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Korean Spring: The ‘battle of wits’

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is playing a “Battle of Wits” with the West over his country's nuclear program, Col. David Murphy says.

“You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is ‘Never get involved in a land war in Asia.’ But only slightly less well known is this: ‘Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!'”
– Vizzini speaking to Wesley, The Princess Bride

Although he is no Sicilian, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is playing a similar “Battle of Wits” with the West. On the heels of my recent article, which questioned the “Korean Spring,” comes Kim’s next moves: the canceling of an upcoming inter-Korean meeting and the threat to scrap the mid-June summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. The first cancellation was blamed on Korean-U.S. air exercises called “Max Thunder,” the second on National Security Advisor John Bolton’s comments about the Libyan disarmament model.

These developments reportedly came as a surprise to the administration, but there is no reason they should. Kim continues his remarkably effective strategy to divide the West from Asian allies.

The first step was to draw South Korea into his orbit. This move proved not only easy to pull off, but enabled him to steal the Olympic spotlight in the process. South Korean President Moon Jae-in was elected on a conciliatory platform, so he has been taking huge, but perhaps understandable, risks to respond so willingly to North Korean peace overtures.

There are already discussions underway to reallocate funds intended for the Korea Air and Missile Defense structure, and to cancel an MH-47 Chinook helicopter purchase intended for the South Korean special forces “decapitation unit.” If Moon brings the long-desired reconciliation to the Korean Peninsula, his legacy would be unquestionable. On the other hand, if Kim is maneuvering toward nefarious ends, Moon risks joining the “peace in our time” section of the history books alongside Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

Having won over Moon, the next objective was Trump. President Trump, like many political leaders, has an outsized ego, a vulnerability Kim is eager to exploit. The initial North Korean signal of a willingness to sacrifice nuclear weapons led far too quickly to a suggestion that Trump might be a Nobel Peace Prize front-runner. This move was followed up by the release of three Korean-American prisoners from North Korea, an even bigger win, complete with a photo opportunity.

Has anyone stopped to wonder why Kim returned Otto Warmbier in a horrible condition, which led to his death, yet returned three healthy Korean-American detainees? These are not unrelated events; nothing happens by accident in North Korea. Warmbier’s treatment was a coercive ploy aimed squarely at the U.S.; the release of the Korean-Americans drew South Korea further into the North Korean embrace while providing Trump a public win.

Kim Jong-un meets Xi Jinping
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meets China’s President Xi Xinping.

At the same time, the North Korean suzerain, China, continues aggressive geopolitical maneuvering across the region. The same week the U.S., at the request of South Korea, canceled a planned tri-lateral airpower exercise – separate from Max Thunder – that included nuclear-capable B-52 bombers, the Chinese People’s Liberation Air Force landed their own nuclear-capable H-6K on an unspecified island in the South China Sea for the first time.

Kim’s masterful geopolitical maneuvering also serves to isolate one of the most significant U.S. allies in Asia, Japan. He seems to be driving a wedge between Japan, South Korea, and the U.S., and his plan appears to be working. Japan is trending in an independent and increasingly militant direction. Although this trajectory predated the Trump administration, it has accelerated over regional security concerns.

While South Korea reallocates military spending based on a peace deal that hasn’t happened, Japan increased military spending for a sixth straight year. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing hard to revise the pacifistic Japanese constitution, although for now, he faces stiff internal opposition. Will the opposition continue if the isolation of Japan worsens?

Kim is proving a remarkably effective and engaged strategic leader, hardly the irrational “rocket man” portrayed in the recent past. He is adroitly moving forward on every one of his goals, quite possibly with the blessing of China, and perhaps tacit Russian approval. He is unveiling a coherent and specific plan, which has already reaped rewards. Thanks to Kim’s maneuvering, the maximum pressure consensus is gone, unlikely to return. The U.S. also downsized regional military exercises, leading some to publicly acknowledge that North Korea is calling the shots.

The U.S. has only one revealed strategy. Like the sheriff in a Western movie the U.S. is shouting “drop your weapons and come out with your hands up!” This myopic course is not only unrealistic, but it is also dangerous. Trump is essentially telling the world, “don’t worry; I make good deals, I’ve got this one.” While I don’t question his sincerity or desire to keep that promise, as his secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, wisely acknowledges, “the enemy gets a vote.”

While the West opines if they hear “Yanny or Laurel,” and is preoccupied with mudslinging over the last American presidential election, Kim, his regime, and regional allies are adroitly engaged in a grand strategy with clear goals for his regime and uncertain ends for the region. The U.S. State Department is moving ahead with plans for the June summit; while this is understandable, and even commendable, what about the “Battle of Wits” moves sure to take place between now and then?

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and South Korean Minister of Defence Song Young-moo visit the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and South Korean Minister of Defence Song Young-moo visit the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea during a visit to the Joint Security Area in South Korea, October 27, 2017. Image: US Department of Defense/Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith

I recently finished Frederic Morton’s outstanding book Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914. His compelling description of a Europe “waltzing” into World War I reminded me of the human tendency to sleepwalk into war and wake up only after the first shot is fired. By that time, the struggle required to achieve a just peace is not only massive, but it is also catastrophic and devastating.

The desire to reach just peace means all instruments of foreign policy must be fully engaged before war comes. To achieve this type of peace without war requires both conciliatory and coercive efforts. It is an enormously difficult undertaking – an intentional, active, and sustained effort.

North Korea and the U.S. view a just outcome quite differently, so even to define the “just” part of a peaceful resolution will be difficult. The Trump administration’s demands for a complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program would benefit all parties, to include North Korea. Instead of loudly proclaiming this one goal, however, the U.S. and Asian allies should be working to communicate and enact the broader vision of a just peace in Korea. The geopolitics involved go far beyond just Kim Jong-un and his nuclear arms program.

Now is the time to be fully engaged with whole of government efforts to bring about a just peace, and counter Kim’s unrolling strategy. Like all VUCA problems, there are no easy answers, but the effort now could help realize Vizzini’s first words of advice: “never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

Colonel David MurphyColonel David Murphy retired in November 2014 after 25 years of U.S. Air Force service and is currently working on a PhD from Dallas Baptist University. Colonel Murphy served in a variety of operational, support, and training assignments culminating as the 782nd Training Group Commander at Sheppard Air Force Base. A graduate of the U.S. Army War College Class of 2012, Colonel Murphy has 12 years of experience in the Pacific Air Forces including four years in Korea.

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All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of The Defense Post.

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