Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been touring Asia lately, and on March 17 finally got the nerve to say something. Regarding North Korea, he said, "If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe that requires action, that option is on the table." A few hours later, boss Donald Trump tweeted "North Korea is behaving very badly," with "very, very badly" added two days after that. Pretty strong words, guys, though not as colorful as W’s "Axis of Evil" fifteen years ago. Anyway, it just words — not deeds — all over again.
We’ve heard the warnings escalating year after year, "North Korea will weaponize missiles with nukes soon," "They can only hit Tokyo," "They can only hit Guam," "They can only hit Seattle," etc. Well, Kim, Jong-un is not fooling around. It’s very likely he will soon have the firepower to incinerate New York City and Washington D.C. That was Kruschchev’s plan during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But it’s tough getting tough with North Korea. North Korea knows the U.S. is the ultimate paper tiger. Why? Because North Korea has 11,000 conventional cannons and rockets a 40-minute drive North of Seoul, and can still turn the city into a "sea of fire" if the U.S. or South Korea launch any kind of attack. In short, the U.S. will never dare try a pre-emptive strike against North Korea.
JFK was tough with Cuba, which is why he prevailed. Not sanctions tough, but blockade tough. If sanctions and boycotts fail with Russia and Israel, you really have to be naïve to expect them to work with the world capital of juche (self-reliance), North Korea. But another extremely important reason North Korean sanctions fail is that, despite its head-fake Security Council votes, China continues to prop up North Korea with free grain and fuel oil, and coal purchases that take place every day in coastal Chinese cities.
By now, everybody should be sick and tired of U.S. presidents bleating, "China has to get tougher on North Korea." Haven’t these guys figured out yet that nothing is going to change? Trump was pretty smart flashing the Taiwan card for a day or two just to show China there’s a new Marshall in Dodge. So, if he really wants to "Make a Deal" with China on North Korea, what will it look like?
JFK’s blockade — euphemistically re-branded a "quarantine" — was indeed tough, but it was part of a deal where the U.S. also agreed to remove its missiles from Italy and Turkey. That’s what a deal is: both sides have to give a little. So, what might be some terms and conditions the U.S. and China might swallow, to once and for all solve the North Korean crisis?
Full naval and border blockade. China should stop its charade, really and truly ending all financial and resource grants to, and trade with, North Korea. The U.S., China, South Korea, and Japan should prevent any ship from leaving or entering North Korea. The U.S. should cut off North Korea’s access to world financial markets, while China should cut off all bridges to North Korea, and police the Yalu River to prevent as many crossings as they can.
Regime change and reunification. The only successful examples of denuclearization, South Africa and the Ukraine, involved regime change. If you believe a country like North Korea will change that pattern, you are fooling yourself. Reunification is the only remedy. Yes, it will be hugely expensive, and the U.S., China, and South Korea should agree to provide financing for it.
Refugee preparedness. Today, North Korea is in reality a chessboard pawn for China, like those airstrips built on landfill in the middle of the South China Sea. But Chinese officials keep repeating their "deep concern" that reunification would lead to a huge influx of refugees across the Yalu River. That’s nothing but China’s cover story. There are already two million ethnic Koreans living in China. If there are refugee flows into China, the U.S., South Korea, and China should just transport them for re-settlement in South Korea, with costs borne by all three partners.
Amnesty for Kim, Jong-un. Human rights nannies have long wanted to see Kim, Jong-un (and before him, his dad Kim, Jong-il) on trial like Ratko Mladic in the International Criminal Court. But it’s not realistic to expect any nuke-armed despot to just perp walk out of his palace, shoulder-to-shoulder with David Boies or whomever. China is brazen enough to conduct cyberhacking on a worldwide scale, and lay its heavy hand on small African nations. Why can’t they get some of those elderly "lips and teeth" generals on both sides to ease out the current Kim regime — which will be more and more imperative as the embargo becomes airtight? China can surely find a swank, well-guarded mansion for Kim, Jong-un in Beijing. If that doesn’t work, Idi Amin Dada’s luxurious two-floor Jeddah suite has been available for a few years now.
Maintaining the U.S. alliance. South Korea is very important to the U.S. If North Korea or anyone else ever attacked South Korea, the U.S. (not to mention Australia) would respond with massive military might. However, our land invasion in such a scenario would require hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops — not the minuscule 27,000 in South Korea today. The U.S. should agree to remove its pointless and symbolic troops, and discontinue its military exercises. The U.S. should also agree that, after reunification, it will remove the THAAD anti-missile missiles.
Will any of the above steps be taken tomorrow morning? I wouldn’t bet on it. But surely all agree that U.S. North Korea policy has been a dismal failure for decades, and that new thinking is desperately needed.
Henry Seggerman managed Korea International Investment Fund, the oldest South Korean hedge fund, from 2001 until 2014. He is a regular columnist for the Korea Times, and has also been a guest speaker, written for, or been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Bloomberg Television, Reuters, and FinanceAsia — covering not only North and South Korea, but also Asia, as well as U.S. politics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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