Crisis in Korea?

     A storm in the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan

Blog No. 135.

Map of Korea – though mention is seldom made of it, note that Russia also has a border with North Korea. Though just seventeen kilometres in length, in the middle of a river and the sole crossing is by the ‘Friendship’ railway-only bridge, Russia has reason to join China in not wishing for North Korea to undergo any US organised regime change, which could see a US controlled Korean state advance to such immediate proximity. There would be a major war before that were allowed to happen.

I have had several people ask if war was imminent in view of President Donald Trump’s and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s recent strutting of their stuff. I hope I have been able to calm their fears. The fact remains that, year by year, the likelihood of North Korea ever becoming answerable to Washington becomes ever more remote: so too, is the likelihood of the USA making such a drastic miscalculation as to attempt it. Despite the Trump bluster, designed for a domestic audience, in the background, Rex Tillerson, his low profile Secretary of State, is quietly cooperating with Russia and China to ensure none of the actual players is scared into making a move outside the accepted rules of the game.

The Korean War ended in 1953, during which the US air force had left no solid structures standing in any North Korean city and had killed more than 20% of the North’s population. Despite its military prowess, it had been the USA that sued for an armistice, as the Chinese Red Army came to the North Koreans’ rescue, driving back the over-extended American armies. The casualties taken by both sides had made the continuation of the war in the hope of achieving the final victory of a unified Korea, too expensive for either party to justify the cost.

Subsequently, the USA has refused repeated requests by the North for a peace treaty to supersede the armistice. Without such a guarantee of its regime’s security, North Korea has incrementally built up its military strength. Already, several decades ago, the North had so developed its conventional artillery that it had the capability to retaliate to any attempts at regime change in Pyongyang by destroying Seoul, (population: 10 million) the South Korean capital. By then, in the face of continued US hostility, the North was already looking to augment the deterrent power of its conventional armed forces with a nuclear capability.

As it had when both Iraq and Libya had had nuclear weapon development programmes, (and as it hadn’t in the case of Israel) the USA did all in its power to persuade the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear ambitions. The USA might have succeeded in persuading Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadhafi to give up their nuclear programmes, but by promptly rewarding their trust with their overthrow and murder, made certain that Kim Jong-un would not follow their example.

Like it or lump it Mr Trump, but North Korea now has to be added to the list of powers with nuclear weapons and the USA, despite all its bluster, has no choice but to live with that situation – as it has done in the cases of India and Pakistan. (I have made no mention of Iran in the above context, as I have yet to see any convincing evidence that Iran has ever seriously considered arming itself with nuclear weapons.)

In reality, North Korea’s apparent belligerence well suits the USA’s Neocon faction’s purposes in its continued and dangerous pursuit of a uni-polar world under the USA’s dominion. The more Kim Jong-un is able to rattle the nerves of his South Korean and Japanese neighbours, the more reliant they become on the USA’s protection and the more their resources and cooperation become available to the USA in its attempts to contain and restrain the burgeoning of China’s power.

To keep Kim rattling everyone else’s cage, the USA regularly provokes him, while ignoring any approaches from his regime to negotiate or defuse the situation. The USA and its South Korean dominion (all South Korean armed forces are integrated into the US military command structure) regularly carry out large scale exercises designed to demonstrate the USA Administration’s intention and ability to decapitate the crazed North Korean leadership. The exercises seem designed to provoke militant reactions from Kim that will provide the sought for increase in the anxiety-levels of America’s in-theatre allies Of course, there are significant other advantages to be gained by the multiple stake-holders in America’s industrial military complex, as the needlessly panicked American taxpayers are persuaded that further runaway defence expenditure is justified.

A nation determined to defend itself

In fact, the USA is perfectly aware that Kim Jong-un is a rational actor with a rational view of American intentions and capabilities and that his driving aim is to retain his and his regime’s grip on power in North Korea. Given the overwhelming military superiority of the Pentagon, a North Korean nuclear attack on the USA would barely hurt it, while such an outrage would give the Pentagon the yearned for excuse to delete the Supreme Leader and most of his country from the Atlas. Nevertheless, and quite logically, Kim Jong-un sees the brandishing of the North Korean nuclear weapon as an effective deterrent to any attempt at a regime change that, in reality and for quite different reasons, neither the USA, nor China nor Russia would wholeheartedly welcome.

Failing military action, what remains in the USA’s options cupboard are economic sanctions. These have already been repeatedly applied and, as was the case with Iran, appear to have served little, but to strengthen the population’s support for the Supreme Leader, while increasing the economy’s self-sufficiency. However, what these sanctions do achieve, is to increase the systemic difference between the victim economy and those of the mainstream of western nations. Consequently, the reunification of the two Koreas becomes ever more problematical and unlikely.

There are three possible futures for the North Korean situation. The first is a continuation of the status quo, which is unsatisfactory to all parties, except for the USA. North Korea is faced by a determinedly hostile US allied to South Korea and, though with its nuclear capabilities it can defend itself, thanks to sanctions and the forced excessive defence expenditure, its population, drained by sanctions and a disproportional defence effort, suffers from its gravely under-performing economy. From both Russia’s and China’s viewpoint the current status quo is unsatisfactory. It keeps the stability of the Asia Pacific region in a state of flux that not only allows their adversary, the USA to maintain a military and economic foothold in the region, but also distorts what would be the natural order of regional alliances and trading patterns. Peace and stability is the main requirement for a China intent on the expansion of its trade and economic growth.

An alternative future, which I have heard advanced in some quarters, but of which the practical steps leading to its realisation are hard to envisage, is the ‘Finlandisation’ of a reunited Korean peninsula. The vision is of a unified, demilitarised state with its neutrality guaranteed by the great powers as they engage in their struggle between the rising Eurasian and the declining American empires.

Finally, we have what is probably the most likely ultimate solution. Given the current dynamic in the world economy and American politics, this seems to me to have a reasonable chance of coming to pass. The growing magnetism exerted by China’s economic growth and its pro-active, ‘One Belt: one Road’ outreach to its neighbourhood and beyond, when contrasted with the anti-globalism expressed by the current US administration, will ultimately prove irresistible to South Korea. As the Chinese economic zone replaces that of the West, South Korea’s interpretation of its national interest will shift.

One Belt: one Road

At the same time Russia is moving to woo North Korea (and South Korea) into the Eurasian fold. This article by M.K. Bhadrakumar, a commentator whose views I rate highly, provides interesting reading to anyone who wishes to understand what is going on behind the scenes.

While Trump is busy gutting the US State Department and its ability to competently indulge in forms of diplomacy other than military threat and bluster, the Chinese-Russian alliance is getting on with the business of finding other, more constructive, solutions to global problems. Further Asia-Centric insights into the current flurry of diplomacy over Trump’s desire to ruin the North Korean economy are available in these two articles. and (The writer of this last article from the Asia Times, Pepe Escobar, is a highly recommended commentator on the development of China’s economic outreach.)

Incidentally, New Zealand has one of the world’s leading authorities on North Korea and those wishing to further explore the matter, could do little better than to Google ‘Tim Beal’ or go direct to this site

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