Advice Column: CATO’s Doug Bandow on China’s Role

February 6, 2017 7:00 AM

With the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, Witness to Transformation has launched Advice Column. It provides brief summaries—and critiques—of policy proposals advanced by prominent Korea watchers. Past posts are linked below.

Doug Bandow has advanced a libertarian foreign policy that aligns with Trump’s campaign posture on the US-Korea alliance; in one piece for the Huffington Post, he argues that the “U.S.-South Korea Alliance Treats [the] Pentagon as [the] Department of Foreign Welfare” (more recently, see here). He also appears to align with the president in his assessment that the Chinese will be crucial to solving the North Korea problem; his Advice Column entry from CATO, weighing in with no fewer than 146 footnotes, is titled "Will China Solve the North Korea Problem?” A shorter version can be found at The National Interest.

Bandow is right about one point: that any approach to the North has to have a Chinese component. He provides a useful list of all of the reasons why China might be disposed to support the North, in effect, reasons why the sales pitch will be hard. Precisely for that reason, Bandow’s approach is particularly heavy on providing assurances, similar to an earlier proposal we reviewed by Heginbotham and Samuels but even more generous. The pivotal paragraph is worth quoting:

“The resulting offer should be a joint allied product and include a peace treaty, diplomatic recognition, end of sanctions, participation in international agencies and forums, economic aid, removal of U.S. troops from the South, increased inter-Korean contacts, and discussion of reunification. In return, the North would agree to supervised denuclearization and reduction in conventional military tensions. A dialogue over human rights would follow as part of the new relationship.”

Tucked in among the other sensible components of this offer is one thing that has long been a strategic objective of Pyongyang’s and increasingly Beijing as well: pledging a US troop withdrawal. Such an offer is credible coming from Bandow (and Trump) because they do not appear that supportive of the alliance to begin with, despite the fact that it is precisely the strategic tool that the US has to defend South Korea, deter the North and keep the pressure on China to act.

Of course Bandow recognizes that China might say no, and walks through a litany of ways that we should not pressure Beijing before landing on the claim that we should dangle the prospect of Korea and Japan going nuclear. Bandow acknowledges that “nonproliferation advocates disdain that option,” and it visibly gives Bandow pleasure that they do. But if someone were looking for entry into the Trump administration, this piece would be a pretty good calling card, as it checks virtually all the poorly-conceived elements of the Trump approach: that we can fully outsource the North Korea problem to China, that the military component of the alliance can be used as a quid-pro-quo, and that we should welcome a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia. Anyone that works on North Korea understands the frustration and the perennial comeback that nothing else so far has worked. But upending the apple cart in the way that Bandow suggests seems like a pretty risky way to go.  

Advice Column Posts

These posts provide short guides to published policy reports by prominent organizations or individuals on North Korea.

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