war on the rocks

Entry 43: Korea Hands Versus Nuclear Wonks

February 12, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 43rd installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

I wrote 1,700 words this weekend, which is really good.  After being part of the Obama era, writing about that period is turning out to be cathartic.  The words for this part of the book are coming easier than expected.

I started out with one chapter on the Obama years, then plotted out two, and now I’m actually thinking I may need a third chapter.  A lot of consequential stuff happened between 2009 and 2016 that nobody’s written about in long form.

Western media have been overwhelmingly covering the Winter Olympics by drawing on the narrative that sells itself—the Olympics are bringing peace to Korean Peninsula.  Doesn’t matter that it’s untrue; it sells, and it’s what everyone wants to happen.

I ranted about this a bit on twitter over the weekend, but what we’re witnessing is an open split between the United States and South Korea over North Korea policy.  It’s not the first time; this happened in the early years of the George W. Bush administration too.  Both sides have an interest in papering over differences in public, but the rift is there.  The question is why.

Nuclear scholars see the emerging differences in the alliance as strategic “decoupling”—North Korea’s growing nuke threat is leading South Korea to search for security by other means because U.S. reliability shrinks as U.S. territory falls within range of North Korean missiles.   South Korea would be hard-pressed to have faith that Trump would be willing to let Seattle eat a nuke in exchange for Seoul not eating one.

But Korea scholars see a more familiar pattern in the current divergences between South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and President Trump.  The breakdown of the U.S.-Korea alliance in 2002 and 2003 was about as bad as it’s ever been, it was due entirely to the politics (on both sides) of North Korea policy, and it was years before North Korea had a functional nuke.

So we all see a fissure opening up between allies, but what’s the best explanation for it?  If the nuclear scholars are right, and the fissure is a function of North Korea’s growing nukes, then the alliance is in big trouble, because the nuke problem is on-trend to get worse not better.

If the Korea scholars are right, then the alliance is in a bad place but the situation is recoverable.  South Korea’s president is just being a political opportunist, in this interpretation, and once the domestic mood in the South shifts against him (or North Korea), then the alliance will be in a better place.

Either way, we’re effectively out of the nuclear crisis from last year.  It would take a major miscalculation or act of violence by someone to bring the crisis roaring back.  Unfortunately, that’s entirely plausible.

 

Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.