Now and then, it’s good to check in with the other side of the world. U.S. cabinet secretaries John Kerry and Chuck Hagel have been doing that this past week – and you might think it would be hard to top the strange-but-true message their respective diplomatic displays have sent.
But you’d be underestimating the Far East if you did. To set the stage, we note that U.S. and foreign analysts believe North Korea has restarted the plutonium reactor at Yongbyon in the last few weeks. This is, of course, a move against which Pyongyang has been warned. It comes on the heels of a months-long period of increasing provocations from North Korea, including a nuclear-warhead test in February 2013, and the multiple missile launches in May against which the Kim regime had been warned in April (Kerry: a missile launch would be “a huge mistake”).
The UN imposed a new set of sanctions on the North after the warhead test, whereupon Pyongyang unilaterally withdrew from its 60-year-old non-aggression pact with the South, and terminated the defense hotline between the two Korean capitals.
It’s not clear what, if anything, will be done about the reactor restart. If everyone can come to an agreement on the assessment about it, there will presumably be a strongly-worded rebuke from the United Nations sometime in the next year, and perhaps a really emphatic reminder from Washington about U.S. sanctions.
Defense secretary Chuck Hagel was in South Korea early in the week, assuring the media that the U.S. has no plans to draw down or restructure our force level on the peninsula, as U.S. forces launch a major military construction project to relocate further from the line of confrontation with the North. This plan has been in the works for some years, reflecting an agreement between Seoul and Washington for South Korean troops to assume more of the lead in the defensive coalition that enforces the armistice.
While in Seoul, Hagel viewed a military parade featuring South Korea’s Hyunmu-2 and Hyunmu-3 missiles, which would augment any stand-off counterattack plan against the North. So far, so good: message of solidarity and readiness in the face of North Korean provocation.
The Kerry gambit
Then John Kerry showed up. His message was somewhat different. In the face of Pyongyang’s record of irresponsibility and provocation, he offered assurances, at a press conference in Tokyo on 4 October, that the U.S. has no intention of trying to regime-change the North, and, indeed, is ready to sign a nonaggression pact – something the Kim regime has long sought, but which the U.S. has long declined to commit to – if North Korea will denuclearize.
Kerry’s gratuitous assurances against regime change are presumably a response to an intemperate refrain from North Korea casting every foreign criticism of the Kim dynasty as an attempt to regime-change it. There was a time when it could go without saying that the U.S. was under no obligation to address, in our own diplomatic communications, the hysterical information themes of totalitarian dictatorships. But we have clearly entered a different time, so it bears saying now.
It’s foolish in the extreme to assure Kim Jong-Un that we are not interested in regime change in North Korea. For one thing, of course we are. That doesn’t mean we are actively plotting it, but it does mean we have no stake in the continuation of the Kim regime – or, from a larger standpoint, in the continued division of Korea, as opposed to reunification on terms advantageous for both sides – and we shouldn’t send signals suggesting that we do. The best way to avoid that is to discipline our communications so that we say only what we mean, rather than reacting to the formulations concocted by the North.
Meanwhile, Kerry could take a page from Colin Powell’s book on the topic of nonaggression pacts. In 2003, after months of demands from Kim Jong-Il that the U.S. sign a nonaggression pact and recognized North Korea’s “sovereignty,” Powell reiterated for a media audience the longstanding U.S. position that we don’t sign nonaggression pacts, which typically end up being worthless anyway. You’d think Pyongyang’s unilateral abrogation of the pact with South Korea six months ago, in a fit of temper, would be a timely reminder of just why we have long considered such pacts to be a bad idea.
But there is the equally significant point that after the series of events in 2013, Kim Jong-Un could be forgiven for concluding that the way to get the Obama administration to finally change U.S. policy on nonaggression pacts is to conduct a nuclear-warhead test, perform several missile launches, and pull out of the nonaggression pact with South Korea.
This mode of thinking can hardly bode well for future negotiations. The Far East being the Far East, however, it’s not necessarily the most peculiar thing going on there. Vying for that title are the unseemly lengths to which Russia and China are going – while both are signatories to the “tough” UN sanctions on North Korea – to boost their economic involvement with Pyongyang. Whatever their meaning for the export of North Korea weaponry to the Middle East, the UN sanctions clearly have no meaning that matters for the economic relations of North Korea with China and Russia. Indeed, Moscow and Beijing are in something of a “race” to develop the North Korean port of Rajin, on the Sea of Japan. Russia scored big in September with the reopening of a long-defunct railway connection between Rajin and the Russian city of Khasan.
Peeling back layers of regional context is always helpful when analyzing developments in the Far East. Immediately following the reopening of the railway segment from Russia – within a day, in fact – China announced a list of goods banned for export to North Korea, a move Beijing had previously resisted making, in spite of China’s nominal participation in the UN sanctions. Although the drumbeat of foreign speculation about the restart of the Yongbyon reactor was building at the same time, China’s unexpected move was probably prompted by the combination of factors, including the bid for diversity of great-power patronage evident in Pyongyang’s economic move toward Russia. China doesn’t fulfill naïve Western expectations by having straightforward intentions with “sanctions” activity against North Korea. China is always jerking North Korea’s chain for some tangential reason of her own.
It’s not just port facilities in Rajin that put North Korea in the middle between Russian and Chinese economic interests. It’s other factors too, some of which can look downright amusing to American eyes: e.g., Russia’s inability to populate and effectively occupy her own Far Eastern territories. I wrote about this back in 2011, laying out the very real Russian security vulnerability arising from the imbalance of 6 million Russians facing more than 90 million Chinese across a poorly defended border.
The Russians have courted Japanese investment, and even Japanese settlement and agricultural development, as a way of building up a counterweight to Chinese economic dominance of far Northeastern Asia. Now it appears that Russia is negotiating a kind of immigration agreement with North Korea, probably to draw North Korean agricultural settlers into Siberia, on terms very advantageous for Pyongyang. The article at the link notes that the terms proposed by Russia would cede agricultural land to North Korea at a remarkably low “rent.” But for the Russians, the monetary return wouldn’t be nearly as important as having the land occupied by a friendly population, beholden to Moscow for its political purpose and security.
The Japanese, for their part, may not be the best source of a rent-a-kulak population. They’ve got their own demographic challenges. But Russia’s need for friendly relations – in the crudest terms, for non-hostile populations – on her Far Eastern border colors all her dealings with Japan as well as the Koreas. Japanese investment in the Russian Far East is important enough to keep Moscow comparatively furtive and incremental about encroachments on the Kuril Islands, for example (the islands Japan calls the Northern Territories).
Wherever the eye alights on the map of the Far East, the strategic geometry to look for is that of the triangle. American dominance might once have suppressed the dynamics of triangular relations in the region, but it no longer does. The nations all have, and for the foreseeable future will continue to have, reasons to combine with each other against third parties as a way of balancing their security interests. They will do this quite unabashedly all at once: Russia and China combining against the United States; Russia and Japan against China; China and the Koreas, most often singly, against Japan. South Korea will try to maintain an equal outreach to all parties to guard her independence and strategic significance as a factor in stability. In a series of triangular moves, Japan is diligently reaching out to all the nations on China’s perimeter, discussing the forging of security ties as well as economic ones.
In the long run, none of the nations of Northeast Asia has a game-changing demographic advantage over the others. They are all seeing rapidly plummeting birth rates and aging populations. The level and character of China’s demographic dominance will remain quite static over time, at least until the arc of the present descends below the horizon of predictability. There is an odd poetic symmetry in the aging of the populations and the aging of the Korean armistice, at least as things appear today. No one has a vision for knocking either human dynamic off of its current trajectory.
But man’s record of wisdom in taking things for granted is a pretty poor one. It bears constant reiteration that World War I became the bloodbath it did not because Europeans had a vision or an appetite for big wars, but because, after decades of Bismarck-and-von-Moltke-ism, they took it for granted that modern wars would remain small. Complacency, rather than enthusiasm, tends to be our worst enemy. What is strange but true in the Far East could metastasize quickly and unexpectedly, as it could elsewhere. It doesn’t help when the erstwhile “big dog” is still trotting officials around, like John Kerry, who throw wild promises into the mix where Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un can hear them.