Friday, April 30, 2010

Absolutely must-read article about North Korea by Nicholas Eberstadt, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. A few highlights:
As the U.S. and its allies frame plans for dealing with North Korea in the aftermath of the recent sinking of a South Korean warship, political leaders must recognize that security will depend not just upon deterring Kim Jong Il today. Northeast Asia's future security—and America's—will be profoundly affected by the government presiding over the northern half of Korea in the long run.

For this reason, Korean unification—under a democratic, market-oriented Republic of Korea that remains allied with the U.S.—must be the ultimate objective. Today that looks like a daunting and risky prospect. But to paraphrase Churchill: Unification would be the worst possible outcome for Korea—except for all the other alternatives.


Then there is the potential for Chinese suzerainty. This notion has been floated by Chinese authors in recent years, in the form of "academic" but officially sanctioned studies that depict an ancient kingdom—conveniently stretching from Manchuria to the current-day Korean DMZ—which was once historically part of greater China. ... Chinese suzerainty might put an end to the North Korean nuclear threat. But it would change the security environment in East Asia—perhaps radically.

Immense pressures would build in South Korea for accommodating Beijing's interests. Depending on China's preferences (and how these were parlayed), accommodation could mean an end to the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Japan would find its space for international maneuver correspondingly constricted; continuation of the U.S.-Japan alliance could even look risky. Much would depend upon Beijing's own conduct—but a Chinese hold over northern Korea would have devastating implications for the current U.S. security architecture in East Asia.

It is in the context of the alternatives—not in the abstract—that the pros and cons of an eventual Korean unification must be weighed.
The North Korea Endgame (Wall Street Journal)


  1. I wonder if the author is somewhat exaggerating the security threat presumably brought on by Chinese takeover of North Korea. The difference is, they get North Korea. Does this difference make *that* much of a difference than the situation we have today? China is already S Korea's #1 trading partner. Would China be any more of a security threat to S Korea if they control N Korea? I dunno. I wish there was some more explication on that point. Maybe it's obvious to the pros, but not to me.

  2. JW, I think the author wasn't particularly talking about security threats to S. Korea as it was to security threats to the US. The US bases in Korea and Okinawa would definitely be compromised if the ROK and Japan had to cede to PRC demands.

  3. Ok yeah, but I'm not sure how China's control of North Korea will categorically make a difference in terms of pressure put on South Korea to cede to China's demands. Sure, the author says that it will (or something to that effect), but exactly how? What will China do differently vis-a-vis South Korea once it controls N Korea?

  4. I guess more to the point would be to ask, why can't China begin putting pressure on S Korea to push American forces out of their territory *right now*? As a rationale I guess China can tell Seoul that should N Korea attack, Beijing will back them up. In fact, if Beijing gave both North AND South Korea legimitate guarantees to the effect that China will not tolerate attacks by either side, it may bring more assurance of stability for S Korea vis a vis N Korea.

    The way I see it, if China wants US forces out of S Korea, they will demand it and probably get what they demand regardless of their takeover of N Korea. But on the flipside, if US wants to keep its forces in S Korea, they will demand it and probably get what they demand regardless of China's takeover of N Korea. What this means I think, if I haven't totally confused myself, is that how South Korea reacts to China's takeover of N Korea will not really matter in the final analysis.


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