Trump and North Korea: military action will be a disaster, so a more patient, thoughtful solution is required



File 20170420 2401 1hijz4d
North Koreans react as they march past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a military parade.
Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Benjamin Habib, La Trobe University

Pundits often cite the North Korean regime’s crimes against its citizens as proof of Kim Jong-un’s irrationality as a leader. These crimes, as exhaustively documented by former High Court justice Michael Kirby for the UN Human Rights Council, are monstrous and inexcusable. The Conversation

Grave as they are, they do follow a discernible logic from the perspective of Kim’s efforts to consolidate his regime’s hold on power. Perversely, US President Donald Trump’s sabre-rattling plays into Kim’s logic of domestic power that positions the US as a dire threat, justifying the regime’s political repression.

William Perry, US under secretary of state during the Clinton administration, has contended that Trump’s military brinkmanship increases the likelihood of coercing North Korea back to denuclearisation negotiations. This is the ground that a heightened threat of American attack will prompt Kim to recalculate the benefits of continued nuclear proliferation.

But this scenario is only credible if Trump intends following through on the threat. This now appears more questionable given the controversy over the exact location of the USS Carl Vinson.

Having established the foolishness of attacking North Korea in my previous article, I’d now like to prompt discussion on a couple of points.

The first is how the “irrational Kim” rhetoric limits our ability to understand the complexity of the crisis in North Korea. This creates risks that perversely would compromise human rights and humanitarian goals.

The second is to explore other options for improving human rights and humanitarian outcomes for North Koreans beyond the threat and application of military force.

There is much emotion in debates over North Korea, and rightly so. Many North Korenas have experienced much suffering and trauma, as well as the lingering anguish of the Korean War and the separation of families by the partition of Korea.

This is precisely why analysts need to carefully weigh up the risks and rewards of policy choices: to do justice to that suffering, and to ensure we do not recommend misadventures that could add further misery to the North Korean people.

First, don’t make things worse

Considering the risks to civilians posed by a war of regime change, it is difficult to mount a case for war as a vehicle for improving human rights and humanitarian outcomes for the North Korean people.

The discourse on human rights in North Korea has long been framed through the lens of national security. Policy issues become “securitised” when proponents of an issue area frame it as an existential security threat, of high priority, that requires extraordinary measures and rapid action to tackle.

Because such issues become framed in the language of security, military-based solutions often come to dominate policy prescriptions. The “crazy Kim” argument has been central to the security rhetoric around human rights in North Korea. This locks possible solutions into a narrow spectrum focused on military force and coercion.

Just as doctors undertake to “first do no harm”, so too should foreign-policy-makers be wary of strategic choices that carry a high risk of making things worse.

Many Korea analysts have pointed to Seoul’s vulnerability, and the risk to millions of South Koreans, posed by a cascading escalation of US military action into full-scale war. That risk also applies to people living in population centres north of the demilitarised zone.

As the Iraq example again illustrates, removing a dictator in a war of regime change is not a guarantee that human rights and humanitarian outcomes will improve.

According to the Iraq Body Count project, 119,915 Iraqi deaths were verifiably attributed to the conflict in that country from 2003 to 2011. Another study published in PLOS Medicine journal put the death toll at half-a-million Iraqi civilians.

Either way, this death toll and suffering escalated well beyond the scale of human rights abuses and deaths that occurred under Saddam Hussein’s regime. This is not to downplay the suffering of those persecuted under Hussein, but to recognise that the invasion of Iraq made a bad situation worse.

Could we see similar casualty numbers in a war in North Korea?

North Korea is an urbanised country. Approximately 60% of people are concentrated in larger urban centres. In the event of full-scale escalation, air strikes are likely to target critical infrastructure in an effort to weaken the fighting and logistical capacity of the Kim regime. Many of these targets will be in urban centres, exposing civilians to attack.

We should be mindful of the humanitarian cost of the damage of war to the North Korean economy, industry, agriculture and key infrastructure. Targeting of critical energy, transportation and sanitation infrastructure will no doubt weaken North Korea’s fighting capacity, but also eliminate those critical services for civilians. Food production and distribution networks are likely to be disrupted.

For a country that is already chronically food insecure, any damage to food production and distribution systems will have immediate impacts on increasing malnutrition and starvation. Consider that estimates of deaths from North Korea’s “Arduous March” famine in the mid-1990s sit at approximately 600,000 after the collapse of the country’s food production and distribution system.

The elimination of services for civilians is likely to increase the risk of non-combat casualties from malnutrition, disease, and the elements – particularly during North Korea’s harsh winter.

If such a war ends quickly and an occupation force arrives in North Korea to restore security, casualty figures will be still be high. However, some of the longer-term impacts of human insecurity might be avoided.

However, in the event the post-regime environment is unstable, then casualty figures for North Koreans on a scale similar to Iraq become more likely.

Creating an environment for positive human rights outcomes

Removing Kim Jong-un as the head of the regime does not automatically translate into a win for human rights. A lot of post-conflict nation-building has to take place if a war scenario is to transcend the immediate humanitarian disaster and create an environment in which human rights for the North Korean people can be improved.

Human rights are best guaranteed by stable governance, strong political institutions, legal protections, active civil society, and broad material wellbeing. A post-conflict North Korea in which the Kim regime has been removed would effectively be a failed state. None of these facilitating conditions for human rights guarantees would yet exist.

It takes time and resources to cultivate the institutions of a stable state. It requires many years of patient networking, conversation and compromise to develop a social movement that could evolve into an active civil society. It takes even longer to cultivate a political culture in which the citizenry respects the integrity of the political system even when their faction is not in power.

Without this social infrastructure, Kim Jong-un’s removal is likely to lead to the disintegration of North Korea into a failed state, paving the way for the emergence of another authoritarian strongman.

In South Korea, it took more than 40 years after the conclusion of the Korean War, an ongoing American military occupation, and the development of a broad-based pro-democracy movement, for an imperfect democratic political system to evolve.

To suggest this process could be circumvented in North Korea does not accord with the findings of research into democratisation and social movements. These norms, rules and institutions should ideally be developed by the North Korean people over time, not impatiently imposed from outside by other powers.

It is doubtful that Trump – and, more importantly, his core political support base – has the stomach for the massive long-term, high-cost commitment that nation-building in a post-Kim North Korea would entail.

Where to from here?

One could be forgiven for observing the current US-North Korea standoff as a game played by privileged men in suits on either side, gambling with the lives of ordinary citizens. Millions of lives on both sides of the demilitarised zone and beyond are placed at unnecessary risk through such high-stakes brinkmanship.

It is easy for leaders to talk tough on non-proliferation and human rights enforcement. But it is quite another to bring about international norms in these fields in such a tricky strategic context as the Korean Peninsula.

Unfortunately, Trump’s penchant for military posturing does little to increase the likelihood of denuclearising North Korea, or improving human rights outcomes for its citizens.

Instead, the Trump administration’s bellicose rhetoric inadvertently legitimises North Korea’s justifications for its nuclear weapons program, along with the domestic coercive apparatus that persecutes North Korean citizens.

Guaranteeing human rights in North Korea will ultimately require new institutions, new laws, a domestic civil society, cultural change, and a process of justice for past abuses.

This is a project far beyond the scope of military action, requiring patience, innovative thinking and disciplined strategic restraint on the part of policymakers. And they must recognise the unique strategic circumstances of the Korean Peninsula.

Benjamin Habib, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What happened in New Zealand’s magnitude 7.5 earthquake


Brendan Duffy, University of Melbourne and Mark Quigley, University of Melbourne

At least two people have died in the magnitide 7.5 earthquake that struck New Zealand’s South Island early on Monday, local time.

Preliminary modelling suggests that the earthquake was caused by a rupture of a northeast-striking fault that projects to the surface offshore.

But this may be a complex event, involving several faults on the South Island.

The northern part of the South Island straddles the boundary between the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates.

The jostling between these plates pushes up rocks that create mountains including the Southern Alps and the beautiful Seaward Kaikoura Range, one of New Zealand’s most rapidly uplifting mountain ranges.

The plate motion forces the oceanic crust of the Pacific plate beneath the Australian plate on thrust faults, and also causes the plates to slide laterally with respect to one another on strike-slip faults.

The region affected by the recent earthquake has been one of the most seismically active in New Zealand over the past few years, including earthquakes that occurred as part of the Cook Strait earthquake sequence in 2013. It is likely that these sequences are related given their close spatial and temporal association.

What slipped during the earthquake?

The preliminary analysis strongly suggests that most of the energy release during this earthquake was sourced from the rupture of a roughly 200km-long fault system. This fault system is aligned northeast and dips to the northwest, beneath the northern part of the South Island. It coincides roughly with the subduction thrust in this area.

The potential for large earthquakes on the subduction fault in the lower North Island and upper South Island of New Zealand was recently highlighted by GNS Science, New Zealand’s geological survey. It published evidence for two similar events in the Blenheim area roughly 520-470 years ago, and 880-800 years ago.

Given its setting, this latest earthquake may be structurally complex, involving a mixture of plate boundary thrusting, lateral slip on strike-slip faults, and thrusting within the Pacific plate close to the epicentre, some 15km northeast of Culverden.

The largest aftershocks suggest a mixture of thrusting and strike-slip movements.

The damage caused by the earthquake

Because the fault system was large, and the earthquake apparently started at the southwest end of the fault and propagated to the northeast, the seismic energy was released over a period of up to two minutes.

Large earthquakes produce more long period wave energy than smaller events. The 2011 Christchurch earthquake contained a lot of high-frequency energy and very strong ground accelerations, exposing more than 300,000 people to very strong to intense ground shaking.

In contrast, this recent earthquake was manifested in Christchurch as lower-frequency rolling, and due to the sparse population density in the earthquake region, roughly 3,000 people in the upper South Island experienced strong ground shaking equivalent to the Christchurch earthquake.

Reports are emerging of at least one major fracture in the ground surface that could be related to strike-slip faulting in the Clarence region.

More traces may yet be found given the complexity of the earthquake. Tide gauge analysis will help to understand if a similar trace offshore caused the tsunami.

The earthquake has also triggered liquefaction in coastal areas and in susceptible sediments, and landsliding of up to a million cubic metres along steep susceptible cliffs in the northern South Island.

There are reports of extensive road damage including in the area between Hanmer Springs and Culverden, much of State Highway 1 and even Wellington, on the North Island.

Most of this damage is probably caused by strong ground shaking, which causes weak ground to move en masse and has resulted in numerous slips and road closures in the central and northern South Island.

Earthquakes, aftershocks and the pull of the moon

Given the earthquake happened on the eve of a supermoon full moon, and the closest the Earth and moon will be since 1948, it wasn’t long before some tried to make a connection.

But the tidal triggering of earthquakes has been investigated since the 19th century and remains a challenging and controversial field.

Small amplitude and large wavelength tidal deformations of the Earth due to motions of the sun and moon influence stresses in Earth’s lithosphere.

It is possible that, for active faults that are imminently close to brittle failure, small tidal force perturbations could be enough to advance rupture relative to the earthquake cycle, or to allow a propagating rupture to travel further than it might otherwise have done.

But the specific time, magnitude and location of this or any other large earthquake has not been successfully predicted in the short-term using tidal stresses or any other possible precursory phenomenon.

Deliberately vague predictions that provide no specific information about the precise location and magnitude of a future earthquake are not predictions at all. Rather, these are hedged bets that get media air time due to the romantic misinterpretation that they were valid predictions.

Most earthquake scientists, including those that research tidal triggering of earthquakes, highlight the importance of preparedness over attempts at prediction when it comes to public safety.

To this end, GNS Science uses a system of operational earthquake forecasts to communicate earthquake risk to concerned New Zealand residents during an aftershock sequence such as we are now entering.

These forecasts are based on earthquake physics and statistical seismology. The current operational forecast indicates an 80% probability of:

A normal aftershock sequence that is spread over the next few months. Felt aftershocks (e.g. M>5) would occur from the M7.5 epicentre near Culverden, right up along the Kaikoura coastline to Cape Campbell over the next few weeks and months.

This aftershock sequence will probably (98%) include several large aftershocks (some greater than magnitude 6 have already occurred), and for each magnitude 6 aftershock we expect 10 more magnitude 5 aftershocks over the coming days and weeks.

The Conversation

Brendan Duffy, Lecturer in Applied Geoscience, University of Melbourne and Mark Quigley, Associate professor, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.