Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Eyesight to the blind

By Peter Lee

It has been announced that North Korea will be a central issue during President Hu Jintao's state visit to the United States this week.

This is not because of the intrinsic importance of the impoverished, barely nuclear power. It is because North Korea is the place where two competing visions of North Asia - China's and the United States' - conspicuously collide.

In the US view, North Korea is one of the final battlefields of the Cold War - the inspiration for a league of capitalist democracies to band together to oppose proliferation and aggression. North Korea also serves as a useful stalking horse for anxieties about another

communist state, China, while giving the US, South Korea and Japan a reason to unite and arm themselves without directly confronting Beijing.

In China's view, North Korea is an object lesson in the importance of moving beyond traditional security alignments and mindsets - with the United States at their center and China as their object - toward a new, negotiated accommodation between a certain rising authoritarian, mixed-economy superpower and its free market competitors in Asia and the Pacific.

North Korea is not merely a symbol, a blank slate on which competing experts in international relations seek to inscribe their theories. It is a place where significant national interests and aspirations - South Korea's drive to lead a reunified peninsula, Japan's quest to forestall a slide into regional irrelevance, the US desire to maintain a respected and decisive role in Asia, and China's efforts to wedge Japan and South Korea away from the United States and shift the regional power balance in its favor - converge to give North Korea's tottering autocracy a disproportionate space on the world stage.

At least superficially, 2010 was a good year for the US-led alliance and its framing of the Asian security question.

Chinese assertiveness in regional issues antagonized and united the governments and populations of South Korea, Japan, and the US and focused a great deal of unfavorable attention and pressure on China for its support of North Korea.

However, tough talk, continuous military exercises, and a tableau of shoulder-to-shoulder steadfastness by the US, South Korea and Japan were not enough to deter China from its determination to assert its interests on the Korean peninsula and its vision for a new, much more China-centric security order in North Asia.

It transpired that China's undiplomatic behavior was not a matter of simple communist clumsiness and arrogance; it appeared to reflect a calculated decision that the benefits of trying to shoehorn China into the West's good-guy template had been exhausted, and it was time for the Beijing to insist on the interests and prerogatives it deemed important, even if it alienated its neighbors and the United States.

There does not appear to be an effective immediate riposte to the China that can say No, at least in matters pertaining to its near beyond of the Korean Peninsula.

In 2011, the US axis is laboring to cope with Chinese intransigence over North Korea, and the splits that Beijing's actions threaten to widen in the alliance.

It could be asserted that the fundamental rot at the heart of the US-led alliance is that North Korea is not really a threat. North Korea is eager for rapprochement with its enemies and food and energy aid to prop up its autocracy, not a regional carnival of death and destruction that would have Pyongyang at its heart.

The North Korean bogeyman is undoubtedly an adequate justification for the policies that benefit the US and its allies in their efforts to maintain an enhanced military presence and update their security doctrines.

In an article entitled portentously if inaccurately, North Korea's Imminent Threat (an imminent threat, like troops massed on one's border, permits a pre-emptive strike per international law; we're not there with North Korea), Heritage Foundation analyst Bruce Klingner found inspiration for a regional security makeover in Pyongyang's antics:

Mr Gates' remarks this week will be something major and new only if they trigger greater efforts to defend against Pyongyang's growing missile threat. Here's hoping that greater pressure in Washington from the new Republican Congressional leadership can convince the Obama administration to reverse cuts to U.S. missile defense budgets and programs. And that that pressure can spill over to Tokyo and Seoul too to change their respective stances on missile defense. [1]

However, North Korea is probably not sufficiently serious threat to compel a war-like unity of purpose and effort between the US, South Korea and Japan in the absence of a rock-solid consensus to confront China.

A statement by a South Korean legislator highlights some of the difficulties in hyping the global threat posed by North Korea. In shades of the Saddam Hussein killer drone story, Song Young-sun stated that North Korea could deliver a nuclear payload either with its missiles or vintage aircraft:

"The heavier the payload, the shorter the range of a missile," Song said. "But South Koreans should be aware that they are living right next to North Korea."

The second-term lawmaker pointed out that the North may simply drop nuclear bombs on the South using its airplanes, such as the AN-2 Colt and IL-28. The AN-2 is a propeller-driven biplane made mostly of cloth and wood, and the IL-28 is a Cold War-era Soviet ground attack aircraft.

According to a 2010 Pentagon report, the AN-2 has "truly lethal potential", as it gives off virtually no signature on radar, making it difficult to identify in the event of troop infiltration missions.

Song claims that the North possesses some 300 AN-2s, which can carry 10 to 15 heavily armed soldiers across the inter-Korean border.

It can even land on golf ranges, as it only needs a 250- meter runway. [2]

Once one gets beyond a shared desire by South Korea, the US and Japan that North Korea somehow disappear, consensus evaporates.

South Korea desires reunification; Japan fears reunification - and the economic powerhouse it will spawn.

The United States is letting it appear that it is exploring Beijing's idea that reaching an understanding with China is perhaps more important than the aspirations of the Korean people or the anxieties of Japan.

The Chinese, for their part, are holding firm on North Korea's viability and industriously pounding wedges into the alliance in an effort to convince all concerned - even the United States - that their best interest lie in giving China a leading role in North Asian security affairs, preferably through a series of bilateral relations instead of via a free world versus red dragon cage match.

In order to sweeten the pill for the United States, the Chinese media were filled with unctuous assurances that the Chinese military had neither the capability nor the interest to supplant the United States in Asia, thereby implying that the prospect of Chinese goodwill should figure in US strategic calculations as much as current assurances of South Korean and Japanese support.

Global Times tried to frame the choice for the United States in a positive way. An editorial entitled China no challenger to US on West Pacific stated:

China should also take US anxiety into consideration. The US is used to being the leading player on the world stage, accepting global obedience. China's effort to improve its own national security isn't compatible with the West Pacific order at the moment. China needs to explore a new road to collective security in the region.

Despite the need to step up its military buildup, China should not set a long-term goal of comprehensively surpassing the US. This is both impractical and even risky.

China should endeavor to dispel military contention out of its national competition with the US, which best facilitates China's interests. [3]

There is a certain amount of urgency to the Chinese effort.

The United States is currently pole-axed by two disastrous wars and a catastrophic recession and not in search of new, challenging strategic adversaries.

However, it will probably not be flat on its behind forever; and North Korea, that supremely useful geopolitical asset and roadblock to a reunified, pro-Western Korean nation, will most assuredly not be around forever, either.

In the run-up to Hu's state visit to Washington, therefore, China is making a big push to revive the six-party talks, thereby asserting that Washington should be talking with Beijing at least as much as Seoul and Tokyo; and the United States and its allies are anxiously pushing back.

China's geopolitical coup de main was the unveiling of an apparently viable Stealth fighter, the J-20, just before US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' visit to Beijing, as a symbol of China's first-order importance as a strategic interlocutor.

Gates professed to shrug off the significance of the J-20 (although he had reportedly previously predicted that China would not master stealth fighter technology before 2020).

The US government and its friends in the media made a noble effort to turn lemons into lemonade by characterizing the J-20 leak as a sign of dangerous disarray and apparent loss of Communist Party control over the People's Liberation Army (PLA). However, it is more likely that the J-20 coup was an considered assertion to the US and the world of China's upgraded military muscle, perhaps carefully choreographed by heir-apparent Xi Jinping. [4]

Gates professed that the biggest threat to US interests was not the possibility that squadrons of J-20s would be sharing the western Pacific with US, South Korean and Japanese aircraft.

Instead, he chose to highlight the danger that North Korean inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM) could pose to the United States in five years, a concern echoed by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Michael Mullen.

Gates thereby dodged the question of how America's role might change in Asia as China's strength grows by declaring that the US is not in Asia just to fill a power vacuum. Its presence is demanded to protect America against an existential threat of North Korean missiles.

Given the shortcomings of the North Korean missile program and its desperate desire to normalize relations with the United States, the Nork inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat is something of a paper tiger.

However, Gates' remark was a rather clever piece of diplomatic jiujitsu: if China is determined to keep the North Korean regime in place, then the United States is equally determined to use North

Korea's existence as a justification for a continued American presence in Asia.

In a sign of where everybody's attention really is, Gates then jetted off to Japan.

On arrival he did not discuss the joint ballistic defense system to protect the world from North Korean ICBMs. Instead he urged Japan to buy America's stealth fighter, the F-35.

Mr Gates called on Japan, China's most powerful rival, to advance its military technology by buying Lockheed Martin's F-35 jet fighters.

''The Japanese government is considering the purchase of its next generation of the fighter aircraft,'' Mr Gates said in Beijing. ''That would give Japan the opportunity to have a fifth-generation capability.''

Japan has expressed an interest in buying the F-22 Raptor, a more expensive and advanced American stealth fighter, but it has been rebuffed by the US, which has placed an export ban on the plane. [5]

Both Japan and South Korea will need a certain amount of reassurance from the US. It is unlikely they will experience an "Obama shock" on North Korea equivalent to the "Nixon shock" when the US secretly and unilaterally negotiated normalization in China while keeping its allies in the dark.

However, the US has made some indications of its willingness to decouple its North Korea policy from South Korea.

Until recently, the "ignore the Norks" doctrine of South Korea's conservative President Lee Myung-bak, also known as the MB policy, has been recapitulated by the Obama administration's "strategic patience" stance.

North Korea has defied and tested the policy of neglect with a series of provocations that have strengthened the South Korean public's anti-North inclinations and shored up the Grand National Party's political base.

The geopolitical consequences have been less positive.

The policy may have been a piece of domestic political posturing that got out of hand, and seems to have been characterized by a "hope is not a plan" optimism, at least where the matter of China was concerned.

It was apparently expected that joint South Korean and US militancy on North Korean issue would move China to recognize where its true interests and future lay, abandon the North, and line up with the forces of democracy and capitalism.

The exact opposite occurred. After the sinking of the South Korean warship the Cheonan, China lined up with North Korea and Obama displayed the US frustration (and lack of recourse beyond petulant insults) by angrily accusing China of "willful blindness".

Hu Jintao subsequently flew to Changchun to shake hands with Dear Leader Kim Jung-il and declare China's support for the continued survival of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

South Korea has discovered that its close economic relations with China are, at least as far as influencing North Korea policy are concerned, bring more liability than leverage, as Yonhap reported:

South Korea's exports to China accounted for 25 percent of its total overseas shipments in 2010, almost equivalent to all of its exports to the United States, Japan and the European Union combined that year.

... Thirty percent of consumer goods imported to South Korea were made in China.

... China has increased its holding of Korean government debts, snapping up around 5 trillion won (US$4.44 billion) during the January-October period in 2010. It was equivalent to 20 percent of the Korean Treasury bonds worth 31.3 trillion won that have been bought by foreign investors since July 2009.

Market watchers warn against the strong Chinese appetite for Korean assets, saying that it could add to upward pressure on the Korean currency, the won. In a recent case, the won's value shot up when foreigners aggressively purchased Korean Treasuries.

In a similar situation last year, Japan was alarmed when China aggressively bought Japanese government bills, which it believed sent its currency, the yen, rising to a record high against the greenback.

Choi Byung-il, dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul's Ewha Womans University, stressed that South Korea should reduce its weight of China-bound goods and diversify its export markets [6]

With the prospect that the newly reassured and emboldened DPRK might now engage in serial provocations like the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island to undermine South Korean economic confidence and the political standing of Lee Myung-bak and demonstrate the futility of the current policy, the United States sent special envoy Thomas Bosworth to the region to float the idea of modulating America's "strategic patience" with an "engagement policy".

Presumably at the insistence of China to enable a reasonably uncontentious atmosphere for Hu's trip, North Korea embarked on a charm offensive on January 5, issuing a call for dialogue with South Korea.

While in Beijing, Gates made statements - quickly disavowed through clarification - implying that a North Korean moratorium on nuclear weapons and missile testing might be sufficient to restart talks.

The willingness of the US alliance to reward DPRK and Chinese intransigence with genuine negotiations - as opposed to tactical temporizing, at least until Hu's politically loaded trip to the US is over - is, however, open to question.

The current US position is that resumption of the six-party talks must be proceeded by inter-Korean dialogue, giving South Korea a de facto veto over US engagement with North Korea.

In response to North Korea's initiative, South Korea resentfully loaded on the preconditions, as Yonghap reported:

Any future inter-Korean dialogue should serve as a venue for North Korea to affirm its commitment to denuclearization, a senior South Korean official said Tuesday, dismissing the North's recent offers of dialogue as falsely motivated.

"North Korea's sincerity toward denuclearization should be confirmed in inter-Korean talks as well," Unification Minister Hyun In-taek told reporters on the sidelines of a public conference.

Hyun, South Korea's point man on the North, was critically referring to the communist neighbor's long-standing reluctance to discuss its nuclear programs with Seoul.

North Korea, which has conducted two nuclear tests, claims its development of atomic bombs is aimed at deterring a US invasion and therefore must be negotiated with Washington.

Refusing to differentiate humanitarian from political talks, Hyun said the North should also make moves that show its penitence for the series of provocative acts blamed on it. [7]

The United States, unwilling to get in front of South Korea on the issue of talks, took a trip to the waffle house, as this transcript from the January 11 State Department press briefing indicates:

Question: Well, what about this statement that the North Koreans put out over the weekend that, on one hand, it was very forward-leaning emotionally that the South Koreans should open their hearts and have this talk. But then they also listed a number of measures that they thought could improve the atmosphere, including opening up the border crossings, tours of the industrial complex, putting Red Cross monitors at the borders, like a series of steps. Do you think that's - is that - are those the kind of steps that you think could improve the atmosphere and lead to a direct dialogue?

Mr Crowley: Well, I would say that, first and foremost, if North Korea makes a public pledge not to attack South Korea or undertake further provocations that threaten South Korea, that would be a significant step to improve the environment and it would be one among many steps that North Korea could take that would convince South Korea that dialogue would be constructive.

Question: Well, I mean - but, specifically in this, I mean, you must have seen the statement that the North Koreans put out. I mean, how do you view that statement? Is that kind of moving in the right direction?

Mr Crowley: Well, I mean --

Question: I understand other things --

Mr Crowley: I understand that. I mean, we went through last year a provocative stage. We're now in the charm stage. But the charm stage has to be followed up with a real demonstration that North Korea is prepared for sustained and constructive dialogue. So saying the right thing, helpful, but it's really what North Korea demonstrates in its day-to-day activity that will make the difference.

Question: But these are specific measures.

Mr Crowley: I understand - I do understand that.

Question: So are you saying that if they implement those measures that that could be a positive step?

Mr Crowley: Again, remember, South Korea - in the context of encouraging North and South dialogue, we certainly are in favor of that. But we understand why South Korea might hesitate, having been attacked late last year and also in the sinking of the Cheonan. So I think South Korea is looking for clearer demonstrations that North Korea is - that the provocations that

have been inflicted on South Korea are a thing of the past.

Question: So these steps would not be a clear demonstration?

Mr Crowley: I'm not saying - I'm just saying that we'll know it when we see it. [8]

Like pornography, North Korean sincerity can never be described; but you'll know it when you see it.

But bold moves on North Korea are perhaps now precluded by the unwillingness to give China an undeserved geopolitical windfall.

The prospects of the United States throwing its South Korean and Japanese allies - whose current regimes are completely vested in a hardline position vis a vis Pyongyang - under the bus for the sake of reaching a shared understanding with China are highly doubtful, even before China made a spectacle out of its J-20 stealth capability.

In the aftermath of Gates' visit, Japan and South Korea reaffirmed their shared militant policy on North Korea.

In what may have been a message to the US as well as North Korea and China, Japan's Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, a reliable China hawk who has staked his political fortunes (and ambitions to become Japan's prime minister) on a close alignment with the United States and highlighting the plight of Japanese abductees in North Korea, flew to Seoul to demonstrate his support for the South Korean government's continued hard line on intra-Korean negotiations.

Per Global Times:

[T]he two ministers reaffirmed that, in order to make substantive progress in denuclearization, the DPRK should demonstrate its sincerity to create conditions for the long-stalled six-party talks.

Inter-Korean dialogue should be the starting point for more bilateral and multilateral talks with the DPRK, they noted.

On the DPRK's proposals on inter-Korean dialogue, [South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan] said, Seoul has repeatedly made it clear that Pyongyang should adopt responsible measures on the sinking of a South Korean warship and the artillery shelling on Yeonpeyong Island, as well as display its seriousness on denuclearization through specific actions. Seoul has put forward dialogue proposal on discussing these issues, and now is waiting for Pyongyang's response, Kim added.

Maehara, on his part, said he and Kim reaffirmed that, to ensure peace and stability in Northeast Asia, there needs to be a comprehensive resolution of the nuclear, missile issues and the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by the DPRK. [9]

By conventional calculation, the US/South Korea/Japan alliance will be strengthened by China's display of its burgeoning military capabilities. Indeed, politics and economics virtually dictate that rhetoric, effort, and expenditures devoted to strengthening the alliance as a counterweight to China will increase.

Of more significance than posturing on negotiations in divining US intentions was its attempt to breathe further life into the alliance by encouraging operational coordination, at least in matters of supply, between traditional enemies and current enemies South Korea and Japan.

Gates has midwifed consultations between the defense ministers of South Korea, Japan, and the United States. On January 11, Japan - which is eager for a tripartite security relationship in order to restore its fading clout (or, as Global Times sneered [10], Japanese right slinks back to US embrace), reached out to South Korea.

Japan's Defense Minister, Toshimi Kitazawa to the Korean demilitarized zone on January 11 for personal exposure to the North Korean threat and some leaden rhetoric:

Kitazawa met with Seoul's Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan and said he "felt tension" during the trip to the border as he saw North Korean soldiers right in front of him.

"I reaffirmed that a country that perpetrates unfair acts is close by us," Kitazawa told Kim. "I reaffirmed the importance of strengthening South Korea-Japan relations as well as South Korea-Japan-U.S. relations." [11]

South Korea - which apparently views itself as Japan's successor as Asia's democratic powerhouse, not its partner - is apparently much less interested in sharing with Japan its privileged status as America's front-line ally confronting North Korea.

During his January 15 visit to Seoul, Foreign Minister Maehara alluded to the strains in the South Korea-Japan relationship, which manifest themselves in emotional issues such as reparations for comfort women and the return of Korean royal books removed to Japan during the occupation, as well as the difficult matters of security and trade cooperation:

Maehara said the two sides also reached a consensus on proceeding with two-way cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo, and trilateral cooperation among Seoul, Tokyo and Washington.

Tokyo will respect Seoul's opinion on security cooperation due to its "sensibility", and will do more discussions with the South Korean government based on the results of defense ministers' meeting earlier this week, he added.

Maehara also hoped to early resume free trade talks with Seoul, and the two sides agreed to keep working closely to create the right atmosphere for it. [12]

Given the cross purposes and self interest fracturing the US/South Korea/Japan alliance, China appears to be gambling that it is in the best position to endure - and benefit from - a higher level of tension on the Korean Peninsula.

Think of it as a geopolitical stress test - one that China, with its economic clout, growing military might, and national determination to protect what it sees as a core interest, believes it is in the best position to endure.

As South Korea's experience with the MB policy have shown, policies that are attractive in principle can be expensive in practice. In the end, the question may come down to one of whether the risks and rewards justify using the North Korea issue to isolate China - or to accommodate China.

As China's economic and military strengths grow, the question becomes harder to answer.

China also holds a counter-intuitive trump card in its efforts to weaken the alliance - its ability to fuel a regional arms race.

To date, the massive US military presence in Asia has largely persuaded Japan, China, and South Korea - onetime bitter enemies who have experienced some of the bloodiest wars in human history - to stick to their economic knitting.

However, with China bristling with nukes, stealth fighters, carriers, and carrier-killing missiles, and unwilling to integrate itself into the regional security regime that the United States believes is proper for a responsible superpower, anxiety and self-interest will easily inspire a rush to muscle-up by South Korea and Japan.

Right-wing calls to revise the pacifist constitution and unleash the Japanese self-defense forces are becoming routine, and have been adopted by a coterie of younger liberal hawks like Seiji Maehara.

Japan has the capacity to quickly emerge as a nuclear weapons power if it deems the move necessary.

South Korea, which considers itself a rival and eventual successor to Japan as the premier democratic power in North Asia, is talking about developing its own stealth fighter and nuclear weapons capabilities.

As the US military hegemony is diluted, its ability to lead, deter, and restrain the various regional actors diminishes.

In the worst case, the US is not only facing difficulties in its order of battle vis a vis China in the western Pacific; it may also find in South Korea or Japan an Asian analog to Israel, that is to say an independent, heavily-armed military asset that refuses to follow US direction and instead demands unconditional support to counter what it deems to be its own existential threats.

In this case, the US commitment to Asia would start to look less like a global benefit, and more like a national liability.

That, and not the possibility of absolute PLA military superiority in Asia, is what China is probably counting on.

1. North Korea's Imminent Threat, Wall Street Journal, Jan 12, 2011.
2. 'North Korea capable of hitting Seoul with nukes', Korea Times, Dec 24, 2010.
3. China no challenger to US on West Pacific, Global Times, Jan 14, 2011.
4. 'China's 1st stealth fighter is product of Xi Jinping', Korea Times, Jan 12, 2011.
5. US wants Japan to upgrade as China tests stealth fighter, Sydney Morning Herald, Jan 14, 2011.
6. S. Korea in dilemma as its economy more dependent on China, Yonhap News Agency, Jan 12, 2011.
7. N. Korea should affirm denuclearization commitment in talks with S. Korea: minister, Yonhap News Agency, Jan 11, 2011.
8. Daily Briefing, US Department of State, Jan 10, 2011.
9. Japanese FM in Seoul to discuss bilateral ties, DPRK issues, Xinhuanet, Jan 15, 2011.
10. Japanese right slinks back to US embrace, Global Times, Jan 11. 2011.
11. Japan's defense chief stresses closer ties with Seoul, Yonhap News Agency, Jan 11, 2011.
12. Japanese FM in Seoul to discuss bilateral ties, DPRK issues, Xinhuanet, Jan 15, 2011.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

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