Posts Tagged ‘DPRK’

The generous uncle.

datePosted on 13:23, March 24th, 2018 by Pablo

The title of this post references a Korean saying that alludes to the fact that those with power or dominance can afford to give away some leverage, even face, in pursuit of mutual good. This is applicable to the current state of US-North Korean (DPRK) affairs, where as per usual president Trump has announced via Twitter that he is prepared to sit down and talk face to face with Kim Jung-un about restoring civility to their bilateral relations.

There are many who oppose the overture. Most of the criticism in the US is based on the argument that by agreeing to a sit-down without prior concessions on the part of the DPRK, the US is “legitimizing” the Kim regime and conceding negotiating space before the meeting happens. Trump and his PR flaks have responded by saying that Kim has agreed to “denuclearise” in exchange for the talks, something that has not been confirmed by anyone–particularly the North Koreans–and which flies in the face of the long-proclaimed objective of the DPRK to obtain a nuclear deterrent as an existential cornerstone of its national defense. In fact, the Kim regime has made achieving nuclear weapons status an integral part of its identity, so it would seem suicidal to renounce that in exchange for a bilateral meeting between Kim and Trump that is very likely to be long on symbolism and short on substance.

The South Koreans (ROK) have played an interesting role in this affair. It was the ROK chief of intelligence who initially announced, on the White House steps after a meeting with Trump, that the latter had agreed to direct talks with Kim Jung-un. It is very unusual for any intelligence chief to meet with a foreign head of state as a head of delegation, much less a South Korean intelligence official (where social hierarchies and official protocol are a serious matter). It is also unprecedented that he would announce a stunning diplomatic breakthrough from the steps of the White House–on his host’s porch, as it were–rather than leave that to the president of the Republic or other senior diplomatic or military officials commenting from Seoul. In fact, even his public appearance abroad was highly unusual. But it has been reported that he was serving as an emissary from Kim himself offering to talk directly with Trump, including about the DPRK nuclear program, so it is possible that the unusual nature of the meeting has to do with the unusual nature of and means by which the message was conveyed.

That does not discount the possibility that the ROK government also engineered the intelligence chief’s meeting with Trump in order to advance its own agenda with regard to US-DPRK relations (which involve three-way talks between the US, ROK and DPRK as equals), then cornered Trump with a unilateral announcement about a possible diplomatic breakthrough after that topic was discussed. Knowing that Trump’s vanity would make it hard for him to backtrack from taking credit for a major foreign policy achievement, it is quite possible that the ROK manipulated him to its advantage in order to advance the stalled dialogue with its northern compatriots (I use this term with regard to ethnic, not political ties).

Trump obliged, and then added the denuclearisation remark in the face of domestic criticism. It is possible that what the DPRK message really said about negotiating its nuclear weapons program got lost in translation, but whether or not it amounts to “denuclearisation” does not detract from the fact that it is willing to talk. Otherwise, the North Koreans have remained largely silent other than to say that the offer to talk is not the result of sanctions but instead comes from a position of confidence, and that they are liaising with Sweden (as the DPRK diplomatic interlocutor with the US) about logistics and agenda.

The key issues appear to be these: the North Koreans have always wanted direct talks with the US. The US has always denied them because it does not recognise the legitimacy of the DPRK regime. The 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War is not a peace treaty and is not synonymous with a permanent cessation of hostilities (in fact, episodic hostilities are a signature characteristic of the DPRK-ROK relationship). Thus the status of both the conflict as well as of the north’s governance has always been subject to US questioning.

In response, the DPRK has asked for two things: a formal cessation of hostilities and recognition of its status as the legitimate government north of the 38th parallel. The US refuses to do so on both counts and maintains that Koreans should be reunified under the ROK political system because the Korean War was a post-WW2  Chinese Communist-instigated attempted revolution that usurped the legitimate government based in Seoul. After years of siding with the US, it appears that the ROK political elite are starting to reconsider their position.

This is where the proverb about the generous uncle comes into play. The Kim regime may have been born in dubious circumstances, be objectively odious and weird in its exercise of power and the US may not like it, but withholding recognition of its status as the de facto regent of the territory and population included within its physical borders is absurd. Much like Israel, the DPRK is here to stay whether Arabs or South Koreans like it or not. The Kim regime has been in power for 65 years, has powerful allies such as China, and in terms of the brutality of its rule, is on a par with a number of despotic states, including past and present US allies (readers are welcome to draw other parallels with Israel but my point is simply pragmatic: disliking a country and wishing it away will not make it go away, and if it has strong allies and its prepared to defend itself, it cannot be destroyed and remade in some other image). So denying the DPRK’s existence by refusing to have diplomatic relations and demanding concessions before engaging in bilateral talks is a case of ignoring reality. And with nukes in play, it is a matter of cutting off the nose in order to spite the face.

Critics will say that any meeting “legitimizes” the Kim regime. So what? If it leads to a diminishing of tensions on the Korean peninsula, how is recognising the obvious–that the DPRK is not going away–a bad thing?  What is wrong about agreeing to replace the armistice with a permanent cessation of hostilities and peace treaty that recognises the political division of the Korean peninsula if it can lead to a reduction of bellicosity and thereby the risk of nuclear confrontation? The South Koreans appear to understand what the proverb means for them, and with the reunification of Germany in the back of their minds, they may well believe that the formalisation of peace accords can, mutatis mutandis, eventually lead to non-hostile reunification on mutually beneficial terms.

In spite of the apparent willingness to engage in bilateral head of state talks without preconditions (depending on who in the White House is tweeting/talking), recent personnel changes in the Trump administration suggest that the desire to be generous is not part of Uncle Sam’s playbook. It remains to be seen if other actors, to include New Zealand, can offer insights to decision-makers in DC as to why that old Korean proverb has increased relevance today

Brief considerations on Korea

datePosted on 08:36, November 24th, 2010 by Lew

Normally I would leave discussion of this sort of topic to Pablo, whose expertise is much greater than mine (and I expect he will weigh in with his own thoughts on the topic too). But I lived there for a few years and had a great deal of time to ponder the security situation there, both through my own research and in discussion with several groups of former soldiers and senior businesspeople whom I was teaching English whilst there, and I think I have a handle on it.

A bit of background. The DPRK (North) and ROK (South) Korea remain officially at war; the armistice agreed in 1953 after the Korean War was not a peace treaty and signalled only a cessation of hostilities which has been accompanied by significant military and intelligence preparations on both sides. It is a tense situation, but it is at a fairly stable equilibrium because the mutual assured destruction principle still holds to a large extent. The ROK and its allies understand that the DPRK and its primary military and command assets are sufficiently well-defended that an assault from the South would draw a counter-attack which would inflict massive civilian, military and infrastructure casualties — estimates range in the hundreds of thousands of deaths in greater Seoul alone, which is within easy artillery range. And that’s with conventional weaponry alone, not taking into consideration the possibility of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons (the regime certainly has the former two; it’s generally agreed that it also has the latter, but not in a deliverable form). For its part the DPRK understands that such an assault on the ROK would spell the end of its regime at the hands of a US-led NATO force.

There is a sense among people responding to the the news that yesterday’s exchange of artillery fire at Yeonpyeong Island in the West Sea is qualitatively different from the dozens of other skirmishes which have taken place over the past 50-odd years of this cold conflict. It is true that this is one of the more serious engagements of that war, but it essentially follows the same pattern. Some action by the ROK and its allies (in this case a joint US-ROK naval exercise) granted the DPRK a pretext to rattle its chains; it fired a few rounds and some fiery rhetorical statements and the ROK does likewise. Two ROK soldiers have died, a dozen or so soldiers and a few civilians have been injured, and more civilians from the region have evacuated to the mainland. The casualty count is higher than usual, but so far, so typical. Late last night (NZ time) the DPRK released a statement alleging that the ROK had fired first. This is almost certainly false — the ROK rarely instigates these sorts of engagements — but that doesn’t matter. The purpose of the statement is to raise questions as to the ROK’s moral standing in the engagement, and to provide the ROK government with cover to stand down on the basis that it’s not worth going to war over a misunderstanding. If they do stand down the ROK government risks a minor loss of face, but since they are a liberal-democratic state whose populace has no appetite for war (and for the strategic reasons mentioned above) then barring much more serious provocation they will do so, President Lee Myung-bak’s own florid rhetoric about “enormous retaliation” notwithstanding.

Again: business as usual. While this latest event is perhaps quantitatively more serious than some previous events, it is qualitatively no different. This is the same strategic posturing game which is played out every crab fishing season in the West Sea, and year-round on the land border between the two states. The most serious mistake most of those who are now calling this the start of World War III are making is to try to understand this event in customary diplomatic terms as they would the relationship between two liberal-democratic states in good international standing. The DPRK’s actions and motivations make no sense when viewed in this light, because the DPRK is not, and never has been such a state. The explanation of these events are to be found, if anywhere, in an examination of the DPRK’s internal regime dynamics. Pablo has written about this topic recently with regard to the sinking of the ROK naval vessel Cheonan in March, and I urge you to reread his post in light of these most recent events.

So I don’t think there’s anything much to this. Due to the DPRK’s military doctrine of total war, an invasion or genuine commencement of hostilities would not begin with a few mortars; it would start with a massive and rapid deployment of force, targeted at the most vulnerable civilian and infrastructure targets, likely in the middle of the night and preferably during an adverse weather event or some sort of civil unrest. None of these conditions abide at present. But the fundamental point is that the tense yet stable strategic situation on the 38th has not changed, so it is very unlikely that either side will choose this juncture as the hook upon which to hang the possible demise of their state. There have been some recent developments in that strategic situation — the probable elevation of Kim Jong-Il’s son to a senior position in preparation for ascent to leadership of the regime; fresh concerns about the regime’s nuclear weapons program, and so on — but I believe these are too minor and too recent to have wrought the sorts of changes to the internal DPRK dynamic and to the cross-border dynamic which would be required for a substantial change in posture.

Of course, you never know. I have no special inside information or insight into the strategic situation there, and it may be that events of which few people are aware are driving this situation. But on the face of things this has been just another day on the 38th Parallel.