Defusing the Korean nuclear crisis may be just the job for Germany’s Angela Merkel
Tom Plate says with Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un locked in a war of words, escalating tensions, Beijing appears ready to welcome the involvement of a respected state leader who can give diplomacy another chance
How can a fiery logjam be tamed by throwing more logs into the fire? The backstory: the Korean mess began brewing long before the current US administration took power. It is true that, since January, President Donald Trump’s “madman/rocket man” pugnacity has unnerved just about everyone except North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. But his administration did inherit a backlog of dreary decades.
The inheritance? There is no US embassy in Pyongyang – and this since the 1953 Korean war ceasefire. There are no more six-party talks, despite the urging of the Chinese, who, after all, live next door to North Korea and might deserve to be listened to carefully. Instead, there has been a missile-and-nuclear build-up in one of the world’s strangest places.
US diplomacy, notwithstanding the occasional uptick, has been bland – hemmed in by an American media that sees only black and white, by a Congress that cannot see beyond blind anti-communism, and by a human-rights lobby that avoids the obvious, which is that to contain suffering, you sometimes need to negotiate directly with the causer-in-chief.
Why not try to reignite diplomacy and avoid the risk of war by mixing up the diplomatic chemistry? Consider the recent “ray of hope” editorial in China Daily. In effect, it proposed a chair at the negotiating table for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has begun to view Germany’s role on the world stage in a more expansive mode, and who this weekend won the right to a fourth consecutive term as chancellor, though not easily.
China has something big in mind for her. Wrote China Daily earlier this month: “Today even the most sanguine geopolitical analyst would have to concede that the Korean peninsula nuclear crisis has reached the most critical, if not the most dangerous, stage ... It is thus welcome news that Chancellor Merkel is ready to play a diplomatic mediator’s role”.
Noting that Merkel made mention of the negotiations that led to Iran curtailing its nuclear programme as a “possible format” for resolving the Korean crisis, the paper said her suggestion “echoes the rational voices in the international community” supporting peaceful consultations.
Seasoned diplomats in Asia and Europe were quite struck by this. China Daily, after all, is a major newspaper whose views can be counted on to reflect the central government’s thinking with fidelity. What’s more, Beijing rarely favours widening the circle of nations involved in a dispute in its own backyard. But, believes George Yeo, the brainy former Singapore foreign minister who has been to North Korea: “Chancellor Merkel would not have made the offer without some indication by China and possibly others that Germany’s involvement is welcome ... The six-party talks had not been able to make progress. Both North and South Korea suspect, with good justification, that the major powers are not really in favour of eventual reunification, which is the deep desire of all Korean people. The participation of a Germany reunited after decades of painful division sends a very different signal and may help to lower tension – and save face all round.”
China Daily painted Germany as a neutral interlocutor, admiring Merkel’s aversion to Wagnerian theatrics: “Since Germany has no direct interest in the conflict, Merkel may be in a better position to help ease Pyongyang’s existential worries ... Although it is far too early to say whether Merkel’s sedate diplomacy would help stabilise the Korean peninsula, the efforts made by Germany, and other countries, in the pursuit of a peaceful resolution ... will help build mutual trust and reduce the chances of war. Any effort towards that goal is highly commendable.”
The German chancellor will be quite busy hammering out a new governing coalition in the Bundestag, with an ominous far-right party looking for trouble. Even so, world diplomats agree that if Merkel were to pick up on Beijing’s invitation, she would emerge as a serious player and could place Germany (and thus Europe) as a “cooler” between the aggrieved parties – the US and North Korea. “The Chinese want a strong Germany because this will help create a third pole in the world, which gives them more room in their relationship with the US,” adds Yeo.
Someone with global stature, such as Merkel, could help advance this scenario, as a kind of political psychiatrist doing couples counselling. Further stupid slanging matches between Trump and Kim only add the potential for serious injury to the current insult. In a crisis, careful, sound diplomacy can prove a more deeply rooted force for long-term stability than war, which creates destruction that’s not invariably creative.
A war of words: Kim vs Trump
America’s mercurial leader seems ill-suited to captain the near-universal desire for de-escalation. Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, puts this well: “The problem with the madman strategy is that, if it can be turned on and off, it loses its credibility, while if it is wholly natural, it becomes dangerous ... Trump’s inarticulacy, inconsistency and short attention span, combined with the constant efforts of his staff to provide a reassuring gloss on whatever he has said, are encouraging a tendency to ignore his statements.”
Similarly, North Korea’s young Kim should keep his missiles on the ground and his mouth shut. It is high time for statesmen of substance and character to take centre stage in the Korean crisis and prevent a slide into some nuclear nightmare. The Korean mess is no longer only a regional crisis. The world, after all, is still in the middle of the nuclear age. The fires of the next war may not be so conventional.
Columnist and Loyola Marymount University professor Tom Plate’s new book about China and the US is titled Yo-Yo-Diplomacy