Saturday, 16 September 2017

'Normalising' North Korea: The Threat of Nuclear War and the Strange Role of Dennis Rodman.

'If the west really wants to bring change to North Korea then it should do it from within, not without. It should bomb the place with trade, rot it with contact, bribe and suborn its apparat and its families, exchange its students, conquer it with capital'.-Simon Jenkins, Guardian, September 15 , 2017
Bombarding North Korea with Trade.

Simon Jenkins is right that sanctions on North Korea are simply not going to work. Yet China and has tried to 'bombard the place with trade': Russia with energy. China's entire strategy has depended upon increasing trade ties with a view to building up a pro-Chinese ruling elite and to give Pyongyang a stake in East Asian prosperity.

China has failed to effect any change in North Korea because the totalitarian dictatorship has managed to use control over consumer goods and access to them as part of its own loyalty system. Elites who were seen as too close politically to China, such as Kim's uncle, said to have been executed by been ripped to pieces by dogs.

Jang Song-thaek was killed in 2013. Four out of the five pallbearers at Kim Jong Il's funeral have been purged and eliminated since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011. Then there was Kim's half-brother who was assassinated in April 2017 at Malaysia Airport with VX nerve agent gas to remove him as rival.

Kim Jong Nam was regarded by China as a potential alternative to the neo-Juche Kim. So the North Korean regime is well aware of the danger trade and consumer luxuries might pose in tempting elites away from the puritanical ideology of the state and how it might be used by China as a tool to manipulate factions within.

Kim's entire reign has been about repositioning North Korea as a purer neo-totalitarian state, one that harks back to the 'good old days' of the Cold War and higher living standards under Kim Il Sung who successfully played on Sino-Soviet rivalry to extract economic concessions and so to buy influence in this geostrategically located land.

If North Korea is to be 'bombarded by trade', this would only happen after North Korea has an effective ICBM arsenal. It's part of Kim's neo-Juche programme and of ensuring no external power could ever come to liberate North Korea. It's an additional reason why China would not want stringent oil sanctions that could collapse the regime.

The North Korean Strategic Game Plan: Unpredictability and Dividing the Great Powers.

North Korea uses the threat of its own disintegration and the danger it poses to extract economic concessions from China. The more sanctions are placed upon in, the more it has the full rationale to fire missiles and threaten the prospect of an attack on any surrounding state, in order to keep them guessing and to believe the leaders are mad.

The rationale in Pyongyang is to ratchet up the arms race in East Asia and contribute to a developing insecurity whereby the North Korean threat would mean Japan aims to develop nuclear missiles or militarise its response in ways that would antagonise China. This upgrades North Korea's relative bargaining status as a key to peace.

Japan has been threatened twice by missiles fired over Hokkaido because should Japan respond with aggressive rhetoric , it could be used to portray Japan as reviving its dangerous role as an aggressor state as it was during World War Two. There is still resentment at Japan for its war crimes across Korea and in China alive in 2017.

As Mark Almond argues 'Stoking more than a century of Korean-Japanese antagonism is part of Kim's play to split America's allies. At the same time he is bolstering his dynasty and ramping up national feeling by reminding North Koreans of the potent myth of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, as a resistance hero, defying the Japanese'.

More broadly, with China's ascendency, nationalism has been rekindled as a force in the region. There are disputes over sea rights and over islands that lie in seas known to contain reserves of oil and gas. South Korea is arguing with Japan over sovereignty over the Liancourt rocks and China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands.

The history of World War Two in the Asia Pacific and Japan's refusal to apologise for the fate of Korean 'comfort women' and its war crimes have become 'weaponised' in nationalist ideology as a tool of power politics in the region. North Korea thrives off this resentment and the idea Japan and the US are as one as evil 'warmongering imperialists'.

The US and Japan were enemies during World War Two until the use of atomic bombs ended it in August 1945. But the subsequent way the two aligned thereafter and the US defended Korea south of an arbitrarily delineated border drawn by a US general across the 38th parallel through a victim country has never been forgotten or forgiven.

Certainly, Kim would like to detach the US from Japan should he be able to threaten reaching the US with ICBMs or else to provoke Japan into an overreaction that would concern China and force it to retain North Korea as a strategically placed state between it and South Korea and Japan. That would upgrade his usefulness.

It is not just North Korea that fears a Japan that could become an effective military power once more: South Korea and China would fear it too once the US made clear that Tokyo could reprise the hegemonic role it gained between the end of the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 and throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

While the US guaranteed the peace in East Asia after 1945, there is a fear not only of the clash this could bring about between the US and the rising power of China but also of the security gap it could open up as the US enters a stage of relative decline and is looking to 'regionalise' its geopolitical grand strategy and offset burdens.

As Mark Almond states,

'In response to the North Korean threat, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to push through changes to his country's post-war 'pacifist' constitution which renounces war and 'the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes'. And while other players in the region such as South Korea, China and the Philippines don't like Kim's aggression either, they have lurking fears of Japanese rearmament'.

As befits North Korea's Orwellian state, war means peace through aggression.  The aim, though, is to monetise the nuclear programme and for the various regional powers to have to strike a deal to pay off the leadership in return for putting the programme on hold. The alternative is the regional powers ratchet up a dangerous arms race.

Sanctions could hardly work, as Vladimir Putin rightly pointed out, as nothing could deter Kim from the nuclear programme as the regime is determined to survive at any costs as the alternative is considered suicide anyway. The only way forward is to open up diplomatic back channels and get the US and South Korea in talks with Pyongyang.

Enter Dennis Rodman and 'Basketball Diplomacy'.

Dennis Rodman is the person who might be the key to this. When he first visited North Korea with Vice News journalists in 2013, it was written off as a publicity stunt by a deranged ex-NBA basketball star which only helped to 'humanise' the dictator and provide good public relations for North Korea.

Rodman was welcomed by Kim who loves basketball and even sang a weird rendition of Happy Birthday to Kim, copying Marilyn Monroe's famous serenading of John F Kennedy in the 1960s. None of it was taken at all seriously but Kim was hardly going to be taken more 'seriously' or policy change because of Rodman.

Kim is probably hoping that the US remembers how 'ping pong diplomacy' opened up the way for connections to be made in the early 1970s before President Nixon's famous visit to China, one that finally brought Mao's state out of its isolation and ended the 'bamboo curtain' that had existed since the CCP took power in 1949.

Whether Rodman is quite aware of what he is doing is unclear. But certainly Kim and the ruling elite know their history and how Rodman is of use to them as they are aware of the precedent. They could be hoping Washington picks up on this. It's only careful diplomacy that could end the immediate threat of war breaking out.

The problem is not North Korea alone as Jenkins appears to think. The broader problem is North Korea is threatening to destabilise the entire region unless its own security needs are accepted and used as the basis for a comprehensive settlement that officially ends the Korea War and in which denuclearisation is linked to it.

Sanctions have failed. The US pulled back from surrounding North Korea with ships to enforce an embargo. This could have led to a ship being attacked and to trigger off a war should North Korea have become paranoid about the prospect of a seaborne invasion force, as with MacArthur's that landed at Incheon in September 1950.

There are no military options that would not almost inevitably lead to North Korea launching a devastating missile and artillery barrage across the DMZ against Seoul that would lead to an intense war and potentially millions dead. The danger of a clash with China should war with North Korea happen is very possible.

The only way the North Korean threat to regional stability could be averted has to involve its gradual reincorporation into the rest through diplomacy to end the first Korean War and not overt threats of a second war it's been preparing for since the 1950s. This can only start if back channels talks are initiated, by Rodman if necessary.

The Danger to World Peace Unabated.

The worst-best outcome is thought to be that North Korea obtains ICBM and the world learns to adapt and cope with it. This, and Jenkins idea of bombarding North Korea with trade and bilateral ties, ignores the aggressive and destabilising dynamism of the North Korea regime of the rationale behind its seeming irrationality.

North Korea having nuclear missiles changes the strategic balance in the region and Japan and South Korea, especially Japan would feel more insecure as without nuclear missiles it could not be absolutely sure of its security depending on the US alone should it be able to threaten American cities.

If Japan develops nuclear missiles this would 'nuclearise' the region. Even if that response does not happen, the deployment of THAAD anti-ballistic missiles and the tendency to militarise responses to the North Korean threat-and few really know quite what its strategy is for sure-would lead to an intensified arms race.

China vociferously opposes THAAD in South Korea as, though used against short and medium range missiles, its radar systems could also be used as an early warning system for the US in the Asia Pacific and so help downgrade the deterrent threat of China's nuclear arsenal force in relation to that of America.

Going for broke on the nuclear missile programme is the only way North Korea could hope to gain recognition and a degree of security and freedom from 'regime change' from without. The way Trump has attempted to ditch the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and his own threats of nuclear war have made this vital to their survival.

The Spectre of a China-US Collision over North Korea.

North Korea knows it is able to pursue brinkmanship because should the US threaten it with unilateral military action, this antagonises China which regards North Korea as part of its Asian sphere of interest. Defying China over nuclear tests while threatening the region and the US is a way to divide and weaken their response.

Kim's regime is calculating the US response of military action, hinted again as an 'option' that could be passed over by Nikki Haley and H R McMaster to James 'Mad Dog' Mattis if the latest sanctions fail to deter, would meet with hostility and even counter threats from China should the US issue an ultimatum.

As of September 17 2017, the Chinese foreign ministry has rejected the US claim from Haley and Tillerson that China has the key to defuse the crisis by cutting off all trade and energy lifelines to the regime. Being pushed into a corner by the US, threatening that either it acts or the US will in its way, is bound to be rebuffed.

The Chinese position is that Trump and his administration have upped the ante and the war of rhetoric or 'tied the knots' and so the US has to 'untie them'. This essentially means it needs to either back down or extricate itself from the crisis by pursuing diplomatic routes to try and make North Korea part of a peace settlement.

The big danger is that the US calculates that China really does have the means to stop North Korea and that its unwillingness to do anything means that the threat to the US and its allies is regarded as less important than China retaining a buffer state between it and South Korea where its military and missiles are based.

China could become substantially fearful that the US is effectively blaming it for the fact North Korea was allowed to become a threat to California. Set against a variety of hostile comments about China's role in the global economy, in 'ripping off' the US in trade and warmongering comments, China would fear US military action in Korea.

Without any diplomatic process agreed on between China and the US to jointly deal with North Korea, any imminent attack or threat of it could lead China to mobilise its forces to cross the River Yalu as it did in October 1950 after MacArthur landed at Incheon and forced North Korean forces back towards China.

As Graham Allison points out in Destined to War, North Korea is one of the unresolved geopolitical flashpoints that could provide the spark that triggers off a major clash, either before a US military intervention or after as US and South Korean troops cross the DMZ and potentially collide with Chinese forces moving south.

After all, North Korea is one of those 'frozen conflicts' that came at the end of China's re-emergence as a modern state in 1949 and that are coming back to the fore as China becomes the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region. It's one of several that surrounds China's flanks from Xijiang, Burma, the South China Sea round to Taiwan.

Of all these, North Korea is the most intractable, one which could lead to mutual miscalculation between the US and North Korea and, even more worryingly, escalate into a collision with China should it dramatically spin out of control. It's this aspect of the 2017 crisis that's drawn comparison with the outbreak of war in 1914.
The other comparison is with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The big difference is the two major players, China and the US, are not engaged in a mutually hostile Cold War antagonism as were the Soviet Union and America then. Moreover, Cuba accepted Soviet missiles whereas North Korea has developed its own.
In many ways this makes the North Korean Crisis less of a danger, as it in no way rivals the Soviet threat to the US in the 1960s, despite bragging it aims at nuclear 'equilibrium'. But in another way, it's more dangerous because none of the regional or global powers knows what North Korea actually intends to do: it's uncontrollable.
The biggest danger lies in whether US military planners and the politicians are leaning towards believing the window of opportunity to deter or then prevent North Korea from developing ICBMs that could threaten the US is closing and that either it acts militarily in 2017 or learns to deal with a nuclear armed North Korea.
As the US shifts towards indicating it could be prepared to strike North Korea and Pyongyang has no accurate way of knowing exactly when this could occur, it's all the more resolved to accelerate the nuclear programme and the apocalyptic threats. It's with such heightened tensions that mistakes could easily detonate a major war.

For draconian UN sanctions cannot deter the regime from nuclearisation. They only make it more liable to the internal threat of disintegration and so the last ditch recourse to threatening the region and even Guam and the US mainland with nuclear strikes so as to be able to strike some sort of bargain to ensure regime survival.


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