern part of Korea in a month’s or even less time. Then a reunified Korea, with its capital in Seoul, would be in the hands of Kim and his Russian allies.
But surprise of surprises, the US led a UN coalition that eventually forced an armistice, but not a settlement. It also forced China to commit troops to North Korea in the fight against the coalition, forces that remained there for a decade enabling North Korea to rebuild the country’s shattered economy (with credit and support from all the Soviet-led socialist countries).
Today, the global political situation is a little different, but in geopolitical terms not that much. Russia is still backing North Korea’s political objectives while pretending to be a mediator in the dispute between the US and North Korea.
China, which worries that the regime in the North may be too crazy for China’s own good, has until recently been looking for a more pacific replacement for Kim Jong-un. But Kim the younger, probably though not certainly helped by Russian intelligence, has stymied China’s attempts to replace him by catching and executing would-be conspirators.
Basically, young Kim’s strategy is clear and the scenario might look something like this:
1. Build up enough military power, including long range ballistic missiles, to put pressure on the US to back off its support of South Korea;
2. Separate South Korea from the US by doing their best to illustrate to Seoul that (a) America is a paper tiger and (b) that the US won’t come to South Korea’s aid if it means that US cities would face a nuclear attack;
3. Position chemical and biological weapons on the border that will not only wipe out South Korea’s army forces, but could also devastate American forces positioned close to the demilitarized zone (DMZ);
4. Offer deals to the South Korean government for improved relations.
Assuming South Korea takes the bait, North Korea will propose steps toward integration of the North and South.
Some of the steps could include exchanging political and military leaders (e.g., allowing each side to open an “office” in each other’s country; creating a Joint Military Command to protect Korea from “outside” threats).
These steps could lead to the election of some sort of peninsular “peace” commission, where the North Koreans would quietly engineer winning a narrow majority by orchestrating the election of at least one of their candidates in a South Korean electoral slot, while assuring only approved North Korean candidates run in North Korea’s elections.
These steps would kick off an inevitable political process leading to a reunified country dominated by North Korean interests, but retaining some of the South’s leaders and military figures as a sop to a “fair” political evolutionary process.
In the end, it would mean a unitary, nuclear Korean state dominated by North Korea. So, why would a forward integration strategy appeal to South Korea?
1. South Korea does not want war. The present moderately leftist government of South Korea promotes a peace platform. While they have reluctantly agreed to the positioning of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile shield on Korean territory, and have participated in joint shows of force with the US, none of this changes the tendency of the South Korean government to seek some sort of diplomatic or political accommodation with the North;
2. Any war would devastate Seoul, South Korea’s political capital. It faces well dug in North Korean artillery batteries more than capable of turning Seoul into a pile of rubble and killing tens of thousands, if not more. When you add to that North Korea’s plethora of short range missiles and chemical and biological weapons, South Korea would suffer irreparable harm.
Seoul has a population of nearly 10 million; overall the country is home to more than 51 million, about double the size of North Korea. It is a prosperous country with a high tech oriented economy. A war would halt much of its industrial and technological progress and imperil its high standard of living.
3. No one knows what the US will do to help defend Korea if American cities are under real threat from Pyongyang. North Korea has only a minimal capability (if any) to hit American strategic assets and cities. But over time that will change, assuming that North Korea is capable of fielding enough missiles and nuclear weapons to significantly influence Pentagon strategists.
North Korea has not yet proven it has a workable nuclear warhead, nor has it proven it has fielded a rocket with a reentry vehicle adequate to support a nuclear strike. If North Korea’s recent statements can be assumed to reflect their intentions, one can expect that over the next two to three years it will achieve a long range reliable nuclear strike capability. When and if that is reached, the US might quietly reassess its options.
4. The alternative scenario, that the US would support South Korea in a military confrontation, also has negative consequences because Seoul will primarily pay the price even if the North is destroyed. The prospect of millions of refugees from the North, devastation on both sides and political upheaval that could lead to long-term unrest and even revolution is not an outcome South Koreans want.
This would seem to augur for a “peace initiative” that could arise quickly to dominate South-North dialogue and lead to decisions approximating first steps in Kim’s integration and unification goals. Such a process would fairly quickly sideline the US, meeting another of Kim’s strategic aims.
The bottom line is that Kim is trying to create the conditions under which he can carry out his grandfather’s political agenda for the Korean peninsula. Both Russia and North Korea would be the winners if this strategy successfully plays out.
The big loser could be the US if its is backed out of Korea. Such a scenario would present a host of other significant regional risks, most immediately to Japan’s standing and pro-US posture, but also to the future independence of Taiwan.
The US needs to find a creative strategy that reestablishes its position, not an easy task and one that cannot be accomplished by threatening military confrontations without any coherent political rationale. Real power politics grows out of being able to convince populations that regimes that deprive people of basic human rights are dangerous and dysfunctional in a post-modern world.
The US cannot promote that argument while doing business as usual with the bad guys.