Image for North Korea - Does the US approach make sense?

*Pic: Flickr, Stephan, Pyongyang, North Korea ...

First published July 15

Few events could better remind us of the brutality of North Korea’s regime than the story of Otto Warmbier, a US student who died within days of release after serving eighteen months of a sentence of fifteen years’ hard labour for stealing a propaganda poster as a souvenir for a friend.

This is also how the regime treats its own people, as reported by the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry into North Korea. In the words of its chairman, the distinguished former High Court judge Michael Kirby, the regime’s methods were ‘strikingly similar’ to the crimes of Nazi Germany - he likened the prisons to the concentration camps in which millions of Jews, gypsies and political prisoners were exterminated.

We need to keep in mind this difference between the regime and its citizens when we look at US and Australian policy in the region. This should have been the main lesson from the Iraq War, where the horrific price paid in death and destruction by the Iraqi people, and those of surrounding Arab nations, was largely ignored in the pursuit of a policy based on false claims that Saddam Hussein posed a serious security threat to the West.

All this is relevant to an account of Donald Trump’s first three months in office by US foreign policy expert Randall Doyle in the Mercury’s Talking Point on April 20. He reminded readers that governments will often focus on external threats to distract from their domestic failures. He cited Trump’s healthcare reforms, which at the time saw a humiliating defeat by his own party. The risk is made worse, he explained, by Trump’s personality, lack of experience and expertise.

He could have noted another factor - the use of ‘tweets’ to avoid media scrutiny - which prevents the President being challenged on national television, and undermines the role of the press as the ‘fourth estate’ of democratic government. All of which highlights the need for experts like Doyle, along with historians, political scientists and international lawyers, to clarify the issues which underlie foreign policy, especially where there is a risk of armed and even global conflict. At the time of writing Trump has gone so far as to ban video taping and real-time audio coverage of White House press conferences.

We should not, however, need experts to remind us that a despot’s power rests on the support of those who command the military and police forces of a nation. That their power rests in turn on the loyalty of generals and subordinates and so on down to those who man the tanks and pilot the bombers. And that this complex structure of organized state violence also requires the support of many citizens, albeit a minority who may see themselves as beneficiaries of the system. 

But if this is true why does the US hold huge annual military exercises, meant to simulate an armed invasion of North Korea, with nuclear armed ships, aircraft carriers and US and South Korean divisions massed near the border? This can only bolster North Korean claims that it needs a nuclear deterrent. Nothing could more clearly serve the interests of those who hold power in this cruel and oppressive regime than a widely-shared belief that their nation faces an ongoing existential threat.

The new policy

US officials have spoken, in deliberately vague terms, of a change in policy. The previous policy, they say, was based on ‘patience’ and ‘containment.’ Since this has proved fruitless it is necessary to increase the pressure on Kim Jong-un, first by pressuring China to use trade threats to end the testing of missiles and nuclear devices and, if this fails, by the US taking direct action. In which case ‘nothing is off the table’.

Everything, it seems, now depends on China’s statesmanship and its ability, however limited, to defuse tensions. Which is why a good deal more media attention should be given to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s Berlin proposal, made jointly with the German Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on April 26, for an end to the highly provocative US-South Korean military exercises, coupled with a halt to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, as the only realistic way to calm tensions on the peninsula.

The offer was barely noted in a lengthy article on North Korea in the SMH next day, and has been ignored by journalists and pundits until a few days ago, perhaps because of an assumption - shared by Australia’s major political parties - that the US alliance comes first. This doctrinaire approach leaves foreign policy hostage to the whims of an impulsive and vindictive President Trump. Quite apart from this, the idea that we might seek to revive peace talks is seen as a pipe-dream for idealists.

But Wang Yi’s proposal cannot be dismissed as impractical just because it reflects the values of international law. Pyongyang’s nuclear testing was, he stated, a clear violation of UN resolutions. But, he argued, persisting with military manoeuvres ‘is not in the spirit of the resolutions. We can’t risk even a one per cent possibility of war,’ because ‘a conflict would have unimaginable consequences. Therefore, we call on all sides to be prudent and refrain from actions or words that could lead to new provocations’. On this reasoning idealism and pragmatism would seem to argue in the same direction.

In recent days this proposal for a two-way peace agreement received brief publicity after Russian President Vladimir Putin joined with the President of China to support moves by both sides to defuse tensions, but it has been starved of oxygen from the outset. Few journalists, and no Australian political leader, seems willing to accept that US actions might be a contributing factor in the reckless behaviour of Kim Jong-un, and may help explain the regime’s commitment to a nuclear defence capability.

We have been here before. One has only to read a summary of post civil war history (such as the BBC Timeline) to be struck by the endless conflicts between South and North and between the US and North Korea, reflecting the fact that they remain in a state of war after close to 70 years with no peace treaty. Each blames the other for this state of affairs and it is difficult to find experts, much less governments, whose views are not driven primarily by a sense of the other side’s wrongdoing.

Is there another side to the Korean story?

However that may be it is not hard to see why, with no prospects of a peace accord, the regime has been able to maintain a military dictatorship throughout this period, despite the collapse of comparable regimes in Communist Eastern Europe in the early 1990s.

The question is discussed by Professor Lee Jae-Bong, an expert on the history of anti-American movements at Wonkwang University in South Korea, who looks at the period when hostilities ended with the signing of an Armistice in July, 1953, leaving the North and South as separate political entities - each claiming to be the lawful ruler of the whole peninsula - and occupying much the same area as they had before the civil war:

‘The United States suffered a serious financial deficit as a result of the Korean War in the 1950s. To solve this problem, it moved to reduce the sizes of US forces in Korea and the South Korean military which depended on US financial aid. As President Rhee Syngman opposed this plan, the US introduced nuclear weapons into South Korea in January 1958. For this purpose, the UN Command removed NNSC personnel from South Korea in June 1956, and nullified part of the Armistice Agreement in June 1957.

As nuclear weapons were deployed in South Korea, North Korea began a massive program of underground construction in the 1960s and deployed its conventional forces in forward positions. North Korea asked the Soviet Union in 1963 and China in 1964 for help in developing nuclear weapons of its own, but was rebuffed. South Korea prepared to develop its own nuclear weapons in 1974 and North Korea began to develop its own program in the late 1970s.’

The US deployment remained secret until 1974, when Army Chief General Creighton Abrams testified to Congress that the US had introduced a ‘modernised tactical nuclear weapon’, the Lance missile, in readiness for a limited nuclear war. It was not, he said, to defend the South from attack by the North, but for broader ‘regional’ defence. This was further clarified in 1975 when James Schlesinger, US Secretary of Defense, affirmed in press conferences in April and June that the US had deployed nuclear missiles with its armed forces in both Europe and South Korea. He warned the North that the US would retaliate with nuclear weapons if it attacked the South.

That left the North with a problem, since it could not rely on USSR or Chinese support if attacked by the South. That this was always on the cards appears to be confirmed by US official files released years later and widely publicised by Professor Bruce Cumings, an expert on the Cold War in Asia at the University of Chicago who, along with other so-called ‘revisionist’ scholars, sought a more balanced account of US post-war history in South East Asia. They reveal a major and ongoing concern that Syngman Rhee, the autocratic South Korean President, would re-ignite the war in an attempt to force the US to help unify the nation under his rule.

It is widely accepted (including by Lee Jae-Bon) that the nuclear missiles were withdrawn at the end of 1991, after the US and USSR in July signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to reduce nuclear arsenals by one third. Accordingly, plans to withdraw them were approved by President GH Bush in November 1991. The US has, however, consistently pledged since then that it would continue to regard South Korea as ‘under its nuclear umbrella’.

It is an open question how much this prolonged US nuclear presence, coupled with the annual invasion exercises, has helped shape North Korean policy.

However that may be, the stalemate continued through succeeding years, with frequent charges and counter charges of breach of the Armistice terms. Prospects for peace seemed to improve in 2007 with an agreement that North Korea would end all work on its nuclear missile program under UN supervision in return for relaxing a US trade embargo (in place since June, 1950) to import heavy fuel oil for power stations and large tonnages of grain at a time when failed crops threatened widespread starvation.

The agreement appears to have worked for a period, with North Korea shutting down a nuclear reactor and halting missile tests, but it did not last. UN inspectors withdrew as tensions flared up once more, for reasons which are still disputed. A major factor may have been the launch of a rocket in April 2009, which the North said was to put a satellite in orbit, but was clearly a dual-use rocket and condemned by the UN as a breach of the ban on missile tests. Cumings argues that GW Bush had decided to revert to a more hostile policy.

According to Bloomberg Media North Korea began its missile program in the late 70s and testing continued over the next 33 years. The current US policy of pressuring China to force Kim Jong-un to end the program, a policy which appears to have begun in President Obama’s second term, has in very recent times seen tensions rising to fever pitch, with hints the US might launch a pre-emptive strike on missile sites followed by North Korean claims that it now has an ICBM capability.

It is interesting to contrast the new policy with that set out on the State Department website, which still supports a long term strategy based on the following principle:

‘The United States supports the peaceful reunification of Korea on terms acceptable to the Korean people and recognises that the future of the Korean Peninsula is primarily a matter for them to decide. The United States believes that a constructive and serious dialogue between North and South Korea is necessary to improve inter-Korean relations and to resolve outstanding problems.’

While this is a fine statement of principle US interest in advancing the peace process, it has waned and waxed, largely depending on which party, Republican or Democrat, is in power. It is not hard to see why, because successful talks will inevitably lead to a withdrawal of 28,500 US military personnel and other assets, including the Thaad interceptor missiles recently deployed near the Chinese border, and this raises questions about American policy towards China.

US aims and South Korean sovereignty

This deployment may have provoked North Korea to further ramp up tensions with the launch of an ICBM missile allegedly able to reach Alaska. But it also points to a more ambitious US policy in the region - one which has seen China react with predictable anger against a move it sees it as compromising its own national security.

The New York Times suggested (on March 6) that Trump’s timing was probably determined by the South Korean elections, which were only days away, as a ‘US-compliant transitional President’ was about to be replaced by Moon Jae-in, a popular human rights lawyer who opposed the installation and seeks to revive long-stalled peace talks. They were, however, fast-tracked and set up, despite public and political opposition. But Moon Jae-in does not see them as a fait accompli and has halted deployment for the time being. He did, after all, win an election after promising not to allow them.

While the Thaad missiles carry no payload - they rely on accuracy to destroy incoming missiles - it is not clear whether they can be modified for a ‘first-strike’ role. This is relevant because on March 4 the Times reported that Trump’s national security deputies discussed pre-emptive strikes and re-deploying nuclear missiles in the South, noting the view of intelligence officials that ‘What is clear is that they are no defence against the massive artillery capability of North Korea to devastate the South should war erupt.’

Moon Jae-in has an invidious task. He told the nation he would restore peace talks with the North and clearly has a mandate to do so, but he cannot afford to incur the wrath of a US leader who seems ready to ignore the will of the South Korean people, and may be willing to risk an artillery attack on the ten million residents of greater Seoul, the Southern capital. He cannot ignore the possibility Trump will treat this as ‘collateral’.

This brings us back to the wider strategy hinted at above, to ‘contain’ China in much the way the US managed to put in place in Eastern Europe new geo-political boundaries after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with Nato allies now extending from the Baltic down to the Mediterranean, willing to deploy US nuclear missiles as a defence against future Russian expansionist aims.

This is a brief and perhaps biased sketch of a complex and much contested history, but we need to think about this history before supporting a policy of armed confrontation. It is not too late to revive the six-power talks which led to the accord in 2007, and certainly not too late to consider the proposal urged by China, Germany and now Russia.

How should Australia respond?

It is worth asking whether Australia might change its position if, given this history, a quixotic US President chose to surprise everyone by agreeing to a two-way solution based on a UN-supervised end to the work on nuclear missiles coupled with an end to US military exercises, with a view to the eventual destruction of the North’s nuclear missile capability and a phasing out of sanctions and embargoes. Does anyone doubt that Australia would fall into line?

It now seems clear that US policy is being driven by a President who has no interest in history or what it tells us about human nature, and who cannot or will not explain his ideas and policies in circumstances where he has to defend them. The record also shows he is ready to dismiss anyone, however competent or distinguished, who disagrees with his views.

The task for Australian politicians is an unfamiliar one - to ignore self-serving theories of unity and obeisance to party leaders and act on their own judgment and conscience. Their duty, arguably, is to protect legitimate defence and trading interests, but without risking the lives of innocent people. The first step, as ABC veteran political editor Chris Uhlmann reminds us, is to speak the truth, however inconvenient.

The danger is they will be so appalled by the brutality of this regime, and so anxious to appease a powerful and intimidating ally that we are likely, as in Iraq, to support policies which are indifferent to the fate of ordinary people, both in North and South Korea.

*Max Atkinson is a former teacher at the University of Tasmania Law School with interests in jurisprudence, political theory and moral philosophy. He has written on the ethics of political donations.

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