US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson revealed last week that the US held detailed discussions with China over plans for how to deal with a sudden collapse of the Kim Jong Un regime. US officials are saying that the plan does not involve precipitating regime change, and only relates to potential responses to a collapse. It appears that the US may be sending a message to China to put more pressure on Kim Jong Un as it seeks to quell Chinese fears of US action in such a scenario.
Tillerson stated that in the case of a collapse, the US has “given the Chinese assurances we would go back and retreat back to the south of the 38th parallel” after securing the North’s nuclear weapons. Essentially, Tillerson is communicating to China that it should not worry about any confrontation with US troops near their border with North Korea.
The latest message coming from the US may be an extension of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s proposed “grand bargain.” The New York Times published an article in July this year quoting Kissinger as saying, “I believe we have a better chance of getting to the nuclear problem with North Korea if we first come to an agreement with China about what follows after the collapse of the North Korean regime.”
The article’s author then notes that this agreement “would include a commitment from the United States to withdraw most of its troops from the Korean peninsula after a North Korean collapse to allay the Chinese fear that, with the buffer of North Korea gone, the US military would be right on its border.” Kissinger allegedly spoke with Tillerson and other current US officials about the plan. After hosting Kissinger in the White House this past October, Trump appears to be taking his idea of a “grand bargain” with China seriously.
The difference between Tillerson and Kissinger
There are differences, however, between Tillerson’s latest mention of a “reaction plan” in the event of a North Korean regime collapse and Kissinger’s ‘grand bargain’ with China. While both offer concessions to China in exchange for its cooperation, Kissinger has suggested withdrawing most US troops from the peninsula, while Tillerson suggested that US troops would merely return south of the 38th parallel.
Tillerson appears intent on modifying Kissinger’s plan, considering that a military presence in Korea remains a vital aspect of US influence in Northeast Asia. Withdrawing most of its troops from the peninsula would be extremely detrimental to US strategy in the region. Instead, an agreement wherein both the US and China promise not to station their troops in North Korean territory would allow both countries to maintain the existing buffer zone.
In actuality, a large-scale withdrawal of US troops is also not in South Korea’s long-term national interests. The mere presence of US troops goes a long way towards avoiding the potential chaos of a North Korean regime collapse. The maintenance of these troop levels can prevent actors from exploiting the region’s complicated geopolitical issues in the midst of such chaos. By promising China that they will never be permanently stationed north of the 38th parallel, the US hopes to both receive Chinese cooperation while maintaining the benefits of their position in Korea.
Hidden aspects of the ‘grand bargain?’
Despite the outward benefits of an American agreement with China, the South Korean government must read between the lines. While Kissinger and Tillerson appear to be fine-tuning a new “grand bargain” with China, it is unlikely that they will reveal the full scope of their plans.
If the two sides come to an agreement, it will need to include details not only in regards to US military placement, but also about the transition period and a plan for how to govern the territory during that period. While neither side has alluded to talks covering these aspects, it is possible that they are a part of ongoing discussions.
The primary question is whether the US and China will agree to allow South Korean-led unification.
Unification is not primarily in the national interests of either the US or China. As long as they are able to eliminate the regime and denuclearize the territory, the issue of whether the peninsula is unified or remains divided thereafter is of lesser concern. The two may even agree to hold joint trusteeship of the territory after Kim is gone, perhaps even handing over power to a moderate leader of their choosing after a certain amount of time.
South Korea must join US-China discussions on post-collapse plan
The South Korean government must actively participate in discussions between the US and China over the future of the Korean peninsula. While it is better to focus on dialogue and other ways of dealing with Kim Jong Un according to a more realistic assessment of the current situation, South Korea must be part of any international contingency plan for sudden collapse.
The situation remains fluid and it remains uncertain exactly how events will play out. Given this uncertainty, it is vital that the South Korean government establish preparations for any outcome.
*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.