Tuesday, 11 August 2015

North Korea: The Prospect of Regime Collapse and The Geopolitical Stakes.

Kim Jong Un's regime wants to put the clock back and stress that North Korea occupies a different place in time and space from South Korea. Kim Jong Un's style and even his appearance is supposed to hearken back to the glorious days of Kim Il Sung. A neo-Juche revival is the ambition.

The North Korean regime has been beset by divisions since Kim Jong Il died in 2011, the very year when President Obama began his Pivot towards Asia and made containment of China and    the build up of US military forces in the region the main foreign policy emphasis. This has led to ever greater paranoia in Pyongyang.

On the one hand, it has given the North Korean regime the ability to play on China's fears that if it refuses to aid it through trade and energy it could collapse and create a vacuum of power on the Korean Peninsula that would be filled by the US and South Korea advancing towards China's border.

However, clearly Kim Jon Un's regime has been undermined by the inability to keep its growing military and political elites material demands satisfied, a consequence of it having opened up trade networks across the border with China that provides hard currency with which to buy gifts that are redistributed by the Dear Leader.

With North Korea's economy too weak to keep an expanding circle of the 'selectorate' content, Kim Jong Un has resorted to brutal executions of those such as his uncle in 2013 who had leaned too much towards China and who was accused of being “factionalist filth” after China objected to Pyongyang's nuclear tests.

As China backed extended UN sanctions against North Korea after it launched a missile in 2012, and suspended crude oil exports to North Korea in 2014, Pyongyang has sought to realign with Russia and revive Kim Il Sung's policy of playing off China and the Soviet Union during the Cold War to gain energy and funds.

China, in response, has sought to move closer to Pyongyang again in the face of US hostility to China's exertion of its influence over long standing US allies such as Thailand and Myangmar towards the South and US backing for Japan in the dispute over the oil rich Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands.

Japan under Shinzo Abe has sought to move away from the pacifist constitution that will allow the use of weapons and military forces for collective self-defense and for so-called “gray areas” such as remote island disputes. The regional powers have embarked on a new arms race as they seek to control the seas and oil supply routes.

The revival of Asia nationalism, economic boycotts of Japanese goods in China and souring relationships between South Korea and Japan over the oil of the disputed Takeshima Islands  Islands have increased fear and insecurity, especially as North Korea could collapse as drought hits it hard.

Washington, however, is just as wary of China and Russia extending their influence over a reunited Korea as China is of a state with US military bases running next to it. Russia is too; it wants to reassert influence in the Far East and gain export markets for its oil and even build a pipeline to the South Korea.

South Korea's closer relationship with China has annoyed Washington no less that Thailand's new military government since 2014 is regarded as having moved away from the relationship it enjoyed with the US during the Cold War. South Korea has been silent over the oil disputes in the South China Sea and China's island building.

American fears about South Korea realigning towards China hinge on the idea it diminishes US plans to contain China through controlling the sea lanes between it and the Greater Middle East, a strategy necessary to threaten China with economic warfare by choking off its oil supply if it rivals US hegemony too much.

The US is having problems grasping that the age of unrivalled US superpower created after 1945 could be under threat through a rival that seems set to outperform it economically. That global position was established against Soviet and Chinese communist expansion through a violent war in Korea not forgotten in the north.

The renewed emphasis upon the Korean War of 1950-53 in Pyongyang and the Chinese role in repelling Western troops should act as a reminder that past excessive uses of American military force, from the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945 to the carpet bombing of north Korea, are still in living memory.

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