Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
A smaller war soon is often better than a much bigger war later. However, this should only be after all viable options for a peaceful settlement have been exhausted. This should particularly apply to the Korean peninsula. It is obvious that Presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama failed in their mission of ensuring that Pyongyang abandon its nuclear weapons program. Instead of doing that, the secretive regime has accelerated its WMD programmes since the youthful Kim Jong Un took charge of the administration of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK). Not only in appearance but also in temperament, Jong Un seems to take after the founder of the North Korean state, Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the current leader.
The elder Kim was willing to take huge risks to achieve his objectives, such as launching the Korean war in the 1950s. Kim saw the corruption and unpopularity of the Syngman Rhee government in Seoul and would have succeeded in unifying Korea under his rule but for the intervention of the US. However, President Harry Truman was not willing to allow his commanders to use the full range of weapons systems available to him. When General Douglas MacArthur gave indications that he would refuse to accept the restraints placed on him by Truman, especially after the Peoples Liberation Army entered the fray on behalf of the DPRK, President Truman dismissed the recalcitrant commander and replaced him with the cautious Mathew Ridgway, who stopped his forces from crossing the 38th parallel the way MacArthur had done.
Of course, it had been the US rush to the Yalu river that had led to intervention by China, a move that led to US forces being pushed back almost to Seoul, before MacArthur turned the direction of the war with the brilliant tactics and use of firepower that were his signature tunes on the battlefield. However, he was prevented by the hesitation of President Truman from unifying the Korean peninsula once again, a task not even attempted by his military successor. Given the US need to ensure that minimal damage gets done to Japan and South Korea in any military action against the North Korean forces, it is clear that the US-led strike will need to be sufficiently devastating in its effects to prevent a significant response from the other side. Before the attack, it would be helpful if the neutrality of Russia could be ensured that Donald Trump was talking about on the campaign trail but which his top personnel picks seem to have overturned once in office.
Still more desirable would be a “Hands Off” approach by China, now the world’s second most powerful country and on track to become its top power within 15 years at most, given present trends. Both China and the US have extensive economic linkages, although their strategic goals diverge much more than they converge. President Xi Jinping and his colleagues face a situation very different from the 1950s, when Chairman Mao sent his troops across the Yalu river to beat back MacArthur’s forces. Given the poverty and turmoil in China at the time, the Pentagon had evidently expected only a formal Chinese protest to their rolling up of Kim Il Sung’s troops. However, Mao was as fearless as he was ruthless, and mathematics was seldom a consideration in his moves.
As we know, the entry of China into the Korean war panicked President Truman, who soon reined in his military before the objective of unifying the peninsula was achieved. This time around, however, not only is China very different, but so is the chemistry of its relationship with Washington, thereby making it possible for skilful diplomacy to ensure that Beijing stays out of a future Korean war involving the DPRK and the US. Such an outcome would be most likely were the Trump administration to go the extra kilometre in seeking to work out an honourable peace in the Korean peninsula, through offering Kim Jong Un generous terms for the rolling back of his nuclear and missile programme. Such a move would be followed by a calibrated process concluding in unification of a country that has nearly 6000 years of history and the lofty tradition of “Hongkik Ingan” ( working for the whole world).
An honourable peace would include (1) protocol guarantees to Kim Jong Un and the rest of the North Korean leadership, such as the lifetime designation of “President Emeritus with the full protocol and emoluments of that job. It would also include (2) integrating the DPRK military and bureaucracy with that of South Korea’s rather than disbanding them. A useful model to follow would be Germany, where in the 1990s the two parts of Europe’s most consequential country were united in a process driven entirely by the Germans themselves. Rather than a hostile takeover, what is needed in the Korean peninsula is a friendly coming together of the two sides in a manner consistent with the needs of democracy.
It is reasonable to expect all outside powers to stop transfer of financial and other resources to North Korea until Pyongyang accepts the platinum handshake offered to it. Transferring resources to the DPRK the way it has happened through the periods in office of Clinton, Bush and Obama would reduce the chance of a peaceful resolution of the Korean problem. Once Kim Jong Un agrees, the tap can get turned on again, but not before he does. Before unleashing war, it is necessary to undertake a sincere search for peace. This can only be through the offer of a settlement that retains the self-respect and several of the privileges of the Pyongyang administration. Those that are fixated on a punitive peace offer to North Korea are making war inevitable, just as the peace of 1919 led to the conditions that helped cause the 1939-45 conflagration which so changed the world.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.