It is undeniable that America’s relationship with North Korea has taken a turn for the worse. Now, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has warned Pyongyang that tensions are accelerating at a dangerous pace.
While speaking in South Korea, General Mattis said: “North Korea has accelerated the threat that it poses to its neighbors and the world through its illegal and unnecessary missile and nuclear weapons programs,” according to The Guardian.
In his eyes, the US-South Korean alliance has taken on a “new urgency” as the threat of nuclear war has increased. “I cannot imagine a condition under which the United States would accept North Korea as a nuclear power,” Mattis said.
Unfortunately for the general and the Trump administration, North Korea is already a nuclear power, and has been for quite some time.
Given this, why hasn’t North Korea already blown South Korea, its mortal enemy, off of the map?
The most logical explanation is that North Korea sees its nuclear arsenal as the only deterrent from US-sponsored regime change.
As unhinged as Kim Jong-un may be, he remembers Iraq and Libya, two nations that lost their dictators once the Western world realized that they no longer had WMD arsenals. Because of this recent history, Pyongyang believes that the Kim dynasty can only be maintained if America, South Korea, and Japan remain afraid of its military capabilities.
As for China, North Korea’s biggest benefactor, Beijing is getting fed up with trying to defend the rogue state. China is savvy enough to realize that its close relationship with North Korea is one of the things that it is keeping it back from achieving great power status.
However, as with all things Asian politics, the story is slightly more complicated. While North Koreans beat and torture their own citizens for crossing into China or having any kind of relationship with Chinese individuals, China, which could easily topple the North Korean dictatorship by simply turning off the spigot, has consistently maintained the communist state.
Why? Because Beijing, a one-party state, does not want a unified and democratic Korea on its far northern border.
General Mattis may be right that the situation on the Korean Peninsula could be reaching critical mass — it is also true that North Korea has been a threat to regional security since the 1950s. America and its allies have managed to live with that reality for some time.
In order for America to move forward, possibly radical policy changes should be given a fair hearing. First of all, the US should think about arming both South Korea and Japan with greater weapons capabilities, including both offensive and defensive weapons.
At the same time, the US might want to think about removing all of its ground troops from South Korea and Japan (barring the DMZ), and instead increase the size and presence of the US Navy in the Pacific. For North Korea and China both, the annual war games exercises between US and South Korean ground forces are a point of sharp contention.
Going forward, realpolitik should dictate American policy in East Asia. We can support our allies in the region while also realizing that American military power has limitations.