War with North Korea: from unthinkable to unavoidable?



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US President Donald Trump’s grasp of most matters in international politics and military affairs is rudimentary. But he’s in charge, so his views bear analysis.
AAP/CrowdSpark

Kim Beazley, University of Western Australia and L Gordon Flake, University of Western Australia

This is an edited extract of Kim Beazley and L. Gordon Flake’s essay in Australian Foreign Affairs 2, Trump in Asia: The New World Disorder.


One of the coldest northern winters for many years proved a piece of good fortune for the Winter Olympics in South Korea, but it may be the last happy moment on the Korean Peninsula for a long time. A war there is a distinct possibility. Some form of military action to disrupt North Korean nuclear weapon developments is even more likely.

Diplomacy may have run its course. We are at the most dangerous moment since the Korean War armistice in 1953. A war today could have unimaginable consequences: a catastrophic death toll, missile strikes beyond the peninsula, the first nuclear bombs to be used in conflict since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The risk has long been real – and in 2018, with Donald Trump in the White House, it is alarmingly high. Events unfolding on the Korean Peninsula and in Washington are pointing in a direction that is difficult, but essential, to contemplate.

A fear of mass civilian casualties and the perception that North Korea has a low bar on pre-emption have haunted US administrations. At least ten major North Korean atrocities and provocations since 1967 have been essentially passed over. The response has been sporadic attempts at diplomacy, backed by ever-tightening sanctions.

The Obama administration, faced with a paucity of good options and a hope that at some point the North Koreans would bend, articulated the Allied tactic as “strategic patience”. The Trump administration has said those days are over.

Insecure enemies

What has changed to bring us to this point? The first shift is the emergence of Kim Jong-un as supreme leader following his father’s death in 2011. Clearly the most insecure of the dynastic line, Kim’s regime has been marked by regular and brutal purges of his retinue and deepening oppression of his people.

North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are entwined with Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy. Recognition of North Korea’s status as a nuclear power is non-negotiable. Last year there were 23 tests of missile capability, culminating in the launch of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). At that point, Kim declared his program “complete”.

Kim’s 2018 New Year statement attracted attention for its outreach to South Korea, an obvious attempt to drive a wedge between the United States and its ally. This produced a flurry of diplomacy to include the North in the Winter Olympics.

For some, this raised hopes. But most observers had the sense that we had been here before, and none should be fooled. More significant was Kim’s indication that North Korea will focus on “mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment”.

The second major change in the Korean situation is the election of US President Donald Trump. Trump’s approach to national security has deviated more from his campaign promises than any other set of policies.

He has dismissed allies, including South Korea, even suggesting that nation might want to provide its own nuclear umbrella. He sensed his voter base was tired of American commitments and wars, yet now finds himself on the verge of a war that would dwarf any in recent times.

Trump’s grasp of most matters in international politics and military affairs is rudimentary. His interventions, by tweet or otherwise, provoke instant mockery among the informed community. But he is the man in charge, and so his views bear close analysis. They reveal his method of processing the information and intelligence he is receiving. In response to a New Year nuclear boast from Kim, Trump tweeted:

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Most commentary mocked this schoolyard exchange, but it was significant. Trump is seriously contemplating a war to disarm North Korea of its weapons.

Man in the middle

It would be folly to assume that Trump’s views are not widely held within his administration. His national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, who has described North Korea as “the greatest immediate threat to the United States”, is a leading proponent of military action.

This has posed some unique challenges for the secretary of defence, Jim Mattis, who understands the scale of a likely conflagration. Mattis has repeatedly warned that a conflict with North Korea would be “catastrophic”, while also providing assurances of the ultimate outcome – total US victory and the end of Pyongyang’s nuclear program – so as to maintain deterrence.

Mattis works in tandem with the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to achieve a diplomatic solution through a tighter sanctions regime. But Mattis matters to Trump; Tillerson doesn’t. Trump was angry about Tillerson’s suggestion that the US was prepared to begin talks with North Korea without preconditions.

Trump is more on song with his UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, who stated in January:

We consider this to be a very reckless regime. We don’t think we need a band-aid and we don’t think we need to smile and take a picture. We think we need to have them stop nuclear weapons and they need to stop it now.

Trump’s principal source of advice is the Pentagon, which for years has worked on military options to pre-empt North Korea. The Pentagon’s primary duty is to work out how things can be done, a different task from saying whether they should be. Those who carry the diplomatic argument are sidelined.

This leaves Mattis in the weighty position of having to find both a solution and the enabling argument.

Battle options

Mattis says the US has some potential military options that would not result in the devastation of Seoul, though he has not provided any details. How would it be done?

An apparent “preferred option” is the use of joint CIA and special forces teams – like those used in Afghanistan in 2001 – to seize the nuclear sites.

However, a covert operation of this kind would probably not be a standalone activity – extensive use of bombers and cruise missiles is likely. The possibility of a broader war through an accident or misinterpretation is substantial.

What would be the North Korean reaction to a limited punitive event? If Kim is as “rational” as is commonly claimed, a cruise missile strike to pre-empt a test would hardly trigger a massive response. Most likely, it would be a hit at a soft South Korean target or military base, or a cyberattack.

But neither a limited operation nor a wholesale assault on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities could be attempted without having in place the mechanisms for an all-out war. Defending Seoul would require the rapid degrading of the mortar, rocket, missile and artillery capabilities ranged against it.

Given the erosion of North Korea’s conventional capabilities, that might be doable. The problem would lie in what Kim might do in a situation where his regime’s survival was in question. Has he secreted nuclear weapons that could unleash devastation on South Korea and Japan? Half-a-dozen weapons would be economy-destroying; a dozen would be civilisation-destroying.

This brings us back to the question of why Trump would try. For him, the game is simple: North Korea shall not have an ICBM.

For the experts and advisers advocating a pre-emptive strike, it goes to the nature of Kim’s regime. North Korea is a nuclear power like no other, and its intentions are an open question. Does North Korea desire a nuclear capability simply for deterrence and regime survival, or does it have a more aggressive ambition to use that capability to try to reunify the peninsula?

Diplomatic alternatives

It is difficult to imagine that a pre-emptive US strike can do anything other than risk the devastation of South Korea and Japan, with dreadful human and environmental consequences. Small wonder former Trump strategist Steve Bannon said, before leaving the White House: “There’s no military solution, forget it.”

There is a closing, not closed, window for diplomacy. Any attack would need to be preceded by a comprehensive diplomatic strategy involving China. The US might want to test the waters with China and North Korea on solutions involving a major stand-down rather than entire elimination of North Korea’s nuclear capability.

We probably have not yet seen the full weight China is capable of bringing to bear on North Korea. It would have to be a great deal to bring Kim to heel, and it is difficult to envisage such an outcome that would not undermine his sense of his regime’s legitimacy.

It is not yet midnight, but as the crisis deepens, the diplomatic and military options get more and more complex. In averting catastrophe, having a bigger nuclear button will not guarantee success. That is obvious to most informed observers.

But is it obvious to Trump? The answer is unknowable. What is certain is that his own sense of legitimacy is bound up in North Korea having no ICBMs. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, puts the prospect of war at 50/50.

The prediction is chilling. This is going to be a hard year.

That judgment remains valid, but last week a sliver of light appeared. Motivated at least in part by concern over the march toward confrontation we describe, both during and after the Olympics South Korean President Moon Jae-in has sought to buy time for diplomacy.

High-level negotiators from the South, following meetings with the North, reported a possibility their counterparts might be prepared to put their nuclear capability on the table in return for security guarantees.

Some analysts suggest the latter means the removal of US forces and guarantees to the South they might think about it, essentially a delaying tactic. Moon wants to test this at a meeting with his counterpart. Trump himself said this might be a start. Certainly in terms of management of allied relationships, the US would want to see what it means, though public statements by the North suggests it is pressing on with the nuclear plan.

Past experience would indicate this is nothing more than an effort at confusion. Still, we don’t know how the other side of the hill interprets Trump’s obvious preparedness for war. The US will certainly need to do some thinking about a matter that has attracted only sporadic attention to date – what does a diplomatic end game look like?

The ConversationOne senses the US clock is still ticking to midnight, and this is not an endless process without credible developments. A hard year ahead remains the case.

Kim Beazley, Senior Fellow, Perth USAsia Centre, University of Western Australia and L Gordon Flake, CEO, Perth USAsia Centre, University of Western Australia

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

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China, North Korea and trade the key talking points when Turnbull meets Trump



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Malcolm Turnbull will be relieved to have some time away from the Barnaby Joyce affair when he arrives in Washington this week.
Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Malcolm Turnbull was no doubt relieved when the prime ministerial jet lifted off from Australian soil yesterday, bound for the United States and his first formal round of discussions in Washington with an American president.

In Turnbull’s own words – applied to Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s domestic troubles – he will be hoping to leave behind a “world of woe”.

After a steadier start to the new year, the Joyce scandal, involving an affair with a political staffer, has cut the ground from under those improved prospects.

This has been reflected in the latest round of polling, which shows the Coalition slipping back against the Labor opposition. Turnbull’s own approval rating has taken a hit.

For these and other reasons, not least the need to establish a sound working relationship with a new administration, the prime minister will be looking to a circuit-breaker.




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Whether Turnbull’s “first 100 years of mateship” visit to Washington – with state premiers and business leaders in tow – provides a diversion from his domestic woes remains to be seen.

The hokey branding for the mission refers to the centenary of American soldiers fighting under Australian command on the Western Front in the Battle of Hamel in 1918.

In Washington, Turnbull’s discussions with President Donald Trump will focus primarily on China’s rise, the North Korean nuclear issue, and trade.

How to respond to North Korea’s provocations represents an immediate problem. But in the longer term, China’s expanding power and influence constitute the greatest security challenge facing Australia since the second world war.

In his public statements, Turnbull has been alternately hawkish and conciliatory toward Beijing, but it appears his instincts tend to align themselves with an American hedging strategy.

The Turnbull view of how to manage China’s rise was given particular expression in a speech in June 2017 to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. In this speech he called for “new sources of leadership [in the Indo-Pacific] to help the United States shape our common good”.

Turnbull’s Shangri-La speech was forthright for an Australian prime minister. He sharply criticised China’s “unilateral actions to seize or create territory or militarise disputed areas” in the South China Sea.

Beijing denies it, but it is clear it has been constructing a defence perimeter on islands and features in disputed waters. This prompted the following from Turnbull:

China has gained the most from the peace and harmony in our region and it has the most to lose if it is threatened … A coercive China would find its neighbours resenting demands they cede their autonomy and strategic space and look to counterweigh Beijing’s power by bolstering alliances and partnerships, between themselves and especially with the United States.

That speech was followed by increased efforts to expand a quadrilateral security dialogue between Australia, Japan, India and the US.

Turnbull’s visit to Japan in January for high-profile talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasised shared regional security goals with other members of the so-called Quad.

What steps might be taken to further develop security collaboration between Australia, the US, India and Japan will almost certainly be on the table in Washington.

The Trump administration’s appointment of Admiral Harry Harris, the outgoing head of the US Pacific Command, as the ambassador-designate in Canberra is a signal of its intentions.

Harris has a hawkish view of China’s expanding influence in the Indo-Pacific. His participation in a security conference in Delhi in January along with Australian, Japanese and Indian naval commanders was significant in light of stepped-up efforts to bolster maritime collaboration between Quad members.

However – and this is a sizeable “however” – Turnbull needs to be careful not to be sucked into an American slipstream where China is concerned. Australia’s commercial interests dictate prudence in how it positions itself between a rising China and the US under an unpredictable Trump presidency.

The new US National Defence Strategy exposed differences between Canberra and Washington in their views of “revisionist” China and Russia as threats to US hegemony.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop felt obliged to distance Australia from the Trump administration’s characterisation of attempts by China and Russia to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model”. She said:

We have a different perspective on Russia and China, clearly. We do not see Russia or China as posing a military threat to Australia.

Turnbull, for his part, provided a more nuanced response. He said:

We don’t see threats from our neighbours in the region but nonetheless every country must always plan ahead and you need to build the capabilities to defend yourself not just today but in 10 years or 20 years hence.

Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper and 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper (the two documents should be read in conjunction) sketched out a future in which the country needs to buttress its defence capabilities in light of China’s rise.

Apart from China and related security matters, Turnbull will focus on trade in Washington. He will no doubt try to persuade Trump to revisit his decision to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, now rebranded as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

The US withdrawal from the TPP, as one of Trump’s first executive acts as president, was disappointing. A trading bloc in the Indo-Pacific accounting for 36% of global GDP would have served as a counterweight to China’s surging trade and investment ambitions.

The revised CPTPP – including Australia, Japan, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore, Chile, Vietnam and Brunei – remains significant. But clearly the abrupt US withdrawal has lessened its reach.

Significantly, Turnbull will discuss the CPTPP on the eve of the initialling of the agreement among the 11 remaining participants on March 8.

Trump has indicated he might be receptive to arguments for American re-engagement in the CPTPP process. However, this would require the renegotiation of provisions on such contentious issues as dispute settlements, copyright and intellectual property.

It is hard to see this happening in a timely manner. In a sense, the train has left the station.




Read more:
Trump and Turnbull have little cause for satisfaction over progress in Afghanistan


The Turnbull-Trump focus on China may also yield discussion about a competing regional infrastructure investment initiative to balance China’s “Belt and Road” program.

The latter is a vast Chinese infrastructure scheme. China is seeking to strengthen its influence in surrounding states by recycling a portion of its foreign exchange reserves in road, rail, port and other such projects.

It is not clear just how Turnbull and Trump might seek to provide alternative sources of infrastructure funding for projects to counter Chinese attempts to buy influence far and wide.

The ConversationSuch a scheme emerged from a pre-summit briefing in Canberra. The fact it is being floated attests to concerns in Washington and Canberra about China’s success in using its financial heft to extend its security interests.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

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

Why a first strike option on North Korea is a very bad idea



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Unification flags hang on a military fence near the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea.
Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

Andrew O’Neil, Griffith University

The prospect of South Korean and North Korean athletes marching together under a “unification” flag at this month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics signifies a brief respite in tensions rather than being a genuine thawing on the Korean peninsula.

After an initial surge of optimism in response to Pyongyang’s decision to accept Seoul’s offer to march as one Korea, reality has started to bite with the mechanics of implementing the deal.

While welcoming the Pyeongchang initiative, many South Koreans have pushed back against the decision to merge both countries’ women’s ice hockey teams, calling out the sexist nature of the decision (not a single woman was involved in determining the merger).

Meanwhile, citing “insulting” behaviour on the part of South Korean media, the North Koreans have cancelled a joint cultural performance with South Korea, scheduled for next week.

Understandably, the Pyeongchang “thaw” has attracted major headlines. But it obscures the significant possibility that we will witness major conflict on the Korean peninsula in 2018.

The South Korean government has worked hard to engage North Korea in structured dialogue in an effort to defuse the nuclear-armed state’s continued military threats. But there is nonetheless a growing risk that the Trump administration will authorise limited military strikes against the North’s weapons of mass destruction, conceivably within the next few months.




Read more:
The Winter Olympics and the two Koreas: how sport diplomacy could save the world


Despite extracting a commitment from the US that any military action against North Korea is contingent on first gaining South Korea’s endorsement, there is justifiable concern among South Koreans that the Trump administration will act unilaterally if US intelligence assesses Pyongyang is about to deploy an operational nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force.

Given the extent to which we have underestimated the sheer pace of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development over the past decade, this intelligence assessment might happen sooner than we think. Donald Trump would then face a difficult problem: how to avoid being the president who allowed North Korea to achieve the capability to hit the US homeland with nuclear weapons.

Since coming to power, the Trump administration has been deliberating over whether to carry out preventive strikes to degrade Pyongyang’s ability to sprint to the finish line of acquiring a deployable ICBM that can hit the continental US with a nuclear payload.

An increasingly popular assumption is that the price of living with a nuclear-armed North Korea that can destroy prime targets on the US mainland is higher than risking a second Korean War. And this is not just the musings of a few hardheads in the Pentagon: a growing number of Americans believe some form of military action against North Korea is justified if sanctions and diplomacy fail to achieve denuclearisation.

Most worrying of all, a belief seems to be gathering pace that the US can somehow launch “surgical” military strikes while containing a larger conflict, because Kim Jong-un will not respond for fear of triggering an overwhelming retaliatory response.

There are two basic flaws underlying what one expert has termed “the myth of the limited strike”. The first, and most obvious, is that it’s highly unlikely Kim Jong-un will believe the Trump administration’s assurances that “surgical” strikes are not the opening phase of an all-out US assault aimed at overthrowing the regime.

When the US goes to war, it tends to go full throttle – in recent times, this has translated into regime change (think of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya). Why would the leadership in Pyongyang assess that this time around would be any different?

The second major flaw in the argument is that what is portrayed as limited in Washington, and among some armchair strategists supporting this course, will inevitably be seen in Pyongyang as a major assault on North Korean territory and its prized strategic assets.

Even in the scenario that Kim Jong-un actually believed the Trump administration did not intend to implement regime change, as Van Jackson notes, his position as North Korean supreme leader would be untenable domestically if he did not respond with force.




Read more:
Five assumptions we make about North Korea – and why they’re wrong


Pyongyang would have a compelling incentive to retaliate early with any nuclear reserve that survived a US first strike. In this scenario, the North Korean leadership would confront a stark choice of either using these weapons of mass destruction to maximum effect or risk losing them in follow-on US precision munition strikes.

As I have argued elsewhere, like all new nuclear powers, North Korea will place a premium on permissive command and control systems that allow authorities to use nuclear weapons whenever they want. This will be reflected in a hair-trigger launch posture if it perceives an imminent threat.

The ConversationWhichever way you cut it, a US first strike against North Korea would almost certainly trigger major war on the Korean peninsula, with a high risk of escalation to full-scale nuclear conflict. While the appalling humanitarian consequences of this don’t need to be spelt out, the strategic illogic of the arguments advocating a first strike must be continually reinforced.

Andrew O’Neil, Dean and Professor of Political Science, Griffith University

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

Is a unified Korea possible?


Ji-Young Lee, American University School of International Service

North and South Korean athletes will march under one flag during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The “Korean Unification Flag” is both a highly symbolic marker of reconciliation and a reminder of a divided Korea, a condition that has lasted since 1945.

As a scholar of East Asian international relations, I’m fascinated by the question of reunification that has been a mainstay of reconciliation and dialogue between North and South Korea. Unfortunately, history suggests such efforts to reunite the peninsula as a single country often don’t go far.

What Koreans think

Most South Koreans are not optimistic about reunification. According to a 2017 Unification Perception Survey conducted by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, 24.7 percent of South Koreans don’t think that unification is possible. Only 2.3 percent of South Korean respondents believe that unification is possible “within 5 years,” while 13.6 percent responded “within 10 years.”

However, the same survey indicates that 53.8 percent of South Koreans believe that reunification is necessary.

Beyond that, however, there is little consensus as to what kind of country a unified Korea should be. Nearly half of South Korean respondents want to keep South Korea’s democratic political system, while 37.7 percent support some form of hybrid, a compromise between the South and North Korean systems. Still, 13.5 percent of South Koreans answered that they prefer the continued existence of two systems within one country.

Three strikes

The first time North and South Korea held talks since the 1950-53 Korean War was in 1971. They agreed on basic principles of the reunification. According to the July 4 South-North Joint Communique, reunification should be achieved through 1) independent efforts of the two Koreas, 2) peaceful means, and 3) the promotion of national unity transcending differences in ideologies and systems.

Despite its significance for later agreements, this détente soon collapsed due to the leaders’ lack of genuine intention to follow through. North Korea viewed the inter-Korean dialogue as a way to wean South Korea away from the U.S. and Japan. South Korean leader Park Chung-Hee saw it as a useful tool for consolidating his authoritarian rule.

In the late 1980s, tides shifted as the Cold War broke down and inter-Korean reconciliation once again seemed possible. The 1988 Seoul Olympics spurred South Korea to pursue improved relations with communist countries to ensure their participation. The Olympics hosted a record number of countries from both blocs of the Cold War, including the Soviet Union and China. This, even in the face of North Korea’s attempt to throw the games off by bombing a South Korean airliner killing 115 people in 1987. With the help of South Korea’s rising international status and active diplomacy toward normalizing relations with the Soviet Union and China, Pyongyang agreed to talks with Seoul.

By 1991, North and South Koreans had once again come around to the idea of reconciliation and signed the Basic Agreement. In it, Koreans defined their relationship not as two separate states, but rather one going through a “special interim” – a process toward ultimate reunification. In 1992, they produced the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, by the end of 1992, inter-Korean relations grew seriously strained. North Korea refused to accept inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and objected to the resumption of a U.S.-South Korea joint military exercise.

Another milestone took place in 2000. North and South Korea held the first summit that amounted to the most substantial and frequent engagement between the two Koreas yet. South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung and his successor Roh Moo-Hyun’s Sunshine Policy meant to provide for a gradual change of North Korea toward the reunification through inter-Korean cooperation on humanitarian, economic, political, social and cultural issues. But in the face of Pyongyang’s continued provocations and nuclear development program, this type of engagement-oriented policy had serious limits. Over time, it became less and less popular with the public.

The conservative governments that followed upheld the goal of the reunification, but made inter-Korean reconciliation conditional upon Pyongyang’s behavior. North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, and provocations like a torpedo attack on a South Korean navy ship and the shelling of a South Korean island, backpedaled much of the progress made during the 2000 summit.

After three major attempts and failures, is reunification feasible in 2018?

What these past talks show is that reconciliation has not been sustainable without the tangible progress in eliminating North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

At the same time, the current South Korean President Moon Jae-In is more open to departing from the more conservative approach and pursuing engagement without such assurances. This may be a game changer. Without a doubt, he is much more proactive about creating opportunities for inter-Korean reconciliation.

The ConversationPresident Moon faces the same harsh realities as his predecessors. With Pyongyang’s increased threat, the South Korean government will have to work more closely with other countries currently implementing sanctions against Pyongyang. If Seoul works out a deal for inter-Korean exchanges and joint projects and North Korea continues to engage in a provocation, skeptical South Koreans will not likely support the government’s engagement policy.

Ji-Young Lee, Assistant Professor, American University School of International Service

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

Beyond sanctions: a diplomatic path to peace on the Korean Peninsula



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North Korea has placed the Kim regime’s survival before any other priority.
Reuters/KCNA

Michael Hamel-Green, Victoria University

The ongoing war of words between the leaders of North Korea and the US has created international fears of a potential nuclear catastrophe. But each side’s actions go well beyond words.

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North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests since 2006, including its recent hydrogen bomb test and a spate of ballistic missile tests with ever-increasing range. The Trump administration, for its part, dispatched a naval armada to the region earlier this year, and recently conducted bomber flights close to the North Korean border.

But with much attention focused on both sides’ military moves, and on the rigorous enforcement of economic sanctions against North Korea, there has been little focus on calls for a diplomatic solution.


Further reading: Five assumptions we make about North Korea – and why they’re wrong


Where are we at currently?

Recent statements by the Trump administration and allies such as Australia appear to assume the impact of sanctions, coupled with demonstrations of overwhelming military capacity, will secure North Korea’s unilateral back-down.

Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, emphasised to the UN General Assembly recently that Australia would be vigorously pursuing sanctions of its own against North Korea. She argued such sanctions would “compel North Korea to abandon its illegal programs”.

Absent in Bishop’s speech, however, was an equally emphatic commitment to pursuing a negotiated diplomatic solution.

The most recent UN Security Council resolution against North Korea unanimously (China and Russia included) imposed a set of severe economic sanctions on the isolated country.

Less noticed in the US-drafted resolution was a quasi-military imposition of a naval interdiction of vessels transporting prohibited items from North Korea. This opens the way to a naval blockade of the country comparable to that imposed on Cuba at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. It also potentially creates a further source of military confrontation with North Korea.

At the same time, the resolution called for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis. This was little noticed in subsequent public debate.

The resolution seeks a resumption of the Six-Party Talks involving China, North and South Korea, Russia and the US on the basis of negotiating verifiable denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula, a commitment to peaceful resolution of the crisis, mutual respect of sovereignty, and economic co-operation.

Sanctions might not work as they have in the past

Sanctions played a key role in the successful multilateral negotiation of the Iran nuclear agreement. However, they may not necessarily have the same impact in the case of North Korea. Its regime has long cultivated the ethos of self-reliance, and has made regime survival its top priority.

In this context, if war is to be averted, sanctions will need to be accompanied by a willingness to engage in substantive negotiations that might engage with the North Korean regime’s security and survival concerns.


Further reading: North Korea and Iran aren’t comparable – but Trump can’t tell the difference


It is sometimes argued that North Korea has never responded positively to negotiations. However, the 1994 agreement brokered by former US president Jimmy Carter did result in a significant pause in the North Korean nuclear program. There was verified compliance of North Korea’s ceasing plutonium production from 1991 to 2003.

The breakdown of the arrangement in 2003 was not wholly attributable to North Korea. The Bush administration’s delay in proceeding with agreed US oil shipments and full normalisation of political and economic relations played a key role.

What now?

In the case of the current crisis, it is unrealistic to expect North Korea to immediately surrender its nuclear and missile capabilities. Instead, it is important to initiate, without preconditions, a negotiation process involving phases.

Such a process would first seek an initial North Korean freeze on its current nuclear and missile testing programs in return for constraints on military drills close to its border. It would then move on to a possible longer-term resolution that tackles all parties’ legitimate security needs.

Experts such as Morton Halperin, a former senior security adviser to the Clinton, Nixon and Johnson administrations, have argued strongly for the need for a comprehensive agreement that would include elements like:

  • a Korean War peace treaty;

  • negotiation of a regional nuclear-weapon-free zone;

  • security guarantee inducements for North Korea to join such a zone; and

  • economic and energy assistance to North Korea.

Countries outside the region also have a key mediating role to play in breaking the current impasse on starting negotiations. Most recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has offered to play such a role, citing the process involved in the Iranian nuclear agreement.

The ConversationRather than talking of being “joined at the hip” in support of any US military “solutions” to deal with North Korea, Australia too could be far more proactive and constructive in promoting and facilitating multilateral negotiations to avert a catastrophic war or nuclear holocaust.

Michael Hamel-Green, Emeritus Professor, College of Arts & Education, Victoria University

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

Five assumptions we make about North Korea – and why they’re wrong



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Over time, the Kim family has become adept at coup-proofing its rule in North Korea.
Reuters/KCNA

Benjamin Habib, La Trobe University

As northeast Asia teeters on the brink of a conflict that could escalate beyond anyone’s control, it is more important than ever to be well-informed about North Korea, and move beyond the common caricatures of the country and its leader, Kim Jong-un. This is difficult when many misconceptions about North Korea perpetuate in the public consciousness.


Further reading: Trump can’t win: the North Korea crisis is a lose-lose proposition for the US


1. The ‘crazy Kim’ hypothesis

In the 2004 comedy film Team America, Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, is illustrative of a popular view of North Korea that both feeds and is fed by the perception that the Kim regime is irrational, crazy and evil.

This caricature is a poor foundation on which to build a North Korea policy.

Proponents of this view point to the Kim regime’s horrendous human rights record and the Orwellian social controls put in place to maintain the Kims at the head of North Korea’s unique authoritarian political system.


Further reading: Human rights in North Korea: the implications of the Kirby report


While the regime’s coercive arms have been responsible for crimes against the North Korean people that could be considered “evil”, this does not suffice as an explanation for why it engages in these practices.

The “why” is important. It feeds information into risk analyses and pinpoints leverage points for strategic interactions with North Korea.

We don’t have to like this logic or agree on its strategic utility to see there is rational strategy at work. We need to locate Kim and his regime within the context of the complex incentives and constraints of North Korea’s interwoven political, economic, cultural and ecological systems.

It is useful to step back from the whirlwind of recent developments to place the current situation in the broader context of North Korea’s regime survival strategy.

The regime’s brutal human rights record is a result of measures to consolidate its internal power.

Over time, the Kim family has become adept at “coup-proofing” its rule by playing off potential institutional rivals against each other and purging individuals when they become too prominent within the institutional hierarchy.


Further reading: Game of Thrones in Pyongyang: the execution of Jang Song Taek


The tentacles of the regime’s coercive power reach all the way from institutions to people’s everyday lives through surveillance, social controls and ideological indoctrination. It is a brutal reality that these kinds of oppressive measures are the rational and predictable way politics is practised in authoritarian dictatorships.

2. The ‘irrational Kim’ hypothesis

This also means we should pause before equating North Korea’s human rights abuses with any perceived irrationality in the country’s external relations.

Here one needs to understand the unique logic of North Korean foreign policy. To this end, it sees hard military power as the only reliable means of guaranteeing its security.

North Korea’s foreign policy behaviour generally emphasises the utility of military force as its only credible security guarantee in what it perceives to be a strategically hostile environment. Its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities are the ultimate practical expressions of this worldview.

When we analyse North Korea’s behaviour from its own perspective, we can recognise the logic of their actions. That does not mean that we agree with that logic. But it does give us a more informed foundation upon which to respond to those actions.

3. Falling for North Korea’s bombastic official statements

Coverage of North Korea and its nuclear program often seems to take place in a parallel universe, where the overwhelming military power disparity between it and the US does not exist.

The Trump administration’s position appears to view the North Korean leadership as evil and unpredictable, buying into the logic of the “crazy Kim” idea. It sees a clear and imminent threat to the US in North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and in propaganda that consistently threatens the US with annihilation.

It is easy to be fearful of the worst-case projections of the “crazy Kim” hypothesis. However, the strategic logic of that position just doesn’t add up.

Korean Central News Agency and associated propaganda organs of North Korea have a long history of threatening the US, South Korea and Japan with destruction. But we should bear in mind that inflammatory rhetoric is a tool of weakness, not strength.

North Korea is a small, isolated and economically weak country surrounded by larger, prosperous and militarily sophisticated powers. Its government has very limited sources of leverage through which to ensure its survival.

Projecting fear through muscular tough talk is one of its tried-and-tested strategies for ratcheting up the risk premium for any external power that might consider attacking North Korea.

When we understand the strategic purpose of this kind of rhetoric from the perspective of regime survival, we can apply the required grain of salt to the level of risk we associate to these rhetorical threats.

This is not at all to dismiss North Korea as a threat, but to interpret that threat in its proper context.

4. Capabilities and intentions are not the same thing

North Korea’s other lever of power projection is its nuclear weapons program.

Here the key point is to emphasise that military capabilities do not automatically equate to the intention to use them. We need more information beyond the raw capabilities of North Korea’s military technologies to perform a thorough risk assessment.

North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches can be understood from the perspective of deterrence.

Analysis of North Korean strategy over a long period suggests its leadership is overwhelmingly concerned with survival, and sees needing nuclear weapons as necessary to secure itself in a hostile strategic environment. A North Korean first-strike against the US or its regional allies would inevitably invite an overwhelming retaliation from the US that would end the regime.

Unfortunately, some media outlets unwittingly misrepresent this context when they show maps of concentric rings illustrating the operational ranges of North Korea’s various different ballistic missiles, without explaining the strategic context in which those missiles are deployed.

For example, while Chicago and Los Angeles are theoretically in range of North Korea’s Unha-3 multi-stage intercontinental ballistic missile, so too are Beijing, Mumbai, Moscow and Darwin.

Those cities have no strategic value as potential targets for North Korea. However, non-experts could be forgiven for not grasping that from missile range maps alone.

5. Failure to look beyond the Kims

Media coverage of North Korea that focuses on Kim ironically echoes official propaganda from North Korea that equates the leader to the entire country. The reality of North Korea is far more complex.

The gulag system and human rights abuses of the Kim regime are well documented. However, not everyone in North Korea is starving or in a detention camp.

The lifestyles of Pyongyang residents and those of the other larger cities is relatively high by North Korean standards. This functions as an incentive for citizens to follow the rules and do their jobs well.

There are a diversity of life experiences across North Korea, lived by ordinary people who are trying to get on the best they can in the society in which they find themselves.

Those life experiences are being reshaped by dynamic social change processes. Rather than economic sanctions, it has been North Korea’s connection to the Chinese economy that has done more to alter the life circumstances of ordinary North Koreans and the country’s domestic politics.

The continuing marketisation of the North Korean economy has created noticeable changes in popular culture and consumption habits in urban centres. These changes have been funnelled through North Korea’s special economic zones.

The supply chain networks of suppliers and clients undergirding market activities provide an avenue for social organisation outside of official social controls. The rise of a class of nouveau riche North Koreans is changing the dynamics of the nation’s economy and reshaping the relationship between the government and the people.


Further reading: The rise and rise of North Korea’s ‘money masters’


When we lift our gaze beyond the nuclear issue, we can identify other avenues for influencing and interacting with North Korea that could help international actors manage the nuclear threat and reduce the risk of a devastating wider conflict.

The ConversationNorth Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches are provocative. However, we should interpret that threat from an informed perspective based on demonstrable strategic logic, rather than on caricatured misrepresentations of the country’s leadership.

Benjamin Habib, Lecturer in International Relations, Department of Politics and Philosophy, La Trobe University

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

While the world frets over North Korea, what to do about Iran also causes headaches



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Donald Trump has described Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as the ‘worst deal ever’.
Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

While North Korea’s reckless behaviour in pursuit of a nuclear weapons program has diverted international attention in recent weeks, another crisis-in-the-making should be regarded with equal concern.

What the world does not need right now is another nuclear crisis on top of efforts to build a global consensus to deal with North Korean brinkmanship.

And yet that is what is at risk from a policy tug-of-war in the Trump administration between those who believe Iran is living up to its obligations – however imperfectly – under a 2015 agreement to freeze its nuclear program and those who want to toughen its provisions.

US President Donald Trump has described the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – a centrepiece of his predecessor’s foreign policy – as the “worst deal ever”.

Under a Congressional mandate, the administration is obliged to certify the agreement every 90 days. On the advice of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump has done this twice, but a festering issue has bubbled to the surface ahead of the next certification deadline on October 15.

Administration hawks are pushing for a renegotiation of the original agreement – something that Iran would almost certainly resist, along with other parties to the deal.

These include, apart from the US, the remaining four permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. China and Russia could be expected to be especially resistant.

Any US action to withhold certification or seek to alter the terms of the JCPOA risks prompting an international crisis in which the US would find itself isolated from its natural allies. And all this at a moment when global consensus is required to deal with North Korea.

Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, might be pressuring the US to toughen its stance against Iran more generally, but if the JCPOA became a casualty of these pressures, an even more chaotic Middle East would be a likely result.

Israel’s campaign againstthe JCPOA has been relentless, and in this it finds itself aligned with Saudi Arabia in ways that have the potential to shift regional alignments.

In the Arab vernacular: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

In the US, concern about the administration’s commitment to the JCPOA has stirred arms control experts to counsel against steps that would jeopardise an agreement, however flawed, that appears to be working.

Thomas Countryman, who served as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation from 2011 to 2017 (during which the JCPOA was negotiated), warned this week of risks to the agreement.

In a commentary for CNN, Countryman wrote:

The president campaigned on rash promises, including plans to tear up the deal, and he made it clear this summer that he still expects to pull out of the “worst deal ever”.

Sadly, he may do so even without any evidence to justify such an extreme course of action.

Countryman noted that just last week the International Atomic Energy Agency had reported that all parties to the JCPOA – including Iran – are in “full compliance” with the agreement.

This is the eighth time the agency, in its regular reports mandated by the JCPOA, has confirmed that the nuclear deal is working.

This expert assessment is not being challenged directly by members of the administration antipathetic to the agreement, but an attempt appears to be underway to reinterpret the JCPOA to take into account Iran’s behaviour more broadly.

This was never the intention.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley gave voice to this strand of administration thinking in a speech earlier this month to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in which she questioned Iran’s adherence to the spirit of the agreement. Haley said:

Judging any international agreement begins and ends with the nature of the government that signed it.

Does it respect international law? Can it be trusted to abide by its commitments? Is the agreement in the national interests of the United States.

Haley answered her own question by launching an ad-hominem attack on Iran more generally, including criticism of its continuing development of a ballistic missile capability.

The ballistic missile issue is not dealt with in the JCPOA, rather in a separate UN resolution.

Haley’s suggestion that certification of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA should be shifted to Congress is problematical since that body overwhelmingly opposed the deal when it was negotiated. She told the AEI:

Under the law, if there was such a referral Congress has 60 days to consider whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran.

During that time, Congress could take the opportunity to debate Iran’s support for terrorism, its past nuclear activity and its massive human-right violations.

This process would almost certainly destabilise the JCPOA.

In an editorial, the New York Times forcefully expressed its misgivings:

If Mr Trump blows up the nuclear deal, then what? None of the original opponents of the deal, in or out of Congress, including Mr Trump, have offered any plausible alternative for restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Without such an alternative, a reckless decision to honour a reckless campaign promise invites Iran to pursue an unfettered path to a bomb. And if deals with the United States cannot be trusted, North Korea will have one more reason to keep pursuing its nuclear program.

In all of this one might have sympathy for Tillerson, who has been tasked with seeking to toughen provision of the JCPOA in consultation with America’s allies.

Tillerson is reportedly arguing for an extension of the freeze on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program beyond the 2025 and 2030 limits specified in the agreement. Those discussions will continue on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York next week when foreign ministers of the JCPOA signatories have been asked to convene to discuss the issue.

Indications are that the US will have some difficulty persuading the representatives of China, Russia, the UK, France and Germany to revisit the JCPOA.

One option being canvassed by the US is for a separate set of agreements that would seek both to limit Iran’s missile development, and extend the “sunset” provisions on its nuclear enrichment program.

New French president Emmanuel Macron has expressed lukewarm support, but it seems unlikely Germany’s Angela Merkel would fall into line if such a step risked the overall agreement struck after two years of painstaking negotiations.

Indeed, this week Merkel proposed talks on the North Korea crisis along lines of the negotiations with Iran:

I could imagine such a format being used to end the North Korea conflict. Europe and especially Germany should be prepared to play a very active part in that.

From an Australian perspective, no purpose would be served at a moment when it wants the focus to remain on North Korea by a separate crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The ConversationAustralia might be “joined at the hip” to the US, in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s words, but when it comes to an issue like America’s threats to blow up the JCPOA, Australia would be advised to endure a bit of separation anxiety.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

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

North Korea tests not just a bomb but the global nuclear monitoring system



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Lassina Zerbo, Executive Secretary of the CTBTO at a press briefing following the recent suspected nuclear test in North Korea.
CTBTO, CC BY-NC

Trevor Findlay, University of Melbourne

North Korea’s apparent nuclear detonation on September 3 has drawn our attention to a remarkable international organisation that helps detect and identify nuclear tests.

For the Vienna-based Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), the latest North Korean explosion was easy to detect and locate. With a seismic magnitude of 6.1 and a blast yield of 160 kilotons (Hiroshima was around 15), the purported hydrogen bomb test mimicked a major earthquake. It was quickly sourced to North Korea’s nuclear test site.

Confirming that the event was definitely a nuclear test, as opposed to another type of explosion or an earthquake, is trickier.


Read more: King Jong-Un’s nuclear ambition: what is North Korea’s endgame?


For that we rely on detection of short-lived radioactive isotopes that may leak from the test site, notably the noble gas xenon. The CTBTO has not yet announced such a finding, although South Korean monitors have reportedly detected xenon-133.

Other potential sources of the gas must be eliminated before a definitive conclusion can be reached.

Global network of seismic and radionuclide monitoring stations.
CTBTO / The Conversation, CC BY-ND

In the past, such fallout has usually been discerned after a North Korean test, but not always. Much depends on whether the cavity created by the test leaks or collapses.

Nuclear test ban treaty

The CTBTO’s International Monitoring System, which detected the North Korean test, is designed to verify compliance with the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which bans all nuclear tests in all environments for all time.

Network of infrasound monitoring stations.
CTBTO / The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The International Monitoring System comprises 321 monitoring systems worldwide, using four technologies:

  • seismic – to detect tests under ground
  • radionuclide detection – to detect breakdown products
  • hydroacoustic – to detect tests under water, and
  • infrasound – for atmospheric tests.

The CTBTO’s international monitoring system is sensitive enough to detect underground nuclear tests below one kiloton.

Construction of the system began in 1996 and is now 90% complete.

Network of hydroacoustic monitoring stations.
CTBTO / The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Australia hosts six seismic, two infrasound and one hydroacoustic station, including a large seismic array and infrasound station at Warramunga in the Northern Territory.


CTBTO / The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Data from the International Monitoring System is transmitted to Vienna via a global communications satellite network, mostly in real time, where it is compiled, analysed and distributed to member states. Sixteen laboratories are available for analysing radioactive fallout.

The treaty also provides for on-site inspections to confirm that a nuclear test has been conducted. The system is funded by member states according to the usual United Nations formula based on national GDP.

A difficult, important achievement

As a member of the Australian delegation, I observed the complex preparatory scientific talks on the system at the Committee on Disarmament in Geneva in the early 1980s. It is a miracle of statecraft and science that this collaborative international infrastructure has actually come into being.

The scientists did not get everything they wanted due to political and financial constraints. Some errors were made in the rush to complete the technical specifications. Installation of some of the stations in remote and inaccessible areas has proved daunting.

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The hydroacoustic system, for instance, passed a significant milestone in June when the final station was completed, on France’s Crozet Islands in the southern Indian Ocean.

After 20 years of planning and construction and the investment of millions of dollars, not only is the International Monitoring System almost complete, but it is functioning far better than its designers anticipated.

It also has unexpected side benefits, such as providing early warning of tsunamis and detecting nuclear disasters. The network successfully detected the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and tracked radioactive plumes from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Nuclear test ban treaty

The test ban treaty itself is not in such good shape. More than two decades after it was opened for signature it is still not in force, rendering the CTBTO only “provisional”. This is due to the requirement that all 44 states with a significant nuclear capacity must ratify it.

Currently 183 states have signed, and 162 have ratified. But 8 of the 44 with a nuclear capacity have still not ratified: China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea and the United States. China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the US have at least signed. China says it is awaiting US ratification before it moves.

After a flawed lobbying effort, President Bill Clinton’s administration failed to secure Senate approval for US ratification in 1999. The treaty has not been resubmitted since, despite President Barack Obama’s undertaking that he would try.

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Given President Donald Trump’s apparent focus on emphasising American military prowess, it seems unlikely that he will favour ratification of the treaty.

More immediately threatening is the return of periodic Republican attempts to defund the CTBTO. These are usually beaten back on the grounds that the US benefits greatly from the worldwide monitoring that only a global system can provide, notwithstanding impressive US national capabilities.


Read more: What earthquake science can tell us about North Korea’s nuclear test


As it has in the past, the Australian government should make representations in Washington in support of CTBT ratification and preservation of funding for the system.

Paradoxically though, even if the other seven holdouts ratify, the one country that continues to conduct nuclear tests into the 21st century, North Korea, can stymie entry into force forever. Its accession to the CTBT should be part of any negotiation with North Korea on its nuclear program.

The good news is that the global monitoring system continues to go from strength to strength, providing reassurance that all nuclear tests, including those less brazen than North Korea’s, will be caught.

The ConversationThe CTBTO’s verification system provides hope that science can quietly triumph while political solutions elude us.

Trevor Findlay, Senior Research Fellow Department of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

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

What the West gets wrong about North Korea’s motives, and why some South Koreans admire the North


B.R. Myers, Dongseo University

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on September 3 – of what was possibly a hydrogen bomb – prompted a flurry of Western media think pieces attempting to explain the past and predict the future.

Most left out important aspects of the current crisis, says analyst B.R. Myers, a South Korea-based academic expert on North Korean propaganda and author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters.

In this Q&A, The Conversation asked Professor Myers to explain what most in the West are missing about the North-South conflict.

You’re always complaining about press coverage of the Korean crisis. What is it you think people need to know more about?

A major problem is the mischaracterisation of the government in Seoul as liberal, as if it were no less committed to constitutional values and opposed to totalitarianism than the West German social democrats were in the Cold War. This makes Westerners think, “North Korea can’t take over the South without a war, but it knows it can’t win one, therefore it must now be arming only to protect itself”.

In fact, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has pledged commitment to a North-South confederation, and stressed his opposition to any use of military force against the North, no matter what happens. That makes Moon’s current displays of military hardware seem pretty meaningless.

If Seoul and Washington are playing a good-cop, bad-cop game, it’s a terrible idea. The more placid South Korea appears, the more US troops look like the only real obstacle to unification.

Western media applaud Moon’s soft-line declarations, and they like it when the South Korean man in the street says he finds Trump scarier than Kim Jong Un. But there is a danger of Kim taking all these things the wrong way.

You’ve written that some South Koreans admire the North, or at least, feel a sense of shared identity. Why is that? And can this persist in the current climate?

Many intellectuals here admire the North for standing up to the world. It’s a right-wing sort of admiration, really, for a resolute state that does what it says. More common than admiration are feelings of shared ethnic identity with the North. We are perhaps too blinkered by our own globalism to understand how natural they are.

But the average South Korean’s pan-Korean nationalism is rather shallow. Most people here want to see symbolic shows of reconciliation with the North – like a joint Olympic team in 2018 – but they don’t want unification, least of all under Kim Jong Un’s rule.

And they want the US Army to stay here in case he gets the wrong idea. It’s understandable enough, but this crisis will soon force them to pick one side, and one side only. “No ally is better than one’s own race,” President Kim Young Sam (president of South Korea from 1993 to 1998) said, which no West German chancellor would have dreamed of saying.

Washington has let this stuff slide for a long time, but people there are now asking themselves, “Must we really expose America to a nuclear threat in order to protect moderate Korean nationalists from radical nationalists?”

While the failures of the Vietnam War loom large, the US bungling of Korea is rarely discussed in “western media”. What’s the national memory of that war in both Koreas, and how is that impacting the current state of affairs?

That memory impacts the current situation less than one might think. Foreigners assume that because of the war, the two sides must dislike each other more than West and East Germans did. The opposite is the case. Some of my students say, “The North would never attack us, we’re the same people,” as if the war never happened. And North Korea would now be just as committed to unification if it hadn’t.

You mention the Vietnam War. In some ways that’s the more relevant and topical event right now. Kim Il Sung (leader of North Korea from its inception in 1948 until he died 1994, and the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un) was struck both by Washington’s decision not to use nukes on North Vietnam and by its general reluctance to go all out to win.

I’m sure the ease with which bare-footed Vietcong marched into Saigon in 1975 now strengthens Pyongyang’s conviction that the “Yankee colony” will not last long after the colonisers pull out.

In South Korea, meanwhile, conservatives are now loudly invoking the story of South Vietnam’s demise. They say, “There too you had a richer, freer state, and it fell only a few years after US troops pulled out. Let’s not make the same mistake”. They point worriedly to President Moon Jae-in’s own remark that he felt “delight” when predictions of US defeat in Vietnam came true.

How likely is a war?

I agree with those who say North Korea knows a nuclear war is unwinnable. I also think it fancies its chances of a peaceful takeover too highly to want to risk a premature invasion while US troops are here.

On the other hand, the North’s legitimacy derives almost wholly from its subjects’ perception of perfect strength and resolve. This makes it harder for Pyongyang to back down than it was for Moscow during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The ConversationAlso, the North’s ideology glorifies the heart over the mind, instincts over consciousness, which makes rash decisions more likely to be made, even quite low down the military command structure. There is therefore a significant danger of some sort of limited clash at any time. But that has always been the case.

B.R. Myers, Professor of International Studies, Dongseo University

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

When it comes to North Korea, China is happy to make Trump squirm



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Chinese leader Xi Jinping speaks at the BRICS summit in Xiamen.
Reuters

Pradeep Taneja, University of Melbourne

The sixth and latest nuclear test by North Korea on September 3 has once again put the spotlight on China. US President Donald Trump has repeatedly asked China to do more to rein in the nuclear weapons and missile development by its neighbour and treaty ally, but to no avail.

In fact, China may have already lost most of its direct influence on North Korea through past unsuccessful attempts to control the rogue state’s behaviour. It does still have more leverage on its neighbour than any other country because it supplies most of the oil to North Korea, which in turn fuels Kim Jong-un’s military and industrial machinery.

But China is unlikely to completely cut off crude and refined oil supplies to its troublesome ally. This is because it believes it is unlikely that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons and delivery systems any time soon.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) leaders in China this week that the North Koreans would “rather eat grass than give up their nuclear program”. This echoes former Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose country defied international sanctions to develop its own nuclear weapons.

The Chinese and Russians now believe it would be almost impossible to disarm North Korea of its nuclear weapons without a comprehensive settlement with the US.

There was a time when China did enjoy considerable influence over North Korea. Special trains bearing the country’s leader frequently chugged into Beijing to a warm welcome from Chinese leaders.

Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, was taken to China’s capitalist enclave of Shenzhen and its other bustling cities, such as Shanghai, on his seven visits to China as leader. These were intended to inspire him to take a leaf out of China’s book and launch his own market-friendly economic reforms. But he politely refused to toe the line while still accepting China’s economic and diplomatic support.

Kim Jong-un has gone a step further in rebuffing the Chinese leadership. Since becoming North Korea’s leader in 2011 he has never visited China, not even when it celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war by hosting a grand military parade in Beijing in 2015. Not surprisingly, Chinese President Xi Jinping has also not visited Pyongyang.

Some Chinese scholars privately blame their own government for North Korea’s rapidly developing nuclear weapons program.

It is believed that, in an effort to persuade its estranged ally to desist from developing nuclear weapons, Xi had sent a senior envoy to Pyongyang with a message that China would no longer abide by the security provisions of its 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance with North Korea. Instead of buckling under pressure, Kim Jong-un decided to accelerate his nuclear weapons program because he could no longer rely on China’s support.

Whether or not China is indirectly responsible for Pyongyang’s repeated nuclear tests in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, it is still the only permanent council member to have the ability to make life really difficult for the Kim regime. China could do so by fully enforcing UN sanctions and cutting off oil supplies.

Nevertheless, the most we can expect from China, in addition to the measures it has already taken – for example, stopping coal imports – is a reduction in oil supplies. The Chinese leadership does not want to do anything that could bring about the collapse of the North Korean regime and, in the process, provoke its leader to lash out at China.

In any case, a partial reduction in oil supplies is unlikely to have a significant impact on North Korea’s behaviour. It would probably make up the shortfall by smuggling in oil on the high seas.

No doubt China’s relations with Pyongyang have deteriorated to such an extent that China finds its behaviour unacceptable and insulting. Chinese people are also tiring of the shenanigans of Kim and his cronies. This is evident in commentary on Chinese social media, which the Chinese government is trying to suppress lest it projects its leaders as ineffective.

China has always been loath to adopt or support measures that could trigger a collapse of the North Korean regime and send millions of impoverished Koreans flooding into China’s northeast.

China also does not want to see an end to North Korea’s status as the buffer between China and the American presence in the southern Korean peninsula. It fears a premature reunification of the two Koreas under US influence. A unified Korea could bring American troops to China’s doorstep.

So, while China’s leaders probably dislike Kim Jong-un as much as the Americans do and want an end to his reckless behaviour, they are unlikely to heed Trump’s calls to help him bring the tyrant to his knees, even if they could.

The ConversationChina is happy to make Trump squirm and appear to his own people and the world as feckless. But it will be watching the American moves very carefully and do anything to avoid war on the Korean peninsula. That could have serious ramifications for the region and the world, and impede China’s own seemingly inexorable rise as a great power.

Pradeep Taneja, Lecturer in Asian Politics, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

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