GEOFF MILLER. Kim Jong Un – Forcing the pace, or forging a peace?

Kim Jong Un’s continual provocation of the United States can probably be best explained as a considered strategy to bring about negotiations between the two.  

Many Korean experts, Dr Leonid Petrov of the ANU, for example, are not at all surprised by North Korea’s determination to acquire a nuclear deterrent against a possible United states attack or attempt at regime change. This is not a view unique to Korean scholars. In “The Weekend Australian” of 24-25 June, Greg Sheridan quoted James Clapper, former US Director of National Intelligence, as saying that during a visit to North Korea a couple of years ago he was struck by “the degree of paranoia and the siege mentality among their officials. They’re not going to denuclearise. That’s their only leverage.”

So that’s pretty clear. But in all the attention being given to North Korea because of its nuclear and missile tests one aspect has been a continual puzzle. If those tests are part of a program essentially designed to protect against a United States attack, why continually taunt and even threaten the United States as Kim does? On the one hand he talks of the recent ICBM test as a “4th of July present to the Americans”, and on the other he publicly looks forward to the day when a North Korean nuclear-tipped missile can reach Los Angeles or San Francisco.

With the missile tests, and statements like the above, he has certainly got the United States’, and even the world’s, attention. But it’s attention that focuses on counter-measures, increased sanctions, and even military strikes.

So why present the North Korean missile and nuclear programs to the world in this way? It would seem quite possible—though admittedly a stretch—to have maintained the same programs but to have presented them in a cloud of assurances of their purely defensive nature, never to be used to attack or coerce others, simply needing to keep up with evolving technology etc—in other words, to make the Obama Administration’s policy of strategic patience seem still relevant, and for North Korea to “get away with it”, as India and Pakistan have done.

There are different possible answers to this question. After all, for decades North Korea has complained about feeling threatened, each year, by the US-South Korea joint military exercises on the peninsula. South Koreans are famously direct people, and there is no reason to think the North Koreans are different. They could have simply become more than usually fed up, and decided to indulge themselves by telling the Americans exactly where to get off.

But on consideration that seems a bit too flip, even for direct people, given that the issues involved include the survival of the regime, and even the possibility of a nuclear war. North Korea clearly sees the US as its main threat, and it must be considered unlikely that in dealing with that threat North Korean leaders would indulge themselves in repeated un-considered statements. After all, many Korean experts vie with each other in assuring their readers that Kim Jong Un is not crazy but rational.

So if he’s rational, why is he doing what he’s doing? I think the most likely explanation is that he is aiming to put the US in an intolerable position—being under the constant threat of having one of its cities destroyed at the whim of a “crazy” dictator—from which it can only escape by meeting North Korea’s calls for direct negotiations, looking towards security guarantees and a peace treaty.

This strategy involves Kim and his regime making two big bets, first that the US will conclude that it does not have a viable military option against North Korea, to a considerable extent because of the consequences for South Korea; and secondly that the US and the international community will not be able to impose sanctions severe enough to bring the regime down, to a considerable extent because of the attitude and interests of China. They are bold bets, but it would be hard to make the case that they will fail. For instance, to quote James Clapper again, in his interview with Greg Sheridan, “in my mind the US really has no pre-emptive military measures it can take”.

So, if Kim’s bets are sound, the only way the US can free itself from an unpredictable but increasingly realistic nuclear threat is to agree to what North Korea has sought for decades, direct negotiations. That would mean the US giving way on its two main objections to such talks—first, that they would mean rewarding bad behaviour, and secondly that they would diminish the role and status of South Korea (which under its new President is putting itself forward as the most appropriate interlocutor in dealing with the North).

But on the other hand many observers of the Korean situation have for years recommended direct negotiations between the US and North Korea, as essential if the impasse on the peninsula is ever to be resolved. It may be that Kim Jong Un’s high-risk tactics will in the end prove to have been an unlikely way of bringing them about.

Geoff Miller is a former Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea and Japan, and Director-General of the Office of national Assessments.

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One Response to GEOFF MILLER. Kim Jong Un – Forcing the pace, or forging a peace?

  1. The demand by the DPRK for negotiation directly with the US needs this context:

    – in the Korean War their opponent was the US and the UN umbrella and contribution of allies does not alter that any more than the presence of minor allies in Afghanistan can obscure the fact that it’s the US in charge.

    – when the war was in progress the guy the Americans put in as president in the south Syngman Rhee would not participate in the armistice, wanting to go on. So the Armistice Commission has involved the Korean People’s Army, the Chinese People’s Volunteers and the United Nations Command with the US Forces in Korea in charge and the continuing Australian Defence Attache’s role as no more relevant that having Joe Hockey in Washington as our top strategic thinker and influence on US strategic policy.

    – Yes it’s a way past those guys in Seoul. Who want the transfer of authority over their own forces in wartime back from command by the US more quickly now they have a reforming government. And in the joint communique of Moon with Trump is the statement that the ROK has the lead on inter Korean dialogue. Also there in that statement a commitment to a peaceful way forward. So things are shifting.

    There is continued repetition, also in Mack Williams’ article, of the notion that the DPRK now has this intercontinental strike capacity. Which is far from true. But the guys who do the press cuttings for the boss in Pyongyang must be gurgling with delight: “wow, he’ll like this one, we’ve really sucked them in.” Acquisition of nuclear weapon state status just like that, and with everyone’s help.

    We need to come back to what Kim knows and Jeremy in London knows. You can’t use nuclear weapons. Not even, as Mack Williams suggests, against Pine Gap… “Ok Kim X we’ve got 1500 weapons now. One to aim at Alice Springs, one for Darwin?” “Oh, Kim G, could we save that for Kiribilli House or Point Piper? What’s that they say about putting their mouth where their money is?”

    On why Pyongyang should continue to jump up and down, and jump up and down even more. Surely they have an academy of social science unit studying Tony Abbott as well as Trump. Why do we have to run with this child in back seat of car lament: “Are they rational now?”

    We might more usefully address actors as actors and end the fantasy of rationality.

    Who has the biggest speakers at the DMZ these days? Is Kim louder than Trump? If Trump shouts at Kim, should Kim do a Turnbull and quiver and tell weak jokes and poor imitations at the press club. Naah, he’s not a simperer.

    Trump says a lot of things for his domestic support to continue to love him more. Kim’s dad started a curious process of giving gifts to everyone every year for loyalty. Bigger and bigger gifts. BMW and Rolex and beyond. But Kim Now is down to having to give handshakes to most people. Cash-strapped. So he now has to go to the metaphorical equivalent of West Virginia and give big speeches and say ever more spooky things about bad guys coming to get you. And you have to entertain your mob with thumbing the enemy.

    Also there are reports not of an opioid crisis as in the US (if we put aside the gun crisis and other drug crises) but in North Korea a crystal meths situation with a high proportion of the population a high proportion of the time staying on their feet on this scary stuff. As some factories in China assembling our phone have done at times. Which makes weapon questions a bit scary, but also may explain the hyperword stuff.

    A little moral relativism can go a long way. If behind the scenes Trump can be won over by Moon and commit to a sensible way forward, we should not sit on the grass and go on about the superior sledging by the other cricket team. I would not dare say that’s not cricket. This is a more serious game. But still we have very limited understanding on the basis of which to find our way through the problem.

    News reporting in the US, mirrored in Australia , is given increasingly to raving. The Washington Post today has a rave about ‘surprising’ DPRK involvement in Africa which reports really old news and at base rests on this weirdly persistent obsession that only God and the US can be hegemonists. God knows he’s not America but… The New York Times says today that no American journalist could speak of Trump as has Chris Uhlman… This is not rational. Let’s moderate our predilection to make judgements of others as deluded or irrational. It’s not stable ground for sensible policy.

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