Korean Problems and Chinese Solutions

“It is early 2009 and you are an advisor to President Obama.  Kim Jong Il, leader of North Korea, has died.  North Korea has erupted into civil war as Kim Jong Il’s subordinate leaders have started battling each other to determine who will take power.  The status of North Korea’s nuclear facilities is currently unknown.  Thousands of North Korean refugees have already flooded across the borders into South Korea and China, and it appears that many more will do so as the fighting continues.  The South Korean and Chinese economies are already feeling the strain from this influx of refugees.  What do you advise President Obama to do, if anything?”

Now that you’re in the gravity of my neutron star-like opening hook, I’ll tell you where this is going:  I had to answer the above question (well, almost-the above is a paraphrase) for the Final Essay in one of my classes.  The grammar’s rough because I had less than two hours to craft it from scratch, but conceptually everything just seemed to click.  I was really on that day.  The version you read here is unedited except that the original had indented paragraphs. The WordPress blog program will only format new paragraphs with a flush margin after a skipped line.

[NOTE: Reproduction is not permitted without my express consent.  I do not approve any use of the text or ideas herein for academic plagiarism or similar activities.]

“The fall of North Korea presents numerous problems.  Their civil war may lead to regional instability if left unchecked.  North Korea possesses a considerable amount of nuclear material that could be used for fission/dirty bombs in the civil war, against one of North Korea (NK)’s neighbors, or sold to or stolen by terrorists that could use it against the West and the U.S.  The spread of the civil war and current inflow of refugees to South Korea and China economically damages both countries, on whom the U.S. economy as well as the rest of the modernized world are reliant. Clearly action must be taken.

Any action, however, will be complicated by the difficulties inherent in peacekeeping operations.  The U.S. cannot act alone because:

  1. The U.S. military is severely degraded from OEF and OIF.
  2. Unilateralism leads to problems of legitimacy and forces the U.S. to foot the bill.

The latter problem is compounded by the fact that U.S. unilateralism in OIF has led to domestic and international suspicion about our military interventions abroad.  Further complicating the problem is North Korea’s relationship with and proximity to China.  The two share a common border and are ideological allies (at least on paper).  To allow Chinese support for any military intervention in NK will be seen in some circles as a tacit acceptance of communism and surrender of U.S. relative power to China, who appears to be our main competitor for military and economic power.  However, Chinese support will be essential to mission success for several reasons:

  • Her immediate proximity to North Korea.
  • China has had diplomatic relations with NK for decades.  In light of NK’s fanatic isolationism, China probably has more information about NK’s domestic situation than any other country.
  • China’s economic power will be needed as NK’s economy and infrastructure are severely degraded.  The U.S. economy cannot support sustained operations in NK; we would likely sell U.S. debt to China to support such operations anyway.
  • Although China began distancing itself from NK several years ago, the two are still technically allies.  An invasion of NK that lacked Chinese support could be interpreted by the Chinese as an act of war against China.  Chinese support eliminates the possibility of having to fight a billion-person Chinese army (which would further damage the Chinese economy on which the U.S. and much of the world depends) and will demoralize NK’s nationalists once they realize that their only ally wishes to see a peaceful return to stability.

North Korea is a major hole in the international liberal order.  A successful return to stability there may have great benefits for NK and the rest of the world.  The threats presented by allowing present conditions to continue have already been outlined.  Therefore, I recommend that the U.S. seek U.N.S.C. authorization for a chapter 7 peace enforcement mission in NK, to be commanded by China.  South Korea and other countries should be encouraged to participate also.  The mission of the operation should be to:

  • secure all fissile material
  • dismantle all nuclear sites capable of producing weapons-grade nuclear material.
  • Return NK to political stability and domestic security.
  • Integrate NK into its regional economy.
  • Provide an opportunity for Chinese leadership in the international community
  • End the ongoing NK-South Korea (SK) war.

In order to ensure success, it is imperative the mission maintain realistic expectations:

  • Force will be necessary to stop NK’s civil war and return NK’s security.  Chapter 7 authority and international legitimacy are required.
  • NK’s economy is in terrible condition.  After decades of isolationism, it is unlikely that NK possesses the skill and expertise to modernize or operate in the liberal economic order.  However, successful economic reintegration cannot be imposed from the outside.  N. Korean specialists will need many years of training in U.S., Chinese, S. Korean and European facilities before they can operate on their own.
  • Kim Jong Il placed a premium on nationalism.  An uprise in N. Korean nationalism could lead to an insurgency and mission failure.  As such, the operation must take exquisite care to avoid offending N. Korean sensibilities.  N. Korea and its leaders should be internationally praised for their resolve under the Kim Jong Il regime and for all successes (earned or not) in the rebuilding process.  S. Korea’s role must be restricted, especially in the military realm.  They should not be assigned to combat missions and if necessary the coalition should not hesitate to withdraw all S. Korean military forces. (i.e., if SK’s presence inflames NK nationalism) The U.S. should also remove NK from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, effective immediately.  S. Korean involvement should be only on the condition that SK announce a formal end to the NK-SK war.
  • Securing all nuclear material and dismantling weapons-grade nuclear facilities must be a top priority.  I recommend a U.S. Special Forces mission to secure all nuclear sites before public announcement of an invasion.  Such a mission may have to be conducted without the knowledge of the U.S. public or certain members of the international community.  An international team of nuclear specialists should be sent in on the heels of the invasion force to begin dismantling and removing nuclear facilities.  This team will need priority in funding and their own security force comprised of members whose countries will authorize them to perform all necessary functions, including police duties.
  • We must immediately [I couldn’t resist adding this edit: mobilize all available human intelligence assets to search] begin searching for North Koreans who are willing and able to work with the international community to rebuild North Korea’s infrastructure.  They must be provided with free training and incentives to perform this work, however care should be taken to avoid the appearance of favoritism (e.g., no mansions on the beach in return for help rebuilding NK.  After decades of despotic rule, a western-style capitalist democracy in NK is unlikely to arise for decades or centuries to come.  The object of a NK rebuilding project should not extend past the creation of a politically stable state that has begun reintegration into its regional economy under internationally acceptable standards.
  • The U.S. and other coalition members should prepare their citizenship for the likelihood of significant casualies, economic cost and a lengthy mission in NK.  The governments of these countries should stress to their citizens the domestic and international benefits, in the economic and security realms, of a stabilized, reintegrated NK.

There will undoubtedly be protest against this mission from many camps.  Charges of U.S. imperialism and hegemony can be defused with a truly international coalition led by China. However, many realists will assert that working under Chinese command surrenders some of our relative power to them.  Others might assert that doing so appears to tacitly support communism since China and NK are officially communist.  Others still will question the wisdom of Chinese leadership on a peace enforcement mission given their record on human rights.  The necessity of Chinese leadership for mission success has already been explained.  The surrender of our relative power to China is not the most important issue.  By allowing China to show the benefits of their Peaceful Rise, we are providing them with an opportunity to further integrate into the world economy and show positive international leadership.  Because of our economic integration/dependency on them, what is good for China’s economy is good for America’s economy also.  The U.S.’s relative power stands to gain from providing the world a positive example of what our intervention can do, anyway.  The communism argument ignores the fact that China’s economy has become increasingly capitalist – the Chinese do not want a return to the old economic order – and Communism is a dead ideology anyway.  Finally, China’s human rights record is a valid concern, but frankly this is a risk that must be taken.  It can be mitigated with international oversight.

Some will further question the feasibility of peace enforcement/nation building operations in general, but this plan takes great care to mind the risks involved and maintain realistic expectations of the outcome.  Above all, we must stress that neither this plan or any other carries a guarantee of success. Failure is certainly possible, however failing to act will be just as disastrous and the potential payoff for the U.S., the Korean Peninsula, China and the international liberal economic and political order is immense.”


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