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Donald Trump and North Korea

It’s 9th August 2017, 72 years to the day since a nuclear weapon was last used in anger. How might the leadership of the nation who launched that attack commemorate the event. I suppose the United States could have taken a leaf out of Barack Obama’s book and at least utter a few pious words. Then again, you can’t expect anything of the sort from Donald Trump who responded to another outburst of North Korean tough talk – this time an empty boast of their intention to launch a pre-emptive attack on the US airbase on Guam – with the threat of nuclear war. An impeccable sense of timing, that man.

I’m forever hopeful we won’t see war on the Korean peninsular, because anyone with half an understanding of the situation knows a conflict would exact a huge cost, even though the outcome would be a foregone conclusion. The South would pay a horrendous blood price, and the huge cost of rebuilding an entire country and dealing with millions traumatised by dictatorship, war and occupation would be on them. The Federal Republic had a hard time absorbing the former East Germany, and that was one of the world’s richest countries doing so under more benign economic circumstances. A Republic of Korea doing the same with the north after a war, and after its economic and cultural centres around Seoul have been reduced to rubble by artillery is a nightmare that doesn’t bear thinking about. Korean politicians know this, Korea-watchers know this and, crucially, Kim Jong-un knows this too.

Part of the recurrent difficulties the United States and the West have with North Korea is their inability (some might say refusal) to apply realpolitik motivations to its actions. For instance, speaking for the Trump White House Jim Mattis says the North must “stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons” and “stop isolating itself”. And yet, from the point of view of the regime, acquiring nukes and possessing the means to deliver them to targets half a world away are entirely rational. You just have to look at the fates of others not a million miles away in awfulness from the Kim monarchy. Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime in Iraq, no weapons of mass destruction, hence taken out. Colonel Gaddafi’s dictatorship – the best part of a decade spent cosying up to the West, particularly Britain, and removed when the WMD programme was safely a thing of the past. Bashar al-Assad and Syria, again, no WMD to ward off Western intervention. If you are a despot who prefers palaces to the hangman’s noose, recent history shows it pays develop deterrents.

The nuclear and the missile programme goes much deeper than just defence considerations in North Korea. It is bound up with the grotesquerie of the Kim cult, its position in the pecking order of the Cold War and the economic strategy the regime is trying to pursue. These are the conditions for understanding why the North behaves as it does. The short version is this: because of a dispute with the Soviet Union and its subsequent withdrawal of military aid in the 1970s, the country was forced to depend more on its own resources for economic development and to maintain its side of the demilitarised zone. It’s worth remembering then, as now, the North faced the South Koreans and the American military, among whose arsenal there was (and is) deployed nuclear arms. As the North restructured itself around a military-first autarchy, it marked the moment when the “celebrated” Juche ideology – or self-reliance – emerged and the personality cult around the Kim family assumed gargantuan proportions. However, it became apparent to Kim Jong-il before his death and to the Brilliant Comrade now running the show that an economy this unbalanced eventually makes for a situation with some imbalances of its own. Maintaining the stand off with the Americans may become sustainable if the ridiculously overblown army is scaled back. The weapons programme therefore is primarily about making it prohibitively expensive to undertake regime change from the outside by military means, while in the long-term cutting spending on the army and directed investment to elsewhere.

This has become a priority under Kim the younger. Having seen China’s economy take off, you can understand how market Stalinism might appeal. There have been some market reforms, and it appears the Kim purge of a few years ago was a bloody bureaucratic falling out over who gets the spoils and directs the process. There is a political necessity here too. The smuggling of standard consumer goods from China poses a risk to the regime’s monopoly on information, and presents a legitimation crisis in the making. The pressure is on Kim to develop a China-style consumer society with stable food supplies and the luxury goods increasingly enjoyed over the border, but do this on the basis of his poor, sluggish economy weighed down by unsustainable military commitments. The blood curdling squeals Pyongyang lets rip every time there is a new round of sanctions pressures the precarious economy further, but perversely provides incentive to carry on with the weapons programme. If the North can project power the international community have no choice but to treat with it on a more equal basis.

None of these are radical insights. This is more or less the standard understanding and explanation of North Korea among foreign policy and international relations specialists. The game the North is in is one shared with its brethren elsewhere: as Trotsky observed from his analysis of the Soviet Union under Stalin, what they want is a permanent accommodation. The Kim dynasty’s long-term foreign policy goal is less the reunification of Korea under its aegis but a non-aggression treaty with the US, which would include the withdrawal of its forces from the South. Again, not because it plans to invade but because they want to get on with the business of holding down their own people thank you very much and make like the Chinese bureaucrats and the Russian oligarchs.

The danger we have now is Donald Trump. Despite his portrayal, Kim Jong-un is entirely predictable and entirely knowable. His objectives are easy to discern, and the linkage of WMD, economic development and the sustainability of the regime can be readily understood. The problem is Donald Trump is entirely incapable of understanding this, and is uninterested. When he matches Pyongyang’s rhetoric with boasts about “fire and fury … the likes of which the world has never seen”, it’s impossible to tell if he’s enjoying the bants of the occasion and playing to his audience, or whether he means it. Unfortunately, we are probably going to find out. Trump has stated the North’s possession of a nuclear warhead capable ICBM is unacceptable to the United States. Kim is not going to scrap his programme because of harsh words, especially when the offer is all stick and no carrot, and that puts Trump back on the spot. Does he lose face and follow the conciliatory approach favoured by the new government of Moon Jae-in, or will he choose the catastrophic course of action? I think we all know, and fear, the most likely answer.

4 Comments

  1. Steven Johnston says:

    So it’s all America’s fault? If only we appeased baby Kim, he’d stop building nuclear weapons and spend all the money on food for the starving millions in the DPRK?

    1. David Pavett says:

      Stephen Johnston is a right-wing troll with no interest in discussion. He want to make noise where others want to have reasoned debate I think that the moderator should remove his contributions.

      1. Steven Johnston says:

        Please find me anything I’ve said that is right-wing first, before making statement such as these.

  2. Bazza says:

    When 2 Barbarians collide? (Though Kim is only a front for the CP) whilst Trump iit could be argued is only a front for US Big Business to con US working people who he, like them, have legally nicked off all their lives!
    A real leader would go to NK and talk to them; the NK CP use the threat of the US to make the NK people feel that they need the CP and they are deliberately made to fear the US when working people of no country are our enemy.
    Similar in the US, Trump tries to make the US people (or a significant number of them despite losing the popular vote) feel they need him.
    JC is right to say we need to turn the rhetoric down and then perhaps locally they could talk about reunification, freeing political prisoners, reuniting families etc. and peace in the region.
    Yours in international solidarity!

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