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Henry Kissinger’s plan – or at least outline of a plan – to resolve the North Korea crisis is out. And even though the 94 (94!)-year old former Secretary of State and presidential national security adviser has not held public office in decades, you should pay attention because you can bet American leaders in the Executive Branch and Congress are. So are foreign governments (many of which, including China, Kissinger has made millions – at least – “consulting”for).

Kissinger’s approach, laid out in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last Friday, is definitely a cut above the usual (often dangerously misleading) drivel that most commentators have been issuing since North Korea recently demonstrated dramatic and unexpected progress toward being able to hit the U.S. homeland with a nuclear-armed missile. But since Kissinger is a creature of the foreign policy establishment that keeps clinging to an obsolete Korea strategy that is now needlessly exposing the United States to nuclear attack, his proposals ultimately fail to promote and defend America’s interests first, or even to acknowledge the deep splits that must no longer be papered over between U.S. needs and South Korean needs.

The strongest argument Kissinger makes, as I see it, is the suggestion that there’s only one way of persuading China to exert enough pressure on North Korea to achieve Pyongyang’s de-nuclearization, or to start its regime down that road. It’s emphasizing to Beijing that an increasingly powerful nuclear North Korea will inevitably lead other countries to follow suit, and place China in the middle of a ring of nuclear-armed neighbors – many of which are hardly friendly. In other words, Kissinger is identifying an especially compelling reason for China to conclude (finally) that its Korea bottom line must include defanging the North – and quickly, not one of these days.

A public statement of this reasoning also matters because it signals Kissinger’s agreement that preventing nuclear proliferation in Asia may need to take a back seat in U.S. Korea policy to the status quo/establishment position that the United States must bear the main costs and risks (including nuclear risks) of handling North Korea. Not that I doubt the dangers of a regional nuclear arms race. But if that’s the price to be paid for minimizing and possibly eliminating a nuclear to the United States itself, it’s a price that’s a clear bargain. So it’s gratifying to read that Kissinger looks to be in agreement. 

But Kissinger never explains why North Korea would relent absent the kinds of truly comprehensive and strictly enforced economic sanctions whose importance he appears to belittle or dismiss altogether. Instead, he appears to believe that a joint Sino-American statement conveying strong bilateral agreement on the peninsula’s future “would bring home to Pyongyang its isolation and provide a basis for the international guarantee essential to safeguard its outcome.” Unfortunately, nothing publicly known about the North Korean regime indicates that it’s prepared to substitute paper guarantees of its survival for the protection provided by a nuclear arsenal.

Similarly, Kissinger signals support for a solution that would leave Korea divided as at present, but that would trade off de-nuclearization in the North for a permanent ban on reintroducing American nuclear weapons to South Korea (which were removed by former President George H.W. Bush in 1991) and an international agreement prohibiting Seoul from developing its own nuclear arms. But in addition to the “paper promises” problem, Kissinger’s proposal appears to forget that nuclear weapons from anywhere have been included in strategies to defend South Korea in the first place stem from the need to offset the belligerent North’s conventional superiority – which it presumably would still enjoy. So a dangerous military imbalance would be left on the peninsula.

But my biggest complaint about Kissinger’s ideas is the apparent refusal to consider my own favored option – a U.S. military pullout from South Korea (and possibly Japan) that would deny the North any plausible reason to attack the American homeland, and that would force the powerful and wealthy countries of Northeast Asia, which have the greatest stakes by far in a viable North Korea strategy, to take on this responsibility themselves.

The risk? An entire East Asia-Pacific region that’s profoundly destabilized, and even plunged into conflict. The benefit? A dramatic reduction in the odds that a North Korean nuclear weapon would decimate an American city. Or two. Or three. This is even a close call?

Moreover, a U.S. pullout seems to be taboo to Kissinger because he, along with most of the rest of the foreign policy establishment, perversely appears to view protecting allies as being just as important as protecting the United States. What else could be mean when he warns that certain American policies “may be perceived as concentrating on protecting its own territory, while leaving the rest of Asia exposed to nuclear blackmail….”?

Not to put to fine a point on it, but when the stakes involve preventing nuclear warheads from killing possibly tens of millions of Americans, why on earth shouldn’t the United States be “perceived as concentrating on protecting its own territory”? In fact, any American leader with different priorities should be immediately removed from office and banned for life.

So I continue to admire the force of Henry Kissinger’s intellect, his mastery of a wide range of international issues (except economics), and his command of history. Yet I also continue to view him as a paragon of a peculiarly American species: a so-called diplomatic realist who is anything but.