The 1950–53 Korean War ended in a stalemate because the United States followed the same strategy of what may be termed “truncated objectives” that was in play during the 1990–91 campaign by mainly the US forces against the Iraqi armed forces led by Saddam Hussein. That campaign deliberately stopped short of occupying the country and removing the Baghdad-based dictator from power, exactly as the Korean War ended with Kim Il Sung still in power in Pyongyang.
Although the USSR threatened to retaliate against any non-conventional (chiefly nuclear) expansion of the US military operations in Korea, the reality is that such a threat was almost certainly a bluff, as at that point in time, the US nuclear weapon resources were far more advanced than in the Soviet Union. However, it would not have been necessary to use the nuclear option in order to ensure a decisive outcome to the 1950–53 war. The capital of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing, was well within missile distance of the US forces operating on land and sea in the Korean theatre, and an intensification of the threat to its capital may have ensured that the People’s Republic of China agree to cease fire on terms much less favourable to the North Korean side than was eventually the case.
President Eisenhower had clearly had enough of war, and after personally witnessing the desolation caused by the 1939–45 war in Europe, had not the will to expand the conflict in Korea to the full-scope level demanded by General Douglas MacArthur. Truman, his predecessor, had even less of an appetite for conflict, blocking KMT forces in Taiwan from intervening in the situation caused by the People’s Liberation Army getting involved in Korea, and blocking MacArthur from doing any damage to military assets in the China side of the PRC-Korea border, when such an assault would have sharply reduced the firepower and offensive capabilities of Chinese and partner forces.
Finally, unsure of whether the general would obey the restrictive orders placed his way by President Truman, the 1939–45 war hero was replaced by General Mathew Ridgeway, whose adherence to the restrictive instructions of Truman as well as Eisenhower ensured not only two years of a stalemate costly in human lives, but in a partition of the ancient country of Korea that has continued to this date.
When Mao Zedong took the offensive in the civil war with KMT forces during 1946, after a half decade of a policy of largely keeping his forces intact while Chiang Kai-shek flung his troops into battle against the occupying Japanese, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader did not stop until his forces had taken control of tracts of land effectively ungoverned by Beijing for extended periods of time such as Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang.
Plainly, Mao was not in favour of a “truncated objectives” strategy. In hindsight, had Chiang been less active in seeking to reverse territorial gains made by Tokyo and instead adopted a policy of holding on to the residual territory left to his forces, they may have been able to finally overcome the PLA and reclaim China from rule by the Chinese Communist Party.
Another factor behind the success of the PLA was the supply of the US weaponry that flowed to them in order to militarily confront the Japanese, despite the reality that much of this was being stored for future use against Chiang. It is to the credit of Mao Zedong that he sensed the direction of the future wind, understanding that it was only a question of time before the superior technology and resources of the United States prevailed over the much less impressive forces under the command of Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, just as towards the close of the 1960s, as he surveyed the months-long clash with Soviet forces at the Ussuri river in 1969, Mao understood the need for a modus Vivendi with Washington if he were to secure his country from trouble fomented by a far more potent military force than he had, the armies and arsenals of the USSR.
Less than two years later, the thaw with Washington came about, in large part because in President Richard M Nixon the Chinese leader found a practitioner of realpolitiik as clear about the evolving situation and its needs as he himself was. As for the USSR, the entente between Beijing and Washington so damaged its confidence that the immense military arsenal the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) had built up over the decades since 1945 were made subject to the same limitations that Truman and Eisenhower had imposed on their generals, that of stopping short of carrying the battle into the territory of the country that was sustaining the fighting capacity of the power in combat, Kim Il Sung’s Korea in the case of the 1950–53 war and Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistan in the case of the war that ended in the humiliation and defeat of the Soviet armies in Afghanistan.
Had Moscow carried the attack to Pakistan, for example by targeting mujahedeen launch pads in Peshawar and Quetta, and warning of possible attacks on Lahore and Karachi, assistance to the mujahedeen from within Pakistan territory would have almost certainly been reduced to a level capable of being overwhelmed by Soviet and secular Afghan forces.
The geopolitical pain caused to the ancient Korean people by the division of their country into two antithetical parts is in large part the consequence of the early 1950s hesitations of two U.S. Presidents, Truman and Eisenhower, who refused to deploy sufficiently the military assets available to them to ensure that the peninsula remained united. Such an outcome suited two neighbours of Korea. Both China and Japan gained from the division of Korea, the first by ensuring that an ally — in effect a satellite state — formed a vital flank on its external boundaries rather than a power linked in a military alliance that was also in strategic control of a former and potentially future adversary, Japan.
Given the closeness of the Yalu River to Beijing and to the Chinese heartland, it is obvious that the Chinese Communist Party would not wish to see any power not under its sway in control of the territory now in thrall to the regime in Pyongyang.
For almost a decade which began towards the close of the 1990s, it seemed as though the Republic of Korea (RoK) was leaving the magnetic pull of Washington and moving into the geopolitical orbit of Beijing, the way Islamabad was and still is. However, in recent years, the dissonance between CCP support for the Kim family in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the core interests of the RoK have become more palpable, with the consequence that there has been a return by Seoul to the strategic ambience of the United States. As for Japan, although the division of Korea and resultant Pyongyang-Seoul tensions enabled Tokyo to outpace the south of the Korean peninsula in economic terms for close to three decades, finally the determination of the ancient Korean people ensured that the RoK began to level with Japan in economic prowess towards the close of the 1980s despite the vivisection of the peninsula, in like manner as the Republic of India has emerged as a fast-growing major economy despite the shock of its 1947 division through the creation of the first country in the world formed exclusively on the basis of religious belief, Pakistan, that from the first weeks of its formation has expended its strategic assets on seeking to slow down and finally reverse India’s forward movement towards economic success.
If Truman and Eisenhower were to get pointed out as the causes behind the vivisection of the Korean peninsula, the focus needs to be on Presidents Clinton and Bush II for their policy of side-stepping the operational consequences of the evolution of the Pyongyang regime into, first a significant threat to the RoK and Japan and, subsequently, to parts of the US itself. Both Clinton and Bush had the military power at their command to decapitate the Pyongyang regime through “micro surgery” before it could operationalise a credible response against Seoul.
By “micro surgery” is meant the destruction of mainly military assets without much damage to civilian infrastructure. Their successor, President Barack Obama, does not have that luxury. To be effective, an attack on the Pyongyang regime has to be of such kinetic velocity that it would not be possible in between for the DPRK to let loose destruction on a significant scale on assets within the RoK.
While during the Clinton-Bush years, given the limited force of the DPRK offensive machine, such a velocity would not have needed to have resulted in a large number of non-military casualties. However, since then the arsenal of this family-run half of the Korean peninsula has developed to a level and sophistication that would take much more effort to neutralize in the short time period needed to ensure the absence of retaliation sufficient to raise the costs of such an intervention to a level that would take a considerable time to rectify.
The Nobel Committee showed extraordinary prescience in giving the Peace Prize to an individual who had barely settled into his job. While President Obama deserves some commendation for his refusal to get involved in wars such as in Syria that are favoured by regional allies seeking to replicate Libya in that country, in the case of the DPRK the hesitation of the Obama administration to move beyond the timid bounds set by Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush in their chastisement of Pyongyang has ensured that the Kim Jong Un regime has developed into a security threat that could in brief years ensure immunity for itself through the possession of retaliatory capacity far in excess of that needed to prevent an attack on itself.
As was pointed out immediately following the events of 2003 and 2011, the fate of the two dictators who had actually given up their WMD stockpiles acted to convince the Kim regime to avoid that slippery slope towards an undignified end. The very advent of a Donald J Trump administration on the heels of that led by Barack Obama has convinced several leaders that it would be a folly to rely on the word of a President or a Prime Minister, not only because he or she may soon get replaced, but because he or she may change his or her mind, the way Nicholas Sarkozy did about Muammar Gadhafi. Such a dynamic has made the reaching of an amicable settlement with the Kim dynasty in Pyongyang unlikely.
Working out an arrangement that would assure an amnesty to Kim Jong Un and other regime heavyweights in exchange for peaceful reunification would be the best case scenario, despite offending human rights purists intent on “sending a message” to other serial depredators of human rights by inflicting severe punishment on the Kim group in Pyongyang. While such an outcome would be possible, the cost in human terms would be considerable, thereby making it more advantageous to “write off” the sufferings inflicted by the DPRK regime on its victims while ensuring that these get capped as a consequence of the agreement reached.
In the recently conducted Presidential elections in the US, Donald Trump was from a foreign policy perspective a more hopeful prospect than Hillary Clinton, his presumed “weakness” being in reality his strength. The weakness of Donald Trump has been his lack of familiarity with foreign policy doctrines and those who have fashioned them. This sets him apart from Hillary Clinton, who visibly relies on the autopilot mode in policy discussions, going by the wisdom of her advisors on what would be the best course to take.
Trump, on the contrary, flies manually. If we consider that the primary “control towers” (aka policy formulators) within the Atlantic Alliance have often guided their “aircraft” into squalls and occasional crashes (among the more spectacular being interventions in the Middle East since 2011), a “pilot” who refuses to follow such guidance is much more likely to land his aircraft safely, i.e., ensure that a policy get formulated and operationalised that ensures a favourable outcome for the country making them.
Within the US, or indeed the British and the French, policy zones, there is a constant return to the errors of the past. Given that adopting a contrary line would amount to admission of error, it seems almost reasonable why so many “experts” would lay out policy menus for their political patrons that are in essentials indistinguishable from options given in the past and which later proved disastrous.
In the Korean theatre, a longstanding policy of carrots that are too small to entice followed by sticks, the effects of which on the Pyongyang elite are limited, has failed and yet gets endlessly repeated. Given the reality of the Kim regime moving closer to a stage in which it would have the capacity to deter any attack by the credible threat of unacceptable damage, the four years of the Donald Trump administration that begin January 20, 2017 represent perhaps the last window available to resolve the Korea problem through a peaceful unification of both parts of this vibrant territory. Once this is achieved, avoiding the errors made during the German unification process in the 1990s could be possible, including an artificial equalisation of currency used in both sectors, thereby erasing the cost advantages of investing in the poorer segment.
Given the essentiality of unification, literature needs to be created that is designed to ensure a smooth fit in modern Korea for those who for their entire lives have survived in a time warp. It is difficult to visualize a glide path towards unification, but this would be certainly be preceded by a showcasing of force and resolve by the US, the RoK and other militaries that convinces the leadership in the north that any conflict would result in a defeat for the lesser armed force. Next, it is necessary to ensure that Beijing is on board in international efforts to unify the peninsula, by for example guaranteeing the demilitarisation of the territory north of the 38 parallel and by imposing financial and other geopolitical costs should the PRC not participate in punitive measures activated in a situation of “bad” behaviour by the DPRK.
No such move will work unless Beijing signs on to it, and the only way to ensure this would be to ensure that the cost of PRC non-participation in international efforts to ensure “good” behaviour by Pyongyang be made clear and significant by the U.S. and its allies, and of course get enforced whenever needed rather than ignored as has too often been the case in the past.
The key to the ushering in of unification is not Seoul or Washington as much as it is Beijing. The perception in Pyongyang that it enjoys immunity from retaliation for its armed provocations needs to be countered by visible and disproportional action against the Kim family regime in such instances. Any reaction to the reaction needs to be met with a fresh volley of retaliation. Those arguing that such moves will lead to a full-scope nuclear war are wrong, if only for some time to come the Kim Jong Un regime will be unable to mount a credible nuclear response. Once it is able to do so, the world and East Asia in particular will be entering uncharted territory. Hence the need for action during the window available before the activation of nuclear weapons systems by the DPRK.
The regime in Pyongyang is rational and does not have the suicide bomber gene in its intellectual makeup. However, deterrence will be credible only if there is a unified command facing the DPRK, in which the US, Japan and other participating powers ensure that Seoul is given a place of honour, with key slots in the unified command going to its officers and the overall political guidance of the Unified Command being vested in the Blue House.
If the stick be substantial, so must the carrot be of generous proportions. This would include incentives for elements in the Pyongyang regime to invest in the RoK so as to acquire a physical stake in unification. Travel curbs should end, as those who are the most hostile are precisely the individuals who need to test their perception of reality with the ground situation in the “enemy other.”
Financial curbs on outward and inward investment between the two halves of Korea should be liberalised, such that a network of “facts on the ground” gets created with a centripetal effect. Limited sticks, small carrots and quarantines have repeatedly failed and yet established foreign policy elites keep returning to such nostrums for fear of testing out the unknown.
The world has around four more years before the two halves holding a noble people either get unified or a situation gets created in which the international community will need to decapitate the regime in Pyongyang for the survival of stability in Asia. Now that an innovative business leader is taking over the reins of government of the world’s most productive country, it is time to (1) open doors to the north, (2) set in place the means for deadly force should peace prove unworkable, (3) use such means to inflict severe harm, with the certainty of much more than any possible reaction can be, including the pinpoint use of all possible means of force at the command of the allies of the RoK and (4) indicate that time is running out for a regime that needs to realize that the survival of its elements can only continue in a situation where there is a mutually honourable settlement that is based on the unity of the Korean people, and which would in its governance structure include personnel from both sides till such time as such distinctions become an irrelevance.
The world has four years to prevent a war with possibly nuclear consequences that ought to have ended in 1951, had President Truman trusted his military leadership to finish a job that was only half complete when the 1953 armistice was declared, and which has continued in that state to the present.
[This paper was presented at Global Peace Convention Seoul 2016 on 7 Dec 2016, this conference was held at the Korean National Assembly, and the theme of conference was “The Era of a Great Turning Point — A Search for a New Way of Forming a Global Consensus on one Korea”.
This paper also forms a part of an article series, entitled “Geopolitical Implications of the North Korea Crisis”, being published by the Science, Technology & Security forum.]
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.