Taiwan and the Korean Conundrum

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Thursday May 18, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

North Korea is an increasing trouble spot; few will dispute that matter. However to more clearly understand this issue one must start with the realistic premise that despite what any world leaders might or might not be saying about cooperation and working deals, the leadership of the People's Republic of China does not want and will not accept a unified Korea.

Understanding this premise is particularly important for Taiwan. For as the nation regularly reviews the surrounding landscape as well as threats to peace in the Asia-Pacific region, it must have a plan to deal with the Korean conundrum.

This conundrum is not a hypothetical situation. North Korea and its leader, Kim Jung-un have once again jumped back into the spotlight with missile launches, bravado about nuclear tests and more; this has drawn attention away from the contested shipping lanes and waters of the South China Sea, so much so that all involved parties have had to refocus.

Newly elected US president Donald Trump has even entered the fray and perhaps helped stir if not muddy the turbulent waters by saying that he would not mind meeting with Kim, whom he classifies as a "smart cookie." He feels that they could "work a deal."

That Trump feels that he can work a deal here naturally raises eyebrows. It is his style. Yet, when looking at his similar projection of a workable deal between Israel and Palestine, one wonders if it represents naivete, bravado, wishful thinking or just a neophyte with little grasp of regional histories feeling confident.

For example, Trump announced that he found out "how complicated" the Korean situation is from his talk with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

For Taiwan, this makes it more worrisome. It has already experienced first hand what may be called a flip-flop of Trump.

In December last year, Trump boldly challenged political conventions and was cheered when he stated that if he the newly elected US president could sell military hardware to Taiwan, why couldn't he accept a congratulatory phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen?

That was fine until Trump reversed fields and later said he learned how complicated the North Korean situation is, not from his staff, but from Xi. Now it seems that any future calls to Trump from Tsai, will first be run by Xi before being accepted.

For this reason, Trump's naming Kim as a smart cookie has also raised concerns. Is he aware that Kim had his uncle, Jang Sung-thaek, and several others executed for unexplained treachery in 2013?
Is he aware of the recent murder in Malaysia of Kim's elder half-brother Kim Jong-nam? Would the label of a ruthless Machiavellian dictator be more appropriate for Kim Jung-un than a "smart cookie?"

History bears out how deals are easily made and easily broken. The many "deals" that preceded World War II would convince most on the unpredictability of political deals.

For example, Benito Mussolini, Italy's Fascist leader and prime minister from 1922 made innumerable deals good and bad in his efforts to make Italy great again. One of his more amusing failures was the projected 1933 Four Power Pact between Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Despite his confidence, that never got off the ground.

Who can forget Britain's "Munich Agreement" of 1938 when then British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich with a deal he had worked out with then Germany chancellor Adolph Hitler.

He added the meme "peace for our time." That peace didn't last long.

Then there was the famous Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, where Hitler and then Soviet leader Josef Stalin not only agreed not to attack each other but also secretly planned to divide up eastern Europe. That did not bode well for Poland or the world as all soon found out.

However, here the issue is not Trump's deal making confidence but Taiwan's knowledge of China and its examination of the reasons why China does not want a unified Korea on its flank.

North Korea is a drain on the PRC economy. Half of China's foreign aid is spent subsidizing North Korea. In many ways North Korea is to the PRC as Cuba was to Russia. That is the downside.

Yet, while Cuba was a drain on Russian economy, it also helped spread its Marxist message and even sent troops to fight around the world.

North Korea does not contribute that way. The Cuba/Russia relationship changed as Russia became more capitalist. Yet as China becomes more capitalist why does it stay with Pyongyang?

North Korea is cut off from most other countries, and at least in the foreseeable future it is not going to change course. As it builds its military complex, it does not even export an acceptable brand of Marxism. So what value does North Korea have for China?

First it is a useful distraction. Whenever things get too hot in Asia for Beijing, this pressure and focus can be relieved by actions from a belligerent and world-threatening North Korea.

Next, North Korea is China's eastern door guard. Attacks on China from the east are unlikely with a dependent North there and no democratic neighbors would join forces with Pyongyang.

Granted that there is the threat of North Korea triggering nuclear war, but that threat is a lower-priority risk for China. It is a risk it would rather live with than a unified Korea. For a unified Korean Peninsula would more likely develop along the democratic lines of a unified Germany. China's eastern door guard would then change to become a threat.

Xi Jinping might help enlighten Donald Trump on how complex and difficult North Korea is, but the unsaid bottom line remains that China does not want a unified Korea. It benefits from it being a rogue state and it will keep it that way.

The Korean conundrum is not going to go away, even if temporary deals are made.

Taiwan is fortunate that it is not an immediate neighbor of North Korea as are Japan and South Korea. However that does not mean that it could escape fallout and collateral damage if hostilities broke out.

For this reason, Taiwan again must first maintain its self-reliance and next it must carefully assess any regional deals that are made. If it enters deals with its neighbors, it must do so with astuteness and awareness.

Taiwan knows China first-hand; it knows China much better than Trump does. It knows that China covets its territory. And it knows that the promises and deals of China like its promises to Hong Kong are easily broken.

Instead, Taiwan must find allies in the Asia Pacific such as Japan that also are challenged by rogue actions of North Korea. That must be Taiwan's focus.