hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 30 April 2018

North Korea: My Big Bang Theory

"Women ran into the streets with children in their arms, many only half-dressed in housecoats and slippers, the men running henny-penny with them, certain of them in uniform, giving the scene a weird drama. People ran up the stairs that lead up the slopes of the hills. Someone fell, he was picked up and dragged. Cars jammed the routes out of town. The cars were packed, but despite this, they stopped to pick up children which their mothers literally threw into the arms of strangers. Screams, cries, curses – all drowned out by the thunder and howl from the volcano that was Mount Okol'naya (Soviet Northern Fleet ammunition dump). Black with an orange-purple mushroom top, growing to its full height in an instant, nodding toward the town, but afterwards, it began to slowly settle in the direction of the tundra and the ocean."

Eye-witness account of the Severomorsk disaster, May 1984

A Korean Peace?

Alphen, Netherlands. 30 April. This is a speculative blog so bear with me. On June 25, 1950, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) invaded the Republic of Korea (South Korea). The Korean War had begun. On September 15, 1950, US forces under General Douglas MacArthur landed at Inchon and took up command of United Nations force committed to the defence of South Korea. On October 27, 1950, 270,000 troops of China’s People’s Liberation Army attacked US-led United Nations forces by crossing the Yalu River into North Korea. On July 23, 1953, the Korean Armistice was signed at Panmunjom establishing a truce and a demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea at the 38th Parallel, but no formal peace. By the 1953 agreement of the truce some 2.5 million people had been killed of which 1.13 million were Korean.  The consequences of the war also affected Europe leading to an intensification of the Cold War, German rearmament and a failed attempt to create a European Defence Community (See Lindley-French J. “A Chronology of European Security and Defence 1945-2007” Oxford: Oxford University Press). On April 27, 2018 ‘an inter-Korean summit’ saw President Kim Jung-un make history by crossing the 38th Parallel (a short step for man, a giant leap for Korean kind?). He was the first North Korean leader to do so, even though North and South Korea are still technically at war. South Korean President Moon Jae-in hailed the move and hoped that in time the Korean War could be formally ended and a “permanent and solid peace” established.  For good or ill history is on the move again on the Korean Peninsula. So, what has led Kim Jung-un to a potentially historic change of mind?

President Kim Jung-un is clearly on a political and strategic journey.  In November 2017 he declared in that North Korea was a nuclear power capable of striking the United States.  In January 2018 North Korea indicated its willingness to take part in the Winter Olympics in South Korea and on 9 February Korean athletes marched at the Opening Ceremony under a flag depicting a united Korean Peninsula.  South Korea and the US agreed to postpone joint military exercises during the Games, even though Pyongyang indicated it did not object to such exercises, a first in and of itself.  On 8 March, having threatened the United States with nuclear destruction Kim suddenly announced that he would have face-to-face talks with US President Donald J. Trump.  In late March Kim also paid a surprise four-day visit to Beijing.

Why has Kim Moved Now?

There are several schools of thought. One school is that having established North Korea as a credible nuclear power, at least in his own mind, and having shored up his own position at home following a purge of possible rivals, Kim now feels strong enough to negotiate.  China may also be a factor.   The recent visit by Kim to Beijing had something of the summons about it. This is pure educated speculation but it may well be that President Xi made it perfectly clear to Kim the limits of China’s political, economic and military support for Pyongyang. Specifically, that China would not tolerate Kim starting a war with South Korea and the United States and that Beijing would not continue to sustain the Pyongyang regime if it continued to behave with reckless strategic abandon. It could even be possible that by talking directly to the United States Kim is trying to leverage influence over Beijing.

And then there is sentimentalism.  September 9th, 2018 will mark the seventieth anniversary National Day since the founding of DPRK and the rise to power by his grandfather Kim Il-sung in 1948.  It could well be that Kim wants a spectacular success to mark the anniversary.

Two Systems, One Peninsula?

What should be hoped for from the negotiations? A formal end to the Korean War whilst an important symbol would only be a first step on the road to a sustained peace. The Korean People’s Army, which recently celebrated its own seventieth anniversary, can call upon over 6 million personnel in a crisis. Moreover, North Korea has some 15,000 artillery pieces and missile launchers less than 35 miles/55 kilometres from the South Korean capital, Seoul.  As I wrote in a previous missive it would be a mistake to focus solely on the nuclear issue and to draw down US conventional forces on the Peninsula as part of a new peace agreement without also addressing the threat posed by Pyongyang’s conventional forces.  The danger in such circumstances would be that the possibility of a Korea unified would become real, albeit on Kim’s terms. After all, Pyongyang regularly threatens to ‘liberate’ South Korea. Therefore, the most that can be hoped for, or indeed aimed at in 2018 is a change in the atmospherics of the key relationships and the establishment of some form of road map to peace. 

What would that mean in practical terms?  The route any road-map follows, and the length of the road itself, should be dictated by compliance and verification. In the first instance, the US and its South Korean ally should commit to a verifiable build-down of the forces of both sides on the Korean Peninsula and the withdrawal of DPRK artillery and short-range missiles beyond the range of the demilitarized zone.  In return for compliance, some sanctions on Pyongyang would be lifted. As a mark of goodwill families divided for generations should also be allowed to meet and a whole host of exchanges take place from the highest levels of government to all levels of society, and across all age groups.

Are there any models from history? There are some commentators drawing parallels with the two Germanys at the end of the Cold War. Such aspirations seem wildly optimistic to me.  The two Germanys had not fought a hot war with each other and whilst the two economies were markedly different German unification was just about affordable for the Federal Republic. The cost of Korean unification would likely be upward of $1 trillion, or the size of the entire South Korean economy.  In other words, Korean unification could only take place with lots of external support. 

My Big Bang Theory

There could another much more straightforward and rational reason for Kim’s sudden move. During the summit, Kim apparently offered to de-nuclearise if the US promised not to invade. Yesterday came news that in May North Korea plans to close its only nuclear test site at Punggye-Ri.  In September 2017 the site was badly damaged in an explosion and subsequent landslide that killed up to 300 people.  It may be that the site is now too unstable to conduct further large-scale nuclear tests, which is perhaps why over the weekend President Kim announced the site is to close. 

In May 1984, in what became known as the Severomorsk disaster, a massive series of blasts destroyed the arsenal of the then Red Banner North Fleet, the strongest of the Soviet Union’s four fleets, and killed up to 300 people. The blast was so great that Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service first mistook the shockwave for an atomic explosion. Shortly after the disaster, the Soviet Union changed its negotiating position markedly in both the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) and Mutually-Balanced Force Reduction (MBFR) talks. This is pure speculation but it could be that North Korea simply can no longer afford to fix the site, which may present the best hope for de-nuclearisation of the Peninsula.

Is Trump Pushing an Open Pyongyang Door?

In any case, I am getting way ahead of myself here. The meeting between Kim and Moon was, in fact, the warm-up bout for the main event on the card – the Kim-Trump fight.  As such last week’s meeting should be seen as very much a first short step on a very long road. Nor is Kim likely to offer his nascent strategic nuclear arsenal as a stake, unless that is he has no alternative.   

If not President Trump is undoubtedly taking an immense diplomatic risk meeting President Kim Jung-un. Commentators are understandably focussed on the possibilities for peace such a meeting throws up and President Trump is to be congratulated for seizing the moment. However, the danger of such high-level gambles is that when they fail there is no other diplomatic route to follow and all diplomatic room for manoeuvre closes. In such circumstances, relations can drop of the edge of a diplomatic cliff and could tip Korea back onto the verge of war. At the very least President Trump would be wise to emphasise that the meeting is but a first step, that it is ultimately the responsibility of the Korean people to decide the future of the Korean Peninsula, the road ahead will be long, and the US is going nowhere until a lasting peace has clearly been established.
Trust in God and Keep Your Powder Dry

Unless that is President Trump knows something the rest of us do not that would change the entire balance of the negotiations – the Ponggye Ri disaster? In which case, Trump’s timing could be deliberate as US intelligence will be all over the September disaster. This could explain why yesterday US National Security Adviser John Bolton said that North Korean de-nuclearisation must be irreversible. He may be pushing at an open Pyongyang door.  If that is so the possibility of such a meeting serving peace has probably never been greater and Trump may have a unique chance to help establish peace on the Korean Peninsula. Equally, in dealing with North Korea President Trump would be wise to remember the words once attributed to Oliver Cromwell, “Trust in God…and keep your powder dry”.

Julian Lindley-French   

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