Friday, 27 May 2016

North Korea and the Danger of the Spiralling Arms Race in East Asia.

Kim Jong Un's pensive pose in a green rice field in late May 2016 is a piece of cliched political theatre. It mirrors Mao Tse Tung's famous visits to rural China at the time of the Great Leap Forwards after 1958 in which at least 20 million peasants died of famine. Propaganda posters for it too depicted Mao as an agricultural genius in rich fields.

Likewise, North Korea is once more, as it was in the 1990s, on the brink of famine and faced with internal elite discontent given the fact that the limited increase in wealth, for those who have joined the expanded Party, has been threatened by global sanctions, which China too ratcheted up in April 2016.

China's sanctions, placed on essential revenue earners such as coal, iron, iron ore, gold, titanium and rare earths, reflected Beijing's concern and anger at the North's increased nuclear and ballistic missile tests, moves which have given the US all the more of a pretext to deploy THAAD missiles to South Korea.

While on the face of it summits between President Obama and President Xi Jinping profess their devotion to denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, the real underlying fear in Beijing is that these missiles are part of a missile shield which could be used to downgrade the nuclear deterrent China possesses.

When added to US diplomatic moves elsewhere to the south in Vietnam, where Obama has indicated Washington seeks better relations with Hanoi and to lift sanctions on the sale of lethal weapons-as well as increasing US military presence in the Asia-Pacific theatre-the fear in Beijing is of encirclement.

This is why North Korea remains a deeply destabilising flashpoint in an increasingly volatile geopolitical situation in East Asia. The threat that the North Korean regime could collapse in the near future no longer seems impossible. Pyongyang is investing so much in its nuclear programme and famine looms.

The attempt to shore up the authority of Kim Jong Un since 2011 through using hard currency earnings is failing. The policy of gift giving for service to the regime, along with ruthless purges, has failed to stem resentment in the general population who have received 'toothpaste or a bottle of liquor' for labour service.

At the same time calls for 'an ardous march' would indicate that famine is present again as the term was first used leadership in 1993 as a euphemism for the four-year famine that from 1994 resulted in 3.5 million deaths. Going for full nuclear protection of the regime means it has the ultimate form of blackmail.

For a start, it would signal no matter who hates the regime, it is permanent and no external power can bring about 'regime change'. If the regime were to collapse it would lead to the nightmare of a chaos in which any attempt to end it through reunification would raise the spectre for Beijing of being flanked directly by a US client state.

Alternatively, should the North Korean regime survive, the threat of nuclear proliferation would also increase, not least if it developed an effective nuclear arsenal-and it already has nuclear weapons anyway- then the question would be how best to contain it without allowing possession to stimulate a regional arms race.

In the circumstances, the only option left is for the US to accept that sanctions have failed and that it would be better to work with China to negotiate with Pyongyang and offer economic incentives for it to prevent the nuclear programme developing further and else South Korea and Japan develop them too.

In time, North Korea might be persuaded to rescind its nuclear programme. Yet a spiralling arms race, rising nationalism and potential conflicts between fossil fuel deprived Asian nations and China over sea lanes and the oil and gas reserves in both the East and South China Seas, spells the potential for catastrophe.

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