Saturday, October 14, 2006

Leaving Korea, after 56 years

In 1950, we pushed our way onto the Korean peninsula. Now, 56 years later, we're being pushed out. We suffered a surprising stalemate on the field of battle back then, and we are about to fare rather worse in the modern day, perhaps without a shot being fired.

How? Let's unpack it a little.

First, of course, Kim has the Bomb. Even if his recent test was a fake, he's close enough. He's got his dirt-poor country fielding a million-man army and a top-ranking arms industry. He's got enough state security and tunneling acumen to keep us guessing. Even if that ".5 kiloton explosion" was just fertilizer, it served it's purpose -- saber rattling.

This comes days after Bush stammered that a North Korean bomb was "unacceptable". In the parlance of the oval office, such language is usually reserved for the most pressing issues. It wouldn't do to have the POTUS go much further ("The North Korean bomb was a slap in our face, and will be dealt with immediately!" See? Doesn't work if your plan for dealing with it falls through. That's why that bombastic "axis of evil" speech is such an albatross.) So Bush had his bluff called and he's left standing there with his bok choi blowing in the wind.

Second, and equally obvious, US military options are anemic at best. We have 35,000 troops stationed there, but that's hardly enough for an offensive. The bulk of our mobile ground forces are tied up in Iraq, and those that aren't are recuperating. We can certainly erect a naval blockade, but that will have little impact on a country that conducts most of its trade through China. That leaves the air force, which is more than capable of launching anything from punitive raids to protracted campaigns. There is little chance, however, that airborne ordnance would verifiably end his nuclear ambitions, given that so many of them are already deep underground.

Moreover, Bush has precious little political capital to spend in rallying the country behind another war. The two we're currently fighting (3 if you count the "war on terror") have exhausted our lust for 9-11 vengeance for the moment, and North Korea is not likely a host to al qaeda training camps anyway. And given the situation in Iraq after 3 years of occupation, it's starting to dawn on the american people that Bush and his draft-dodging cabal should probably not be trusted to lead any more military engagements.

So with Kim armed and dangerous, and with our military otherwise committed, we have few choices. We could just ignore it. This is a tempting option, and one that Bush has more or less been adopting for years. For all his bluster, Kim is unlikely to attack anyone. If he were, he'd keep his military hardware secret. But he's evidently not content with taking a strong defensive posture. Periodically, he has raised the stakes in his standoff with the US, seeking publicity at every turn. He is, as I said earlier, calling our bluff. Inaction will only propel this along and erode our influence in the region dramatically.

We could adopt bilateral talks, which is what Kim ostensibly wants. The problem is, he's got a history of deal-breaking and agreement-burning. If we respond with non-military sanctions, they will fail in a bilateral scenario -- China is the only one in a position to enforce any sanctions. If this cycle of negotiation, truce, and confrontation continues, our standing will also sink and our tiger will lose its teeth.

Finally, we could link arms with China and the other regional powers, offering Kim a grand package of economic integration, aid concessions, and security assurances in exchange for verifiable disarmament. This is probably our best option, but still leaves our influence in the region degraded. China will be seen as the leash on Pyongyang, not us. Working together with them, however, will staunch our bleeding asian influence as much as possible.

But look at the motives. China has always had strong influence over Kim. His bomb drama is not aimed at them, but at us (and our asian satellites). China has never put the economic screws on North Korean brinksmanship, though it's the only one who ever could. In other words, China is the power behind Kim, and yet China has done precious little to rein him in. We must ask ourselves why, and the answer is fairly obvious.

For every cycle of crisis and response between us and North Korea, for every time our dearth of effective reprisals, for every time that CHINA can be relied on to swoop in and restore balance -- Chinese influence rises in the entire hemisphere. China is in a position to tamp Kim down, but that would run directly counter to their own interests. His antics are the key to prying our fingers off of South Korea, and he will obediently play the role of poo-flinger every time his Chinese paymasters ask him to. Even the timing points to a hidden hand, given the current range of crises hitting Bush and the proximity of the mid-term elections.

We will have to leave South Korea sooner or later. The Chinese are patient and will not do anything overt to show us the door, but they will make sure it hits our asses on the way out.