A few months ago, the possibility of a direct meeting between US President Donald Trump and DPRK Chairman Kim Jong Un seemed as remote as North Korean denuclearization. The verdict is still out on how plausible achieving the latter really is, but the summit has been announced and now awaits more specification.
The biggest mystery concerns possible outcomes. How much will Kim Jong Un really offer in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, a peace treaty to end the Korean War, diplomatic normalization with the United States and other concessions he may be seeking? The broad agreement between most North Korea analysts is: not very much, if anything substantial at all.
This is alarming especially if we consider the recent appointment of John Bolton as US National Security Advisor. He has for a long time been very vocal regarding his preference for an “appropriate” North Korea policy. His viewpoint suggests the North Koreans are a threat to the US, there will never be a reliable diplomatic solution, and therefore a military intervention is the only reasonable way forward. On April 29, only two days after the inter-Korean summit at Panmunjom, he very bluntly suggested a Libyan model for North Korea. This was meant, and will be perceived, as a threat, not an offer.
Considering the inflexible positions of both sides on CVID (complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement) and hawkish tendencies among people surrounding Donald Trump, there are fears that the upcoming Kim-Trump summit will fail. Such an outcome could be used by Washington to declare the futility of diplomacy and as an excuse for launching a military strike against North Korea. It is not difficult to project that even a limited intervention could quickly develop into a full-scale conflict, resulting in massive destruction and heavy casualties, but ultimately also in the end of the Kim regime and a German-type Korean unification by absorption. Under current conditions, it seems very likely that the US will be the dominant external power in such a scenario. This is precisely where the hopes of many optimists rest: China will never let that—a conflict in its backyard and a US-dominated unified Korea—happen, and the US will not risk World War III just to get rid of Kim and his nukes.
The key question is therefore: is there a possible scenario under which China would be willing to look the other way? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Given Mr. Trump’s self-perception as the ultimate deal-maker, there might indeed be a deal that the United States could offer China—one that Beijing would perhaps be tempted to accept.
History is never really a blueprint for the future, but it provides general hints at possibilities. In 1905, Japan and the United States concluded the so-called Taft-Katsura Memorandum, named after the two men who have signed it: William Howard Taft, US Secretary of War, and Japanese Premier Taro Katsura. Although there is a debate over how much of an actual agreement and how “secret” the document was, its contents and the circumstances under which it emerged suggest that “Japan renounced any aggressive designs on the Philippine Islands in return for America’s acquiescence in Japan’s subjugation of Korea.”
Fast forward to 2018, the scenario for a new version of Taft-Katsura could look something like this: China promises to remain neutral in the case of a US military intervention in North Korea and a subsequent unification under South Korean leadership, in return for America’s acquiescence in the PRC’s “reunification” with Taiwan.
A closer look at the involved interests reveals that this scenario might not be the complete nonsense that it seems to be at first glance.
Xi Jinping’s remarks at the National People’s Congress in March 2018 made it obvious that Beijing is very interested in reestablishing its control over Taiwan. This has since 1949 been one of the PRC’s major foreign policy priorities. Beijing regards the island as a renegade province that must be brought back under its control. US resistance to such a position has been half-hearted. On the one hand, Washington accepted in 1971 that the PRC would replace Taiwan in the United Nations and all its related organizations. On the other hand, the US military has guaranteed Taiwan’s independence and has a set of agreements in place that are designed to deter any Chinese attempt at forcible reunification. In December 2016, Donald Trump, then president-elect, held a direct phone conversation with the Taiwanese president and thus caused fears in Beijing that he would be more supportive of Taiwan’s independence than his predecessors. However, in February 2017, Trump assured Xi Jinping in a phone call that he would abide by the “one China policy.” Ever since, Trump has refrained from irritating China over the Taiwan issue.
Concerning Korea, it is clear that the US has a number of strong interests on the peninsula. The North Korean nuclear threat has been repeatedly singled out as one of the gravest challenges to American security and that of its allies. That said, the alliance with South Korea has been strong for many decades and offers a number of advantages in dealing with a rising China.
China’s interest in Taiwan and US interests in Korea are undisputed. What is less apparent is if and why the US could be willing to give up Taiwan, and why China could be ready to give up Korea.
To begin with, unlike in the case of Korea, not a single US soldier has died in defense of Taiwan against a Communist attack. The island is of strategic value to the US but also a dangerous tripwire that could draw Washington into a conflict it does not want, or at a time that is not convenient. Some scholars assert that this strategic value might even be in decline. Economically, the relative value of Taiwan is still strong but decreasing; it has dropped from rank 8 among the major importers of goods from the US in 2004 to rank 11 in early 2018. The controversy over President Trump’s phone conversation with Tsai Ing-wen suggests that he might see the bilateral relationship as a diplomatic liability. If China finds a soft, non-military way of taking over Taiwan, the United States would certainly protest loudly. But would it intervene militarily?
However, even if the above is true, there is still Korea. It has for years and very convincingly been argued that an extension of the US zone of influence up to the Chinese border would be unacceptable to Beijing both from military and political points of view. US troops at the Yalu would be a direct threat to Beijing’s security, and an inconceivable loss of face for a country that is about to become more assertive in its foreign policy and steps up efforts to establish itself as a protective power in the region, which inevitably means pushing the United States out of such a role. Under such circumstances, yielding to the major competitor seems unthinkable. So is that the end to any speculation about a Taft-Katsura 2.0 type of arrangement? Not necessarily.
There is no need for American troops to stay permanently north of the 38th parallel in case of an accomplished Korean unification. A secret deal between Washington and Beijing could include such a face-saving provision. Moreover, who in China would dare to criticize Xi Jinping for allowing the US to take care of a regime that is increasingly unpopular amongst many Chinese when at the same time he made Taiwan rejoin the motherland?
Furthermore, an American presence in a unified Korea would not be easily sustainable, once the justification provided by the North Korean threat is gone. China would just have to wait for a decade or two, and every now and then give financial and moral support to domestic Korean movements who will more or less kindly ask Uncle Sam to leave a now unified and peaceful, independent and strongly nationalist Korea. In the end, Beijing could have its cake and eat it, too: Taiwan a part of China, Korea unified and a close ally.
All this speaks against a US support of such a deal if we assume a long-term strategy. But how would Trump see it? By the time all this unfolds, he will long be a former president and perhaps not even be alive anymore. Even if so, he would as usual blame everybody else for this gaffe in American foreign policy. But in the short run, which seems to be his primary concern, he could pride himself in having solved the Korean problem—great reelection talking points.
Needless to say such an arrangement would mean huge and incalculable risks for the people of Taiwan and of Korea. The actual outcomes would be very uncertain, to say the least. Furthermore, it is far from obvious that politicians in Beijing and Washington would be bold enough to engage in such a gamble, and that they trust each other enough to keep their respective part of the horse-trade. But as a matter of fact, similar deals have been struck before. We do know that Korea was a colony of Japan for 35 years, and the Philippines were effectively under US trusteeship for almost half a century.
Against this background, some of the more recent events would merit a reinterpretation.
When Kim Jong Un went to Beijing in late March 2018, he might have been heeding the old advice to keep one’s enemies closer. Kim not only wants the Chinese on board, he wants them under control. This was reaffirmed by the astounding implication in the Panmunjom Declaration that China might or might not be on board in Korean peace talks.
South Korea has been contributing its share, too. It is no coincidence that the Kim-Trump summit was announced in March by two South Koreans—after they had briefed the US President on their talks with Kim Jong Un. In late April, President Moon Jae-in even hinted at the prospect of a Nobel Peace Prize for Donald Trump to keep him interested.
Kim Jong Un’s grandfather had in the 1950s successfully played Beijing and Moscow against each other. Today it looks like the two Koreas have joined forces for a similar high-stakes game and are manipulating the Great Powers in a concerted effort. Out of painful historic experience leading to colonization in 1910 and national division in 1945, Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel are seriously concerned that great powers could again decide their fate above their heads. The last thing they want is a secret deal between Beijing and Washington, be it Taft-Katsura 2.0 or any other agreement that goes against Korea’s national interest. To end on a happy note: Such shared nationalist concerns could turn out to be the magic glue that helps the two Koreas to overcome their many and seemingly insurmountable differences.
Disclaimer: All this is purely speculative. I have no evidence or indication whatsoever that any of what will follow in the next paragraphs is going to happen or has any support from any decision maker in Beijing or Washington.
Raymond A. Esthus. “The Taft-Katsura Agreement – Reality or Myth?” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Mar., 1959), pp. 46-51.
Point 3/3: “During this year that marks the 65th anniversary of the armistice, South and North Korea agreed to actively pursue trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States and China with a view to declaring an end to the War and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime.”