The New Phase of the Korean War–a possible explanation

The United States has had difficult relations with North Korea, ever since Harry Truman refused to permit the American military to end the Korean War in victory.  Truman’s lack of resolve, coupled with the American elite’s obsession with global Americanization, has meant a long string of failures:  Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iran, and Iraq.  Ever since I grew old enough to think I had the right to answer questions of such scope, I have given the same answer, whenever anyone has asked me what to do:  Fish or Cut Bait!  Either leave other people alone or, if we have to fight, then let us not waste money and resources and moral authority by fighting for anything less than victory.

How the Bushes or Obama could look parents of dead soldiers in the eye and say, “Your child did not die in vain” without laughing, I cannot imagine.  Of course they died in vain and for nothing, though that does not mean that their willingness to fight for what they imagined to be their country’s security and interest is not worthy of respect.   On the contrary.  Like the Spartans at Thermopylae, they did what the leaders of their country asked them to do.  Too bad that neither American presidents nor American leaders have the slightest concern for the American people.

We never signed an actual peace treaty with North Korea, and, ever since the inauguration of Donald Trump, the North Koreans have been upping the ante.  Many normal Americans—and by “normal”  I mean people whose minds and soul have not been rotted by ambition and greed, in other words, non-politicians and non-journalists—have been asking: Why?  Some of them are foolish enough to ask me.  What do I know?  I hardly know any more than Sean Hannity or Anderson Cooper, whose ignorance is something astounding.  So, I am not going to pretend to know anything except, perhaps, what a detective writer might conjecture, if he were writing a novel or screenplay.  In the famous formulation of Sherlock Holmes, the detective must eliminate all the impossible clues and suspects until he finds the answer, no matter how improbable.

In my scenario, then, we begin by eliminating the most obvious impossibility.  The first is that the entire Korean regime consists of madmen who are either desperate to commit suicide or else think, in a nuclear conflict, toe-to-toe with the Americans, they can conquer the world.  Maybe Kim Jong Fortunecookie (I am sure everyone gets this allusion) is as nuts as Barack Obama—and for the same reason:  Sycophants have done their best to isolate him from reality.   But, even if he is,  surely not all the people who are actually running that prison camp  are insane.

Suppose we concede some degree of rationality to the North Korean regime.  Why do they insist on developing both long-range missiles and nuclear weapons?  The answer to that one was given some years ago by an Indian Prime Minister.  After the US illegally and immorally bombed Belgrade and Novi Sad in Serbia, some reporter asked the PM if, considering the history of tense relations between India and the US, he feared a strike on his own country.  He answered simply and to the point:  India has nuclear weapons, and no nuclear power had to fear US aggression.  North Koreans do in fact have good reason to develop their weapons systems, but the most elementary prudence dictates discretion and diplomacy rather than provocation and apocalyptic rhetoric.

One conventional speculation—one that I agree with—is that Kim, like most tinpot dictators, has to spring these stunts for domestic consumption, to show that he really is a threat to major powers.  That is certainly a strong underlying motive, which partly explains the bizarre behavior of Saddam Hussein among others.  But he has gone much farther than Saddam in actually threatening the use of force against the United States, both generally—claiming to be able to hit major American cities—and specifically, that he is about to launch a missile strike either on or near Guam, a third of which is occupied by US military installations.  A certain amount of posturing is de rigeur for  dictatorial regimes, but Kim has gone much too far, if the only point is saving face with his terrorized subjects.

Guam, lying roughly halfway between Australia and Korea, is an excellent point of attack for anyone wishing to challenge American hegemony in the Pacific.  Suppose—and this is somewhere between highly improbable and impossible—suppose the US could be bullied out of Guam.  Who stands to benefit?  China and to some extent Russia, though in the latter case, they must certainly fear the Chinese at least as much as they fear the Americans.

But, we can go further with this cui bono line of questioning.  In general, in whose interest is it to reduce or even eliminate American influence in Asia?  Again, the only real answer is China.   Does that mean that China is egging North Korea into nuclear war?  Of course not.  But what if they have made a deal with Kim?   His part would be to create as much furor as he can all the way up to the threat of war.    All the Koreans have to do is to let Kim be Kim, a leader as ridiculous and vain as his pal Dennis Rodman.  For their part, the Chinese need only sit back and make quiet noises about the need for more discrete diplomacy from the Trump administration, implicitly equating the crazy Kim with the equally crazy Donald.  Finally, when the situation seems out of control, the Chinese will step in as honest brokers and produce a solution that will impress all of Asia with the superior wisdom and power of the Children of Heaven.

This ending to the crisis would probably not result in a complete defeat of US influence in Asia, but, viewed in retrospect fifty years hence, it would mark a decisive turning point, when South Korea and Japan began to realize that they could no longer rely on their American big brother to protect them against the emerging hegemonic power.

Long ago, some wise guy tried to summarize the reasons for the American defeat in Korea.  He said, the Americans played chess, while the Chinese played Go.  In chess, the point is a disciplined aggression to seize the king, while in Go, the object of both parties is to develop major and minor lines of force, because, while concentrating your power in one sector, a player also must insert distractions into his opponent’s sector—sort of like what the Chinese did in sticking their fingers into the Panama canal and elsewhere in our hemisphere.  Of course, all aggressive countries do the same thing—hence the struggle over control of the Ukraine—but the Chinese do it consistently and rigorously.  Perhaps this wise guy was a complete fool, but, after losing hundreds of games of Go to a mentally unbalanced friend  who could not touch me in chess, I developed a healthier respect for Chinese and Japanese strategists.

Years ago, a friend of mine in military intelligence and a student of what he calls “strategic deception,” explained to me that Nixon’s trip to China, which seemed like a great American victory, was actually a propaganda victory for the Chinese.  The Chinese leaders should have walked out on the tarmac to greet the American President.  Instead, Nixon had to walk—being filmed all the way—to pay homage and obeisance (as it was portrayed in the press all over Asia) to his feudal superior:  one more act in a never-ending drama of barbarians submitting to the enlightened rule of the Emperor.

I am far from claiming that that my little scenario provides the answer.  There may be no one answer, only answers.  It may be that Kim is crazy enough to be playing a lone hand, while the Chinese are merely “instrumentalizing” the crisis for their own purposes.  It hardly matters, because the Chinese are playing the long game, as usual, and, as usual, they are playing to win.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

4 Responses

  1. Robert Peters says:

    I remember the Korean War or “conflict” or “police action” as the nation was instructed to call it. I was a rug rat, barely able to walk. The son of my second mom – the lady who kept me while my mother taught and my father worked construction – was about eight years older than I. He had a book with all of the airplanes of the Air Force pictured in it. He would take me out into the yard, put me on a quilt, and sit down with me with the book as we watched the planes from the nearby Air Force base practice “dog fighting.” He would identify the planes from the profiles in the book. I dutifully looked on, not quite able to connect the pictures with the planes in the air, but loving the attention and the roar of the engines high above us. We lived in a tiny house on the edge of the highway. Soldiers in convoy would often stop in front of the house to eat rations. My daddy, who served in WWII, would get me to toddle out to the soldiers and ask for rations. He instructed me to ask for the peanut butter and the fruit cake. He would watch me from the window of the kitchen as I toddled out to the soldiers. I was just a little higher on the scale than a stray dog, a cute critter to placate and give the rations to. They were always nice to me. They could see daddy standing at the window. I would toddle back with my plunder and loot. Daddy would open the fruit cake and the peanut butter, and we would have a feast. Daddy and I got what we could out of the military-industrial complex. I also remember the big pictures of the war in Life Magazine. We had no TV, so the war came to us, mostly as black-and-white photos, in the mail: a mail-order war. The Korean Conflict has outlasted the Cold War. It has been a Leitmotif in my life. I have some theories about the present state of affairs, theories only, which I might post later if I have the time. What I do know is that I will not likely get my rations of fruit cake and peanut butter in this phase of the conflict.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    Dear Mr. Peters,
    I have been reading Alphonso the Learned and thinking of Clyde Wilson’s recent request about what has been lost and how did it occur. Your good post reminded me of this quote from the old King of Spain.

    “The Law-Maker should love God and keep Him before his eyes when he makes the laws, in order that they may be just and perfect. He should moreover love justice and the common benefit of all.” Alfonso was also interested in the human understanding in all its manifestaions. : “He should be learned, in order to know how to distinguish right from wrong, and he should not be ashamed to change and amend his laws.” As opposed to such a just ruler, tyrants “prefer to act for their own advantage, although it may result in injury to the country, rather than for the common benefit of all.”, Alfonso proclaimed that the only true authority to govern comes from the ruler’s dedication to the common good: “If [the ruler] should make a bad use of his power . . . people can denounce him as a tyrant, and his government which was lawful, will become wrongful.”, he explained what he meant by “the people”: “The union of all men together, those of superior, middle, and inferior rank, was called the people; for all are necessary, and none can be excepted for the reason that they are obliged to assist one another in order to live properly and be protected and supported.”

    Thanks as always for your contributions to the blog. I always enjoy reading them.

  3. Clyde Wilson says:

    I am a bit longer in the tooth than Robert. I remember elementary school at the time, where we were trained to get under our desks in case of nuclear attack and vigorously taught that it was all for the benefit of the United Nations and WORLD PEACE.

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    Dr. Wilson,
    Yes, I was referring to the quote directed towards a country and a people not a polyglot boarding house right outside the Tower of Babble. I am too long winded and not long enough in the tooth yet to know better. I prefer your pithy wisdom to my own.