One thing about North Korea (DPRK) – and for that matter South Korea (ROK) – is that hyperbole is stock-in-trade in political speak. The rhetoric more often than not gets in the way of the reality of what is being asserted or claimed. For us in the West, the Koreans use of the English language can often be quite funny because of its puffed up hyperbole.
When it comes to the North Korean regime, it clearly is a totalitarian one that doesn’t tolerate dissent and imposes ghastly consequences upon the families of its own citizens who cross that line, or are even suspected of doing so. That’s what totalitarianism is – there is one authority, end of story. This is hardly unique to North Korea, there are plenty such regimes where disappearances and sentencing without trial are de rigueur. It’s not as though Russia or China are beyond such methods – and yet we scramble to have ‘normal’ relations with each.
The Korean penchant for exaggeration and bluster is well known, so when the North Koreans start huffing and puffing – which occurs with regular monotony – it’s important to look through the bravado and remember cause and effect. For many decades now the US militarisation of the South has been the ultimate provocation of the totalitarian regime in the north. It goes back to the Armistice signed by the US, North Koreans and Chinese (not the South Koreans) at the end of the Korean War in 1953 and really hasn’t changed since.
What has changed of course is the nuclearisation of the DPRK (North Korea) and as a consequence the global ramifications of any escalation of hostilities between the players are far more serious. Against this backdrop, any half-literate interpretation of the 64 year-old stand-off recognises that it takes two sides to tango, that both North and South and seriously hostile to the other. The armistice is nothing more than a cessation of hostilities, albeit long-enduring. The conflict remains – time certainly hasn’t dulled the hostility.
Provocation of each other has been pretty well normal behaviour for both sides each and every year since 1953. At the heart of the unease of this prolonged standoff has been the Clause 13(d) of the Armistice which holds that no new weapons are to be introduced to the Korean Peninsula – by either side. By as soon as 1956 this clause was violated and acknowledged to be violated by the Americans who declared their intention to bring atomic weapons to South Korea.
Ever since that breach of the Armistice by the US, North Korea has quite justly taken the position that it is free to do what it likes weapons-wise since it was the US that broke the deal and installed Patriot missiles in the South. And of course, ever since the US has also had its nuclear armed ships participating in the annual exercises off the peninsula, exercises that are designed to provoke a response from the DPRK. And most years they do.
In summary then, these are two regimes still very much at war after all these years, with an extremely uneasy ceasefire the only thing preventing aresumption. No matter what one thinks of the DPRK regime, it is difficult to blame them for developing their nuclear capability given the blatant breach of the Armistice by the US.
To see the new New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs wading in and accusing everything and everyone North Korean as “evil” is about as a naïve response from New Zealand one could imagine. It adds nothing to the chances of any diplomatic solution, is inaccurate, and adding our own bellicose utterances into the war of words doesn’t feel that mature.
The eventual outcome for the Korean peninsula will hopefully be a normalised standoff wherein China and perhaps Russia guarantee the security of the DPRK, while the US and allies do the same for South Korea. Under such an arrangement or treaty, the presence of foreign troops on the peninsula would be unnecessary and the nuclear disarmament of the DPRK could happen – indeed the DPRK has been offering this for years. But those offers fall on deaf ears south of the DMZ, which really makes one wonder whether this standoff has up to now at least, been more about a US/China standoff, with the Korean peninsula just caught in the middle of an attempt by our side to contain China.
As the nuclear capability of the DPRK has steadily improved the ability of the West to force regime change has correspondingly fallen away – and so we are now at the point where the North is actually capable of a nuclear strike on neighbours and positioning to be capable of throwing its stuff even further. Indeed the DPRK can now produce a nuclear bomb every six of seven weeks and it’s said to be only a few years from having the capability of one that reaches Seattle.
The objective of North Korea is to force the West to negotiate an end to the stand-off, to accept that it cannot contain the conflict by having a presence in South Korea and its dream of regime change in the North are becoming more and more far-fetched. It’s a dangerous game by the DPRK for sure because such escalation, from what we non-Koreans see as erratic, evil and unpredictable intention – does make conflict more likely.
And with Trump on the scene now with his fantastical belief in the all-powerful ability of the US, the scene is set for turbulence bordering on the insane. China recognises this thankfully and is telling the DPRK that a 6th nuclear test will stretch “the game of chicken” between Pyongyang and Washington to breaking point. Much as we might wish it so however, China has not threatened Pyongyang with consequences.
So how to defuse this then? The way out hasn’t really changed over all these years – China and the US need to reach an agreement, quite independently of the DPRK or the ROK (South Korea), that they will guarantee the security of each in return for (a) the US withdrawing all its forces from the peninsula and (b) the DPRK dismantling all nuclear capability.
The way out has been blindingly obvious for many years now but the hopes in the West that the DPRK would undergo regime change well before their nuclear threat became real led the West to reject the commonsense route. Instead, in annual attempts to destabilise the DPRK regime, it conducts very provocative military exercises on the border and around the seas off North Korea. Those games, targeted at wearing the DPRK regime down, have comprehensively failed – in fact they’ve driven the DPRK to become ever more militaristic, they’ve escalated the tension. The DPRK regime believes – and rightly so – that the US intends to destroy it.
Trump’s desire for a surgical incision will go nowhere apart from escalation. It is time for the big boys to negotiate the end of the armistice, and normalise relations between two hostile neighbours. Only a mutual guarantee for the security of North and South from China and the US can possibly do that.
This has been so obvious for so long to anyone with a modicum of understanding of the conflict – that perhaps the best hope at this time is that the Trump-escalation does lead to China calling for such direct talks with the US. After all it is China, the US and the DPRK who are the signatories to the armistice.