A recent visit to the White House by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has fueled rumors around the chances for a “grand bargain” between the US and China to address the North Korea problem. It remains unclear exactly how the visit may influence US President Trump’s decisions, but the fact remains that the US will likely have to deal with China directly in order to make any progress on North Korea.
Why a “grand agreement” between the US and China?
The simplest and potentially most effective solution to the intensifying tension between the US and North Korea would be a direct agreement between these two countries. Tensions will ease even if the two sides begin dialogue towards an agreement. But due to the North’s open refusal to ever give up its nuclear program and America’s refusal to ever accept the North as a nuclear state, finding a starting point for talks seems next to impossible.
In such circumstances, what other options do we have to prevent war? The US may look instead to other countries surrounding North Korea, to seek a deal that brings all parties together around a plan to prevent disaster in the event of a collapse of the Kim regime. The US would be willing to shelve its war plans if it were able to reach an agreement with China, to convince China of the benefits of forcing Kim Jong Un from power.
But China would treat such a plan with caution. Instead, Kissinger has suggested that “the US and China form an agreement over a plan of action in the case of the Kim regime’s collapse.” He recommends a path to such an agreement would include offering to withdraw most of the US Forces Korea from the peninsula in exchange for China’s assistance in ousting Kim. Considering their vocal opposition to the prospect of US troops stationed on their border in the case of a South-led unification, this kind of concession could prove attractive to China.
South Korea’s exclusion from a “grand bargain”
The biggest concern with any potential deal between the US and China is the exclusion of South Korea from the negotiating table. South Koreans are all too familiar with this scenario, where the current circumstances are a direct result of the last time two major powers – the US and the Soviet Union – came together to decide the fate of the Korean peninsula. South Korea does not wish to be left out of the process again.
If the two sides were to come to an agreement, however, many more issues beyond the US troop presence and the collapse of the Kim regime would have to be addressed. There must be a serious debate over the consequences for the North Korean people and the potential power vacuum if the Kim family were ousted.
Possibility of a US-China trusteeship over the North
China will continue to consider North Korean territory at least part of its strategic assets regardless of its support for the Kim family. We should not expect China to simply sideline its interests in the North. Another question is how firmly the US will back South Korea as the primary administrator of reunification. The case may be that the US is more concerned about denuclearization than reunification itself. The US likely will not hold firm to demands for a South-led reunification in the face of China’s staunch opposition, and would not be willing to jeopardize a deal over this point.
Such a deal could even go as far as to cement a future joint US-China trusteeship over the North for a given period of time, after which they would install a moderate leader. The result would be the continuation of a divided peninsula with no prospects for reunification in the near future.
A place for South Korea in the agreement
While this US-China “grand bargain” remains little more than an idea and should be no cause for immediate concern, the instability of the circumstances means that such possibilities cannot be dismissed. Trump’s invitation of Henry Kissinger – the man behind the “grand bargain”- to the White House recently at least signals the willingness of his administration to look at alternative solutions.
But even if a Grand Agreement were to be reached, South Korea would not just sit idle. The US may promote the idea that the agreement would not mean the end to their current diplomatic strategy, but South Korea would have to stay firm in their demand that the US address the South’s interests in the plan. Furthermore, South Korea should demand that the US stay committed to the partnership that the two nations have built and support an agreement that involves the South.
This agreement would obviously have to consider the interests of South Korea. Though it may seem that China will not budge on US troop removal, the fact is that these troops would play a vital role in maintaining stability on the peninsula. There exists the option of merely preventing any US troops from moving north beyond the 38th parallel, to allay China’s fears of US troops along its border. It would also have to include a prohibition on the presence of any foreign troops in North Korean territory, allowing for a peaceful transition and eventual reunification under the leadership of South Korea.
In such an agreement, instead of China moving to accelerate the collapse of the Kim regime, the US and South Korea would offer guarantees to China including the withdrawal of THAAD, a reduction in US troop numbers, a curtailing of US-Korea joint military exercises, a promise to keep remaining US troops south of the 38th parallel, and a commitment to prevent any foreign troops from being stationed on North Korean soil, and in exchange, North and South Korea would be given the opportunity to achieve peaceful unification.
Preventing others from deciding the fate of the Korean Peninsula
It is not wise to openly discuss any kind of grand agreement which at its core seeks to achieve the collapse of the Kim regime. Talk of forcing the demise of Kim Jong Un will only result in further provocations from the North. All parties must shift their focus instead to easing tensions and creating a stable environment on the peninsula.
However, it is also vital to remain prepared for any circumstances, meaning that South Korea must formulate a response in case the US and China do in fact enter into some kind of grand agreement. Most importantly, we must prevent the larger foreign powers from once again deciding the fate of the Korean peninsula.
*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.