U.S. Policy Toward the Koreas Is Unrealistic

koreaWhy does the U.S. government’s foreign policy often hinge on the naïve and moralistic expectation that other countries should act against their own interests? Wouldn’t a more realistic U.S. foreign policy be better for everyone concerned?

Let’s take an example. North Korea is a mostly isolated, totalitarian, unpredictable, and downright weird regime. Its only “friend” in the world is China, which provides fuel and food to prop up a North Korean regime that cannot even feed its people during bumper harvests. With increasingly better relations with a South Korea that has a GDP greater than 30 times that of the North, why does China continue to provide a lifeline for the destitute North?

A New York Times editorial answered this question and then moralized by saying something that the Obama administration would likely agree with:

“China has long enabled North Korea, making clear that its only real concern is stability on its border. But China should realize that an erratic neighbor armed with nuclear weapons is anything but a recipe for stability. . . . After the [North Korean] shelling [of South Korean islands], China called only for a resumption of six-party nuclear talks. It has said nothing about the [newly discovered North Korean nuclear] enrichment plant.”

But if this were the full story, the Times argument would appear logical and valid. Why would China prop up a volatile nuclear power on its border?

When policy seems to defy logic, usually something is missing. In that same day’s newspaper, buried in a regular news story related to China’s reaction to North Korea’s shelling of South Korea and the discovery of the North ‘s enrichment plant, the Times unearthed something that confounded its own moralizing about China’s shoring up of the nefarious North Korean regime. Times reporters reference and then quote Cai Jian, professor of Korean studies at Fudan University:

“The [Chinese] support continues because China fears that the vacuum created by a sudden collapse [of North Korea] there would open the door to rule by South Korea, ‘and that will put an American military alliance on the doorstep of China.’”

Although never mentioned by the Times, the implicit conclusion is that China’s seemingly irrational propping up of pariah North Korea becomes logical if China fears encirclement by a superpower and its allies practicing neo-containment more than it does a small, erratic nuclear country on its border.

Given these uncomfortable facts, the United States could undermine Chinese support for North Korea by giving South Korea five years notice that it will abrogate the U.S.-South Korean security alliance. This alliance is an anachronism from the early years of the Cold War before South Korea’s economic miracle, when North Korea was backed by both the Soviet Union and communist China. If given time to beef up its military before the U.S. withdraws, the now wealthy South Korea could easily defend itself from the impoverished North. Furthermore, because South Korea refuses to significantly open its markets to U.S. goods, the United States is essentially paying a rich nation to defend it.

Thus, even if North Korea collapsed, the Korean peninsula was reunited, and South Korea ruled the unified country, China would no longer have to fear a U.S. alliance on its border. With this greater threat eliminated, China might very well rather deal with a more rational, wealthy, and stable united Korea, rather than have to prop up an erratic and bellicose North Korea.

Ivan ElandThus, Chinese might very well have an incentive to end assistance to the North—the only thing that keeps the regime from collapsing. Also, a U.S. withdrawal from the South would greatly diminish the possibility that the United States could be embroiled in a brush-fire war over a peninsula that was of questionable strategic value even during the Cold War.

China, South Korea, and the United States could all benefit from the disintegration of North Korea. Thus, everyone—except North Korea—would benefit from a more realistic U.S. policy toward the Koreas.

Ivan Eland

Republished with permission from The Independent Institute.


  1. Joshua says

    It upsets a Tyrany that the US supports a Democracy against a tyrany that the former Tyrants support. I can’t see a problem with that, sounds like , excatly what we should be doing.

    Having served in Korea (’90-’91), I know we are doing the “RIGHT” thing by Korea. On Kongwado, in the middle of night, I looked south and saw the soft glow of civilization, and looked North , only to see darkness. That’s all I need to know , to know who to support.

    We should make it our national business to offend tyrants at every oppotunity and to encourage freedom and democracy everywhere on the planet.

  2. says

    This has to be one of the more naive comments and sounds more like Clinton herself, were she not the Secretary of State:”Why does the U.S. government’s foreign policy often hinge on the naïve and moralistic expectation that other countries should act against their own interests? Wouldn’t a more realistic U.S. foreign policy be better for everyone concerned?”

    North Korea’s isolation and failure to provide for itself is because of its state management and control of the means of production. Like most tyrants criminal thinking, they are engaged in blamestorming.The policy of North Korea is to invest their nation’s wealth in weapons of conquest.

    Your suggestion our policy should be to abandon support of South Korea is not only dangerous to South Korea, but a disasterous precident. Not only would you embolden the North Korean atheistic monarchy, but you would give us a reputation for being weak and treacherous.

  3. Joe Weinstein says

    Eland’s proposal has a big but remediable flaw. He would take the US out on a unilateral limb based on a rational supposition which – needlessly – has not been directly verified beforehand.

    Yes, it seems that indeed it would be to the interest of all – China, US, S Korea and indeed likely Japan and Russia, to say nothing of the people of N Korea – to dissolve N Korea into a unified Korea, with Korea no longer having regularly based foreign forces. But why not directly verify this perception as a fact, and make needed plans for its orderly implementation, at least with the parties most concerned, namely in talks with China and S Korea.

    Dissolving N Korea as painlessly as possible will call for more than a unilateral US action to dissolve an alliance: it will call for an orderly plan whereby the N Korean Kims and oligarchy are bought off or otherwise put to pasture. Insofar possible let’s work out the choreography with the Chinese and S Koreans first.

    Terminating the US – S Korea alliance does look like an inevitable piece of a feasible plan, but that supposition should be verified first. Not to first do that would be in the mold of the typical OBushma kind of US policy revealed by wikileaks: “we a priori know what’s best for you and what you really want (or ought to want) no matter what you are actually telling us”

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