Herbert London: Winners And Losers On The Korean Peninsula

May 23, 2018

North Korea’s abrupt cancellation of talks with the South this week undoubtedly weakens prospects for a June summit with the United States and underscores the volatility of relations on the Korean peninsula. Moreover, this decision by Kim Jung-un was precipitated by the joint military activity between South Korea and the U.S. planned months earlier with the North Korean government fully aware of the maneuvers. Was Kim using this matter to secure certain negotiating advantages with the U.S.?

It is instructive that President Xi of China has made it clear he wants the negotiations to proceed. His motives are cryptic as one might assume. However, in unveiling the many layers in this Kabuki dance, one significant motive remains crystal clear. For decades the Chinese have been trying to assert their hegemonic control over the Pacific basin. There is only one major impediment that stands in the way: the United States’ Seventh Fleet.

At the moment U.S. surface ships and subs constitute a powerful force in Asia. But it is a force that was neglected by former President Obama. Based on recent budgetary adjustments the Navy will return to a vessel total of more than 325 from the present 263 now available. That will occur in about 2030. In the interim the Chinese fleet is growing at a faster rate than ours including the first home grown carrier force.

Most significantly, the Chinese have carved out unilaterally an air perimeter zone in the South China Sea that now includes artificially constructed islands capable of accommodating fighter jets. Even though the Hague Court has ruled in favor of nations that have contested Chinese control of islands in this region, Xi has made it clear the protocols of international law do not apply to China. It will operate as the master of Asia until or if this mastery is contested.

The U.S. Navy has a ticklish mission: Contest Chinese control in the South China Sea, but don’t go so far it is the catalyst for open conflict. By contrast, the Chinese do not want conflict either, but they do want their hegemonic role recognized. In a curious way the negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea might accomplish the goal the Chinese have in mind.

In all preliminary discussions between Secretary of State Pompeo and Kim Jung-un a denuclearized Korean peninsula has been discussed. For the American side denuclearization is clear: Have the nukes removed from North Korea. For the North Koreans denuclearization means the removal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella which has served as a deterrent for South Korea and, of course, if that concession is made, the removal of U.S. nuclear defense for Japan and other regional allies.

Hence the North Korean position is ostensibly the stalking horse for a China that wishes to reduce U.S. influence in Asia at this stage with possible elimination over the longer term. It is not coincidental that Kim, who has never left North Korea before, has made two trips to China in the last few months. My guess is Kim is doing China’s bidding at this negotiating table with the U.S. in June.

All the bluster about “unfortunate” military maneuvers will fade into obscurity once the meeting date nears. Kim knows where his bread is buttered. The Chinese see this meeting as a grand opportunity to lay out a plan for the future without their finger prints on it. Trump recognizes the political advantages of an “historic breakthrough” that might influence congressional and senate races in the 2018 election.

Every party appears to have won something. But since this is a zero sum game there is a loser. It remains to be seen which nation falls into that category, but it doesn’t require deep analysis to make that judgment. All I would say to President Trump, John Bolton, Secretary Pompeo and other U.S. officials is buyer beware (caveat emptor).

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research,  a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

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