Saturday, September 09, 2006

Robert Kaplan on China's interest in North Korea

(Image from Wikipedia)

Robert Kaplan has recently published an article, "When North Korea Falls," in The Atlantic Monthly (October 2006), and -- perhaps fitting for a writer on military issues -- he's been taking a lot of flak from the expatriate blogging community here in Korea. I agree that Kaplan has given a distorted picture of some things here in Korea. For instance (to borrow a quote from the Marmot's copy of the entire article):
As the saying goes among American soldiers, "There is no peacetime in the ROK." (ROK, pronounced "rock," is militaryspeak for the Republic of Korea.) One has merely to observe the Patriot missile batteries, the reinforced concrete hangars, and the blast barriers at the U.S. Air Force bases at Osan and Kunsan, south of Seoul -- which are as heavily fortified as any bases in Iraq -- to be aware of this.
One military man, Capt BBQ, took contentious issue with Kaplan on this point:
So this is the Kaplan guy I hear talked up so much? He's a good story teller at least. Spending 3 and 1/2 years in the USFK has perhaps given me an unfair standard to judge him by, but how can I take his analysis of a secretive regime seriously when he fails so miserably portraying the US military? I've never heard of more than half the crap he claims we say:

"which are as heavily fortified as any bases in Iraq"

My barracks were guarded by a combination of any two from a group of three narcoleptic old men, a grandma and a retard ... that is, Grown-man-on-bike-with-training-wheels retard.
Capt BBQ might be guilty of a little humorous exaggeration himself, but he's surely right. The U.S. bases here in Korea are not even remotely "as heavily fortified as any bases in Iraq."

But I'm not posting on Kaplan to critique, praise, or bury him, but to quote him on China's interest in North Korea, which he illustrates in the case of a Kim Family Regime (KFR) collapse:
Whereas Japan's strategic position would be dramatically weakened by a collapsed North Korean state, China would eventually benefit. A post-KFR Korean peninsula could be more or less under Seoul's control -- and China is now South Korea's biggest trading partner. Driving along the coast, all I saw at South Korean ports were Chinese ships.

Other factors also work in Beijing's favor. China harbors thousands of North Korean defectors that it would send back after a collapse, in order to build a favorable political base for China's gradual economic takeover of the Tumen River region -- the northeast Asian river valley where China, Russia, and North Korea intersect, with good port facilities on the Pacific. De facto control of a future Tumen Prosperity Sphere would bolster China's fiscal strength, helping it to do economic battle with the United States and Japan. If China's troops could carve out a buffer zone in the part of North Korea near Manchuria—where China is now developing massive infrastructure projects, such as roads and ports -- Beijing might then sanction the installation of an international coalition elsewhere in the North.

This is the sort of scenario that has concerned me since first learning of China's Northeast Project about three years ago when I was working with my Hanshin University colleagues Yoon Pyung-Joong (윤평중) and Kim Myongsob (김명섭) on a research project concerning Korean reunification.

You can read about this Northeast Project and the attendant controversy in an article by Yonson Ahn, "The Korea-China Textbook War -- What's It All About?" (3/6/2006), but if I may oversimplify China's position, the Northeast Project is a research program funded by the Chinese government that presents the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo as part of China. This is problematic for Koreans and for the prospect of future unification on the Korean peninsula because Koreans have long considered Goguryeo as part of Korean rather than Chinese history and because China's claim to Goguryeo raises territorial issues since Goguryeo extended halfway down the peninsula. If the claim is allowed to stand, China could appeal to history as a legitimate cover for intervention in a crumbling North Korean state.

Kaplan -- though without mentioning Goguryeo -- thinks that China is already planning for this:

Meanwhile, China's infrastructure investments are already laying the groundwork for a Tibet-like buffer state in much of North Korea, to be ruled indirectly through Beijing's Korean cronies once the KFR unravels. This buffer state will be less oppressive than the morbid, crushing tyranny it will replace. So from the point of view of the average South Korean, the Chinese look to be offering a better deal than the Americans, whose plan for a free and democratic unified peninsula would require South Korean taxpayers to pay much of the cost.

Kaplan may very well be right about China's plans, but he underestimates Korean nationalism (okay, I am critiquing). If Koreans are already angry about China's claim to Goguryeo, then they're very unlikely to be sanguine about Chinese control over the North.

Rather than being sanguine, the Koreans could get sanguinary.

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At 12:23 PM, Blogger High Power Rocketry said...

: )

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uh ... thanks, Alex.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Consider how much trouble Germany had absorbing the East. It is still suffering some indigestion, even though East Germany was toppled by democrats, many democrats. West Germany had a huge economy and East Germany, though it was poor was much, much better off than North Korea.

North Korea will be toppled, if it is toppled, by hunger and anarchy rather than any coherent group action. There will be very few who understand, much less practice, democratic principles. The devastation may well be unprecedented, involving possible nuclear destruction.

The South Koreans may want to do this job, but I suspect they don't have the resources or the emotional toughness that will be required. Maybe they think of the North as family, but that is probably wrong and just makes the problem worse. North Korea, IMO, is already completely lost. They are no longer the same people as in South Korea. They just happen to be extremely dangerous and unpredictable. Fortunately, South Korea cannot be subsumed by the PRC because of US presence and MAD deterrence rules, but the US is unlikely to protect North Korea from China. North Korea in Chinese hands may well be the very best that we can hope for.

These military analysts are very smart, highly knowledgeable about small parts of the elephant. They like to argue.

I imagine it's conceivable that some coup will gain control in the North and try to join with the South. I think it unlikely to occur or succeed, but what do I know. I only know what I read in the funny papers.

At 5:48 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JJ, the inevitable chaos and the possible Chinese intervention make me wary of strategies aiming to topple the North. I'd rather see the South investing in the North, getting the North dependent on the South, and gradually undermining the North's hierarchical support for the regime by shifting the functionaries loyalties to the ones with the money, i.e., the South.

In other words, corrupt the North with the South's money. Make them dependent. Then, bring them over to the bright side...

Jeffery Hodges

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