DENNIS ARGALL   Korea, China, US and Trump  

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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2 Responses to DENNIS ARGALL   Korea, China, US and Trump  

  1. Geoff Miller writes:
    “Dennis is really suggesting a renewed major diplomatic effort…”

    I am very much aware of the difficulties based on history and attitude.

    Before any diplomatic effort there is need for a mental effort to see things differently.

  2. Geoff Miller says:

    Dennis Argall’s “Pearl” of 6 February on the US and North Korea highlights a very real and difficult issue. People used to joke that the North Korean situation was always critical but never serious. With the progress the nuclear program has made it is serious.
    Dennis’ point about mutual provocation certainly has something to it, with the US/ROK annual exercises a case in point. Readers may have also noticed that the ROK has also set up a special force to attack North Korea and its leaders if it concludes that a nuclear attack might be imminent!
    But why would it be? I subscribe to the idea that the rationale for the program is defensive, to prevent any kind of attack on North Korea on the basis, which I think is correct, that nuclear deterrence is the only effective deterrence against great powers. That may be paranoid, but as we all know, even paranoids have enemies! As US specialist on North Korea, Scott Snyder, said recently (31 January) in testimony to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kim Jong Un seems to have decided that North Korea must be “too nuclear to fail”
    As to what more the US and others can and should do about the continuing North Korean nuclear program I really don’t know. ( We should of course always remember that the George W. Bush administration chose not to follow through on the US-North Korean agreement under which North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear program in exchange for the US providing it with two nuclear reactors for energy purposes.) But in considering possible military options I can’t really imagine the US carrying out a pre-emptive nuclear attack on North Korea’s nuclear installations so close to the ROK, China and Japan, despite North Korean sabre-rattling about ICBMs that could reach the US. A conventional attack? More thinkable, but still full of risks, and it mightn’t even be effective.
    Dennis is really suggesting a renewed major diplomatic effort, but North Korea’s typical stance toward and rhetoric about the US doesn’t encourage that. And even if such an effort had some successes I don’t think North Korea will give up its nuclear program.
    The recent warning to North Korea by US Defense Secretary Mattis is one way of living with North Korea as a nuclear power, i.e. to accept it as such while relying on the United States’ enormous nuclear deterrent power. There’s no reason that that won’t work. Nuclear deterrence has a good record, viz. the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Accepting North Korea as a nuclear—but deterred—power at this point seems a more realistic option than any others that come to mind, unwelcome as that may be. A better outcome may be possible in time, but for the present it is elusive.


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