North Korea, the US and the Status Quo

In the age of “fake news” and President Donald Trump claiming that Sweden was riddled with terror attacks which of course never took place, and of perpetual corporate and state-media propaganda passed on as real news, it is very difficult to separate fact from fiction. Making matters worse, hyperbolic rhetoric goes a long way to confuse the public about what is real and what is propaganda. Just as there is no shortage of disinformation on all countries, North Korea is especially on the propaganda radar of the West because it is part of the “Nuclear Club” and eager to remain on the road of militarism.

It is no secret that the government of the authoritarian-militarist Kim Jong-Un periodically seizes the opportunity to respond with bellicose rhetoric. At the same time, the Korean dictator has shown no predisposition to replace the long-standing Cold War policy of confrontation with closer cooperation any more than the other side interested in North Korea’s cheap labor and raw materials. North Korea’s claims to Communism notwithstanding, the nation is hardly a model of a harmonious society where social justice prevails. However, none of this means that it is the global military threat that the US portrays it. On the contrary, because of its global military might, the US poses a far greater threat to regional and global stability, as China keeps insisting, than does North Korea with its limited capabilities.

On 29 January 2002, President George W. Bush’s state of the union address labeled North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil” (Iran and Iraq were the other two), because they were sponsoring “terrorism” and seeking weapons of mass destruction. Since 2002, the world discovered that Bush used the speech to justify US intention to invade Iraq and impose very tough containment policy on Iran and North Korea. As to the merits of Bush’s arguments regarding Iraq, history and the facts proved he was simply lying as the British Chilcot Report of July 2016 proved coming as no surprise to the IK and US intelligence community that knew the facts but chose to massage them because they did not fit the political goals.

This is not to argue that North Korea does not have the nuclear deterrent or that it is shy about demonstrating its military might as it feels threatened and isolated by much of the international community. However, the US has a major military presence in South Korea and Japan, in addition to 7,700 nuclear warheads in its arsenal with the capability of thoroughly destroying all of Asia several times over in a nuclear holocaust. China has an estimated 260 nuclear warheads, while North Korea an estimated 20-40 in its arsenal, but without the capability of delivering them across continents. The US annual defense budget $581 billion – China’s $155 billion; US military aircraft 13,444 – China 2,942; US aircraft carriers 19 – China 1; US submarines 75 – China 68; US destroyers 62 – China 32; US serviceable airports 13,513 – China 507. South Korea defense budget $33.2 billion – North Korea $7.5 billion; South Korea aircraft 1451 – North Korea 944; South Korea Helicopters 979 – North Korea 202; South Korea transport aircraft 348 – North Korea 100; South Korea destroyers 12 – North Korea 0; South Korea submarines 15 – North Korea 70.

Given the disproportional military strength of China-North Korea in relationship to US-South Korea, the question is whether the US is simply aiming more at China than North Korea in this historic conflict that has its roots in the Korean War of the early 1950s.          And if so, is there a military solution given China’s economic power and nuclear deterrent? Does the status quo in North Korea best serve the geopolitical goals of all parties concerned and are they all using it to their benefit? No matter how many times there is a special meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the North Korean security threat, and no matter the international sanctions, the status quo remains because of mutual interest. Deviating from it could spell disaster for everyone.

If North Korea truly poses a security threat to the US and to its Asian allies, why have the US and its strategic partners retained the status quo since the end of the Korean War – signing of the Armistice in 1954? Why have China, Russia, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea not been anxious for unification and are content keeping the deterrent both conventional and nuclear? It is true that there have been some faint attempts at economic integration, but those had limited success as the realization of status quo serving all sides sunk in. Contrary to the hyperbolic rhetoric on the part of the US and its regional allies about North Korea as an imminent threat, no country wants a change in the status quo to the degree that it would risk regional war and drag China into the conflict, with Russia almost certainly to follow, largely because of Vladivostok as its prized commercial and strategic port.

The relative economic decline of the US in relationship to China in the first two decades of the 21st century largely shaped the debate on Korea as the US used its historical role as a military patron for its regional allies that have been increasingly absorbed into the Chinese economic orbit of influence. Because the US is thoroughly integrated with China’s economy, the contradiction in its militarist containment approach has severe limitations. Not only would the US disrupt the entire trade network of the Asian continent, but the entire world economy, if it deviates from a policy of respecting the status quo.

If everyone wants to preserve the status quo as history has shown because of mutual interest, then the intermittent noise is about containment at the very least and North Korea’s integration with the international community at best as history has demonstrated. Certainly with the rise of China’s preeminent economic influence in Asia and throughout the world and its insistence of military hegemony over the South China Sea, it is extremely unlikely that Beijing would simply forfeit North Korea as a useful sphere of influence any more than the US would renounce its historic “Pan-Americanism” hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.
Even with its five successful nuclear tests since 2006, without intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver them, North Korea does not pose a national security threat to the US; and no analyst would claim otherwise unless they are either ideologically driven or working as consultants for the defense industry or right wing think tanks. No matter the level of inane propaganda unleashed by both government and corporate media in the West, North Korea is the rough equivalent of Cuba during the Cold War amid the Soviet-American confrontation. There is no denying that it is governed by an internationally isolated one-party dynastic regime with the bureaucracy and military behind it, but so is Saudi Arabia which has meddled militarily in the Middle East far more than North Korea.

Naturally, the nuclear deterrent affords North Korea security cover and leverage, as far as its neighbors are concerned given the range of its missiles. However, China is there to keep North Korea fairly contained because China has proved it is far more interested in stability and preservation of the status quo than the US. Furthermore, Russia is hardly anxious to see North Korea become any more powerful given the share a border and its strategic Vladivostok port 700 km. In January 2016, Moscow strongly condemned Pyongyang for nuclear tests threatening border security and violating international law.

Despite the realities about the internal and external limits of North Korean military power, Western neo-conservatives, and establishment political and military elites have been presenting North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil” as did Bush in 2002, implying that it is an ominous military threat every time it tests a missile in the Sea of Japan or makes a bellicose statement. This line of argument is unrelated to North Korea’s actual power, as shown above, and directly linked to the US declining regional position and desire to retain its global military role. Claiming to be a Pacific Power to counterbalance and contain China, the US does not want to lose the hegemonic role it has enjoyed with traditional allies since defeating Japan in 1945.
If North Korea is not an existential global security threat to the degree the US portrays it, than the issue must be the economic interdependence of China with Asian allies historically militarily dependent on the US. This along with China’s increased military strength is at the core of this issue and not any schemes by North Korea to expand through military means. The US knows about the asymmetry between military and economic power because it is a scenario that took place during Spanish-American War during the McKinley presidency.

The dying Spanish Empire controlled Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, but the US was in the position of thoroughly integrating them economically, thus imposing its political hegemony and acquiring them as part of its imperial network. In the early 21stcentury, the US is a declining global economic power with diminished role in Asia. The only way to hold on to its imperial network is to use it as leverage to foster trade relationships. This is exactly how the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) evolved during the second term of George W. Bush.

Both a US-dominated economic integration bloc and a strategic one, TPP now defunct because Trump opted out and favors bilateral trade deals, was a broader containment mechanism aimed as much at China as to strengthen US-based multinational corporations. As China’s historic satellite and strategic buffer zone, North Korea has actually served to preserve stability and Pyongyang has shown no inclination to deviate from its historic role. With the exception of the invasion of South Korea in 1950, North Korea has no history of imperial expansion nor could it have such ambitions given that China and Russia would not permit it.

By maintaining a large military network relative to the size of its civilian economy, North Korea affords all of its neighbors the pretext to maintain a strong military presence. Furthermore, it allows the US the pretext to use its military muscle as political and economic leverage – the US has over 28,000 troops in South Korea and about 170,000 in East Asia and the Pacific theater of operations with large bases both in Japan and South Korea. Besides using North Korea as a pretext for such heavy military display of power, the US has on its radar screen South China Sea claims by Beijing as the legitimate strategic zone of influence. Beijing will not negotiate the South China Sea territorial disputes that the US and its allies wish to internationalize (deprive Chinese control). However, US provocation short of war will remain ongoing so that it can remain a Pacific Power amid the inevitable reality of its economic decline.

As much as the US likes to act unilaterally, the reality of its declining economic power combined with skepticism about its role by most of its Asian allies does not permit unilateral action in Asia. After what the US and its allies did in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen during the Bush and Obama administrations, the prospect of Pyongyang agreeing to an Iran-style denuclearization deal is out of the question for the near future, especially with a simple-minded righting Trump administration in office that fails to appreciates the complexities of international relations at all levels from trade to political influence. Just as the Iran nuclear deal was multilateral,   any diplomatic negotiation on North Korea will involve the regional players – the 10 ASEAN states – and especially China, Japan, and South Korea.

As the US under Trump is looking to ameliorate relations with Russia, to the degree that Cold War Democrats and Republicans will permit and that is highly unlikely, it is essential to have enemies that help to justify increased defense spending as the Republicans have promised and Cold War Democrats acquiesce. Not just China, as president Xi Jingping noted at the Davos Conference in January 2017, but corporate interests in the US and throughout the world want to preserve the status quo and do not want instability and adventurism using North Korea’s rhetoric and missile testing as a pretext.

Everything from the price of commodities to exchange rates and securities markets hinges on stability. It remains to be seen the degree to which US corporations will prevail on the White House and congress to maintain the status quo in the Korean peninsula as all presidents have done since the early 1950s. As congress assumes greater powers on the realization that the executive branch is reckless and simple-minded in its approach to foreign policy, the status quo may indeed be the only game in town even under Trump who barks but cannot bite unless the attack dogs of congress are behind him and behind them Wall Street.

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