Talk about unfortunate timing. Just as we were about to witness the lightning total collapse of America’s Afghan “ally” in the face of advances by the Taliban, a pair of retired generals began a media campaign to make North Korea the third member of what is now a bilateral alliance between South Korea and the United States.
In a Foreign Affairs magazine article published in late July, General Vincent Brooks and General Leem Ho-young, former commander and deputy commander, respectively, of the US-South Korean Combined Forces Command, set out a series of steps to take on the way to sealing a “Grand Bargain.”
“Pyongyang’s economic distress offers a chance for peace,” they argue while acknowledging that it won’t be easy.
In the final phase, Seoul and Washington would move beyond a peace treaty and completely integrate North Korea into the alliance-led order. South Korea would take the lead as North Korea’s primary provider of trade and direct investment. For its part, the United States would become North Korea’s second-leading trading partner and primary enabler of international financing. An economic plan would chart out Pyongyang’s long-term economic growth, and the South-North free-trade agreement could be expanded into an Indo-Pacific trade partnership – giving North Korea access to markets across Asia.
These steps would cement the new economic order in Northeast Asia, improving the quality of life for millions of people. Militarily, a permanent peace plan would offer security by verifying that Pyongyang was complying with its international obligations and had destroyed its nuclear weapons. And politically, this reimagined relationship with North Korea would craft a new balance of power that diminishes China’s influence across the region.
Sounds lovely but, honestly, where do we begin to deal with well-meaning suggestions that are not merely half-baked but out-and-out pie in the sky?
“An alliance with the United States, South Korea and North Korea?” is the raised-eyebrows initial reaction from Seoul-based Michael Breen, a Briton who watches North Korea and is the author most recently of The New Koreans. “Really? Be careful what you wish for.”
Breen confesses, “I think Afghanistan has made me grumpy.”
“My first thought,” he adds, ” is that each new proposal, with new players and newly assigned officials and newly assigned reporters to write about it, perks everyone up again to jump on what they don’t realize is the same old merry-go-round.”
His reference is to the perennially appealing notion that a peace treaty formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War would be the key to aligning North Korea’s interests with those of its longtime enemies.
“There’s not going to be progress on this front until there is a power shift in Pyongyang,” Breen says. “And, frankly, I’m not sure that we want progress – at least not an alliance with North Korea on the same side as South Korea and the US – without getting China on board and I can’t see that happening at least until Xi [Jinping] goes.”
How the American general latched on to his rather starry-eyed view I don’t know. A partial explanation may lurk in the fact that, in 2013, well before Brooks took command at Seoul’s Yongsan Base in 2016, Stephen Bradner, for decades the American civilian who had advised UNC commanders (he had a realistic view of North Korea’s leaders and knew where the bodies were buried) had retired and moved home to Rhode Island.
Let’s hope the Biden administration, rumored to have considered Brooks for the ambassadorship in Seoul, takes a closer look at his policy ideas.
Frankly, it doesn’t surprise me that a young-ish South Korean general (Leem is 62) would be tempted by the old peace-treaty scam. It appeals also to President Moon Jae-in (born 1953) and to a generation of Moon political allies who were born just a bit later, in the 1960s, and came of age as activists in the ’80s.
Moon & Co are eager to cater to Kim Jong Un, hoping for a newsmaking breakthrough in North-South ties that could influence South Korean voters to prolong left-nationalist rule after Moon is term-limited out of office this coming May.
Over the weekend Seoul’s Korea Herald ran an interview with Leem by Choi Si-young in which Choi expressed some skepticism about the two generals’ proposals. Leem’s answers suggest he’s not as much of a pushover as Moon appears to be.
Still, the military man was peddling pretty much the old wish list as if it were realistic policy. Here are some sample exchanges:
The Korea Herald: Your pitch doesn’t seem new. What makes you think it will work?
Leem Ho-young: Timing. North Korea wants help with its economy now more than ever, and that’s a sign our help would work this time if we offer it. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un fears social upheaval caused by economic distress and understands that’s a threat to his rule. He wants engagement. He has been careful with his language on US President Joe Biden. In October last year, Pyongyang showed off a new intercontinental ballistic missile, but it didn’t call Washington an imperialist aggressor or sworn enemy as it did the previous time, in September 2018.
Very poor argument. The North Koreans are careful with their language and then they’re not. It means nothing either way. Do the rulers really care that the people are starving due to economic mismanagement? Not a lot, I’d say based on 44 years of North Korea watching.
KH: Do you see China getting on board with this proposal?
LEEM: The fact the US and China are not on favorable terms means the US has more to gain than to lose in trying this economic initiative. It draws Pyongyang closer to its side and away from Beijing, which will work to Washington’s advantage when it is seeking to put checks on Beijing. We will have to make the US see this initiative is worth giving a shot to avoid being trapped in the current unacceptable status quo.
Come on! North Korea’s Kims have been playing big powers off against one another since the communists took over the Chinese mainland in 1949. And the Chinese have kept the North Koreans more or less in their pocket for much of that period. We’re going to disrupt those longstanding patterns of behavior?
David Straub, a retired US diplomat who knows Korea extremely well, tells me he is “appalled that a former top ROK general should not understand the United States any better than that. The idea that the US would ally with North Korea against the PRC is ludicrous. Just one of many hair-brained ideas in this interview. His very last answer, however, is reasonable but sounds as if written by an entirely different person than the one who said the things just above that:”
KH: How is this economic agenda any different from the Moon Jae-in government’s approach?
LEEM: Two things. What is it that the Moon administration is trying to ultimately achieve through economic engagement? That has been unclear. Has the government ever called out North Koreans on something they’ve done wrong? I don’t think so.
Moon seeks engagement for engagement and there has been no change since the 2018 inter-Korean summits where the two Koreas shook hands on denuclearization. The government was business as usual when North Koreans killed our fisheries official in September last year.
What’s worse is North Koreans got us thinking that the annual military drills between Seoul and Washington now threaten inter-Korean peace efforts. Talks have taken place many times despite the drills. North Koreans have learned to get their way, and we’ve let them.
Bruce E. Bechtol, Jr, author of Defiant Failed State and other books on North Korea, explains in an email why offering concessions would not change behavior in Pyongyang: “The Kim regime, as we now know it, would take all the concessions they could get and then walk away – and it won’t matter how bad their economy is.”
Bechtol, a political scientist at Angelo State University in Texas, says the Kim family would not permit the loosening of its now-rigid controls over North Korean society that would necessarily accompany any real shift into the political-economic camp of the country’s current enemies.
“To concede to something like this would mean the end of their power and the DPRK as we now know it,” Bechtol says, using the initials for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “The only way that is going to happen is if the Kim family regime falls. If that happens, North Korea could collapse quickly anyway.”
Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.