Tension has a way of rising to brinksmanship when it comes to North Korea. When you think about it, the world, and the nations of the Pacific Rim in particular have devoted an enormous amount of energy maintaining a war and conflict posture with respect to North Korea since the 1950s. There was a time when such tensions were important, even useful, to the world. The 38th parallel was an extension of the Berlin Wall, an echo of a Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Like its European Theater counterpart, it created a wall manned by cousins on both sides of the divide, pawns for a deeper political agenda. Like the other wall, one side flourished in an industrial miracle while the other languished in poverty. Time marches on. The wall dividing NATO and the Warsaw Pact has long since fallen but the wall across the 38th parallel remains.
When Kim Jong-un along with his cronies Premier Pak Pong-ju and Chairman Kim Yong-nam wag their swords, the world reflexively reacts. The tension created by a rogue state with a nuclear weapon in their pants certainly warrants worrisome attention even if the actuality is that government’s most potent weapon is its propaganda’s bark. We fear that the irrational may be willing to commit Armageddon suicide to get what they want. And quite honestly, reacting to it soothes the world’s need to have a villainous foil, a made-to-order actor for our political theater. On the eastern shores of the Pacific Rim, aging Cold War hawks validate their cognitive biases that the Red Menace is alive and well. On the western edges of the rim, nervous countries assess whether they need to reverse half a century of post-World War II demobilization and field new miniature Star Wars shields and other weapons systems thus incurring new economic and political costs.
It’s great stuff for the global news cycle, straight and alternate reporting inclusive. And it begs the elephant in the room question, “Is North Korea still necessary?” Does this intransigent wall across the 38th parallel need to be there at all? More specifically, does North Korea, the obstinate state, still have strategic utility to the future interests of Northeast Asia?
Objectively, the answer seems to be no. The industrialized nations of the Pacific Rim region are at this point arguably universally better off bypassing North Korea to expand economic development among them. Among the compelling reasons,
Trans Pacific trade realities between the eastern and western edges of the Pacific Rim are evolving. The Unites States under the leadership of President Donald Trump is considering repatriating industrial infrastructure outsourced to overseas factories in the 90’s and 00’s. These factories will be coming home to a very different manufacturing reality that the one they left in the era before robotic automation and the micro-market customization power of CNC and 3D printed machinery. Robotic factories making components servicing a local to individual focused final packaging service base means less need for container ships transporting disposable goods from different parts of the world. There is an “Internet of Making Things” phase of industrial revolution coming to the United States and ultimately to all industrialized nations.
On mainland Asia, for China’s General Secretary Xi Jinping, it means his country needs to establish stronger bilateral economic trading relations to compensate for the reduction in US Trans Pacific trade in at least three areas of the Pacific Rim; these being, Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. In Northeast Asia, the biggest industrialized market one can drive to from China is South Korea. Being on better economic terms able to trade goods, services and have a free flow of people between these two nations is strategically advantageous to both as it sets into motion a real basis for a future multinational economy on the Asian mainland.
It’s the kind of positive domino effect the western Pacific Rim could use. East Asia, if you look at it objectively, suffers from lingering echoes of a setting sun; meaning, the aftermaths of wars still color relations among nations. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe struggle with unfinished business from the end of World War II in the Kuril Islands. The US and China similarly struggle with Taiwan. Further towards Southeast Asia, nations are still struggling with the aftermaths of various proxy wars from the Cold War fought on their territories. Theirs is a country level form of PTSD further down the road than the live shelling state of affairs the world presently witnesses going on in the Middle East. The point is that East Asia remains dominated by legacy military alliance models; it would be better if replaced by an economic union model. The most intransigent nation in the fray is North Korea. So how do you change that?
Born only at the end of World War II as Soviet and US forces took the Korean peninsula from the Empire of Japan, I am at a loss to name any reason the world’s national, trans-national, economic, or stability interests are aided by North Korea’s continued existence as a proxy war agent a quarter century after the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and forty-five years after Richard Nixon opened the door to détente with the People’s Republic of China. It’s an anathema; an albatross. But as a recognized nation state, North Korea exists, persists, and its behavior worsens over time. How to mitigate the behavior of such a thorn?
Here’s a really bold move to ponder. How about threatening to remove nation status from North Korea? Technically, the Korean War is not over, it’s in an extended cease fire. Has anyone thought of reasserting the December 12, 1948 United Nations General Assembly acceptance of the report by the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) that declared the Republic of Korea to be the only lawful government in Korea? This would administratively revoke recognition of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a member state of the United Nations.
To do so would surely require the creation of a new United Nations Commission on Northeast Asia Stability chartered to explore recommendations to harmonize political and economic relations in the Korean Peninsula and surrounding areas. That commission could be stacked by a coalition of Security Council veto powered nations to add emphasis to the impetus to harmonize. Such a body could then call for and coerce a General Assembly affirmation of the 1948 UNTCOK report. From there it becomes a Security Council task to “handle the problem”.
I told you it was a bold thought. It’s aggressive negotiation to be sure. But if push comes to shove, a diplomatic pathway to collapsing a nuclear armed rogue state would certainly be worth it.