April 15, 2013

Korea, wrote the famed German expert on geopolitics Baron Haushofer a century ago, was one of the world’s five most strategic areas. So it remains today, as China, Russia, Japan and the United States vie for influence on the peninsula and the waters around it.

The latest crisis over Korea began in March with an annual major military exercise by the US and South Korea designed to simulate an invasion of North Korea. The flight of US B-52 and B-2 heavy bombers 30 km from North Korea’s border was a clear warning to North Korea to cease its nuclear program.

Instead of the usual fulminations against the US and South Korea, the new North Korean dynastic regime of Kim Jung-un issue a blizzard of war threats that included nuclear strikes against the US – something that Pyongyang is quite unable to do. But the storm of hot air raised the danger of an accidental military clash that could quickly escalate to all-out war in which tactical nuclear weapons might well be used.

Until this past week, the Korea crisis has been more or less run by the US Pentagon. Amazingly, South Korea’s tough 600,000-man armed forces are under the command of a US four-star general 60 years after the end of the Korean War, backed up by 28,500 US troops that include a full heavy infantry division,

North Korea calls itself the “true Korea,” denouncing the South as “puppets of the US imperialists.” Interestingly, some studies show that many South Koreans share this view and are proud of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program though they want no part of its socialism and self-reliant policy known as “juche.”.

Now, the US has finally deployed its diplomatic muscle by sending the new Secretary of State John Kerry to Beijing to try to arm-twist China into clamping down on its errant bad boy, North Korea. The result was a joint communiqué calling on the US and China to jointly pursue the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

China has long advocated this policy, so nothing new here. But the North American media hailed it as a breakthrough in the crisis. In fact, China is not happy with North Korea’s nuclear program, but Beijing considers an independent, stable North Korea essential for the security of its highly sensitive northeast region of Machuria.

Chinese strategists fear the collapse of the Kim dynasty in North Korea would lead to the US-dominated South Korea absorbing the north and even implanting US bases within range of Manchuria and the maritime approaches to Beijing. In 1950, China responded to the advance of US forces onto its Manchurian border, the Yalu River, by intervening in the Korean War with over 1.5 million soldiers.

The collapse of North Korea would also move South Korean and US military power 200 km closer to Russia’s key Far Eastern population and military complex at Vladivostok.

Accordingly, China’s strategy to date has been to talk moderation and issue occasional blasts at North Korea to appease the outside world and its major American trading partner while quietly ensuring that North Korea remains viable. China supplies all of North Korea’s oil, part of its food, and large amounts of industrial and military spare parts.

North Korea’s Kim Jung-un appears to have climbed too far out on a limb by issuing dire threats that include nuclear war. His problem is to climb back without losing too much face or appearing to be forced by the United States.

Prestige is a key factor in dictatorship. An obvious defeat can lead to the dictator’s fall. That’s why Hitler refused to retreat from the deathtrap at Stalingrad, rightly fearing such a loss of prestige and his mystique of military genius would encourage his domestic foes to move against him.

So Kim will likely need Beijing’s help in ending the crisis, and Beijing will be both happy to do so and end up in a position to demand useful concessions from Washington.

Beijing has been claiming that the US whipped up the current Korea crisis to justify deploying new military forces to Asia and emplacing more anti-missile systems in Alaska and a new one in Guam – all part of President Barack Obama’s much heralded “pivot to Asia.”

copyright Eric S. Margolis 2013

This post is in: Asia, China, Military and Security Affairs, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, USA


  1. Mike Smith says:

    ” That’s why Hitler refused to retreat from the deathtrap at Stalingrad, rightly fearing such a loss of prestige and his mystique of military genius would encourage his domestic foes to move against him ”

    and choking the Volga river supply line and giving up any hope of grabbing caucus oil supplies which were desperately needed by both sides. Hilters mistake over Stalingrad was going in half way, he should have committed everything in that push from the start instead of pushing on Moscow ( which even taken would not have won anything ) and the siege of Leningrad ( sieges work both ways and tied down more troops than could be spared )
    My opinion, if Stalingrad could have been secured, and using the Volga to secure ones flank, the sixth army could have pushed towards Saratov cutting Russia in half… and cutting any logistics moving up from the south. Without fuel the Russian army would lose any mobility and its edge in numbers would be blunted considerably.

    • solum temptare possumus says:

      A good premise. The factories moved east (to prevent capture) that made T-34 tanks, would have been useless if the fuel supply line had been cut off.
      ad iudicium

  2. Some Canadian says:

    One thing I do not agree with is the way Eric describes Hitler “rightly fearing” the loss of prestige from Stalingrad. Let’s face it – it’s a bad move and whatever prestige-loss he would’ve suffered is minute compared to losing large numbers of his forces to this blunder.

    • solum temptare possumus says:

      Some Canadian,
      Your logic is sound, but dictators do not think logically. Hitler was addicted to sugar, (a supposition by some historians), and was prescribed strychnine by his doctor for debilitating migraines. He clearly was not thinking rationally or he would have ordered General Von Paulus to retreat.
      Hitler and the lieutenants of the Third Reich wanted recognition of their superiority…perhaps retreat was not thinkable when the world was watching.
      ad iudicium

  3. What would the reaction be in Washington, if China was to do the same in and around Cuba for instance, as the US is doing in Korea? I remember the Cuba crisis, when the USSR tried to do that in 1962. And why should the US have any rights, the same of which they like to deny to any other nation? It seems to me, that all of this might have something to do with the US trying to eliminate its huge debt owed to China.
    The US seems to forget, that what they see as allies,a lot of them are in reality enemies, but can`t afford to show that, until the time is right and that moment is getting closer all the time. Who, other than some traitors in Iraq and Afghanistan for instance, have a warm heart for the US? Even big segments of European populations despise the Americans and their terrorist-like attitudes. What happened to that country, that once was like a guiding light to the rest of the world? Compare the US of today with the way it was, when they were not the sole superpower? And regardless of all the rhetoric, China has meanwhile filled that void and can be a greater threat than the USSR ever was.
    I am surprised though, that Mr. Margolis does not seem to differentiate between communism and socialism. North Korea is a communist country. Every communist is a socialist, but not every socialist is a communist. Like every German is a European, but not every European a German.

  4. George Rizk says:

    I agree that the North Korean leader is blowing hot air, but, the war party in Washington is not!

    South Korea has a REUNIFICATION MINISTER, who is working full time on ways to improve the relation between themselves and the North. The US objects to such effort. The U S worked hard on replacing the leaders who ran on the reunification platform. The current US stooge (leader) is pressing her luck agreeing to have joint military maneuvers, which is DESIGNED to intimidate the little fat boy leader.

    The economic miracles of South Korea can get severely derailed if any such war starts.

    • solum temptare possumus says:

      I think that I shall not see a united Korea in my lifetime. To many players at the table do not want it.
      And of course, some of the common people suffer. Pity them for the arrogance of their leaders. On all sides.
      ad iudicium

  5. Bill Mar put it best, “The real reason for the Korean “crisis” is that America is running out of wars” every American president has been in a war since independence except for Jimmy Carter. The Imaginary war on terror is running out and now America needs new enemies to justify it’s insane military budget.

    • solum temptare possumus says:

      Nothing like an imaginary foreign war to jump start the struggling US economy. So many states have industries tied to military and/or security technologies, that to speak against “big stick” policies means political suicide; starting with the workers/voters in those industries. The train gains cars ongoing…gaining momentum; perhaps slowing down but near impossible to stop.
      A Triad of Politics, Money and Power.
      ad iudicium

  6. As of this writing,there have been no missles launched against US bases…or nuclear weapons used.The loudest bang that I heard was celebration in NKorea in celebration of it’s founding by a barage of fireworks,dancing on the streets….but no mention of any military strikes…..just rhetoric where the US won that battle.

    I totally agree with Mr. Margolis’ last paragraph….wholeheartedly.I see no evidence to the contrary.Apparently the US must have found a few dollars in the bottom of the depleted military war chest barrell.My advice to President Obama…spend it wisely…rhetoric is relatively inexpensive…to date.

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