How America Painted Itself Into A Corner on North Korean Succession

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REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

1.4B Chinese served daily

Great Washington Post piece on China’s intense desire for stability on Korean peninsula, thus the clear backing of the “Great Successor” Kim Jong Eun. Wrap-up paragraph says it all:

The notion of a democratized Korean Peninsula with U.S. troops positioned directly along the Chinese border — one scenario in a North Korean collapse — is threatening to China because of Washington’s other moves in the region. The Obama administration, describing the United States as a new “Pacific power,” has in recent months strengthened economic ties with the Southeast Asian countries it once neglected; it has also built relationships with some of Beijing’s neighbors, particularly Vietnam and Burma, threatening Chinese influence.

My company, the massively multiplayer online consultancy Wikistrat, recently ran a simulation within our global network of strategists looking at post-succession scenarios.  As we noted in a recent exclusive post over at Fareed Zakaria’s GPS site, we’e likely to see a “more of the same” scenario unfold:

In this scenario, the North Korean military steps back just enough to let Kim Jong-un’s generation wipe out the Old Guard over time, using the pretext of “foreign aggression” to stage the usual purges. As Beijing signs off, Kim Jong-un can prove he’s got the old man’s guts, successfully grab the reins of power and salute the generals with a reasserted “military first” policy. This way, China retains North Korea as a thorny prod to the U.S., which is committed to strategically “pivoting” to East Asia.

Neat how that all works out, right?

  • We need a baseline floor for our military cuts and the China threat provides it. We may go “austere,” but we’ll ramp up in East Asia to protect the base force.
  • We also need a global force positioning rationale since we’re drawing down in SW Asia, and East Asia – thanks again to China – provides it.
  • Obama can’t fix the economy or our trade with China BUT can plop 2,500 Marines down in north Australia to keep an eye on those Chinese (while staying far enough away from their new missile threats), thus proving his “toughness” on China in a tough re-election year.
  • The military’s recent embrace of drones as part of the war on terror dovetails also with this new distant ring approach to countering Chinese rising naval and missile capabilities in East Asia, because within years our carriers will be able to strike with long-range drone and not have to come so close to shore.

In short, all our ducks are lining up for the Great Containment of Chinese military power in East Asia.

Tired of the “long war” and counter-insurgency and nation-building? Well, we’ve got a new Cold War that’ll be a lot more familiar in dynamics and cost structure (i.e., military stuff for threatening and not so much for using).

How this revitalizes America and makes us more competitive, I don’t know. But one thing it does do is basically tie our hands when opportunities like the North Korea succession come around, because we’ve already made China’s choice for it: the status quo is preferred because of America’s perceived aggressiveness.

Is this our best choice for the region and the wider world at this point in globalization’s advance? Hard to see how a growing military rivalry between the world’s biggest spender and the world’s biggest saver bodes well for the global economy.

Is this our best choice for our own internal developments in response to globalization’s many challenges?  Hard to see, except it allows our declining middle class to redirect its growing anger at our inept political leadership toward an external foe – usually the trick of authoritarian regimes.

But it is the best choice for our military-industrial complex and the politicians unable to rule it effectively.

No, there won’t be any debate on this. A WSJ roundtable of CEOs – guided by a former Secretary of Treasury – might argue that what we really need from China is about $250B a year in foreign direct investment to revive our economy, but that sort of naiveté must be brushed aside in favor of what’s good for the Pentagon.

I used to think that the odds of the Great Contraction actually triggering a mindless rush toward great-power warfare were incredibly low.  I kept telling myself that our system was too smart for that nonsense.

I’m no longer so sure about that.