The newspaper-print aphorisms regarding the North Korea question go on endlessly: “the impossible state,” “the land of bad options,” or, in the words of U.S. President Donald Trump, the land of “major, major conflict.” With the development of the Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the North Korean regime has demonstrated weapons systems capable of hitting the United States, injecting a new level of danger and risk into an already perilous dispute. The U.S. foreign policy commentariat, debating how to resolve the crisis, has identified three paths forward: a resumption of dialogue with the North, the ordering of a massive preemptive strike against North Korean nuclear and missile facilities, or the imposition of so-called “secondary sanctions” against Chinese firms that allow North Korean elites to wiggle out of sanctions using their services.
Permutations of the first option have been tried before with little success. The North Koreans circumvented the plutonium freeze requirements of the 1994 Agreed Framework by developing a uranium enrichment program, and the Six Party Talks of the early 2000s foundered toward the end of the Bush administration. Meanwhile, an attack on North Korea’s nuclear and missile infrastructure, whether preemptive or preventive in nature, would undoubtedly incur a massive and grisly retaliation on an allied population.
The secondary sanctions option, however, gets one thing right: understanding that China is the key means to establishing a satisfactory Korean peninsula end. Behind North Korea’s transition from a purely command economy to a crony capitalist system, and its 1-5 percent yearly growth, lies Chinese acquiescence to the usage of Chinese firms and territory for the avoidance of UN sanctions. However, given the geopolitical importance China places on North Korea – as a buffer against the encroachment of rich, liberal democracies toward its border – China is unlikely to be decoupled from North Korea through coercive means alone. Indeed, beyond the benefits of maintaining the buffer zone, American involvement on the Korean peninsula occupies scarce resources, troops, and facilities that may be used elsewhere (like the South or East China Sea). In the face of repeated North Korean provocations and horrendous human rights abuses, China has stood by its Stalinist ally.
China likely understands that there are simply too many interest groups in America and in allied nations pining for exceptions and loopholes to ensure the effective implementation of secondary sanctions. Or, as in the Banco Delta Asia case, sanctioned or frozen money can then be demanded by the North Koreans as a precondition to any negotiations, as was the case with the Six Party Talks. Any such loopholes or exceptions would weaken the secondary sanctions regime.
Instead of coercion, then, the United States should play the “China card” through diplomatic deal making, particularly by offering the prospect of a “Finlandized” Korea to China. Building on the work of Robert Kelly and Michael Swaine, the idea of a Finlandized Korea would involve flipping the China card on its head. After a period of intense negotiation with its allies to ensure a common front, the United States would approach China with an offer: the withdrawal of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) and the removal of the American extended deterrence guarantee (after unification) in return for verifiable Chinese steps to cut off North Korea once and for all. America could, for instance, first withdraw the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system from South Korea in exchange for a Chinese banking cutoff, with the final step being the revocation of the extended deterrence guarantee and the dissolution of the joint U.S.-ROK military command following unification.
The logic follows that upon withdrawal of Chinese aid and sanctions-evading services, the North Korean regime will finally enter an irrecoverable death spiral and collapse. Meanwhile, China will have received American security guarantees ensuring that there is no USFK presence on its border after unification. With expectations more firmly in place, the danger of accidental war with China (or even Russia) in the uncertainty and friction of a unification event will be significantly curtailed. Further, the United States would be free to reposition the F-16 and A-10 strike fighters of the 7th Air Force currently stationed in Korea elsewhere in the Asia Pacific, while the counter-battery artillery units and air/missile defense forces of the 8th Army could be repositioned in Europe. Maintaining the extended deterrence guarantee and a token headquarters component until post-unification would ensure that, even if conflict does occur, it would largely be kept to the peninsula and not involve nuclear weapons – lest the first use of nuclear warheads by the North Koreans invite a crushing American nuclear response in turn.
In response to the Finlandization proposal, opponents have offered several engaging and thought-provoking criticisms that deserve further rebuttal. These criticisms are as follows: that the Finlandization proposal would unacceptably erode U.S. alliance credibility in Asia and around the world, that a unified Korea would be left at the mercy of its great power neighbors, and that a Finlandization proposal would fail in the U.S. Congress. Each deserves consideration in turn.
Perhaps the most damning critique is that the Finlandization proposal would unacceptably damage U.S. alliance credibility to the point at which allies, especially those in the Asia-Pacific, would seriously question whether America will continue to uphold its treaty commitments. Robert Manning and James Przystup, writing in rebuttal to Kelly, charge that the Finlandization proposal would “go over the heads” of the Japanese and would “raise doubts about U.S. alliance commitment.” These are fair criticisms, but are more appropriate for the sort of Finlandization (truthfully, more like wholesale withdrawal) advocated by President Jimmy Carter, who pushed for removal of U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula in the 1976 presidential campaign. To be sure, introducing a major piece of alliance policy on the campaign trail without any prior consultation with those friendly nations will indeed lead to reduced credibility – not to mention the fact that Carter put withdrawal on the table without expecting anything in return.
It is certainly true that a Finlandization policy would be a difficult needle to thread, and there is little doubt that it would have to be agreed to by both South Korea and Japan before proceeding to negotiations with China. Japan could be reassured of continued U.S. commitment by promising that, per mutual understanding under the U.S.-Japan status of forces agreement, elements of the 7th Air Force could be re-stationed at U.S. air bases in Japan for use in a South or East China sea contingency. Korean conservatives would be mollified by a U.S. commitment to sign a Taiwan Relations Act analogue (call it a “Korea Relations Act”) ensuring some kind of U.S. military commitment to Korea after a small period of non-alignment post-unification.
Discussion of the Taiwan Relations Act further highlights another point at which criticisms of the Korea Finlandization proposal fall flat: the damage to U.S. prestige by “withdrawal.” Manning and Przystup levy that the Finlandization policy will engender “Chinese hegemony,” a common charge among China hawks. In fact, viewing the Finlandization policy in a historical context reveals a useful template: the drawing-down of the U.S.-Taiwan alliance in the 1970s.
As Michael Green points out in By More Than Providence, no less a China hand than Richard Nixon once warned that “terminat[ing] a defense treaty [the U.S.-ROC treaty] could sow seeds of doubt about us, particularly in Asia.” And yet, after drawing down the United States-Taiwan Defense Command, dissolving the Taiwan Patrol Force, and withdrawing the 327th Air Division, there was little change in the deterrence relationship among China, Taiwan, and the United States. Because of a concerted American effort to maintain a defense-industrial relationship with Taiwan, a commitment to increasing the capacity of the Taiwanese military, and shrewd diplomacy with China, a (largely) consistent mutual deterrence relationship persists. Considering how the shift from a U.S.-ROC alliance to the Taiwan Relations Act did not destabilize the deterrence relationship (aside from occasional periods of tension), it is unlikely that a move from a U.S.-ROK alliance to a “Korea Relations Act” with a unified Korea would undermine the stability of the American deterrent in East Asia.
The final criticism, that the policy would fail in the American Congress, has significant merit. It is indeed probable that American congressional leaders would rail against the Finlandization policy as a “withdrawal” or “capitulation,” thus necessitating a strong and steady executive hand to guide the policy through to ultimate implementation. However, it is unlikely that Congress has the legal authority to block the executive from terminating the alliance after the conclusion of the Finlandization deal. Again examining the Taiwan case, Green writes that a congressional suit filed against the executive to block the termination of the U.S.-ROC alliance failed in the Supreme Court 7 to 2. Beyond the legalistic arguments of whether Congress has the power to stop executive termination of the alliance, it is almost certain that, if America’s Japanese and South Korean allies are brought on board with the Finlandization policy, the president would have a powerful argument in his favor against congressional resistance to the policy as a “capitulation.”
In conclusion, understanding the merits of the Finlandization policy requires a clear-eyed understanding of what the policy is and is not meant to accomplish. To be sure, this proposal will not remove all risk from the Korean peninsula conflict. Indeed, in the short term, it is possible that an alienated and isolated North Korea may seek to lash out. The risk of North-South conflict by accident or miscalculation would remain. Yet, the objective of the policy is instead to curtail the far deadlier risk of a general war between China and the United States sparked amidst the heat and friction of a unification event, before which the two sides had had zero consultation.
If completed successfully, the policy would allow a true American rebalancing to a Mahanian offshore balancing position and inject major trust into the U.S.-China relationship by proving to the Chinese that America is not intent on repeating the mad rush to the Yalu of the early Korean war. Opponents in Congress could be bought off by framing the Finlandization policy as a push-back against China where Beijing harbors revisionist designs, like the East or South China Seas. The voice of America’s Japanese and South Korean allies, critical to the undertaking of the Finlandization policy, would by necessity be taken into consideration when designing the specifics of the negotiating posture. Ensuring a rebalancing of power-projection forces like strike aircraft currently stationed on the peninsula to Japan or other U.S. bases in the Pacific could help mollify an anxious Tokyo. Negotiations with Seoul could begin from an American guarantee that the extended deterrence guarantee will be in place until after unification is complete – recognizing that the major American interest on the Korean peninsula is not just the defense of democracy (the South Koreans now wield a conventional force capable of that), but in preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction or the spreading of the conflict elsewhere in Northeast Asia.
If the United States can regularly and accurately define its ends and means, with consistent declaratory policy and constant consultation on all sides, the Finlandization proposal will both manage continued American strategic power despite a relative decline and curtail the risk of a terrible war on and beyond the Korean peninsula.
Ben Rimland is a recent graduate of the Modern Japanese Studies MPhil at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, where his research addressed maritime security and the Japanese foreign policy bureaucracy. A graduate of Columbia University, he is currently an independent researcher on Asia security issues. He tweets at @brim1and.