What Kissinger Gets Wrong About Korea

What Kissinger Gets Wrong About Korea
AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File
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The physically and intellectually bionic Henry Kissinger is at it again. The former secretary of state recently published an article in the Wall Street Journal casually titled “How to Solve the North Korea Crisis,” perhaps his 12th such piece offering essentially the same advice over the past two decades.

Though the article does not live up to its title, the man himself is amazing. While his talented staff no doubt helps in periodically churning out learned pieces on current world events, Kissinger, now in his 90s, still manages to shuttle between Washington and Beijing to pass messages and offer geostrategic wisdom alternately to American and Chinese leaders. He has done this for nine U.S. presidents and for every Chinese ruler since Mao Zedong.

In his many writings and speeches addressing North Korea, Kissinger always gets the danger right:

"The long-term challenge reaches beyond the threat to American territory to the prospect of nuclear chaos. ... Asia’s nations are already under threat from North Korea’s existing short- and intermediate-range missiles."

And, again with good reason, he invariably laments the failure of the international community to resolve the issue:

"For more than 30 years, the world’s response to North Korea’s nuclear program has  combined condemnation with procrastination. Pyongyang’s reckless conduct is deplored. Warnings are issued that its evolution toward weaponization will prove unacceptable. Yet its nuclear program has only accelerated."

His indictment of the “world” certainly applies to the dozen or so countries that, by action or inaction, have been instrumental in enabling or indulging North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. These include the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council as well as Japan, South Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Libya under Moammar Gadhafi, Syria, Yemen, and a few others.  

But Kissinger glosses over China’s critical role in supporting Pyongyang’s blatantly illegal weapons activities. On this fundamental point, he has been consistently faulty in his analysis and derelict in his responsibilities as probably the world’s most influential expert on U.S.-China relations.

From the inception of North Korea’s nuclear program with Chinese technology acquired through A.Q. Kahn’s network in Pakistan, through the decades of Beijing’s logistical, financial, and diplomatic support, Kissinger has offered one rationalization after another in China’s defense.  His 1,400-word article, while explaining yet again why Beijing’s fear of regime collapse in Pyongyang accounts for China’s reticence, has nothing to say about its active participation in fostering the buildup of the nuclear and missile programs.

Indeed, the history of Chinese-North Korean collaboration contradicts this statement of conventional wisdom -- a statement recited not just by Kissinger but by every U.S. administration he has advised on North Korea: China shares the American concern regarding nuclear proliferation; it is in fact the country most immediately affected by it.”

Both parts of the sentence above are demonstrably wrong. China has repeatedly spread dangerous and illegal technology directly to North Korea, and through it to a network of rogue states. It has been not only a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction, but a proliferator of proliferators.  Moreover, it has refused to join more than 100 other nations in the Proliferation Security Initiative, which provides for the interdiction of nuclear materials and missile components.

As for Kissinger’s odd statement that China is the country most directly affected -- North Korea’s nukes presently target South Korea, Japan, and the United States, not China. Still, he asserts: “Heretofore, the administration has urged China to press North Korea as a kind of subcontractor to achieve American objectives.” (My emphasis.) But hadn’t he just told us that Beijing shared the denuclearization goal?

His warning against U.S. last-resort pre-emptive action is something Chinese President Xi Jinping will welcome: “Beijing, even if it temporarily acquiesced, would not long abide an American strategy of determining by itself outcomes at the very edge of China’s heartland, as its intervention in the Korean War of the 1950s demonstrated.” 

America acting by itself?  For decades, U.S. policymakers have bent over backwards to get China’s cooperation so Washington will not have to act alone. As Kissinger acknowledges:

"[O]wing to an inability to merge the key players’ objectives -- especially those of China and the U.S. -- into an operational consensus[,] American demands for an end to the North Korean nuclear program have proved unavailing."

Adding insult to injury, Beijing likes to portray the North Korea crisis as an American problem, to be solved by Washington. Contrary to Kissinger’s suggestion that U.S. unilateralism would be irresponsible, if President Trump concludes that China cannot or will not restrain North Korea, and that military action is therefore necessary, Beijing will bear a major part of the responsibility for that decision and its consequences.

Moreover, Kissinger fails to elaborate on what exactly China’s objectives are and how they differ from the “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” that Washington has long sought. He ignores the possibility that the perennial North Korea crisis has actually served China’s strategic interests as a major diplomatic distraction and resource diversion for the West. It has enabled China to posture as a responsible international stakeholder and a good-faith negotiating partner entitled to some deference on other issues such as currency, trade, Taiwan, and the South China Sea.

Kissinger offers this insight into Beijing’s negotiating strategy with Washington: “China’s incentive to help implement denuclearization will be to impose comparable restraints on all of Korea.” He conspicuously fails to note that the United States unilaterally withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in the early 1990s as a show of good faith --  at the same time that China began its covert support for North Korea’s nuclearization.

On the way forward, Kissinger writes:  “Since denuclearization requires sustained cooperation, it cannot be achieved by economic pressure.”  Yet, the Trump administration’s leaning on China seems to have accomplished more cooperation in six months than was done in the previous three decades of Western pleading with Beijing -- even if it is still inadequate.

All in all, the Kissinger piece seems to provide more moral and political fodder for the negotiating position of China than for that of the United States. Just as Beijing deploys its unique position of influence to press for U.S. concessions to Pyongyang, Kissinger uses his unique influence to press Washington for concessions to Beijing.

The Trump administration has a better idea: Continued pressure on Beijing to address the regional security crisis North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles present now, and clear warnings to Pyongyang for its continued provocations. The protracted and complex multilateral negotiations Kissinger envisions will be appropriate only once Pyongyang comes to the negotiating table and commits to serious denuclearization. Ultimately, learning from the German model, a reunified, democratic Korea should be the world's goal.  

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