DENNIS ARGALL   Korea, China, US and Trump  

Feb 6, 2017

It has not helped that senior military people have been inclined to simply call the North Koreans crazy, any more than it helps now to simply call Trump crazy. 

These comments are in response to an article by Christopher Hill, former US Assistant Secretary for East Asia in the Pacific Project Syndicate.  It was titled ‘Can Trump Manage North Korea?’

In the early 1970s US-China rapprochement was possible because China assessed, especially from events in Indochina, that the United States was not a threat to China.

In the mid 1970s, Chinese Foreign Minister Qiao Guanhua offered the view that the United States’ problem was that strategically it was trying to hold ‘ten fleas under ten fingers’. Those perspectives clearly remain at the base of Chinese judgements, while the number of fingers and fleas has increased. It is perplexing to the Chinese as well as the rest of us that Trump has let loose more fleas.

In 1977 in conversation with Zbigniew Brzezinski and others new to the National Security Committee, at lunch at the Australian embassy in Washington there was interest in why Australia had over several years sought to engage North Korea including establishing diplomatic relations. I offered the opinion that the difficulties of dealing with the north would grow over time and, the sooner some settlement was made the better. The response, from the late Michael Oxenberg, a senior member of the NSC was that while this might have merit, the United States could not manage a lot of variables at one time, the priorities then being normalisation of relations with China and base negotiations with the Philippines. Korea would have to wait.

Trump has no sense of limiting the number of variables and brings a concept of negotiation which is commercial-exploitative and disruptive to the concept of nation states, already subject to stresses.

There has been a persistent problem in US management of the Korean question arising from domination of the problem by military and intelligence pressures and events along the DMZ. The tendency each year to label North Korean military alerts as aggressive without reference to the fact that North Korean actions are often reactions especially to the annual US reinforcement exercises into the ROK. The DPRK regards these as manipulative, whether as intelligence assessments offered to foreign governments or public propaganda. This undermines prospect for empathy and coherent engagement.

DPRK attitudes to nuclear weapons must always be described in terms of their awareness that for over half a century they, more than any country have been threatened with nuclear strike.  The DPRK probably construes Trump’s remarks as consistent with that perceived pattern and not as aberrant.

This language from Christopher Hill:

One can only hope that it will focus on the North Korean nuclear threat, which is very real – and could become acute sooner than anyone expects” needs to be seen as equally applicable to the other side.

It has not helped that senior military people have been inclined to simply call the North Koreans crazy, any more than it helps now to simply call Trump crazy.

South Korean official attitudes have been comparable: In 1975,in Seoul, in reply to a question from the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Asia Division about how the Australian foreign minister was received when we were shortly before in Pyongyang, I said they were Korean people and we had been received well. In reply to which he replied “but they are not human.” 

There are high horses (and blarney and chest thumping) everywhere down from which it is necessary to climb for global sanity’s sake. But Trump would seem to think himself at least the White Horse of the Apocalypse.

Dennis Argall was Australian Ambassador to China 1984/85

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