What we are getting wrong with North Korea.

This article originally appeared in The New Daily, here on July 7, 2017.


The Korean Peninsula is heating up, without a resolution in sight. Are we headed for war?

One of the difficulties for observers is that so little information gets out of North Korea that it is hard to figure out what they are thinking. Yet to be successful in any negotiation one must look more at the other side’s view and try and figure out ‘what are they thinking?’.

I have been to the North as well as the South. I have seen a little bit of the country and understand a small amount of how they think. I wrote about my trip on these pages some time ago (here).

So what is North Korea thinking, what is South Korea thinking, and more importantly, what is China thinking?

Firstly, to the North.

One needs to go back to World War Two to get a full perspective. Australian and Korean soldiers fought as brothers in arms to expel the Japanese from their brutal occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Few people remember that Australia, Korea, the Soviets, the Chinese and the US were all allies, fighting and dying together.

Under an agreement between the Soviets and the Americans, the Soviets liberated the north of the 38th parallel and the Americans liberated the south, with the two regions having governments installed by the respective liberators.

In the chaotic aftermath of WW2 Kim Il-sung rose to lead the North. According to most historians the Korean War then began when the North, under Kim Il-sung, invaded south of the 38th parallel to reunite the Peninsula under one government.

Despite the overwhelming weight of objective evidence, the history books of the North say the war began when the American invaded. Regardless of the truth, the North believes the war was started by the Americans.

For the North Koreans, the Americans have a history of wanting to destroy their country and to the North the lack of peace agreement proves the Americans ongoing intent to attack.

And to be honest, the Americans would rather that the North does not exist. In other words, the Northern fear of the Americans is probably an accurate fear to hold. To the North, nuclear weapons seem like an essential element for their survival.

North Korea still hopes to reunite the two Koreas – but under the northern system of government. The South, on the other hand, want to either stay separate or to reunite the Peninsula under the southern system.

Those who want a unified Korea, on both sides, would prefer a peaceful unity, but under their respective systems. Both will defend an attack from the other and both perceive the other as wanting to attack them.

It is a standoff based on a lack of trust and based on an accurate perception of the other’s intent as truthfully, both Koreas would like to see the other side’s government gone.

Having spent time in both Koreas I can not see a way for a peaceful reunification. The differences between North and South Korea are many times larger than the differences between East and West Germany. A peaceful reunification is probably just not possible. But is a peaceful coexistence possible?

Now, what of China?

Neither Russia nor China would like to see American troops on their borders with North Korea. For Russia and China, a South Korean takeover of the North, with consequent US influence and troops, is just not on the cards.

But there is something more Machiavellian at play too.

The United States defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War, in part, by slowly driving the Soviets bankrupt. Are the Chinese today doing the same thing to the Americans?

15 years ago, when the US looked like cutting defence spending, the Chinese rattled their sabres in the Taiwan Strait. The US kept spending and borrowing. 5 years ago, when the Americans wanted to cut spending, the North set off a nuclear test. The Americans kept spending and borrowing.

Perhaps, up until now, the Chinese haven’t stopped the North Koreans, because the North has been doing precisely what the Chinese wanted.

China also knows, that if it wanted to, it could walk across the border and take over North Korea at the drop of a hat. But why would you want that instability under your control? Isn’t it better for an unpredictable North Korea to keep the US on its toes?

But what now, with Trump in the Whitehouse? Trump has clearly got it wrong if he thinks China will solve the problem. But do the Chinese want to appear impotent in front of Trump by not stopping Kim Jong-un?

China is battling the US for dominance, about which I have written on these pages before (here). But the Chinese don’t want a shooting war when they are about to win the economic one. What we are likely to see is the Chinese pulling Kim Jong-un back, just enough to appear in control, but not enough to stop the Americans spending money.

Andrew MacLeod is a visiting professor at Kings College London, Chairman of Griffin Law, a non-executive director to Australian and US companies, a former high-level UN official co-founder of BrexitAdvisoryServices.co.uk He can be followed on @AndrewMMacLeod.

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