In Norman Angell published his famous book The Great Illusion , in which he argued that war between the interlocked advanced economies would be so dysfunctional that militarism was obsolete. A variant of this illusion is currently permeating South Korea, based on misconceptions about unification and how to achieve it. Unification, or more correctly reunification, has been high on the agenda of both Koreas, at least in rhetoric, since The Korean War of was, of course, an attempt at unification, with both sides having come to the conclusion that force was the only option.
It was an assumption not unreasonable under the circumstances. The Chinese Civil War seemed, in , to be on the verge of reunifying China. That reunification was to be thwarted, ironically, by the Korean War itself, but no one knew that in June Reunification by force was historically the most common way and the American Civil War — by far the bloodiest conflict in American history — was, in the mainstream narrative at least, accepted as a legitimate resolution of the problem of a divided country. Apart from the dreadful cost of the Korean War in human lives and infrastructure — million dead, and huge devastation — the war had one vital lesson.
Because of its strategic location none of the interested great powers — the U. That was true in the s and remains true today. According to James M. Minnich , a major in the US Army with a long experience in Korea:. North Korea lacks the economical resources to successfully fight and win a protracted war. Therefore, their strategy is to defeat the South before the U. Indeed, the biannual joint U. This seems very far-fetched.
We might add in the Japanese, very anxious to promote remilitarization by lending a hand to the Americans on the Korean Peninsula to the dismay of Seoul. Another lesson of the Korean War was that ground forces on the peninsula are vulnerable to an enemy which has control of the sea and the air and it is noticeable that amphibious landings are an important facet of the current exercises.
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It is difficult to envisage the leadership in Pyongyang actually believing that the U. The South is another matter, and a more complicated one. First, the huge disparity in military power, which is a disincentive to the North, is an incentive to the South. Then, whilst the U. The South Korean government and media have tried to convince the Americans that China would not really object to its taking over of the North.
This theme has been reiterated by a range of American commentators. However, two American academics, Bruce Bennett and Jennifer Lind , have published extensively on the military requirements of a conquest of North Korea, and they might reflect thinking in military circles. Bennett and Lind argue that there is:. Seoul and Washington should discuss with each other and with Beijing the prospect of Chinese participation in missions to stabilize North Korea after a government collapse.
If Seoul and Washington oppose Chinese involvement, then they should be prepared to conduct these missions in ways that obviate the need for Chinese intervention. Moreover, although the ROK would be required to provide the bulk of troops for any substantial military intervention in the North, it would be essentially an American-led affair.
In addition, for technical reasons it is doubtful whether the ROK military could mount an invasion of the North without U. In short, a successful invasion of the North would take U.
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Exactly what that response would be is unknown, but war cannot be ruled out. China has consistently rejected U. This brings us back to unification. There are basically two paths. The first involves dialogue between the two Korean states to map out mutually agreed, mutually beneficial measures to defuse tension, and to restore and advance economic and social linkages. This could develop into a virtuous cycle where confidence-building measures produce benefits that lead to the next stage.
Some form of confederation as a stepping-stone to greater unification was for many years on the agenda of the South — though it seems to have disappeared since former President Lee Myung-bak — and is still advocated by the North. It is easy to identify actions which would propel that process. Cutting back, then abolishing the joint U. However, there are substantial obstacles. Since most of the restraints were initiated by the South, then the remedy must come from the South. Abe took a different approach to Xi Jinping in Osaka with no indication that he was cooperating with Trump instead of hedging against Trump.
Xi had decided in to change course in ties to Japan with an emphasis on economics, as Abe agreed to coordinate with Xi on the Belt and Road Initiative BRI , conditional on the merits of the proposal and its transparency. Abe appeared to be following through on the strategy of Trans-Pacific Partnership TPP , drawing countries together by strength in numbers and then reaching out to China on terms that would alter its conduct.
He was also working with Trump and other countries in pressuring China to reform some of its unacceptable practices. At the G20, however, there was an image of disarray—Abe focusing on improved economic ties to China and Trump focusing, despite praise of Xi, on threats to bilateral ties unless Xi yielded. There is no need for the US to press Japan to toughen its stand toward China. In the Obama era, many Japanese bemoaned what they perceived as the weakness in his response to China. The US position toward Taiwan, including increased arms sales, and also toward the South China Sea, with more freedom of navigation exercises, is welcome, allowing Japan to stay in the shadows.
If Trump demands more military moves from Japan, as in escorting ships in the Strait of Hormuz, he is unlikely to break with the tradition of giving Japan leeway in dealing with China. With the explosion of demonstrations in Hong Kong from early July, the US and Japan faced the challenge of responding in a meaningful manner without any prospect of intervening. In the case of the US, Trump refused to support the demonstrators, making bland comments that could not raise their hopes. In the case of Japan, no mention was made of any response to whatever China might do nor was Abe blamed for his silence.
Both Trump and Abe had plans for dealing with Xi Jinping that Hong Kong could complicate, whatever the public was thinking. Both Trump and Abe have specific goals in mind, not a sweeping confrontation. Their thinking on human rights plays a part, and so do economic considerations.
2017–18 North Korea crisis
Yet, neither would respond similarly were Taiwan in the crosshairs of Beijing. Relations between Tokyo and Seoul have stumbled from bad to worse since the fall of ; the fact that Trump would be in one location with both Abe and Moon meant that the US had an opportunity to address the problem, as previous presidents had done, even if they hesitated to put themselves between two strong allies. There certainly was no shortage of challenges for which triangularity and passable Japan-ROK relations mattered.
Yet, Trump showed no interest in playing a role, standing on the sidelines as the relationship between allies was on the brink of a much deeper breakdown. The very notion of triangularity appeared anathema to a leader obsessed with one-on-one meetings, where he can capitalize on the greater clout of the US.
On a dispute rooted in historical consciousness, it is hard to imagine Trump getting involved. At the G20 Abe was viewed as the aggrieved party, but he too was not appealing to Trump for assistance. In fact, Abe seemed to have a plan in mind and was just waiting for the G20 to pass before implementing it. Japanese conservative media had anticipated his move, showing little interest in involving the US in a bilateral issue Japan was capable of handling on its own.
Thus, until July Trump might have felt pressure to act only from close observers in and out of office of how the course of Japan-ROK relations was jeopardizing US security interests in the region. Japanese also view the treaty as the cornerstone of bilateral relations with South Korea—to challenge it wins little sympathy.
They also saw the agreement as a compromise, rejecting that adds to outrage over reopening the settlement. As Yomiuri editorialized, his words were unacceptable. One could presume that the US would be no less critical of such ROK transgressions and would have reinforced such charges, but that has not happened. Rather, the US side, just wanting the problem to go away, is inclined to go back to the root of the downturn in relations, putting pressure on Moon too.
Research on the Obama administration’s DPRK policy
If the US were to engage both parties, it would be inclined to take a broad approach oriented to reviving the status quo of , not an attractive option for the Moon administration. Yet, not a likelihood for the Trump administration unless further deterioration in triangularity occurs. Abe looks tough but may relax trade restrictions and keep the economic damage limited. Moon, in turn, refrained from directly criticizing Japan in his August 15 speech, appealing for dialogue.
Progressives in Japan found his speech restrained compared to the past on a day when a harsh tone toward Japan could be expected. Moon will need to do more, perhaps including reauthorizing exports from the area affected by the Great Eastern Japan earthquake and nuclear contamination. A Mainichi editorial warned that both countries suffer badly from a downward spiral and that international society looks askance on it. The Moon-Trump summit on April 11, which has mostly been viewed through the lens of North Korea policy coordination, was interpreted in Japan as an attempt to alter the dynamics of Trump drawing closer to Abe at a time when Moon and Abe are readying for an escalation in their sharp confrontation with strategic issues including the radar incident and China policy drawing the US closer to Japan.
Facets of the North Korea Conflict
It pointed to a speech by US ambassador Harris on June 5 pressing the importance of cybersecurity and a response in China of severe consequences should the firm be excluded. As semi-conductor exports have fallen sharply this year in the wake of the Sino-US trade war, Sankei described a feeling of crisis in South Korea. The implicit message is that Japan faces no similar dilemma because it is not on the fence between the US and China and is not subject to the same kind of retaliation.
Some of the arguments are similar: coordination in the face of North Korea is being damaged; the bilateral problems will reverberate to the US disadvantage; and the earlier status quo was better and should be reestablished. It is a more comprehensive appeal and a more desperate one.
There is a danger that appeals to the US will be not only unpersuasive but counterproductive. It is not only because the Trump administration is disinclined to pursue multilateralism—trilateral or not—and address values-laden issues such as historical grievances. Korean presumptions that Japan still must confront its past and must be reminded of worries about its remilitarization do not find a sympathetic audience in DC.
Given the widening strategic divide with Washington over North Korea, China, and Russia and the narrowing differences between Washington and Tokyo, the burden on Seoul is that much heavier. As host to the G20, Abe sought to shape the agenda, caring deeply about the talks related to North Korea, China, and South Korea as well as the struggle against protectionism and on behalf of a strong international community.
The usual verdict on the G20 is it did little good but also little harm.
Related No Illusions: Regaining the Strategic Initiative with North Korea
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