Nuclear North Korea and the dangers of panic

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It happened some half hour before midnight on Saturday, Washington time. The US Geological Survey's Earthquake Hazards Program picked up an explosion with a 6.3 magnitude. The North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un had seemingly succeeded in testing a hydrogen device, bringing the number of nuclear tests to six so far.

Mushroom cloudPresident Donald Trump, kept to his usual form. Instead of urging measured calm, he expressed initial awe followed by threat. 'North Korea has conducted a major nuclear test. Their words and actions continue to be very hostile and dangerous to the United States.'

Most problematically, Trump had little patience for Seoul, which would be very much in the line of fire in any opening salvo on the peninsula. 'South Korea is finding, as I have told them,' he tweeted, 'that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!'

It did not take long for observers to pick up that Trump's consternation may have been curried by other factors, not least of all his distinctly negative approach to an agreement he claims benefits South Korean companies. The South Korean-US free trade deal is set for a dramatic axing.

It is evident from this stance that neither national security advisor H. R. McMaster or Gary D. Cohn of the National Economic Council have much sway in convincing the president. Even in the shadow of a conflagration, Trump will still seek his variant of the deal.

Defence Secretary James Mattis was tasked with the onerous mission of putting flesh on the bones of the US reaction. 'Any threat to the United States or its territories including Guam, or our allies, will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming.'

Trump, he informed those gathered, had been briefed on 'many military options'. But Mattis must surely know that options, as he has alluded to before, vary on their feasibility. He said, in a mildly reassuring way, that the US was 'not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea, but as I said, we have many options to do so'.

In Australia, the reactions have been far from mild. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was less than reassuring, suggesting the un-testable notion that the Korean peninsula was closer to conflict than at any time since the Korean War.

 

"Julie Bishop suggests cutting oil supplies in an effort 'to bring unprecedented pressure to bear'. Her stress is on punishment and retribution. Such measures do less harm to the Kim regime than to the North Korean population."

 

The converse, if counter-intuitive argument can be made: that the Korean peninsula is being made safe from war through this aggressive pursuit of nuclear arms. This is not a view deemed acceptable to officials in Washington and Canberra but is entirely realistic given Pyongyang's aims.

Turnbull has also decided to speak on behalf of China, an odd leaf pinched from Trump's own confused book. 'The Chinese are frustrated and dismayed by North Korea's conduct, but China has the greatest leverage, and with the greatest leverage comes the greatest responsibility.' Trump prefers to word it differently: 'North Korea is a rogue nation which has become a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success.'

One prospect as irritating, perhaps more so than Pyongyang's niggling weapons program, is the flagging of a regime collapse, a dangerous situation that would see an exodus of millions into China. If that happens, it will be in no small part due to the machinations of powers that wish to see the Kim regime toppled, despite words to the contrary.

This very fact is implied by the refusal to consider negotiations while attempting that old method of economic strangulation. Australia's own foreign minister, Julie Bishop, suggests cutting oil supplies in an effort 'to bring unprecedented pressure to bear'. Her stress is on punishment and retribution. Such measures do less harm to the Kim regime than to the North Korean population. Then there is the latest suggestion by Trump: US measures to stop 'all trade with any country doing business with North Korea'.

That measure, should it be implemented strictly, will lead to a merry series of trade wars, most notably with China, given its trading relationship with Pyongyang. Whether such nightmares factor into the package of new sanctions being compiled by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin remains to be seen.

The developments over the weekend suggest that Pyongyang is fortifying its diplomatic leverage, testing the resolve of powers that have come to a cul-de-sac of options. Much of that is self imposed, equating discussions with Pyongyang with appeasement.

Each nuclear test, and each ballistic weapons exercise, gives the regime an insurance policy against attack and regime change. Given that reality, the only prospect of de-nuclearisation would have to come from the most significant power in this dispute: the United States itself.

 


 

Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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Existing comments

Until Kim - like Gaddafi - goes we won't know the full extent of the sufferings of his people. Regime change would seem to be the only realistic alternative. It may be possible to remove Kim without all out war. That would require a highly secret covert operation. Is it possible Kim's removal can be done with UN approval? Yes. I think attempting to negotiate with him is futile.
Edward Fido | 04 September 2017


Thank you Binoy, it is good to hear the gentle voice of reason in this debate. Deliberately bringing about untold suffering on the people through severe sanctions is hardly going to endear the West to Nth Korea: has the whole debacle begun by fears about 'weapons of mass destruction' held by Hussein taught us nothing? Respectful dialogue is the surest way forward. We have seen enough violence in recent years.
Pirrial Clift | 05 September 2017


Yes, a timely article. here are some other views against the US war machine http://chriswhiteonline.org/2017/08/oppose-nuclear-war-and-north-korea/
Chris White | 05 September 2017


Re Edward Fido's comment, removal of Gaddafi is hardly an example, far less a model, of regime change. Libya is now a nation without any real leadership, with competing claimants in Tripoli and Benghazi. Yes, removal of Kim would be an advantage to the world, and very possibly, to the North Koreans. But no short term advantage to them if they are left with no regime to replace the Kim dynasty. Civil war in the absence of any broadly recognised new regime would quite likely be worse than life under Kim. The possibility of change to any alternative regime is further reduced by Trump's assertion that USA will no longer be involved in nation building as part of their military incursions. Noting the position taken by South Korea's president, shouldn't we in the rest of the world be somewhat more open to his attempts to re-open negotiation as the method of resolving this current dispute? Or do we, particularly in Australia and USA, believe we can know North Korea better than their cousins in the South?
Ian Fraser | 05 September 2017


I don't think you can support the continuance of brutal dictatorships, such as those in the Middle East, like Iraq, Libya or Syria by pointing out the fact that things invariably get worse before they get better, as Ian Fraser does. Iraq now seems to be stabilising, although there are and will be problems in the Kurdish areas. Certainly, the situation for the majority Shi'ites is vastly better. Kim is a vicious dictator of the Stalin or Mao variety who has been responsible for the torture, murder and starvation of who knows how many of his subjects in the North Korean slave state. Ultimately, he needs to go. If the South Koreans can talk him through the current crisis, well and good. If this fails China may, I repeat may, be able to persuade him to go. He does need to go, for his own country, for the region and the world. A lunatic threatening other countries with nuclear strikes should not be allowed to remain. When he goes I predict North Korea will erupt in joy. It will be like the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Edward Fido | 06 September 2017


Evil thrives when good people do nothing to defuse it, but punishment and retribution is the wrong response to a dictator like Kim. Russia and China have suggested a more considered approach to this situation: where is the wisdom in using punishment and retribution?
Trish Martin | 06 September 2017


Dear Binoy, thankfully not many military strategists agree with your claim of a nuclear north Korean state upholding a more peaceful world. Make your arguments to the Japanese where the population of Hokkaido last week received text messages to take cover because of an incoming missile. You also fail to define the evolution of "nuclear" where the north have tested a new H bomb. This of course can be anywhere from 1x to 5,000x more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Russians tested Tsar Bomba in 1961 that registered more than 3,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima detonation. Its shock waves blew out windows in Finland and send shock waves that circumnavigated the globe three times. Previous negotiation strategies of the US administrations and international community have not worked. Pyongyang has continued to develop more and more powerful weapons with greater abilities to deliver them around the world. A regional threat just became a global one. Your article misses this point. The NY times has published some excellent articles in the last week. They present a highly complex and not easily resolved negotiation not resolved by one single nation state as you suggest. I would read these for a better understanding of the complexity. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/06/opinion/the-way-to-make-north-korea-back-down.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-left-region&region=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region&_r=0 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/05/world/asia/north-korea-nuclear-weapons-china.html
Patrick | 07 September 2017


Cutting off oil to North Korea... In July 1941 the US cut off oll to Japan. In December 1941 came Pearl harbour.. Containment and deterrence are the best in this case
andrew hamilton | 07 September 2017


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