North Korea’s win­ning strate­gies

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Oh Young-jin Oh Young-jin (fools­die5@ktimes.com and fools­die@gmail.com) is The Korea Times’s chief ed­i­to­rial writer.

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?

TIMES COL­UMN

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