Gordon Chang, Author and Analyst of Asia’s Future, Addresses a Reconstituted Korea: An Interview with Gordon Chang

Many of our readers are familiar with the insights of Gordon G. Chang, author and prolific writer on Asia and the Chinese economy, who now brings us his thoughts on what the Korean Peninsula would look like if the United States were forced to defend itself from a nuclear attack or continued threat to its homeland and allies. This conversation with The Liberty provides crucial thinking into the social, economic and political toll such a post-war future would look like for Korea. The Liberty is privileged to share his contribution.


About Gordon G. Chang: Gordon G. Chang is the author The Coming Collapse of China and Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World, both from Random House. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, The National Interest, The Weekly Standard, and National Review among other publications. He has given briefings at the National Intelligence Council, the CIA, the State Department, and the Pentagon. He has spoken at the Council on Foreign Relations, The Heritage Foundation, The Brookings Institution, Bloomberg, Sanford Bernstein, Royal Bank of Scotland, Credit Lyonnais Securities Asia, and other institutions. Chang has appeared on CNN, Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, MSNBC, CNBC, PBS, and Bloomberg Television. He is a frequent co-host and guest on The John Batchelor Show. He has given testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He is a columnist at The Daily Beast.

Interviewer: Hanako Cho


What Is the Likelihood of Regime Change?

Interviewer: President Trump said at the United Nations that if the United States is forced to defend itself or its allies, they will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. And if it were to come to that, what would happen after Trump destroyed North Korea — although Rex Tillerson keeps saying he’s not thinking about regime change?


The Role of Seoul

The State Department has made it very clear that they are not out for regime change, but if there were general conflict on the Korean Peninsula, the North Korean state would eventually be “totally destroyed,” to borrow President Trump’s phrase. Seoul would want to govern the entire Korean Peninsula because that’s been their aim. China, of course, may not want that and so there could be a conflict with the Chinese on one side and South Korea and the United States on the other. And we would have irreconcilable goals because the Chinese very well may want a buffer state preventing South Korea and the United States from being on the Chinese border. So there could be conflict between those two great opposing forces.


The China Question

Interviewer: Between Seoul and Washington and China, you mean?

Gordon Chang: Yes, between Seoul and Washington on the one side, and Beijing on the other, because the Chinese would want to secure weapons of mass destruction as we would want to do as well. We can work out some accommodation on that, but the Chinese want something else, something that is irreconcilable with our goals. They want the North’s archives. They want the archives because they hope to prevent the world from knowing about their complicity in the North Korean weapons programs and other crimes. And I don’t think Seoul would want to let the Chinese have that. And that is one of the reasons why I think the Chinese don’t want to talk to us about what would happen on the failure of the North Korean regime because they’ve got their own plans and they don’t want us to interfere with them.

Interviewer: They don’t want to reveal any contingency plans because, according to the Wall Street Journal, in case of emergency, they want to be able to launch these covert contingency activities if needed, but the Chinese have not been cooperative on that issue.

Gordon Chang: Yes. The Chinese have rebuffed continual American attempts to talk to them about what would happen on the failure of the North Korean regime. Now there have been some discussions, but those discussions have generally involved Seoul and Washington talking about what we want and the Chinese just listening and not really contributing. And so that, of course, is not an ideal state of affairs because it could mean that at a time when you have the Chinese Army moving south, and South Korea and the US moving north, that there could be a conflict as these two opposing armies meet each other. And as I mentioned, not all of our goals are compatible. So, lack of meaningful discussions between the two sides is dangerous and is a cause of concern.


The Possibility of Chinese Ground Troops

Interviewer: According to the WSJ’s article, the Chinese government would send troops on the ground if the United States attacked North Korea without getting Beijing’s approval. Do you think this kind of scenario would happen?

Gordon Chang: It’s very possible it would happen. The United States doesn’t have a good track record in figuring out the Chinese with regard to the Korean Peninsula. We know that because in 1950 General Douglas MacArthur, who was in command of US and UN forces, assured President Truman that the Chinese were not going to come in on the side of the North Koreans. And as history has shown, he was 100% wrong on that. Right now, we assume the Chinese wouldn’t move south or wouldn’t support the North Koreans. I don’t know. This is something where we don’t have complete visibility. And, so, I’m very concerned that the Chinese could very well decide that it is in their interest to support Kim Jong-un and the North Korean regime, and that would bring them into conflict with the United States.

Interviewer: On the ground?

Gordon Chang: On the ground, in the air, on the water. This could be an all-encompassing struggle.


A Joint Seoul-Washington Decision of the Reestablishment of the Post Kim Jong-un Regime

Interviewer: So, you mean, in that case, Donald Trump will be taking responsibility after the Kim Jong-un regime has gone to reestablish the region? Or is he going to entrust this responsibility to the United Nations, or China, or Russia, or Seoul?

Gordon Chang: Yes. I think that what we’re going to see in the case of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula is that this is not going to be a UN decision. In effect, it’s going to be a US decision along with the South Koreans because we have an integrated command with Seoul. Our forces train together, practice together, and so we work very closely with each other, and this I think is going to be a joint Seoul, Washington decision. And it’s hard to say, of course, because we’re talking about a situation which is– for most people — it’s inconceivable that it would occur. Obviously, it would be a momentous decision, so it’s very hard for us right now, in a peacetime setting, to be able to grapple with what actually would happen. Especially when we don’t know what the Chinese attitude is going to be on these issues. And indeed, we’ve got some indications that the Chinese would oppose us. So, we’ve all got to be very concerned about what would happen on a failure of the North Korean regime or in the case of a war on the Peninsula.


The Economic Impact of Reconstruction

Interviewer: You said that the unification of North and South would be the most expensive attempt in history. What do you mean by that?

Gordon Chang: Well, we have one example, the unification of Germany after the end of the Cold War, with West Germany and East Germany joining together. That was expensive, but it would not be nearly as expensive as unification of Korea because North Korea is much poorer than East Germany was. And the gap is so much bigger on the Korean Peninsula than it was in Germany. And indeed, if we’re talking about unification after the war, there’s going to be general devastation. Not only in North Korea, but also in South Korea, so this would be an extremely expensive project. We could be talking trillions of dollars.

Interviewer: Trillions?

Gordon Chang: Not just hundreds of billions. So, this dwarfs the costs of the unification of Germany.

Interviewer: So you mean South Korea by itself cannot sustain the budget to reunify the North and South?

Gordon Chang: Yes, I mean, this could conceivably be a $5 trillion project. We’re talking about an international effort that would involve not just the United States, but Japan, and others. This could be a global effort in Korea because there’s going to be an enormous requirement for cash for rebuilding. Now, ultimately, this would be a very good story because everybody will benefit, but that’s in the long term. In the short term, the humanitarian crisis will dwarf anything that we have seen up to now.


Comparison to the Unification of Germany

Interviewer: What is the difference between the reunification of Germany and Korea?

Gordon Chang: Well, the unification of Germany was not after a war. I mean, there was a Cold War, but that was not a shooting war. The unification of Korea is probably going to follow a real war. The devastation could be horrific. Casualty estimates for war on the Korean Peninsula are in the millions. Also, even if there were no war, North Korea right now in many parts is not just destitute. It is a 19th-century sort of existence for North Korean peasants, and so the gap between the standard of living in North Korea and in South Korea is enormous. Therefore, whether it’s a peacetime or a wartime unification, it’s going to be extremely expensive. Much more expensive than Germany because the two Germany’s — although there was a gap, the gap was not nearly as big as it is today on the Korean Peninsula.


Bearing the Cost of Reconstruction

Interviewer: So you don’t think that unification of Germany would be a model for Korea?

Gordon Chang: Well, there’re certain things that the Koreans could learn from the successful integration of East Germany and West Germany, but then again, there’s a lot that’s going to be different. And so, I think at this point, we have to assume that it’s going to be the most expensive reconstruction project in history. And we can assume that the South Koreans won’t be able to bear this by themselves. We can assume that the United States will not be able to bear this — I think that we’re talking about a global effort to reconstitute what is now North Korea. So, the unification of the Korean Peninsula is going to be something much larger than people expect. Indeed, when we look back in the 1980s, the South Koreans were always talking about unification as a goal, and they were serious about it. After the South Koreans saw the unification of Germany, however, they said, “Oh, no. We still want unification, but decades and decades into the future after North Korea has been able to raise its standard of living.” The South Koreans were really frightened by the cost and the complication of what happened in Germany, and that’s assuming that there is general peace on the peninsula, but if this occurs after a war, the costs go up substantially. So, at this point, the South Koreans look at this whole issue of reunification and say, “Oh, this is something well into the future,” because they don’t want to bear the cost of what it would take to actually integrate the two Koreas.


Democratization on its Border: The Threat to China

Interviewer: Would the fall of North Korea influence China in terms of democratization?

Gordon Chang: I think the Chinese are very concerned about any sort of democratization on their borders. They’re certainly concerned about Taiwan. We can see their real concern about what’s going on in Hong Kong right now. And Hong Kong is not moving towards democracy. Hong Kong is a case where China is renouncing, essentially, its obligations under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. They’re trying to smother any sort of representative governance in Hong Kong. So, if they’re concerned about Hong Kong, you can imagine how they’d feel about the Chinese people learning that North Korea had failed — a government like China’s had failed — and that a democracy was taking shape. I think Chinese leaders would be hysterical. I mean we can just see their reaction to what’s going on in Taiwan. We can see their reaction to Hong Kong. They certainly are going to view that as a mortal threat. This is not just a question of securing weapons of mass destruction or whatever; this is the Chinese leadership perceiving a mortal threat to their form of governance.

Interviewer: I recently interviewed a defector from North Korea who told me that if the North Korean regime falls, it would inevitably influence China in terms of democratization because the border is near and the North Korean and Chinese people are going back and forth so they can influence each other. Thus, it’s highly possible that China will be influenced by the North when it falls. What is your take on this?

Gordon Chang: I think the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Armed Police would be patrolling that border. It’s a border that could be controlled because it’s formed by three natural barriers: The Tumen River, the Yalu River, and Mount Paektu, which is an active volcano. I think the Chinese would actually shut that border down with the People’s Armed Police and the People’s Liberation Army.


Leadership After the Fall of North Korea

Interviewer: Who are the most appropriate leaders to govern the 25 million North Korean people? Right now, people are not educated to become citizens to govern their own country, and they have been enslaved for such a long period. So, I don’t think there are appropriate leaders inside North Korea. So who is going to be an appropriate leader for the North Korean people?

Gordon Chang: Well, that’s a great question. I think that if you asked South Korea, they would say that it’s the government of the Republic of Korea, the South Korean government,. And obviously, North Koreans right now are not accustomed to having a say in their own lives, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea is one of the most repressive states — so it would take a little bit of time for South Korea to come in and try to not only reconstitute the economy there, but to get North Koreans used to the idea that they would have a say in their own governance and that they would be responsible for themselves. So that would be a major undertaking, in addition to everything else.

Interviewer: So, it may take a decade or more than two decades?

Gordon Chang: It’d take several decades.

Interviewer: Several decades?

Gordon Chang: I mean we’ve seen– you got the example of East Germany, a successful integration, but that took a very long time. There were a lot of complications, especially in the beginning. We can expect much the same in terms of the reunification of Korea, only the problems would be much bigger than they were in Germany.


America’s Possible Stance: Nation Building?

Interviewer: What will America’s stance be? Is it going to treat North Korea like Iraq or Afghanistan, or stay away from nation building?

Gordon Chang: I could not really say. The United States, obviously, would have a large role in stabilizing the situation. The first job is going to be providing food, water, shelter, all the rest of what is needed for the North Koreans. And the idea would be to do that in their own villages so that they would stay in place, so you wouldn’t have these mass migrations of North Koreans. Because the North Koreans probably would move south into South Korea, and that would entail an enormous strain on the South Korean government. The idea would be to stabilize the situation in the north. That’s going to require enormous effort, and it’s going to require the US military, and it’s going to require US aid, and as I mentioned, it’s going to require aid from the entire international community, because the humanitarian crises would be unimaginable. This is going to be very different than Iraq, or Afghanistan, or anything else. It’s going to be on an order of magnitude greater.


The Role of China in Supporting North Korea After the Fall of the Regime

Interviewer: Do you think the Chinese government will share the burden with the US government to support North Korea after the fall of the regime?

Gordon Chang: That’s certainly a possibility. Now, the Chinese government is probably not going to want to bolster the South Korean government, especially when the South Korean government ends up being the government of all Korea. And there have been tensions between Seoul and Beijing as is. So, I’m not so sure that the Chinese are going to be happy about strengthening a democracy that would be on their border. But I don’t really know how the Chinese are going to react, and I’m pretty sure the Chinese don’t know how they’re going to react to something like this. At the moment, they seem to be reacting to what’s going on, and if there are any drivers of what’s going in, they are a guy named Kim Jong Un and a fellow named Donald John Trump. The Chinese are bystanders, and almost seem helpless.


Sharing the Financial Burden

Interviewer: Is there any possibility that Donald Trump will allow the other countries to govern the North such as China, Russia, and Seoul?

Gordon Chang: One of the impulses is going to be to try to get everybody involved because the financial requirements are going to be enormous. I think that will be one of the ideas that people talk about in Washington. Now, I’m not so sure the Chinese are going to buy into that, or the Russians, for a lot of reasons. One of them is that, first of all, Russia doesn’t have the resources to do that. There are so many calls on Chinese resources, and there are going to be much more in the future. The Chinese economy is under strain right now, so I don’t think they really are looking forward to putting a lot of money into North Korea. This is going to be fascinating to see how all of this plays out, but the United States is obviously not going to want to bear all of the financial burden. It can’t. If we’re talking five, six trillion dollars, there’s no government on Earth that can do that by itself.


The Effect of the Chinese Economy on Reconstruction

Interviewer: Do you think the Chinese government has leverage in terms of the economic situation?

Gordon Chang: China has real problems right now, and it’s got enormous commitments. This is just to give you an example: In Venezuela they’ve got a loan exposure of somewhere between 40 to 50 billion dollars. It’s just one country. And you multiply that by China’s commitments, there are so many, the People’s Liberation Army is growing, taking a lot of resources out of the Chinese central government’s budget. I don’t even know if the Chinese really have a lot of money to throw into North Korea. Even if they had enough money, to do it, but then they wouldn’t be doing anything else. They wouldn’t be meeting their other commitments, and their economy is under strain right now. The only reason why it’s growing is because of an unprecedented accumulation of debt, and Chinese leaders don’t know how they can put the Chinese economy on a self-sustaining basis. They’ve got some real issues there, and so I don’t think that they feel that they’ve got the money to put into North Korea. We always say, “Oh, they’ve got $3 trillion of reserves,” but those reserves are already committed.

Interviewer: Already committed?

Gordon Chang: And so they just can’t go out and spend their reserves on the North Koreans. That’s just not going to happen.

Interviewer: So, they don’t have, they will not take initiative to support North Korean after North Korean regime has gone?

Gordon Chang: Yeah, I think the Chinese are going to be very concerned about putting more money into North Korea. They have already got, in effect, a big financial commitment to North Korea. But when we start talking about trillions of dollars to rebuild society, rebuild the economy, they don’t have that money. It is well beyond their ability to handle on their own, and they’re not going to do it. And they are going to be very cautious about this. Especially because they don’t know what type of government is going to result from the reconstitution efforts. And as I’ve mentioned, they’re not going to be happy with the entire Korean Peninsula being governed from Seoul, which is a liberal democracy, allied with the United States, defended by the US. So that is going to be– there are going to be all sorts of issues that Beijing has. In addition to their financial ability to actually rebuild North Korea, it’s going to be an issue of willingness as well.


Changing the Chinese Regime

Interviewer: America is pressuring Chinese banks over North Korea, and if the US continues to pressure China using economic tools, then China might have to alter their regime to be more Western styled in the future. What is really needed to change China’s regime at this time when North Korea might fall?

Gordon Chang: I think that what is needed to change the Chinese regime is outside pressure. Also, if there is a failure of the economy, which I think is coming, then that is going to stir up the Chinese people. The Chinese people have changed their government many times. And we know that there have been two revolutions. There was one in 1911, 1912, and of course the one in 1949. In thousands and thousands of years of Chinese history, they’ve had two revolutions, and both of them have been relatively recent. And so, the Chinese people, I think, want more to say in their lives. They’re certainly cosmopolitan. They know what’s going on outside their borders. And they’re exerting pressure on the communist party. The communist party looks mighty, but it really isn’t. It’s deeply insecure. We know there are stresses and strains in Chinese society that could very well cause a revolutionary change in their form of government.


The Power of Social Media, Outside Pressure and Its Impact on Change in China

Interviewer: You said the outside pressure. What do you mean by outside pressure?

Gordon Chang: The United States and other countries have talked about how the Chinese people should have more say in their lives. At the same time, Beijing is actually trying to subvert democracy outside its borders. The democracies are going to retaliate. And I think then we’re going to see more outside pressure as governments understand that China poses a threat. Americans are starting to understand the threat from Russia because Russia attempted to influence the 2016 Presidential Election. We saw all sorts of evidence of Russia meddling.. We’re starting to perceive Russia as a real threat. I think we’re coming to the same realization about China. And that means we will be exerting more pressure on their form of government as we realize that they are an adversary meaning us harm. That’s why there’s going to be outside pressure on China, more than has been in the past.

Interviewer: Thank you so much for taking your time to discuss these issues with me.

Gordon Chang: Well, thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity.

The end of interview

Gordon Chang, Author and Analyst of Asia’s Future, Addresses a Reconstituted Korea: An Interview with Gordon Chang
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