MG in-depth


East Asia, North America

Excited by an adolescent fervour, in the ongoing clash between North Korea and the US Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump could lose their heads in order to save face.

1. The world would be a different place if North Korea were an island in the Pacific. Perhaps that small country would not even exist, having dared threaten the United States of America with a nuclear apocalypse and having therefore been vitrified as a result. More probably, it would not have felt the need to equip itself with the Bomb, as it would have been protected by insularity, the trademark of insignificance in a vast ocean. Geography, however, has determined that the kingdom of the Kims should border directly with the United States (almost thirty thousand soldiers deployed along the 38th Parallel separating it from its “compatriot” in the South), physically with China and Russia, while Japan looms on the other shore of a marenostrum that the Land of the Rising Sun has laid claim to. Geopolitics informs us that at a planetary level P’yŏngyang is surrounded by the highest concentration of great powers in the smallest of spaces.

The excess of interests and strategic assets around a state that is blatantly exhibiting weapons and vectors, in theory capable of destroying an American metropolis, reveals the reason for which such anxious attention is concentrated on the northern half of the Korean peninsula. This almost makes true the prophecy of the American missionary Homer Bezaleel Hulbert – herald of Korean independence threatened by Russia and Japan – who in 1900 stated that “Korea has been placed amidst great empires as the negation of a universal empire.” (1) But while at the time Hulbert could describe his second homeland as a “peaceful obstacle” to the ambitions of surrounding empires, it is nowadays legitimate to fear that this strip of land enclosed between leading or aspiring leading players may spark a global outbreak of hostilities, even if only by accident. 

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And even if it is possible that war may be avoided, any peaceful solution to the Korean issue is destined to alter geopolitical balance in the Asian-Pacific region, the cornerstone of which, sculpted by the Cold War, was the partitioning of Korea. It is only the strategic importance of the former Japanese colony, divided between a south set within the American empire and a north that is all too independent – to the extent that it escapes the control of its formal reference of power, the People’s Republic of China – that explains why, following the suspension of the inter-Korean conflict (1950-53) no one has ever dared overturn the status quo (map 1). Nor has anyone proposed or imposed a peace treaty. Best not to touch that not-just-figurative minefield, that game of shanghai in which extracting a stick risks bringing down the entire Korean, regional and global architecture.     

The repeated ballistic missile and nuclear tests – that may have included a hydrogen bomb – celebrated loudly by the most mysterious regime in the world, have induced American intelligence services to consider as real the threat of a North Korean nuclear attack. Not only are American bases in the region within range, starting with Guam, but so is, albeit not in the short term, a significant part (Alaska, North-West, California) of the entire metropolitan area, Washington and New York included. Considering precedents, it is legitimate to doubt that the public assessments of the American secret services are the Gospel truth.

Some scientists believe that the power of the Kims’ atomic weapons (thought to be about twenty, destined to triple in number over the next three years) is overestimated, as is the range and precision of the vectors, not to mention scepticism concerning the achieved miniaturisation of the weapons to be installed on the missiles. Little does it matter. Excited by the rhetoric exhibited by Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump with adolescent fervour, American and global public opinion is convinced it is dancing on the decks of the Titanic. In the era of social media, political leaders, or so-called leaders, are left to face the consequences of their own propaganda.     

In the Asian-Pacific context – understood here in a broad sense, from India to America, including therefore all relevant powers except Germany – the self-elevation of North Korea to a nuclear power, has thrown into disarray apparently consolidated power relations and geopolitical postures, while it has enlivened a heterodox multi-dimensional chess game. This because it interferes with the competition for global primacy between the United States and China, strengthens Russia’s push towards its east and reveals Japan and South Korea’s ambiguities and ambitions. Before analysing in depth the different levels of conflict and outlining their possible evolution, it is best to start from the epicentre of this earthquake; P’yŏngyang.             

2. What does Kim Jong-un want? In order to venture an answer, it is necessary to remove the smoke screen with which the United States has surrounded that country, so as to further conceal the already hidden traits of this regime. It is a moralistic approach sanctioned by George W. Bush on January 29th, 2002, when he linked the “hermit kingdom” to Iran and Iraq in the “axis of evil”. However, by refusing to understand the antagonist, no strategy is envisaged.

P’yongyang’s intelligence instead, is well-informed about the United States compared to Washington’s ignorance and self-disinformation as far as North Korea is concerned. Generally speaking, the “hermit kingdom” is rather cosmopolitan as far as business and spying are concerned – its trade and financial networks reach the five continents, America included. The regime entertains diplomatic relations with 164 countries, having embassies well-equipped with antennas and spies in 47 foreign capitals, as well as trade offices with a dual portfolio (business and information).

Anyone who has met North Korean diplomats and agents has been struck by how little they usually correspond to our stereotypes, how they are instead at ease with the world and attracted by Western lifestyles, which they cheerfully adopt. Through the multiple and informal channels of communication established between Washington and P’yongyang, Kim’s agents offer not always rejected lavish payment to American experts in exchange for updates on the interna corporis of the White House, the Pentagon, the Treasury and the CIA – the State Department is not considered worthy of in-depth analysis.

At a meeting held in September in Glion, a pleasant Swiss location overlooking the shores of Lake Leman, (track 1.5) – attended by North Koreans government officials, Americans and others who introduced themselves as experts who would then report to their respective capitals – a twenty-year-old intern, from the American Department at the North Korean Foreign Ministry, surprised interlocutors by illustrating in detail and in perfect English with an American accent, how the United States Congress works. (2) If the rules of Sunzi (Sun Tzu) still apply, the asymmetry in the field of information that favours the North Koreans, undermines America’s formidable military and economic advantage.  

The current demonology on the regime in P’yŏngyang has boosted a number of legends, which if believed, would confuse any strategy. Three legends stand out above all others; North Korea is a communist dictatorship condemned to disintegrate just like the Soviet Union and its European empire; the people are starving; its leaders are all mad or, to say the least, irrational. Looking closer, such statements appear to be false.

 The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has for some time stopped using the faded Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist habit with which its founding father Kim Il-sung, not a philologist of holy texts, had dressed his nationalism. As with Mao Zedong in China and Hô Chí Minh in Vietnam, the North Korean communist ideology was the superficial veneer of anti-colonial geopolitics, which allowed the Eternal President to access (not free of charge) Moscow and/or Beijing’s resources in the battle against the South Korean regime supported by Washington. Although corroded by time, Confucian origins were and remain far more relevant than the Marxist orthodoxy. The doctrine of the juche, codified in 1965 and formally in force, implies an emphasis on the independence and subjectivity of the state, deeply-rooted in the cult of the leader. Some see here a jargon that is good for all occasions, others a racist theory that sets Koreans at the centre of the world as a superior species.

This has resulted in emphasis on the “imperialist” threat, hence the United States’ perceived desire to liquidate the regime and with it the state. This would not be regime change, this would be state change; if Kim’s lot goes then North Korea will fall, ending up governed by Seoul or becoming a no man’s land destroyed by opposing militias, an Asian Libya. The permanent threat of an American attack allows the armed forces and the regime to go well beyond their economic performance. At school one is taught to conjugate verbs in the past, present and future tenses reciting “we have killed Americans”, “we are killing Americans”, “we will kill Americans”. Elementary arithmetic is leaned by subtracting, adding up, multiplying and dividing numbers of American soldiers killed. (3)

Furthermore, unlike all Communist states, power in P’yŏngyang is passed down within a single family, from the father to the favourite (or allegedly favourite) son, rather like a hereditary monarchy. The three leaders who have so far held the regime together (Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un) share the same blood. But the passing of the baton is not a given. The not remotely ideological infighting between the feudal lords tends to make transitions rather ruthless. Keeping secrets, a discipline North Koreans are masters of, allows one to sense the foam but not the depth. Nor is it possible to establish if, and eventually to what extent, the recognised leader is the real leader.

Perhaps he is a figurehead rather than the helmsman, seeing that in spite of the fact that his father had given him a general’s uniform for his eighth birthday, it does not appear that Kim Jong-un has received any military training. Nor has he any international experience, with the exception of those years spent attending secondary school at Steinhölzli near Berne, where his companions remember him as being a fan of American basketball and videogames, as well as speaking the local dialect (Bärndütsch) fluently, with a passion for the Swiss dialect rocker Polo Hofer – whom he accompanied by singing under his breath on the bongo the haunting song Alperose – at least as much as for the North Korean national anthem.

In the political-military dialectics that mark the balance of power, the tip of the scales, and with it the allocation of resources to the state’s military or civilian sectors, moves according to periods and leaders. Ever since 2011, when the now 33-year-old Kim Jong-un was installed as leader, the notion of balancing economic and military power (byungjin) has been applied. This prevails over the previous formula of songun – although written in the constitution next to the juche – according to which it is ultimately the barrel of the gun that guarantees the regime’s good health. Economic cycles come and go, soldiers remain.            

The body of the nation is perceived as just one. At the summit there is the benevolent, helpful and respected “father”; a demi-god to the cult of which North Koreans are permanently educated from the last year of kindergarten onwards. Social organisation is affected by the caste tradition that distinguishes the 25 million subjects into groups that are more or less loyal and therefore either privileged or disadvantaged. It has been calculated that the mass of favourites includes about five million people. There is no way of counting the dissidents, also because they are not permitted to express themselves. The number of those who have left the country – according to the rarely reliable privileged sources of foreign secret services – is estimated at thirty thousand (misinformers and double agents included).     

Let us address the issue of hunger. Following the terrible famine of the Nineties, which caused at least 500,000 deaths, the regime corrected the command economy by introducing hints of a market economy that are incentivising an informal sui generis capitalism, with not unsubstantial results as far as the living standards of the advantaged classes and the nascent lower middle-classes are concerned. Foreign funds obtained in exchange for a fervent limitation of the nuclear programme to which the regime has entrusted its survival for over half a century, have periodically contributed to the overcoming of total poverty, especially under Kim Jong-il. All this is managed through shell companies set up in various countries that allow North Korea to soften the impact of sanctions.

Last year North Korea’s GDP (+3.9%) increased more than South Korea’s (+2.8%), thanks above all to small private companies worth at least one third of the total amount. Then there is a flourishing “illegal” economy, incentivised by the regime, based on smuggling goods of every possible kind. The banks, not only Chinese ones, launder the dirty money of those in high-ranking positions. Other vectors of enrichment that incentivise the loyalty of the privileged consist of the production of counterfeit dollars that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing, the management of gambling and casinos (Macao), methamphetamine sales and arms trafficking.

There remains an immense disparity between the capital and the provinces, where there are hardly any tarmacked roads (724 kilometres in the whole country). So in the economic competition with South Korea, the Kims’ country remains significantly behind, after showing a certain advantage until the Seventies. And yet, the many who gambled on the fall of the regime under the burden of the supposedly starving people have, until now, been proven wrong.        

Finally, the madness of the leaders. Science has forever debated about insanity and why people are mad. Geopolitics offers a sober but cogent definition; mad is the leader who destroys his state. One eminent example is Mikhail Sergeevič Gorbačëv, who over a six-year period destroyed the organisation invented and watched over for sixty years by his predecessors. The first six years of Kim Jong-un exclude the possibility of comparing him to his former Soviet homologue.

History has judged his grandfather and his father as having passed the test. If North Korea were governed by a gang of madmen, how could one explain its resilience? The future, of course, remains to be seen. A number of North Korean managers fear that the young man has overdone it with his missiles and nuclear provocations and tirades against the world’s Number One. Perhaps there is a Brutus wandering around the palaces of P’yŏngyang, ready to kill the Caesar who, due to an excess of ambition, is exposing the country to a holocaust. This because the CIA continues to miss the target.

Ultimately, judgement passed on Kim’s strategy, and by extension on that of the regime that implements it, obliges one to answer the leading question; what does he want? And then, are the means he uses to achieve his objective appropriate or suicidal?

The objective is to preserve and strengthen North Korea, not to reunite it with the south.

Reunification of the homeland, the altar on which P’yŏngyang (and in its own way Seoul) continues to make sacrifices in official rituals, remains at best a long-term objective. It could nowadays only happen should the North implode. And should this miraculous event occur in a peaceful and consensual manner, the North Korean elites would lose the privileges they enjoy. Better all the power in a half of Korea than a jump seat in Greater Korea.   

To remain alive, the regime considers its nuclear arsenal as decisive and indispensable. It is needed for three reasons. It is a guarantee against all external attacks, since so far no nuclear power has ever been attacked, while those that have renounced the Bomb have signed their own death sentence (Gheddafi docet); it exalts national pride and internal cohesion; it provides a formidable negotiating card to be played at international tables, until recently above all to obtain financial resources and nowadays in order to reach a compromise with the United States.

The Kim family’s obsession, and in particular that of its latest descendant, is to negotiate a face-to-face agreement with Washington sanctioning North Korea’s status as a regional power. In the words of Foreign Minster Ri Yong Ho, spoken while attending the United Nations General Assembly on September 23rd, “Our ultimate goal is to establish the balance of power with the U.S.”

Kim Jong-il had come very close to this objective in 2000, when, at the peak of secret negotiations, Bill Clinton was about to add to his agenda a visit to P’yongyang, cancelled only because his term was drawing to an end. Kim Jong-un would have liked to have met Obama, having taken excessively seriously the former president’s initial readiness to negotiate directly with America’s worst enemies, and dreams of one day sitting at the same table as Trump’s successor – a summit with the current inhabitant of the White House is improbable due to the public exchange of reciprocal appreciation (“little Rocket Man” versus “dotard”).

All this in the hope that sooner or later Washington will become resigned to the irrevocability of P’yŏngyang’s nuclear arsenal in exchange for its verifiable limitation and a peace treaty with South Korea, at that point perhaps equipped with its own semi-autonomous nuclear deterrent. On a continent already swarming with nuclear states – from Israel to Russia, from India to Pakistan and China, as well as of course the United States, not to mention Japan, Taiwan and South Korea which are virtually nuclear – North Korea cannot abdicate from having the Bomb.      

The Kims’ thundering anti-American rhetoric does not remotely mean that it is looking for a clash with the United States. That really would be madness. On the country, it expresses a desperate need to reach an agreement with Washington against a hidden enemy, China. P’yŏngyang’s nightmare is that of becoming one of Beijing’s colonies. The People’s Republic maintains the imperial reflex that wants all the countries within its historical sphere of influence as tributaries. The Koreans – both in the North and in the South – are well-aware of this and are trying to escape such a fate.

They have not become emancipated from Japan just to end up under China. What Kim seems unable to understand is why the United States does not wish to reach an agreement with him in order to obstruct the Sino-centric expansionism of Xi Jinping, embellished in an ecumenical geo-economic role by the new silk roads. These, however, are often created along fragile and contested routes, extendable to a future united, or in any case reconciled, Korea.

On the internal front, instead, the regime fears the contagion of Beijing’s economic reforms and openness to the world. It is for this reason that it has devoted itself to liquidating spies and representatives of its cumbersome neighbour to which it remains formally bound by the 1961 treaty that would oblige each country to assist the other in the event of an attack. Xi, however, is not Mao, who renounced landing on Formosa to prevent an American victory in Korea. Beijing has stated clearly that it will not lift a finger to protect P’yongyang should it attack the United States. The subtext states that the People’s Liberation Army would probably not even intervene if the United States were to launch a pre-emptive strike, if it were convinced of an imminent North Korean attack on America or an allied country.  

Bearing witness to North Korea’s mistrust of the Middle Kingdom, one must take into account the execution in 2013 of the leader of the “Chinese party”, Jang Song Thaek, one of the young leader’s uncles, guilty of wanting to put Kim Jong-nam on the throne. Kim Jong-il’s first born son was thought to be a reformist (just to safe, he too was assassinated on February 13th this year at Sepang Airport, in Malaysia). Ever since China increased sanctions on North Korea, threatening to strangle its economy, the official media in P’yongyang have lost all restraint.

The Rodong Sinmun, the Korean Workers Party’s official newspaper and compulsory reading for all good patriots, has reported Beijing’s “collusion with other  imperialists” and warns that, “It would be best if (the Chinese, Editor’s note) were to mind their own business before shamelessly pointing an accusatory finger at others.” (4)

This provides us with two provisional answers to the questions concerning the objectives and means of North Korean strategy. The objective is clear; to reach an agreement with the United States so as not to end up governed by China. North Korea is convinced that Washington and P’yongyang share an urgent need to prevent Beijing from organising its own land and maritime Asian sphere of influence as the precondition for global hegemony. There is logic to Kim’s “madness”, unless he were to lose control of the both continuous rhetorical and nuclear raising of the stakes, inducing him to fire the first shot thereby marking his own demise. Or that Trump (or rather one of the generals around him) should lose patience and activate the military option.

It is therefore legitimate to wonder whether, in a geopolitical sense, it is not the Americans who are “mad”.             

3. On the desk of National Security Advisor General Herbert Raymond McMaster, known as the Iconoclast because of his devastating analysis of the political and military management of the Vietnam War (5), there is a book in plain view, Graham Allison’s most recent one, entitled, Destined for War. Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap?(6) This is compulsory reading for in the Iconoclast’s organisation. The thesis of the Harvard scholar, formerly an advisor to Reagan, Clinton and Obama, is that the United States and China are driven to fight a war they both wish to avoid. The inertia is the same as the one that, according to Thucydides, led to the conflict between hegemonic Sparta and its challenger Athens between 431 and 404 BC. The Spartans’ fear of being unseated by the Athenians made war inevitable and this is a tragedy that could be repeated with the Americans in the role of the Spartans and the Chinese as the new Athenians.

According to Allison, the United States is fighting a lost battle; that of defending the Pax Americana achieved with World War II, without noticing that that status quo no longer exists. This, because of China’s ascent, which the influential political analyst considers the Number One in fieri if not in place, and America’s “dysfunctional” democracy that is “exhibiting fatal symptoms.” (7) The United States has no strategy. Even worse, “the United States' real strategy, truth be told, is hope.” (8).

   The priority is to avoid a catastrophic nuclear war between China and the United States. That is why Allison overrules a taboo by asking, “is maintaining US primacy in the western Pacific truly a vital national interest?” (9) If the answer is negative, then a revolutionary imperative is the result. In order to avoid an “all out” clash with China, a double suicide and the end of the world as we have known it, the United States must abdicate the throne. It must also adapt to an improbable condominium with Beijing or, more plausibly, move to the rank of a brilliant second position.

How could a superpower that considers global primacy its inalienable right organise its own funeral? And how can the Number One change the course of history, which according to Allison and other American Cassandras destines China to complete the current overtaking process, without risking its own destruction and that of the rest of the planet together with that of its rival? It is the devil’s alternative that includes the dilemma to which decades of confused and ineffective policies have obliged Washington to face in its confrontation with P’yŏngyang. Should the U.S. destroy North Korea, and with it probably also South Korea, with a pre-emptive/specious attack (the Gulf of Tonkin docet) or humiliate itself by bowing to the current reality that allows Kim Jong-un to carry a nuclear briefcase?          

Seen against this backdrop, the Korean match reveals its global range. In the Pentagon’s plans, the western Pacific is strategic for the containment/strangulation of China, to be completed by including the Indian Ocean. Washington perceives its chain of allies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and South Korea), friends (Vietnam and Indonesia) or at least enemies of its enemy (India), together with oceanic domains that in one way or another are governed by America (among them the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Samoa) as an arch of pressure aimed at preventing the People’s Republic from creating a sphere of influence in the Asian Pacific.

The American establishment answers Allison’s provocative question about the strategic importance of the Western Pacific by stating that primacy in the area is non-negotiable. Ever since 1813, when the frigate Essex rounded Cape Horn hunting for British vessels during the British-American War of 1812, the United States’ naval expansion has been relentless, with the annexation of Hawaii (1898), the conquest of the Philippines (1899) and defeating Japan (1945). As the historian Michael J. Green observes in his analysis of American grand strategy in the Asian-Pacific, as far as this region is concerned, “the United States will not tolerate any other power establishing exclusive hegemonic control over Asia and the Pacific.” (10) That ocean is needed to spread American ideas and goods towards the west, while preventing threats from coming to America from the Far East together with imports.

In its planetary vision, the American empire considers it vital that the Far East should not become connected to the Eurasian continental landmass. China and Japan must not become linked to Russia, nor Russia to Germany. A similar concentration of powers would be unsustainable for the United States. A glance at a map indicates that the Korean peninsula is the natural link between Russia, China and Japan. The Russians, the Chinese, the Japanese and the Koreans on both sides have for some time effectively been planning daring infrastructural projects.

These include inter-Korean railroads linked to the Tran-Siberian one and to the Chinese new silk roads, a bridge between Sakhalin and Hokkaido, pipelines for Russian gas and oil for the entire Far East. They are blocked for the moment by reciprocal diffidence, by memories of ancient but always critical hostilities and the rising tension surrounding Korea. Should this impasse be overcome tomorrow, those infrastructural projects could turn out to be attractive.

Highlighting the sense of urgency, assessments made by the American apparatuses concentrate all the main threats to the homeland in Asia, specifically as a matter of fact in the North Korean-Russian-Chinese triangle. General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in agreement with the director of the CIA Mike Pompeo, has classified dangers threatening national security on the basis of urgency. In first position, since it is “immediate”, there is the threat of the North Korean Bomb. Russia is in second place as the threat is not imminent, but has far superior overall potential. In third place there is China, which will become the number one threat – in about 2025 – when its military potential will have caught up with its economic power. (11) Logic would dictate that Washington should devote itself to immediately resolving the North Korean issue and to avoiding any Russian-Chinese convergence.

News instead indicates that at the White House, and in government agencies, it is not known how the crisis with P’yŏngyang should be addressed. The Russians and the Chinese instead seem to be united against any form of military intervention, while as never before in the course of this crisis, Moscow and Beijing are developing unprecedented agreements at an economic, strategic and geopolitical level on the basis of cold calculations concerning their current respective interests.

Decades of management involving the postponement of dealing with the North Korean problem, treated as a bothersome anomaly in the context of favourable regional order, have resulted in a stalemate that tastes of defeat. North Korea has put the United States with its back to the wall; accept us and acknowledge us as a nuclear power, a “normal” state admitted to international trade and financial circuits, a legitimate player in the geopolitical equilibrium of the Asian-Pacific region, or you will find yourselves under the Sword of Damocles of our ballistic missiles, which have become increasingly precise and armed with the Bomb.

To get out of the corner, Washington can draw on a triptych of unenviable strategic choices. None of them guarantee success and they all risk paying a high price.

First: liquidate North Korea or at least its nuclear apparatus using weapons, at any price, because what is at stake is the United States’ global ranking.

Second: accept P’yŏngyang as a de facto nuclear power in exchange for cogent international controls and the sterilisation of the regime, in agreement with China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. The management of the “mad man” would be delegated mainly to Xi Jinping, formally his ally, but effectively his enemy. This would enclose Kim Jong-un in a lethal straitjacket, thanks to the economic strangulation that Beijing, should it wish to, could implement by really locking down the borders and with it all trade and smuggling.

Third: Hope that the “mad man” is not such. Allow him to enjoy his Bomb – in some photographs he can be seen caressing it fondly – as a toy weapon, knowing full well that should he use it that would be the end for him and his country.  

Let us analyse these three hypotheses in greater depth

A) Any attack on North Korea should be brief and decisive, so as not to get bogged down in a lengthy campaign involving “boots on the ground” with hundreds of thousands of soldiers, thereby violating the precept of former Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, who suggested psychiatric assessment for any future colleagues who might propose to the president the deployment of a massive task force to Asia, the Middle East or Africa. Considering the post-World War II performance of American armed forces – an expensive draw in Korea, a scorching defeat in Vietnam, a semi-total withdrawal from a shattered Iraq and bogged down in an out-of-control Afghanistan – a resumption in grand style of hostilities beyond the 38th Parallel would not be a given. Using atomic weapons and overwhelming air and sea superiority, annihilation of the enemy followed by a Carthaginian peace, is certainly feasible. North Korea would be covered with salt or returned to the Stone Age.

But this scenario implies an immense massacre of Korean civilians and not only in the north. Seoul’s metropolitan area, with its 25 million inhabitants, is within range of Kim’s artillery, which would be able to inflict very heavy losses in just a couple of hours. The oblique words of Secretary of Defence General James Mattis concerning military options capable of avoiding reprisals on the South Korean capital, as well as a mention of unspecified secret weapons and amazing technological applications capable of instantly obliterating North Korea’s defences, suggest strategic despair rather than real plans. At a regional level, South Korea will do everything possible to stop a war in which it would be a not very secondary victim, also because it would be called upon to manage, together with the American victors, the ruins of a north that remains, however, the homeland. Nor is it possible to exclude China’s involvement, seeing that its reinforced deployment near the Yalu River, along the border with North Korea, would find itself in contact with the American vanguard. Finally, who can guarantee the reaction of American public opinion – not to mention that of others – especially if the war were to last more than a few days?        

B) The second hypothesis seduces diplomats and elements within the establishment, because it would avoid a war with an uncertain outcome and incalculable costs. It is a shame that this sounds like an admission of defeat. And then, who can trust Kim Jong-un or his successors? To make the negotiation scenario more attractive, the CIA and the Pentagon would have to produce or invent “unconfutable” evidence of North Korea’s inability to hit American metropolises, after leaking or even exaggerating very disquieting information, relaunched with typical excess in Trumps’ tweets. To justify de-escalation Pompeo, Mattis and associates would be obliged to improvise a media theatre with doubtful effects, asserting that the alarm was only a bluff to push the North Koreans to an agreement that would freeze their nuclear programme in its current state, which is not in the immediate future a threat to the United States.

Poor Rex Tillerson, Secretary of a decommissioned and almost uninfluential State Department, would be tasked with explaining how secret direct communication channels with P’yongyang, kept going even in the hottest stages of the crisis, had worked and produced the least worse possible outcome. It would be up to Trump, finally, to exhibit a new series of tweets stating the opposite and this, perhaps, would be the easiest of tasks. But what credibility would the United States have in Asia and the world if it came to terms with the “deranged” leader – according to the current Trump (12) – who would perhaps be invited to Camp David for the solemn signing of the peace treaty? Would this not be posthumous confirmation of the Maoist slogan that called the United States a “paper tiger”? Would it not be the triumph of the “Chinese Dream” evoked by Xi Jinping? And who would prevent Japan, South Korea and Taiwan from moving as a countermeasure from a virtual to a real Bomb? The redemption of a rogue nuclear state would herald a free for all for all aspiring members of the nuclear club, spread across the five continents, perhaps including Iran. At which point debating American hegemony on the planet would seem rather eccentric.

C) Finally there is the Pontius Pilate option. In an internal forum it would be admitted that there is no solution to this problem for the United States. Hence it is not a problem. In order to confirm this theory, all rhetoric concerning the “mad man” would be stopped. Kim Jong-un would be treated as a rational player, at least according to Western standards. He would be considered to be aware of the fact that should American satellites identify a North Korean missile with a doubtful warhead on a launch pad, instant and decisive nuclear retaliation would be implemented. The North Korean threat would then be downgraded. The Pentagon would close the case and move on to the next item on their agenda. The rest of the world would take note that so as to mask a defeat, the United States had suspended the match as the pitch is unplayable. All this unless Kim should wish to resume play.   

4.Whatever the choice or nonchoice Washington may decide on, the debate surrounding North Korea’s nuclear weapons is already altering the Asian-Pacific equilibria. This is happening not only because South Korea and Japan are questioning the reliability of their American ally, while Putin re-enters the game on the far eastern chessboard, hoping to accumulate a few points to play on other tables in the never-ending match with the Americans, primarily in Ukraine. It is above all China that is embarrassed. The dilemmas that Xi Jinping must face – while waiting for the 19th Congress of the Communist Party to provide the president with the support needed to overcome his internal enemies, strengthening his grip on the Armed Forces and moving forward with the privatisation of state industries – are no less dramatic than those troubling Trump’s generals.

China’s imperative was and officially remains that of preserving North Korea as a buffer against American penetration in Asia. A reunited peninsula with American soldiers at the north-eastern border of the Middle Kingdom is not tolerable. But does this objective precede or follow the need to avoid war with America, at least for as long as Beijing’s military disadvantage remains so significant? Xi Jinping does not wish to engage in a duel to the death with the United States. He will deploy all resources available to push the Americans and the North Koreans to resume negotiations, hoping to spark a de-escalation with a “double moratorium”; the U.S. and South Korea suspending military manoeuvres near the North, which must stop all missile experiments and nuclear tests.

Xi cannot explicitly guarantee to Washington that North Korea will not intervene in the event of an American pre-emptive strike, both because the treaty of friendship with P’yŏngyang prevents him from doing this and in order to keep Trump in a state of strategic uncertainty. At the same time, he will increase pressure on Kim Jong-un, gradually stopping commercial and financial exchanges across the Yalu border.

Should instead Kim’s regime collapse or be swept away by the United States, China would demand the rapid withdrawal of American troops from the peninsula, or at least that they remain south of the 38th Parallel. And that is not all. Washington would have to dismantle the THAAD antimissile defence system, just recently set up in South Korea, and take home the tactical nuclear weapons that Beijing suspects are still secretly deployed in South Korean bases. At the end of the day, the American military contingents are deployed in Korea as a legacy of the 1950-53 war, to protect Seoul from P’yŏngyang. Should the conflict be resolved with the fall of North Korea and a probable annexation of the south, in what capacity would American soldiers remain on the peninsula? There is only one possible answer; to oppose China.

The Korean question would, however, remain open, because between Seoul and Beijing there remains a suppressed but unresolved geopolitical controversy, one that could reignite after the south reconquers the northern provinces. In Beijing some archaeologists swear that the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, which flourished in the first centuries of the Common Era in what are now North Korea and the People’s Republic, should be ascribed to Chinese civilisation, hence belonging to its empire. In Seoul there are some who instead lay claim to a “Third Korea” (Kando, or Jindao in Mandarin), in Chinese Manchuria, where a significant Korean minority lives. These are ethnic-historical conflicts that do not contribute to a brotherhood between the two countries.

The level of Chinese intolerance regarding Kim Jong-un is proved by Xi Jinping’s refusal to meet with him. Every North Korean nuclear test is an excuse for the United States to further tighten the bolts of their Asian line up, the objective of which is to repress Chinese expansionism. North Korea is a very strange ally for Beijing. It is effectively a “latent enemy”, according to the historian Shen Zhihua, while South Korea could instead be friends with China. (13)

The debate concerning the manner in which the North Koreans should be approached is a profound one in Beijing. In 2013, the deputy-editor of the magazine published by the Communist Party’s Central School, Deng Yuwen, even reached the point of proposing a break with that regime and encouraging Korea’s reunification, because “it would serve to undermine the strategic alliance between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul”, and perhaps also bring Taiwan home (14). Deng lost his job, but his ideas continue to circulate in Chinese strategic think tanks, so much so that some strategists suggest it should be announced that China will not even intervene in the event of an American pre-emptive attack on P’yŏngyang (15). In abandoning Kim Jong-un to himself, the Chinese would in exchange obtain permission from Trump to replace Kim with one of their own men. 

5. Too many players, too many different (il)logics, too much uncertainty surrounding the intentions of others. Even their own. The paradoxical North Korean match could lead to unthinkable deviations or agreements, despite the political scientists who try so hard to apply to this crisis the most abstruse combinations of the game theory. This almost as if there existed universal equations, impervious to different histories, different cultures and concepts of time. It is as if the idea of defeat or victory were homogeneous among those obsessed by the next electoral cycle and those who believe they are part of an event that lasted thousands of years, marked by dynasties guaranteeing a superior civilisation.

Even worse; in the duel between the United States and North Korea, the epicentre of the current earthquake, it is not obvious who, in both camps, are the ultimate decision-makers, if indeed there is one. Which of the American generals who try and contain Trump’s erratic explosions and like to speak as politicians would it be? Which of their North Korean homologues, who applauding, crowd around the cheerful young man, son and grandson of a demigod, while he pushes the red button to launch a ballistic missile or test a nuclear weapon?

In the East imprinted by Confucianism, appearances are everything. It is a concept we westerners mistake for honour, superimposing a social notion on ethical aspects. It is a matter of prestige, according to which every relationship implies respecting the interlocutor’s face and if necessary bowing to his rank. Nor are many Asians aware of to what extent moral judgement is central to American culture and how, from Jefferson onwards, the precept applied is that there is “only one system of ethics for men and nations.” (16) Perhaps the Donald and Kim, or whoever makes decisions for them, are destined to not understand one another. What matters is that they should not lose their heads in order to save face.    


(translated by Francesca Simmons)




  1. B. HULBERT, “Korea’s Geographical Significance”, Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York, Vol. 32, No. 4 (1900), p. 327.
  2. A. FIFIELD, “North Korea taps GOP analysts to better understand Trump and his messages”, The Washington Post, 26.9.2017.
  3. CHA, The Impossible State. North Korea, Past and Future, London 2012, Vintage Books, p. 7.
  4. “Chinese Media’s Shameless and Impudent Acts”, Rondong Sinmun, 23/9/106 Juche (2017),
  5. H. R. McMASTER, Dereliction of Duty. Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, New York 1997, Harpers Perennial.
  6. G. ALLISON, Destined for War. Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap? London 2017, Scribe.
  7. ALLISON, op.cit., p. 238.
  8. Ibidem.
  9. Ivi, p. 235.
  10. J. GREEN, By More than Providence. Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783, New York 2017, Columbia University Press, p. 5.
  11. B. GERTZ, “US military chief Dunford: China is main threat to security”, Asia Times, 28.9.2017.
  12. Per il tweet di Trump vedi
  13. C. BUCKLEY, “Excerpts From a Chinese Historian’s Speech on North Korea”, The New York Times, 18.4.2017.
  14. DENG YUWEN, “China should abandon North Korea”, Financial Times, 27.2.2013.
  15. “China’s internal conflicts over N. Korean nuclear and THAAD”, The Dong-a Ilbo, 18.9.2017.
  16. Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Madame La Duchesse D’Auville, 2/4/1790, in P. L. FORD, by, The Writings of Jefferson, New York 1892-99, vol. 5, p. 153, cit. in H. KISSINGER, Diplomacy, New York-London-Toronto-Sydney-Tokyo-Singapore 1994, Simon & Schuster, p. 32.