CAVAN HOGUE. Crisis In Korea: can the irresistible force and the immovable object co-exist?

Jul 6, 2017

The launch of an ICBM by the DPRK may yet bring a positive result if it gets China, Russia and the USA all working together to find a solution involving carrot and stick. Any solution will need to make the DPRK feel secure form foreign attack and its neighbours secure from DPRK attack which means negotiations that the US has so far refused. However, the kind of wider peace treaty idea put forward by Russia and China could work; it is hard to see any other practical solution.. Kim Jong Un is not, as some claim, inconsistent but knows exactly what he is doing. Can we say the same for Donald Trump? 

The most recent North Korean ICBM launch and the international reactions too it bring out the problems and perils of the situation and of wider concerns. Russia and China have called for negotiations and a deal which would involve Pyongyang stopping its nuclear program in return for the cessation of what Pyongyang sees as threatening manoeuvres on its border. In other words a deal. However, the great deal maker President Trump seems to have followed the well trodden American path of demanding that others do its bidding without giving anything in return. It hasn’t worked with Russia which will no doubt see parallels with the NATO build up on its borders and it is not likely to work with Pyongyang. China is sensitive to what it sees as hostile forces on its border which is why it continues to support the existence of the troublesome North Korean regime. General Macarthur’s push to the Yalu has not been forgotten and beefed up support for Taiwan will not make Beijing breath any easier.. The collapse of the DPRK would cause immense problems for China and the ROK would face an assimilation problem that would make the assimilation of East Germany look like a cakewalk. Tweeting Beijing to bring the DPRK into line doesn’t really help.

My experience of negotiations with the DPRK suggests that they are anything but inconsistent. (Can we say the same for President Trump?) Brutal, despotic, single minded, tough and living in a domestic Fantasyland the DPRK may be, but Kim knows what he is doing. I once asked a |Russian friend who had recently visited North Korea what he thought of it. He replied: “Stalin lives” . Stalin was a monster but he knew what he wanted and went after it consistently and ruthlessly. So does Kim Jong Un. Domestically Kim maintains the threat of foreign invasion as a means of keeping the population afraid but grateful for the protection of the great leader. Hardly a new idea. Internationally, he edges towards the brink but has no intention of reaching it. He has observed that the USA has invaded illegally countries that don’t have a nuclear deterrent but none that do. Therefore he argues that the best way of keeping the American predator at bay is to develop a nuclear deterrent. Stripped of the rhetoric, he may have a point? Kim says he wants negotiations with the USA to take place as means of finding a mutually acceptable course of action. It may not be quite that simple and he may see it as a way of getting international recognition without ultimately giving anything away which is a classic DPRK practice. The US position is that they will not negotiate until Pyongyang does what the US wants it to do which is observe UN resolutions and stop activities which potentially threaten the USA itself and its allies.. Both sides wrap all this up in suitably bombastic rhetoric. While developments in our region are of obvious concern we are not a serious player in this game and will no doubt continue to trot along faithfully behind the USA.

Japan and South Korea are understandably nervous because they are in range of missile attacks which could do enormous damage. They back the US as a protector but must be aware that any direct military action against Pyongyang risks devastating reprisals on them. Kim will be well aware of this! So if sanctions will not work and military action is too dangerous what is left? Moves in the Security Council to get China, Russia and the USA to agree on a course of action are positive but will require some give on their part. However, a broad agreement for a Peace Treaty and a wider package may be attractive to Pyongyang if it gets guarantees that it can continue to exist without interference in its domestic regime and without foreign threats. Others will have to accept the existence of a very nasty regime so long as it doesn’t threaten the outside world. Given the other despotic regimes in the world that all the countries involved recognise and support, this shouldn’t be difficult. Huffing and puffing by other countries is unlikely to blow down the North Korean house so there may be no alternative but negotiations involving a combination of carrot and stick set in a wider context than just the present crisis..


Cavan Hogue served as a junior officer in Seoul in 1960-62 and as ambassador in Bangkok was the contact point for negotiation with North Korea on the resumption of diplomatic relations. He was Ambassador in Moscow and ran the Asia Division of DFAT which covered China, Japan and Korea s well as Southeast Asia. He was Deputy Permanent Representative when Australia was on the Security Council. 


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