North Korea’s winning strategies
I don’t buy into the idea that North Korea is capable of taking over the bigger and stronger South Korea, whether it has nuclear weapons or not.
But the North’s nuclear power affects the current balance of power. It is worth thinking what Kim Jong-un will do with it. The North’s leader may feel tempted to polish up its old plan for communizing the South, put in mothballs and pigeonholed since his father’s days.
What could be at the heart of Kim’s “old new” plan?
It should be about separating the United States from the South. History is behind it.
The U.S. foiled the North’s bid to swallow the South.
Being pushed into a palm of land around the Busan perimeter, the U.S. led what seemed to be the impossible mission of beating back the North and almost annihilating it during the 1950-53 Korean War.
The Chinese halted its demise only at the cost of hundreds of thousands of casualties.
The ROK-U.S. alliance still keeps the North at bay.
The North Korean leader wants to use his newly found asymmetric advantage; use it to break the alliance and achieve the long-unfulfilled dream of unification on Pyongyang’s terms.
Two cases stand out: the Vietnam War and the termination of a U.S.-Taiwan mutual defense treaty.
The Vietnam War was one that the U.S. couldn’t lose. After all, the U.S., a superpower that competed for global hegemony with the now-defunct Soviet Union, had vir- tually thrown whatever it had against North Vietnam — an enemy infinitesimally smaller in size and strength.
Vietnamese communists relied on guerrilla warfare — being short of weapons and troops.
Then how did the U.S. lose? South Vietnam’s leaders were corrupt with no unifying force in society. That much we know.
Americans underestimated its foes that fought off and beat France, their colonial master, against great odds. That is not news.
What really tipped the balance was the anti-war sentiment in the United States and the world.
The U.S. lost it domestically first. Television footage of GIs getting maimed and killed constantly streamed into American homes.
Young Americans burned their draft cards and fled their country to escape the lot of getting killed in a jungle half a world away.
America had no stomach to continue somebody else’s war.
To the global gallery, it was a typical David versus Goliath fight — few, as expected, rooting for the stronger of the two, the U.S.
Using the devastating power of chemical agents such as Agent Orange demonized the U.S.
Americans were no longer libera- tors as they were in World War II. Rather, Ho Chi Minh and his followers emerged to be heroic freedom fighters struggling to take their country back from a succession of colonial powers. It was a masterpiece PR victory by the communists.
Washington had no other choice to exit Vietnam — signing the Paris Peace Accords with North Vietnam in January 1973. Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor, won an undeserved Nobel Peace Prize. His co-recipient from North Vietnam refused to accept it. That peace agreement put a temporary halt to fighting but allowed for the U.S. withdrawal, which triggered an exodus of the South Vietnamese elite. South Vietnam was reduced to a shadow of its former self, leading to the fall of Saigon and ultimate unification by Ho Chi Minh’s followers two years later.
The young Kim would love to see the reenactment in the South of the Vietnamese model — an American pullout that triggers a domino effect among foreign investors and the elite. The feasibility of such a scenario seems not that strong because South Korea is not the out-of-the-way country that South Vietnam was, and the world can’t afford to let it fall without being hit by the enormous fallout.
More relevant to North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship is the 1979 U.S. renunciation of its commitment to defend the Republic of China or Taiwan. The mutual defense treaty had been good for 24 years. The termination came a year after the U.S. switched its diplomatic ties to Bei- jing. By and large, the U.S. forsaking of Taiwan was an extension of the U.S. effort, dating back to President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Shanghai, to play the Soviet Union and China against each other in order to weaken the communist bloc. It also helped contribute to detente — a peaceful period leading to the end of the Soviets.
But hidden in plain sight was China’s emergence as a nuclear power that nudged the U.S. out of the Taiwan Straits.
Mao Zedong decided to build a nuclear arsenal after the first straits crisis. His rationale was that a few bombs could enhance its status; being somewhat similar to the rationale that started the North’s nuclear program. The Chinese started its nuclear program with Soviet help but struck an independent path conducting its first nuclear test in 1964 and first hydrogen bomb test in 1967.
Delivery systems such as intercontinental ballistic missiles were forthcoming as well.
China’s nuclear power made the U.S. rethink its commitment to defend Taiwan. The U.S. didn’t want to have a potential nuclear war with China, starting with a clash between its Seventh Fleet and China’s navy over Taiwan.
Now, the North is trying to push the U.S. hard to see whether it will fall back as it did in Vietnam and in Taiwan. Will the U.S. chicken out this time?