Koreans are having great difficulty wrapping their minds around the reality of a Trump administration taking power in Washington D.C. It just does not compute that the United States, that friendly country where senior executives and government ministries spent their halcyon days studying back in the 1970s and 1980s is now going to be run by a military government with policies a bit to the right of Chun Duhwan.
Nowhere is this problem more serious than in the field of security and military affairs and Korea had better move fast to start asserting itself. The Trump administration, led by a group of billionaires and far-right wing generals, is gearing up for a massive military confrontation with China and those people look at Korea as “ground zero” for this operation. As we can see from the sudden calling back of the Japanese ambassador to Korea, the far-right wing in Washington D.C. is employing the Japanese as a cat’s paw to pressure Korea, to toy with Koreans and keep them off balance.
Of course Trump did not come out of nowhere. There is major shift taking place in the United States military regarding the Korean Peninsula which is deeply worrisome. The Strategic Studies Institute of the United States Army War College released a major monograph recently entitled
which suggests that the United States should prepare for brutal military conflicts in major metropolises that produce enormous casualties. The article, by Professor Phil Williams and Professor Werner Selle, suggests that such conflicts may come in the “not-too-distant future” and adds that such unthinkable battles will be “as challenging as they are inescapable.” Seoul is singled out as a possible site for an epic battle. Specifically, the report notes,
“A more modern scenario, which although unlikely is by no means inconceivable, could involve a battle in Seoul, in the Republic of Korea. In some ways, such a scenario exemplifies the potential for a contemporary Battle of Stalingrad. The greater Seoul metropolitan area contains over 23 million people, provides an incredibly dense metropolitan environment that has many elements of a smart city, and is critical to the economy of South Korea.”
There can be no doubt that a war that reduces Seoul to rubble would be with China, not with North Korea. In addition, the entire premise of the article is that Seoul is not the capital of an ally that must be defended from an outside force, but rather something that should be sacrificed as part of a larger geopolitical game.
The millions of Seoulites who will be sacrificed is a painful but necessary part of the big game. The shift in thinking is significant. The report suggests that there are those within the US military who see Korea not as a democratic ally but as ground zero in a war of attrition to bog China down. They are planning a proxy war akin so what we see in Syria or Ukraine. The purposefully inflammatory of Trump’s nominee for secretary of State Rex Tillerson on January 13 leave no doubt as to what they have in mind. He went beyond even the most belligerent forces so far to say that China should be denied access to the South China Sea—the equivalent of China telling the United States to grant Hawaii independence.
But this nightmare does not have to happen. Korea can still take certain steps to head off the risks of massive political fragmentation within South Korea that could lead to small-scale proxy wars between factions backed by foreign powers. But Korea can only stop these dangerous trends if there is a consensus in Korea that something must be done, and a plan in place for asserting Korea’s independent and unique vision for its own domestic security and for peace and stability in Northeast Asia as a whole.
One thing is certain. The coming crisis will not be solved by hiring expensive lobbyists in Washington D.C. to curry favor with the powerful in the hope that somehow if Korea buys another weapons system it will convince the Americans to leave Korea alone. No. The merchants of war in the Washington D.C. beltway see this confrontation with China as an essential part of their plans to funnel the taxes paid by American citizens into their pockets. The “War on Terror” has lost its appeal and they must create a hot or a cold war. The greater the crisis they can create, the longer they can hold on to power—or at least that is what they think.
Nor will the Chinese be placated by symbolic visits by Korean politicians trying to pretend that they can both cooperate with American right-wing fanatics and also be friends with China. Chinese are not stupid. They are fully aware of the dangers posed by a declining economic power in which a small group of extremists have seized power and set out to justify their governance through a series of confrontations with China.
The drive to militarism in a time of profound economic collapse is extremely powerful political tool. Donald Trump and his followers do not believe in climate change. What makes you think they are afraid of the very real danger of nuclear war? Their visions are too short-sighted and they seek political advantage in unpredictable and extreme actions. They will undo in a few months just about everything that Koreans have taken for granted in terms of security trade and the rule of law. The coming economic, political and cultural crisis is one that most Koreans, spoiled by thirty years of good living, are not prepared to face.
Actually, the situation is unlike anything that Korea has experienced since the late Ming Dynasty. Exactly four hundred years ago, Koreans were incapable of understanding how the very same Ming Dynasty that sent troops to defend Korea from the Japanese invasions of the 1590s then collapsed in on itself thirty years later when decadent eunuchs and corrupt government officials monopolized all power in the court and fought over the carcass of the state like so many buzzards and hyenas. By the reign of the Tianqi Emperor (1620–27) the China that Koreans were familiar with had ceased to exist, but Koreans stubbornly remained loyal to the Ming Dynasty even after it collapsed and ceased to exist in the 1640s
The time has come for Koreans to take control of the narrative on security at home, and abroad, and to push for a larger vision that will find lasting support among factions in the United States, China, Japan and Russia, not because people have been paid off, but because the vision is right and has moral authority. This suggestion is not naïve idealism. It is rather the only possible manner in which Korea can save itself.
Sadly, almost all the experts writing about security issues in Korea (or for the matter in Washington D.C.) are people who are simultaneously begging for handouts from the military contractors who supply weapons. Precious few policy advocates are engaged in serious consideration of what security really means for Korea in 2017.
There is a solution to this grave problem. But that solution will require a level of imagination, of creativity and of sheer bravery that has been sadly missing in the political environment in recent Korean history. Politicians spend their time taking selfies with young girls and talking in a stylish manner about superficial political issues. I have not seen anyone willing to even allude to the dangers of rising militarism in the United States or of nuclear war. In fact the threat of global war has been entirely absent from the political debate in Korea during the last few months of impeachment.
To start with, Korea can learn something from the politics of unpredictability that Trump has embraced to advance his political and diplomatic agenda. I do not mean that Korea should embrace the foolish idea that confusing others is a way to run a country.
Unpredictability is a tactical move, not a strategy. Countries should be predictable in their actions and consistent in their principles.
I mean rather is that Korea should present an argument about security, and the role of the military with regards to North Korea and China, that is based on shared values in the United States and Korea, but which heads in directions that the Trump administration did not anticipate.
Korea should uphold American principles of non-proliferation, disarmament and engagement, quoting American sources, laws and traditions, even if Washington no longer abides by those principles. That is to say, that it is possible, if Seoul musters the rhetorical skill and the bravery, to counter the moves of the Trump administration by arguing that Korea’s policies are not aimed against Washington but rather that Washington D.C. is no longer following America’s principles, its laws and its policy.
The Japanese philosopher Ogyu Sorai (荻生徂徠) has some words of wisdom that I think Koreans should heed as they respond to this crisis. Ogyu Sorai wrote,
“There are two ways of playing chess (바둑). One can learn the rules perfectly and become a great master. Or one can be the person who makes up the rules by which chess is played.”
The latter strategy of defining the rules of engagement, of making up the rules is an extremely powerful one, and at certain historical moments it is the best approach. Smaller countries can bravely define the issues and the agenda itself.
In this case, Korea has no other choice. To blindly embrace the irrational and militaristic behavior of the Trump administration is suicidal. To try to flatter or buy off Beijing or Washington will no longer work.
Korea can seize the initiative in the debate on security in Korea and Northeast Asia by going back to the basics: what are the risks and how can human society respond. A rational analysis will very quickly make it obvious that if we use a scientific method, reckless moves of the Trump administration to confront China and sell outdated military equipment have no relationship to actual security concerns. If, in the midst of irrationality, Korea speaks up for real security and you will find friends in places you never expected.
Front and center among current issues we must address is the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system that the Park Geun-hye administration has approved. We should anticipate a ruthless drive by the Trump administration to force South Korea to deploy this system over China’s fierce opposition. Moreover, certain factions in Seoul, and in Washington, are working overtime to create a mood in which Koreans feel as if they are under assault from China. Less than honest reporting about China’s supposed violation of Korean airspace was a classic example of such yellow journalism, a tale most likely cooked up by a political consulting company in Washington D.C.
I am not suggesting that China is not high handed, even arrogant, at times, but clearly the conflict with China over THAAD is something that Korea brought on itself.
Sadly, the opposition to THAAD so far has consisted of arguments about either how Korea will be hurt if it offends China by deploying THAAD, or more rarely, articles that discuss the ineffectiveness of the THAAD system itself. But no one has taken on the larger question of the defense value of missile defense itself.
The critical point that is left out of the narrative is the irresponsible decision of the United States to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty on June 13, 2002 during the George W. Bush administration. Ever since then, the United States has embraced the fantasy, the fraud, that missile defense systems can stop ballistic missiles.
Although there are limited cases in which systems can strike down some incoming missiles, the intercontinental ballistic missiles bearing nuclear weapons that we are concerned about cannot be stopped by missile defense. Missile defense, even in the rare cases that it works, can be easily undermined by countermeasures. The only way to protect ourselves from ICBMs is through carefully negotiated arms limitation treaties.
But the Bush and Obama administrations have shown only contempt for the careful negotiation of arms treaties and have dishonestly pushed missile defense as some sort of a substitute for engagement with North Koreans, Chinese, Russians and Iranians. This decision was related to the effort of corporations to destroy the United States military itself. Starting in the Reagan administration, corporations increasingly viewed the military as a way to make billions of dollars off of weapons systems. They did not want to have educated and professional military officers involved in the process who could formulate their own responses to policy and oppose waste. Missile defense was yet another example of how the hard human work of negotiating and verifying agreements by experts who could make their opinions felt was replaced by expensive systems that supposedly did not need people any more.
Such a policy is even more dangerous when it is combined with the United States decision to abandon the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to stop the spread of nuclear weapons in the world. The treaty, which the United States signed, dictates that we must limit the number of nations that have nuclear weapons and that those who have nuclear weapons must give them up. But the United States has gone out of its way to defend Israel and India in their development of nuclear weapons outside of the NPT. Even worse, under Obama the United States has committed itself to developing a new generation of nuclear weapons in blatant violation of the treaty it holds up when it criticizes North Korea.
South Korea should be proactive. It should demand that the United States follow the Nonproliferation Treaty to the letter and propose, in a totally rational manner, that we must implement a binding arms control treaty for missiles, and then for other weapons, in Northeast Asia. This step is the ONLY way to protect Korea from the danger of nuclear weapons, and from the danger of other weapons. If the United States follows the NPT in its actions, it will greatly reduce the tensions in the world and do more to promote world peace than just about any action possible.
There is no doubt that a Trump administration will be pissed off if Korea says anything like what I have suggested. But I think that Koreans had better face up to the fact that the Trump administration is going to be pissed off no matter what Korea does—in fact being pissed off is their political approach.
But the Trump administration is not all powerful in the United States and the United States is not all powerful in the world. If Korea has the guts to actually call for arms limitation treaties in the region, it will not only win friends in China, Russia, Japan and many other countries, but no small number of people within the Pentagon itself will be impressed and sympathetic.
The problem is not one of what is the right policy. The problem is how weak and how cowardly Korean politicians have become, especially because of their addiction to getting themselves featured in the media in positive reports.
If Korea can survive six months of intimidation, hostility and criticism from a Trump administration, it will earn the respect of even those who are hostile to it in this group of infantile men and a new relationship will emerge. Granted the fault lines in Washington D.C. itself, I believe that such a battle of wills can be won.
Moreover, promoting arms control in the region could create a larger grand bargain wherein North Korea will be willing to limit its production of nuclear weapons and even eventually commit to disarmament. Arms control is the only way to make us safe from nuclear attack.
Numerous articles have appeared in the Korean media that advocate that South Korea should develop nuclear weapons in response to North Korea’s nuclear weapons. But there is no reason to assume that South Korean nuclear weapons will make the country safer. In fact, if Korea declares that it will develop nuclear weapons, it will set off a nuclear arms race that will eventually include Japan, Taiwan, and probably eventually Vietnam and Indonesia. China has less than three hundred nuclear weapons, but if provoked it could have 10,000 in a relatively short time. No one will be safer.
Korea must hold America accountable to American policies. If Trump and the Republicans, even the democrats, want to increase military confrontation with China, hold them to the Obama agreement with Xi Jinping for cooperation on climate change and closer military collaboration. Everyone knows that agreement was right and there are those in the United States who will respect Korea for demanding that both China and the United States to hold to their agreements.
Another thing Korea can do is invite people from the nations in East Asia for an honest and open discussion about the future of security. Korea can start to address with its neighbors the threats posed by drones, by robots, by cyber warfare, by 3-D printing and by other emerging technologies. That discussion could lead to agreements for limitations of the use of such technologies, protocols for their control and strategies for responding to emerging threats.
Such an effort will allow Korea to become an innovator in policy. Sadly, although Korea produces sophisticated technology, Korea blindly copy theories and policies concerning military strategy, arms control, the application of new technologies and the response to non-traditional threats from overseas. There is little to no innovation going on at home regarding the concept of security.
Finally, Korea should insist that climate change be recognized by the United States as the greatest and most challenging threat to Korea, and to humanity. Korea should demand that we must transform our entire security system to focus primarily on the response to climate change. Because the military must be restructured to meet this massive challenge, there will be a need for increased cooperation between the militaries of China, the United States, and Korea (and other nations). These militaries of these countries, thus transformed, can, and must work together closely. They will have to reduce their spending on missiles and fighter aircraft for the simple reason that there will be little money left for such weapons after the commitment for adaptation to, and mitigation of, climate change. It is a matter of survival. Climate change is the equivalent of war.
There is no other way for Korea to escape the fate of being torn apart between the United States and from China except to advocate that climate change is the primary security threat. Korea’s stature in the United States and in China will be stronger if it does so because it will earn the respect of many security experts in both countries and Korea will take a path that does not require it to choose one country over another.
If Korea openly advocates that the military must be transformed to respond to climate change then there will be certain groups in the military of the United States, and the Chinese military, who will be impressed by that strategic decision. Having the respect of some members of the military is a much better strategy than flattering the Trump administration who will see such flattery as a sign of weakness.
A commitment to climate change by the Korean military will make Korea a military innovator and leader, but it will also offend those profiteers who see the military not as an organization for defending the security of the nation, but rather of reaping profits. The military’s future should be determined by the military, not by profiteers. Here is a chance do to so. As the Greek philosopher Thucydides wrote,
“The secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom is courage.”
The Kubuchi desert, a monster born of climate change, is slouching inexorably east toward Beijing. Arid land is increasing in North Korea and South Korea has less water and a warmer climate which is killing off native species. Korea has foolishly failed to preserve its topsoil and could find itself in deep trouble if forced to produce all agricultural goods locally. The United States will also be engulfed by deserts over the next twenty years and will no longer able to export agricultural products to Korea. At the same time the cities of Busan and Incheon will be flooded by rising seas. No preparations for these threats are being made.
You wouldn’t know that desertification is the harbinger of the apocalypse if you listened to the discussions at Korean think tanks like the Asan Institute for Policy Studies The only threats described by those “experts” are missile attacks from North Korea—even though such attacks are extremely unlikely and devastation from climate change is guaranteed. None of those seven billion dollars of weapons systems bought from the United States over the last few years will do anything to address climate change. That is the painful truth. I am sorry that you did not want to hear it.
Korea should demand of its own military, and should call on the militaries of the United States, Japan, China and Russia, to devote over 60% of spending to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change. This demand may seem impossible, but such a statement would gain Korea extremely valuable allies in all those countries and would give Korea a level of international leadership which it has not had before.
The first step would be for the nations of Northeast Asia to convene a forum that outlines the chief environmental threats and the resources needed to combat the problems. The summit should propose a concrete action plan for immediate implementation.
The next step will be the adaptation of a systematic formula for the reassignment of every part of the current military system to an active role in fighting climate change. Perhaps the navy would deal primarily with protecting and restoring the oceans, the air force would take responsibility for the atmosphere and emissions, the army would take care of land use and forests, the marines would handle complex environmental issues, and intelligence would handle the systematic monitoring of the state of the global environment.
Once military planning and research is transformed, cooperation will become possible between nations on a scale that was previously only dreamed of. If the enemy is climate change, close collaboration between the United States, China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea is not only possible, it is absolutely critical.
I have tried to outline here the true security threats that Korea faces and propose a brave and purposeful response that would make Korea a global leader and would allow it to suggest new paradigms for security cooperation back to the United States, to China, Russia and Japan. It takes considerable bravery to take such actions, but this plan is the only way to address the paradoxes that Korea faces today.
Some may say that the proposals are wildly unrealistic, but I would suggest that it is rather the mainstream approach to security with its focus on missiles, fighter planes and aircraft carriers which is wildly unrealistic. We will have no choice but to make these hard choices. If Korea can do it first, it will be a leader.