In an April 16, 2005 article entitled Korea Rejected U.S. Plan on North, the LA Times reports that South Korea rejected a secret security strategy that might have given United States forces the initiative in invading and occupying North Korea in the event of a political crisis.
In the words of the article,
South Korean officials apparently feared that the United States would take command in case of a power vacuum and that it would hastily send its troops toward Pyongyang, perhaps under the flag of the same U.N. command that waged the 1950-1953 Korean War.
The article goes on to describe the difference between South Korea's policy toward North Korea--promoting gradual, peaceful reunification--and the Bush administration's publicly stated hostility to the North Korean regime.
It implies that this fundamental disagreement about how to deal with Kim Jung-Il's regime is responsible for the dispute, quoting Derek J. Mitchell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
"In the aftermath of Iraq, I think they felt we might be too eager to go in there [North Korea" and take control and that perhaps the Bush administration is looking for an excuse to effect regime change," Mitchell said.
Perhaps the Bush administration's ostentatious hostility toward North Korea may be attributed to the perceived threat of North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs, and its anti-despot policy.
But U.S. policies that threaten to destabilize North Korea have an unavoidable China dimension--a dimension that White House strategists must be aware of.
China has considered the Korean peninsula part of its sphere of influence since imperial times, and fought two disastrous wars--against the Japanese in 1895 and the United States in the 1950s--in an attempt to exclude outside influences.
If the Chinese government fears that the United States would take advantage of turmoil within North Korea to send in a U.S. army of occupation that would be camped on China's Manchurian doorstep, it will inevitably consider a pre-emptive invasion of its own if the Kim Jung-Il regime totters.
And that would create a potential military confrontation with the United States on the Korean peninsula.
That's something the South Korean government would have a vested interest in avoiding--and would provide an incentive for rejecting the strategy and also leaking the rejection so the Chinese would be reassured.
The question that really needs raising--and cannot be answered at this point--is:
In what circumstances--political, economic, and diplomatic--would the Bush administration allow the North Korean crisis to escalate into an armed confrontation?
Today it is difficult to imagine the U.S.--embroiled in a difficult occupation/counterinsurgency operation in Iraq and trying to muster military and diplomatic resources for a confrontation with Iran--risking an overt challenge to China.
Nevertheless, a regime collapse in North Korea might create the once-in-a-decade instability--and opportunity--that the Bush administration might be unable to resist trying to exploit.
The conclusion to the LA Times article gives us something to chew on:
South Korean officials in recent months have also publicly expressed fears that the U.S. could drag the country into a conflict with China.
With this combination of North Korean instability, proactive and opportunistic U.S. foreign policy, and Chinese security concerns, foreign troops in North Korea might appear sooner than we realize.