Commentary Magazine


Flash of the Obvious

Gordon Chang’s recent post, with its circumstantial evidence that China played a major role in North Korea’s nuclear program, perhaps even supporting the creation of the secret uranium enrichment program so that the plutonium program could be traded away: this posting set off for me the proverbial blinding flash of the obvious.

If, as I have argued, our strong interest is that both Koreas should draw away from China in the direction of Japan and the free world, then by the same token, it is China’s interest that both Koreas should become her strategic partners. Aligned with the west, Korea denies China access to the Sea of Japan and keeps her far from Vladivostok, while flanking to the north the entire sea passage to Beijing and its port of Tianjin. Aligned with China, Korea puts the People’s Republic close to Russia’s most important eastern military base, gives her multiple bases from which to enter the Sea of Japan, and brings her to within a hundred miles or so of Japan, with only the sixty or so miles of the Korea Strait separating them. So Korea is a potential decisive weight in Asian strategy.

The issue is how to influence Korea. I have argued that our best policy is to support the universal Korean desire for unification, stop badgering the north about the nuclear program, and, without giving them aid, open up direct lines of communication. As for the south we must work closely with them, in particular with respect to their neuralgic relationship about former colonial power Japan.

China’s best strategy is the opposite: to keep Korea divided and play one state off against the other, in order to keep them weak. Nuclear weapons for the north might have been thought of as a way of cementing loyalty. Close ties with the south are designed to draw her away from the United States and Japan. Tactically it is in certain respects an easier strategy. Its potentially fatal flaw is that because it works against unification, it is bound to be rejected sooner or later, with malice, by both Koreas.

We Americans are thoroughly wrapped up in the Middle East these days. In Korea we are pursuing the fantasy of North Korean disarmament through Chinese assistance–in part because we lack the influence or the attention span, owing to Iraq, to want to get seriously involved. But in the long run, East Asia may well prove even more explosive than the Middle East.