February 13, 2018
Connecting some dots in Korea
By P. R. Evancoe
Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, headed back to North Korea on February 11th after a three day visit to the Olympic Games in South Korea. The media buzz from her visit was that she delivered an offer to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, on behalf of her brother, to hold a reunification summit in Pyongyang. The implied goal of the summit is to end the seven decades of hostilities between the two Koreas following the 1950-53 Korean War.
While her olive branch gesture may appear as a move in the direction of peace on the Korean Peninsula, there are many more dots that must be connected before the ramifications of her offer can be evaluated. A brief historical recount might be helpful.
In WW-II, Japan essentially ravaged the Korean Peninsula along with most of coastal China, carrying much of the monetary and mineral wealth back to Japan to serve their war effort. During this time, the Soviet Union and the U.S. were allies. Only weeks before the war with Japan ended, the Soviets made a grab for Japan?s Kuril Islands; a strategic island chain that runs north from the Japanese island of Hokkaido to Russia?s Kamchatka Peninsula.
The Kurils are strategic because the Soviet?s (now Russia?s) only deep, warm water operating base in that region was Vladivostok located on their east coast boarding the Sea of Japan. If the Soviet fleet was to effectively enjoy the ability to pressure the Pacific littoral, breaking out of the Sea of Japan was necessary, and there were only two directions their fleet could go ? south through the Sea of Japan and hazard passage through the Strait of Korea into the East China Sea, or sail north through the Strait of La Peruse into the Sea of Okhotsk and break out through the Kurils into the Pacific (hence, the strategic importance of controlling the Kurils).
The U.S. fought the Korean war (1950-53) shortly after WW-II. Fighting this war on the Korean Peninsula remains one of the most misunderstood strategic conflicts the U.S. ever engaged in. The strategic revelation of the Korean War remains embedded in U.S.-Korean foreign policy even today, although few understand its evolution, or its direct importance to the security of the U.S.
At the end of WW-II, Harry Truman was the U.S. president. General Douglas Macarthur remained in the region following Japan?s unconditional surrender for the purpose of writing and overseeing Japan?s new constitution and the rebuilding of the war-ravaged Pacific Theater. It was no secret that the Soviet Union would someday become both a competitor of the U.S. as a military power, and also as a power consumer of world mineral wealth. As a means to accomplish those ends, the Soviet Union would need to establish many deep, warm water ports throughout the Pacific littoral, thereby creating a string of secure operating bases linking them to the mineral wealth via the sea lines of communication.
Japan?s unconditional surrender provided justification for the U.S. to indefinitely occupy the Japanese Islands bordering the Sea of Japan?s east side. The U.S., under Gen. Macarthur?s steady hand, established numerous post-WWII military operating bases throughout Japan and other Pacific Theater territories like Taiwan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Malaysia, etc., from which it could project power and control the Theater?s vital sea lines of communication. Equally important, this served to abstractly deny the Soviets? establishment of strategic basing at these locations and their unfettered expansion into the Pacific littoral.
The wild card in this quest to beat the Soviet Union in establishing deep, warm water ports in these many locations, was the Korean Peninsula. Because of its location just south of Vladivostok, it was in easy grasp of the Soviets and it offered numerous deep, warm water ports. But China wanted it too for the same reasons. Macarthur recognized, as did Truman, that the U.S, could not allow the Soviets or China to establish operating bases along the Korean Peninsula.
Thus, the Korean War was fought using the public justification that the U.S. was helping the peasant farmers in the democracy-loving south to stop the Communist-loving militants in the north from invading. The fact that the Koreans, north and south, all shared (and still do) the same DNA and culture was of little mention. Stopping Communism provided a largely unchallenged international and U.S. domestic justification for the U.S. and its allies to invade the south and fight north. But why stop at the 38th parallel?
Gen. Macarthur split his force into two thrusts fighting north. Many military scholars today believe that was a strategic mistake and the U.S. would have been far more successful had the force heading north remained a single thrust. At the time, however, few anticipated China?s response to U.S. forces operating on the Korean Peninsula. History reflects that China?s massive support of North Korea?s war effort was a key contributing factor to the U.S. losing its will to keep fighting on ? or was it?
At the end of WW-II, Gen. Macarthur and Gen. Patton both advocated that Truman ?nuke? the Soviet Union and preempt them as a future enemy. After all, there were several nukes left in the U.S. inventory following Japan?s surrender. Why not put them to good use? Truman realized that an unprovoked preemptive attack against the Soviets would not have been politically palatable, but Gen. Macarthur also publicly advocated using nukes against China to end the war in Korea. Truman was put on the spot and realized he needed to end the war, which is what happened while Gen. Macarthur was marginalized. Nukes were never used or even seriously considered.
The Korean War ended with a cease fire armistice, not a peace treaty. The armistice drew a no fire zone along the 38th parallel, the most heavily fortified line on the planet, that still divides North and South Korea today. Why the 38th parallel? Largely because the vast majority of the deep, warm water ports on the Korean Peninsula reside below the 38th parallel. These ports are therefore denied to China and the Soviet Union. This prevents either one from expanding south, which could ultimately threaten the U.S.?s west coast, the U.S. Pacific Territories, and the Pacific Theater?s critical sea lines of communication.
What has changed since the Korean War?
Almost nothing – we (South Korea and the U.S.) are technically still at war with North Korea. South Korea has developed into a modern and thriving nation based upon democratic rule, while North Korea remains broken, desperate and under the Kim family?s tyrannical dictatorship. Russia and China are both attempting to establish a formidable expeditionary warfare capability in the Pacific and that requires establishing deep, warm water operating bases beyond their continental shores. They would still love unrestricted use of the deep, warm water ports south of the 38th parallel. Hence, their support for North Korea?s Communist regime is a means to that end.
Japan has become an economic power while China has become an economic superpower. The U.S. has ?given away? many of its key strategic post-WW-II strongholds like Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, etc., and we see, for example, China claiming the Spratly Islands as sovereign territory and militarizing some of them to fill the power void left by the U.S.?s regional withdrawal. On the other hand, Russia continues to challenge U.S. military supremacy in numerous different ways that are mostly effective when it comes to swaying world opinion.
And that brings us back to North Korea. Would reunification with the north be in the best interest of South Korea? Economically it would be devastating to South Korea but with help from other nations, namely the U.S., it could likely be absorbed. Upon a reunification event, the U.S. would lose its very reason to remain in Korea. The deep, warm water ports would undoubtedly be opened to Russia and China alike, resulting in their ability to sustain operations further south and threaten U.S. and Japanese interests well into the South China Sea and even as far as the Persian Gulf. It would further strengthen their ability to exploit the Pacific and Indian Ocean littoral, making the east coast of Africa more cost effective to reach and exploit.
Will Kim use his nukes once he has a means to deliver them? Not likely. He?s a murdering tyrannical dictator, but he?s not crazy and his first order of business is to remain in power (that?s also why he won?t ultimately allow reunification unless he?s in charge). Will Kim start a DMZ artillery attack killing thousands in Seoul as many fear? No. He realizes that between the South?s and U.S.?s already zeroed artillery along the DMZ and the massive U.S. airstrikes that would surely follow against virtually every strategic location in North Korea, there is no place to hide on the surface of the moon (and that?s what North Korea will look like after Kim opens fire). Again, a dictator?s priority is to survive and remain in power. Kim is no different.