Defusing a nuclear North Korea will take cool heads and serious thought, not bravado and self-interest
Kevin Rafferty says all the countries with a stake in the Korean peninsula must wake up to the danger of the fragile peace being shattered and of a North Korean nuclear attack
The sporting games of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are over, but the geopolitical games of the Korean peninsula go on. Indeed, the daring twists and turns on the ice are being matched by political manoeuvres that open fascinating, as well as troubling, prospects.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has embarked on a campaign to woo South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, as if Kim is a chubbier version of Pyeongchang’s smiling tiger mascot. But the United States, China, Russia and Japan are still set in old ways of thinking.
The situation is rather like a fiery volcano dormant for 65 years – an armistice after the war but no peace. Lately, there have been ominous rumblings: Kim’s nuclear and missile tests and threats to rain fire and brimstone on the US, and US President Donald Trump’s taunts about having a bigger and better nuclear arsenal than the “little rocket man” in North Korea. Meanwhile, South Korea’s Moon worked hard to get the North Koreans to join “the peace Olympics”.
North Korea won no medals, but its athletes and officials were greeted with popular acclaim. Its cheerleaders won a charm offensive, which soured after defectors claimed that the glamorous women doubled as sex slaves for the North Korean leadership. The invitation from Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, to Moon to visit the North clearly delighted him. With her youth and ready smile, Kim Yo-jong was a winning contrast to US Vice-President Mike Pence, who sat sullenly in his seat when the Korean team entered at the opening ceremony. Then, this week, Kim Jong-un sat down to dinner with a delegation from the South and toasted them. The meeting led to the promise of a Korean summit next month, symbolically in the Panmunjeom border village that divides North from South Korea. South Korea’s national security director, Chung Eui-yong, said the North had agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons if it received credible security guarantees from the US, and would halt nuclear and missile tests for “heart to heart talks” with the US.
One caveat is that the news of the summit came from the South; North Korea remained strangely silent. Another caveat is three previous rounds of talks over North Korea’s security led nowhere. And then there is Trump, who immediately boasted that he was the reason why potential peace talks had happened. Moon himself seems more naive and trusting than his predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, who both visited Pyongyang bearing lavish gifts of aid and investment, but failed to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons drive.
It would be a mistake to see Kim as a chubby version of Pyeongchang’s smiling tiger mascot. Except in fairy tales, there are no cuddly tigers, and Kim is certainly not one. He showed ruthlessness in removing and executing relatives and senior colleagues of his father. North Korea is impoverished by mismanagement and militarisation, but it has shown great resourcefulness in evading sanctions and getting money and supplies for its nuclear ambitions.
Kim’s wooing of Moon is an obvious attempt to detach him from the US. He has seen through Trump’s empty braggadocio and knows that US defence secretary General James Mattis has warned Trump that a war with North Korea would be “catastrophic” and that a pre-emptive strike against the North’s weapons would be too difficult.
Trump is proving a boastful empty suit. He has undercut his own officials who dared to explore the prospect of a twin-track of reinforced sanctions and talking to North Korea. He still has no ambassador in Seoul and Joseph Yuosang Yun, his chief negotiator who had opened a useful back door for talking to Pyongyang, retired “for personal reasons”.
The constant worry must be that Trump, with his perpetual penchant for reducing any and every issue to himself and whether he can make a great deal, will either buddy up to Kim or do the opposite and try to blow up the volcano. Rumours that General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser and author of America’s security strategy, is about to quit are worrying.
North Korea’s closest ally, economic lifeline and supplier of key nuclear equipment has been China. But under President Xi Jinping, China is moving away from Mao Zedong’s assertion that North Korea and China are “as close as lips and teeth”. After five years in power, Xi has not met Kim, evidence of the two leaders’ mutual disdain.
Some scholars assert that Beijing’s fears of upsetting the status quo, principally an implosion of North Korea and the flood of refugees to China, no longer apply. Some Chinese army officers would welcome the opportunity that conflict would bring for China to reshape the peninsula and Asia, as well as getting US troops out of Korea. But, so far, China is distancing itself from North Korea, without either upsetting the regime or actively working for a peaceful peninsula.
Moscow’s role in the Korean war gets underplayed. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was instrumental in putting Kim Il-sung, the founder of the North Korean dynasty, in power, and backing the North’s invasion of the South, which triggered the Korean war. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been playing mischief-maker-in-chief in Korea. He has used Russia’s veto on the UN Security Council to soften sanctions and offered Pyongyang diplomatic and trading lifelines.
The most puzzling player is Japan, which will host the next Summer Olympics in 2020. Japan is the most vulnerable of all the major countries to fallout from Korea: if war broke out, Japan’s hosting of 50,000 US troops would ensure it would be caught in hostilities; if Korea were peacefully unified, once the new country was on its feet, it would become a major competitor for Japan.
But Japan is increasingly self-centred. Prime minister Shinzo Abe is investing his political capital into changing the constitution in ways that will upset both Koreas and China. Just when Japan could be showing off the advantages of a peace constitution in leading to prosperity and making new friends, it is harking back to glorify its inglorious past.
The whole world would be utterly changed if the Korean volcano exploded. If it were a nuclear conflict, every one of the seven billion people on the planet would feel the fallout. Who can encourage Kim and Moon – and Trump – to talk real peace and stop playing games with nuclear weapons?
Kevin Rafferty is a journalist, former Osaka University professor and World Bank official