There will be more to write about this in the days ahead. For now, we must pause to note a most serious development: China’s reported deployment of 150,000 troops to the border with North Korea.
This action is “in response to” U.S. force deployments to South Korea and the immediate surrounding region. But let’s not kid ourselves: nobody deploys 150,000 troops at the drop of a hat. If China is actually moving that many troops (and that remains to be verified), the action has been in planning for quite a while.
According to South Korea’s Chosun, apparently quoting from Chinese news sources, the deployment is of “medical and backup units”:
The troops have been dispatched to handle North Korean refugees and ‘unforeseen circumstances’, such as the prospect of preemptive attacks on North Korea, the news agency said.
But nobody has 150,000 “medical and backup personnel” to deploy to a single theater. The bulk of the “150,000” would be combat arms units — infantry, artillery, aviation — and probably more than half of those are units already stationed in the north, and being placed on an alert footing.
That said, the move is a significant one, and clearly an echo of an autumn long ago, when China decided to intervene on the Korean Peninsula after the UN stepped in as North Korea invaded the South. Comparisons will be inevitable: the North invaded the South in June 1950, and the combat involving UN troops — anchored by the American and South Korean forces — was well underway by July. The amphibious landing at Inchon began on 15 September. The troops under Douglas MacArthur’s command pushed the North Korean forces rapidly backward, and drove across the 38th parallel of latitude — the North-South partition line — less than three weeks later.
China had been preparing an intervention force since as early as mid-August, and by mid-October 1950 had an army group of probably 300,000 on the border with North Korea. On 25 October, not quite a week after forces led by South Korea and the U.S. 8th Army rolled into Pyongyang, a Chinese force of 200,000 crossed the border into North Korea and entered the war.
It’s been nearly 67 years since the Korean War broke out. And technically, it never ended. We’ve been under an armistice, not a final settlement, since 27 July 1953.
As the days pass and tensions build around the world, it’s extremely important to understand that what we are seeing is a bill coming due. The world was not pacified and serene six months ago. In fact, it was already in the chaotic condition we now see becoming more antic and potentially confrontational. Recall, for example, that North Korea issued hysterical threats to Obama, launched missiles irresponsibly on his watch, performed nuclear warhead tests, and even attacked and sank a South Korean warship in one of the worst incidents since the armistice took effect.
A key reason why China is at least purporting to react more vigorously, as Trump shores up the defense of South Korea, is that Trump might actually make good on his vows.
It has been a pattern for years for North Korea to rattle the saber just enough to get the other affected parties to scurry to the negotiating table. (The parties are South Korea, the U.S., Japan, China, and Russia.) Throughout the period 1991 (when the Soviet Union broke up) to 2017, the U.S. role — regardless of what we said in official rhetoric — has been to find some equilibrium point at which North Korea settles down again, for a time, but nothing else really changes.
Trump may be prepared to actually change some things. China and Russia, for example, really, really don’t want our theater high-altitude air defense system (THAAD) deployed in the Far East, in either South Korea or Japan. The permanent deployment of THAAD would be an even more significant change in regional conditions than the deployment of Aegis warships to the Mediterranean and Black Seas is, in a ballistic missile defense (BMD) role.
And Trump doesn’t necessarily look like he will follow the pattern of the last quarter century of Korean relations, and refrain from taking any major defensive actions that change the status quo.
Trump’s unconventional starting point for international relations has done nothing more than reveal the truth about the Korean situation, just as it has done in so many other cases. Korea was never settled. It has been an unstable, unresolved situation for nearly seven decades, held in an artificial and most unsatisfactory stasis by multiple parties maintaining a steady strain throughout that time on lines that often fray. The horrific cost to the people of North Korea has been uncountable.
It’s China that most wants nothing to change, because China’s chief interest is in keeping the Korean Peninsula divided. A unified Korea is always a vulnerability for Beijing; always existing as a risk for anti-China alliances: with Russia, the U.S., even — at this remove of history — Japan. Yet a unified Korea wholly allied with China would alarm Russia and Japan too greatly for stability. Better, from China’s perspective, to just keep Korea divided. Better an unstable stasis than a deep, superficially stable fault line.
Trump’s lack of conventional preconceptions about the world’s hot spots suggests he may not conform his actions to those preconceptions. In that way, ironically enough, the post-World War II president he may be most like is Harry Truman (who presided over most of the Korean War). But as we watch the drama unfold, keep this in mind. We are still at war on the Korean Peninsula. The right resolution — a unified Korea, free and sovereign, able to declare her own alliances — is still unpalatable to at least one major party. North Korea, meanwhile, remains a constant threat to the South and to Japan, and is very close now to having a nuclear weapon that could be used against the United States.
Trump didn’t cause those conditions. In his unique way, he has exposed them to the light again, by failing to paper them over with the convenient diplomatic euphemisms and pretenses of the last 60-odd years.