Following recent North Korean missile tests and American declarations that they have run out of ‘strategic patience’, the Western media and the governments they serve, are busily repeating time-honoured myths about North Korea.
One is that Pyongyang deceitfully negotiated the 1994 Framework arrangements with the United States – accepting two American Westinghouse power reactors in exchange for winding up North Korea’s its nascent nuclear arsenal – while surreptitiously continuing to develop nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them. The DPRK’s ambition, say the media, is to threaten South Korea, Japan, American Pacific bases, even the west coast of the United States, with nuclear Armageddon. According to Donald Trump’s ignorant and dangerous braggadocio, the North Korean regime must be stopped by whatever means: ‘Every option is on the table’. A nuclear-equipped ‘armada’ is speeding towards the Korean Peninsula to reinforce the US message, or would be if it were not at the time of writing passing leisurely through the Sunda Straits first.
Winston Churchill would have called allegations about North Korean motives ‘terminological inexactitudes’, his parliamentary euphemism for lies uttered by fellow MPs. In an article ‘Negotiating with the North’ in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in November/December 2003 Leon Sigal listed three such inexactitudes about Korea that still ring true today.
The first is that North Korea is determined to have nuclear weapons, so negotiating is an exercise in futility. Well, no. Pyongyang has said many times that it would dismantle its nuclear arsenal in exchange for a written pledge that the US won’t attack it, attempt to overthrow it, or impede its economic development through sanctions on trade and investment. Between bombastic statements threatening Japan, South Korea and the United States with condign nuclear punishment, Pyongyang still offers this compromise, even though no one in the West appears to be listening.
The second inexactitude is that after 1994, Washington kept its word while Pyongyang cheated. But for six years after 1994, Pyongyang froze its plutonium extraction, paused its nascent uranium enrichment program, allowed American technicians to come to Yongpyon to remove and safely store irradiated fuel rods from its only research reactor, and halted construction work on two other reactors. But back in Washington the Republicans gained control of Congress days after the Agreed Framework was signed. Clinton backpedalled, not wanting to take them on, especially Jesse Helms, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Defence Committee. Bunker oil shipments had been promised while the reactors were built, but were not delivered on time or at all, and the concrete and steel mats for the reactors were only poured in August 2002, hopelessly behind schedule for what was promised to be a 2003 start-up. Nor did the United States live up to its pledge in Article II of the Agreed Framework to ‘move towards full normalisation of political and economic relations’. In disgust Pyongyang sent the technicians packing, walked away from the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and its membership of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and resumed its nuclear weapons program.
The third inexactitude is that North Korea was on the brink of economic collapse and a naval blockade would bring the government down. It has still not been brought down despite all sorts of sanctions, including some imposed, perhaps reluctantly, by China.
A fourth inexactitude, more an example of wishful thinking than strategic logic, is that China has enormous influence over Pyongyang, and if it would only try harder, it would persuade the regime to change course. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has just repeated the mantra. But it won’t work. China may be impatient with North Korean obduracy, but it wants the regime to survive. Better Kim Jong-nam in charge of a remarkably disciplined society than breakdown and chaos, leading to floods of refugees crossing into northern China and a pro-American regime on its very doorstep.
The only way out of what has become an extremely volatile and dangerous situation is more carrot and far less stick. A US delegation, initially say at Assistant Secretary level, should quietly sit down with the North Koreans without preconditions while simultaneously halting the highly provocative US-ROK war games at currently going on below the 38th parallel. Is this too much to hope for from President Trump?
Richard Broinowski is President of the New South Wales Chapter of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, a writer, and a former Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea.