What did Biden expect after pressuring South Korea to transfer weapons to Ukraine?
It is inevitable in any war — even a proxy one — that identical actions by the “enemy” and by your own side will be portrayed as wicked in the first case, moral and justified in the second.
In much of the U.S. establishment and media however, belief in the innate righteousness of U.S. actions is so deeply-rooted that it can become a serious danger to the successful conduct of Washington policy. Why? Because it blinds American policymakers to the likely consequences of their own actions.
The latest example of this involves the scheduled meeting between President Vladimir Putin and North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un. Most Western analysis has focused — probably correctly — on the likelihood that this will lead North Korea to provide Russia with artillery shells, of which North Korea has enormous reserves and considerable production capacity.
The fighting in Ukraine seems to be moving towards a long-term war of attrition, and in such a war, levels of ammunition will play an absolutely central role. This is not an issue of the wickedness of the Russian invasion and the righteousness of support for Ukraine. It is a matter of hard military logistics.
In return, Russia will at the very least help Pyongyang’s cash-starved economy with subsidized energy. Depending on the scale of North Korean ammunition supplies to Russia, it is, however, very likely that Russia will agree to supply advanced missile technology in return.
This would be a very serious step. While North Korea has possessed the capability to make nuclear weapons since at least 2006, its ballistic missile technology has developed much more slowly, limiting the range and accuracy of its arsenal. If North Korea with Russian help develops a significant number of nuclear missiles capable of striking the continental United States, this would mark an important shift in the military balance of power in North East Asia.
At the very least, it would strengthen the North Korean regime considerably. In the worst case, the desire to prevent this from happening at all costs could propel a U.S. administration into some hideously dangerous preemptive military action.
This anticipated deal between Russia and North Korea has led to predictable expressions of outrage from U.S. officials and journalists. So we must ask: What exactly did the Biden administration expect to happen as a result of its own actions?
This spring, Washington brought intense pressure to bear on the government of South Korea to supply Ukraine with weapons and ammunition, though Seoul had made its reluctance to do this extremely clear. In the end, a compromise was reached whereby South Korea would not supply Ukraine directly, but would “lend” 500,000 artillery shells to replenish U.S. stocks — thereby allowing the U.S. to transfer a similar number to Ukraine.
You do not have to be a Russian sympathizer to see this as a distinction without a difference. Did nobody in the CIA, Pentagon, or State Department warn the White House that this would likely lead to a deal on weapons supplies between Russia and North Korea, and see the potential negative consequences for U.S., South Korean, and Japanese security?
This does not mean Washington could not or should not support Ukraine. However, if Washington wished to do this while avoiding broader negative ramifications globally, then there are only two possible paths to follow. First, refrain from certain actions (like the attempt to universalize sanctions against Russia) that have tended in this direction.
Second, pursue talks with Russia — such as what took place at the height of the Cold War — aimed at formal or informal agreements that would rule out certain international actions by both sides, such as procuring weapons and ammunition from other countries in regions of high local tensions. Despite this Cold War precedent, all proposals for such talks have been howled down with accusations of “cowardice” and “treason.”
This is what the great American Realist thinker on international relations, Hans Morgenthau, meant when he wrote that it is a fundamental duty of statesmen to cultivate the ability to think themselves into the shoes of their opposite numbers — not to agree with them, but to understand how they are likely to behave in a given situation, so as to be able to craft your own policies accordingly. As Morgenthau also wrote, blind national self-righteousness is the greatest single obstacle to the cultivation of this ability.
In the case of North Korea, this attitude long predates the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The description of North Korea as a “rogue state,” endlessly repeated by an uncritical media, has helped to lock in this attitude until attempts by analysts to understand the conflict from the perspective of Pyongyang become completely impossible. Blind hostility to North Korea extends to relations between North Korea and its neighbors — which in addition to South Korea are, it may be remembered, China and Russia, but not the United States.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia drastically reduced its economic relations with North Korea and generally played a constructive role in cooperating with Washington to constrain Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development. China has maintained trade with North Korea, and this has undoubtedly played a key part in preserving the North Korean state; but Beijing has also used its economic influence to punish overly inflammatory actions by Pyongyang and has put pressure on the recalcitrant regime to engage in disarmament talks.
Yet instead of recognizing this – and in consequence recognizing the consequences for America and South Korea if Moscow and Beijing were to move to actual full-scale support for North Korea – the overwhelming U.S. establishment and media response has been to blame Russia and China for not joining the U.S. in strengthening sanctions against North Korea even further. No understanding at all has been shown of the fears of both countries that an implosion of the North Korean state would create a massive crisis on their own borders.
The U.S. failure to predict the likely — even inevitable — consequences of the U.S.-South Korean ammunition deal was bad enough. Much worse could be the consequences of the Biden administration’s action last month in pulling South Korea into a much tighter security relationship with Japan as well as the United States — a grouping that Beijing will no doubt see as a threat to its interests and a probable future U.S. tool for the containment of China. Once again, has nobody in the U.S. foreign and security establishment warned the administration that the result is likely to be stronger Chinese support for Pyongyang?
On the Korean peninsula, in Ukraine and everywhere else, developing the capacity to understand the motivations and predict the actions of other states requires that U.S. policymakers look honestly at the U.S. record and how America is likely to act and react in given circumstances. This includes self-awareness about the history of the Monroe Doctrine and U.S. determination to exclude any potentially hostile alliance or even influence from countries close to America’s own borders — even if this means supporting or bringing to power some extremely vile local allies.
Thus if American diplomats complain to their Chinese counterparts about Beijing’s relationship with Kim Jong Un, the Chinese might reply wo men de wangba dan. This is (I am told) how you say “our son of a bitch” in Chinese; and it is an ancient Chinese principle most famously stated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
If U.S. policymakers remembered that aspect of their own history and policies, we can begin to develop a capacity for strategic empathy, and avoid increasing the dangers on the Korean peninsula, which Lord knows are dangerous enough already.
Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.