“Nations have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, but only permanent interests.”
–old British adage
Sorry for the lack of posts. Among other things, I’ve been absorbed by George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, and the following post takes ideas from and is inspired by it.
The blogger One Free Korea has argued that the time has come for American forces to finally, permanently withdraw from South Korea, and the M-hole, ROK Drop, and Monstrous Kushibo have weighed in with opinions from themselves and/or their commenters.
Here’s my take.
If you had told Americans in 1941 that Japan would become one of America’s closest allies, or in 1957 that the Soviet Union would collapse in thirty-four years, they probably would not have believed you. What seems impossible today could be tomorrow’s future. Given that, we can assume that there could be very large, unexpected geopolitical changes, and that it would be foolish to place all of America’s East Asian eggs in one basket, Japan. Here are some possible scenarios, and notice how in many of them, it is to America’s advantage to retain some kind of presence in South Korea.
North Korea survives
Despite the multiple stresses of a failed, unpopular currency reform, the death of Kim Jong-il, and the youth and inexperience of his designated successor, North Korea somehow manages to survive. If Russia becomes resurgent and belligerent (see below), then it could become the recipient of everything that it needs: oil, new military equipment, money, and food. It could go from being a boxed-in basket case to a very real threat to South Korea.
North Korea collapses and is absorbed by China
If South Korea continues to be as ill-prepared for a North Korean collapse as it was during the Noh Moo-hyun administration, then we can expect such a collapse to be followed by Chinese troops entering North Korea. It will be described as a peacekeeping, stabilization force, and it will be. Behind the scenes, however, the Chinese will be supporting whichever faction is friendliest to their interests, setting up North Korea to become, over the long run, a vassal state or even a Chinese province.
North Korea collapses and is absorbed by South Korea
Seeing as how China seems to be prepared for a North Korean collapse, South Korea would have to be at least as well-prepared to pull this off. In addition to having troop ready to enter the north as peacekeeping/stabilization forces, they would have to somehow, probably through a diplomatic appeal to the international community, persuade the Chinese not to enter, which they probably want to. Unfortunately, the example of Tibet proves that the Chinese will go where they want and do what they want, and not care what the rest of the world thinks.
North Korea collapses and is absorbed by both China and South Korea
Here is a scenario that no one, as far as I know, is seriously considering. In the same way that Korea was divided in two, so too might North Korea, with China and South Korea then each absorbing one part of the former North Korea. The complete reunification of Germany was made possible by the fact that the force that was holding it back, the Soviet Union, collapsed. Things aren’t so simple in North Korea. The force that is, more than any other, holding back reunification is Kim Jong-il, because that would be the end of his rule. His successor, whether it is his son, or his son’s regent, or the leader of a military coup, would be in the same position. Remember what Milton’s Satan said, “Tis better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
In this scenario, both China and South Korea are well-prepared for a North Korean collapse (or both are poorly prepared). Pyongyang’s centralized control has weakened significantly, and North Korea has essentially turned into many fiefdoms, each ruled by a local lord, an official who has managed to amass personal power and wealth, while ostensibly swearing allegiance to whichever Kim (or Jang or Oh) is in charge. After North Korea collapses, both Chinese and South Korean peacekeeping/stabilization troops enter. Each will race to get as far as they can until they meet or almost-meet somewhere in the middle. Hopefully, this doesn’t inadvertently lead to a shootout. Then, like Korea itself, North Korea becomes divided. Since it would be easier for China to justify to the international community the takeover of only part of North Korea, this might actually be the more attractive option to the Chinese, as they retain the buffer zone that they want, and partially pacify the South Koreans with partial reunification. If China fragments (see below), then that could set the stage for complete reunification later on.
China rises and becomes belligerent
China’s economic and military power continues to grow, and it continues its goal of re-absorbing all territories that it historically claims, be it through peaceful means (Hong Kong and Macau) or conquest (Tibet). It sets its sights on Taiwan. If America refused to abandon its ally, then there could be friction between the superpower and the rising regional power. To be fair, though, China has not historically been aggressive, the notable exception being its near-obsession with securing all territory that it feels belong to it historically.
In this scenario, the central government of Beijing increasingly loses the ability to make the wealthy, industrialized coastal regions support, financially, the impoverished heartland. The coastal regions are well-connected to the industrialized countries that they sell to (e.g. Europe and the U.S.). They can no more sell to the rest of China than they could sell to sub-Saharan Africa, and thus try to break free of Beijing’s control.
Russia becomes resurgent and belligerent
The Soviet Union was, for all intents and purposes, a Russian empire, and its borders extended Russia’s borders further west than ever before or since. Since the collapse of the USSR, there has been a great reversal. With Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and Kazakhstan independent, Russia’s western borders have retreated dramatically. Russia is rich in oil and gas, commodities that Europe is hungry for. Rich and weak is a bad combination, so it will rebuild its military using the wealth that it has gained from nationalizing its natural resources. It will also seek to regain the important buffer zones that gave it the depth that it used to defeat both Napoleon and Hitler –Belarus, Ukraine, and, if it can manage it, Poland.
In the event that friction with America ensues, Russia will, as it did during the Cold War, fund any anti-American regimes. Should North Korea somehow have avoided collapse and absorption by this point, then it will become the recipient of everything that it needs (oil, new military equipment, money, and food), becoming once again a very real threat to South Korea.
Nationalizing its natural resources (at the expense of industrialization) to fund the development of its military is a strategy that serves Russia well in the short term, but in the long term, turns out to be short-sighted and leads to another collapse.
With the collapse of Russia, its territories become tempting to its neighbors. China, even if it has avoided fragmentation at this point, cannot take advantage of the situation because of natural geographic features.
Japan needs resources
Japan has always been very resource-poor, which is why it attacked the U.S. in World War II. It still doesn’t have any, and now is facing the additional problems of a low birthrate and an aging population. They could solve the problem by increasing immigration, but they are loathe to do so. Even when they imported ethnic Japanese from Brazil, things didn’t work out as well as they had hoped. They’re now trying to solve the problem with robots (as are the South Koreans), but human workers can still do things that robots can’t.
If China fragments or if Russia collapses, Japan will probably take the opportunities to gain the kind of resources that they need (e.g. gas from Russia or workers from China). Japan will need to safeguard these resources with shipping lanes made secure by a strong navy. America won’t like that. Ruling the world’s oceans with a navy that’s larger than the rest of the world’s navies put together is what enabled America to box in and eventually force the collapse of the mostly landlocked Soviet Union. America does not want anybody, not even a friendly nation such as Japan, to develop a significant navy. Japan will want to secure its sea lanes to the resources that it desperately needs, and will possibly even want to be acknowledged as East Asia’s regional hegemon. If America responds by denying Japan what it wants (as it did during World War II), it could lead to friction between the two, possibly even to war (as it did in World War II). Right now, the Japanese are pacifists, but this is the land of the samurai and of the kamikaze. They have a history, and we can’t expect that they will remain Hello Kitties forever. So, in this case, it would be to America’s advantage to strengthen Korea as a possible counterbalance to Japan.