01 December 2010

The final days of North Korea

The idea that China may abandon North Korea as an independent state and prepare it to merge with the Republic of Korea is easily the most important to come from the recent Wikileaks release. It's a matter of global importance, in the way that tittle-tattle about Prince Andrew and Berlusconi isn't.

Don't let the tentative language belie the deep and serious changes underway here: the seismic changes in what used to be Eastern bloc regimes in 1989 was expressed in similar terms, intending to review this minor detail or moving to discuss that aspect of whatever. Note the sheer absence of angry denunciations or even the odd bit of ordnance since that release: North Korea is finished. China is managing the transition to a Seoul-led government, which will probably involve:

  • North Korea's nuclear weapons going to China;

  • Members of the North Korean elite fearful of prosecutions and persecutions to also go to China;

  • ROK (the Republic of Korea, a.k.a South Korea or the Seoul regime) to take the starving millions, polluted landscape, buggered infrastructure, &c., and

  • US forces will probably be required to pull out of ROK as part of the deal, and will get the USS Pueblo back, which will suit the Obama Administration down to the ground.

Australia has skin in this game. Lest we forget, 339 Australian servicemen gave their lives fighting for the ROK in 1950-53. There are tens of thousands of Korean migrants in Australia. ROK, China and Japan are three of our biggest trading partners, and there was considerable diplomatic effort invested under both Rudd and Downer in building as good a relationship with North Korea as any country other than China could possibly have.

What are the responses from our leaders to this important event? What options are available to them? These are not merely legitimate but important questions for Australians to be asking right now.

In response, we have the usual mix of me-too bland nothings and utter crap from "wire services" in the foreign news sections. Maybe there is a lot going on behind closed doors right now, and hopefully the Foreign Minister can bring himself to trust us enough to bring us into the debate sometime soon, being an intelligent man capable of getting over himself and learning from recent experience. Australian consideration of this major issue appears to be limited to this from the Federal Opposition, that from Gerard Henderson and something else from Greg Sheridan: and very limited it is too.
North Korea's recent attack on South Korea highlights the increasingly erratic behaviour of Kim Jong-Il and his military regime, and represents a dangerous escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the broader North Asia region ... It is not in Australia's national interests for the situation on the Korean Peninsula to deteriorate to a point where open conflict appears inevitable. Not only is South Korea an important trading partner, it is a valued friend and key regional ally.

That is what we can expect from our alternative government. The bits covered by the ellipsis cover recent events that you can dig up in a Google search, and read like a try-hard essay from a not particularly gifted first-year uni student in international relations. Why have a whole newspaper column and stuff it full of pap, showing once again that people should be relieved that your lot aren't in government now?
Pressure is now on China to join with the rest of the international community in condemning North Korea's attacks. China is uniquely placed to use its leverage to insist that Pyongyang cease its aggressive acts and tone down its inflammatory rhetoric, and start respecting international rules and norms.

Julie, pet, it's too late for that. North Korea is buggered and its whole reason for existence - to act as a buffer between China and The West - is a dead letter. We need more from China than to condemn the deaths of those on Yeonpyeong Island. We need to see how far China has gone in effectively liquidating a sovereign nation, and how it is mitigating the impact on its own territory and people that will come with the inevitable collapse. If you were a worthy potential foreign minister, you'd have put some thought into that and would now be showing Australia how we minimise the risks and maximise the possibilities this situation presents to us.
The world can only hope that China can influence North Korea to stop war-mongering.

Because, if we do not succeed then we run the risk of failure.

North Korea has a fair degree of unexploited mineral wealth - opportunities for Aussie companies but they'll detract from export opportunities here. Will North Korean refugees "jump the queue" ahead of those from, say, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan - happy lands apparently, where asylum seekers are being sent back? Any public policy issues to consider there, Julie?

What do you mean, they never occurred to you? Don't worry, they never occurred to the renowned foreign policy brain that is Gerard Henderson, either.
There is a certain predictability about international diplomacy in north-east Asia.

I never cease to be amazed that conservatives like Henderson or Janet Albrechtsen can describe events as 'predictable', and then demonstrate no idea as to how to deal with them. If it was so predictable, Gerard, why did so many people have to die? Why such fear and loathing abroad?
Once again, the communist regime in North Korea has launched a unilateral military attack on the land and people of the democratically elected South Korean government. And, once again, the former Democratic United States president Jimmy Carter has effectively said that the way to handle the current crisis is to ask the dictators in Pyongyang what they want and then to give it to them.

That's right: Gerard Henderson could have foreseen the whole thing, but people just have to die so that Hendo can play culture wars with Jimmy Carter.
Carter opined that "it is entirely possible" North Korea's actions "are designed to remind the world that they deserve respect in negotiations that will shape their future". Well, anything is possible. Especially since virtually no one - including Carter himself - knows anything about the regime in Pyongyang, including its leader, Kim Jong-il, and his son and anointed successor, Kim Jong-un.

Yairs. While Jimmy Carter was getting top-level briefings on the best intelligence about North Korea and China, Gerard Henderson was marking dim-witted essays like Julie Bishop's at the University of Tasmania. He does not demonstrate any sort of superior understanding of that arcane and obscure regime himself, mind you.
Carter's view that all North Korea wants is a bit of respect has been around for some time.

Well yes, Gerard, since 1976 or thereabouts. The debate has moved on from 1976, though. You could have used the latest developments as a stick to beat Carter with, but instead you're sucked into the 1976 vortex too. If you read Carter's article, he implies that regime change in North Korea can only be imposed militarily from the South and the USA. In 1976, China was not as strong as it is today, and North Korea was run by one of the great strategic geniuses of the twentieth century (Kim Il Sung, I mean, not Gerard Henderson).
There are no easy answers to the continuing crisis on the Korean peninsula.

You don't have to be a strategic genius to come up with something like that: Jimmy Carter came up with something similar in the article Henderson refers to:
Dealing effectively with North Korea has long challenged the United States.

If you read Carter's article, he's not calling for appeasement at all. He's calling for talks. If some fool from Pyongyang can jabber away to a junior staffer in the Jubilation T. Cornpone Room in Washington while the Chinese are pinching North Korea's silver (and plutonium), this could be a solution that works for everyone.

Gerard Henderson has grossly misrepresented Jimmy Carter. Henderson is not stuck on a hillside in Kapyong in 1951: it's worse than that. He's stuck in 1938, equating Carter to Neville Chamberlain, completely ignoring the situation we face today and utterly unable to describe it, let alone develop a sensible response.

1938 was the last time the conservatives were right and the moderates wrong about world affairs. When the Soviet bloc collapsed in the 1980s, it was the conservatives who were most dire about 'the evil empire' and were convinced they were just playing possum, while the moderates accepted Vaclav Havel for what he was - and mourned the Tiananmen protesters for what they might have been.

Speaking of utter inability leads us to General Sheridan:
On Sunday, the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the [USS] George Washington, will lead a joint US-South Korea military exercise in the Yellow Sea.

Yes it will, giving Chinese naval intelligence lots of luvverly new data and making it harder for the Chinese to smooth the dying pillow over the face of North Korea. Note that the belligerent Sheridan misses both points: if China are in the drivers' seat here, and they have been since Macarthur overreached himself sixty years ago, is it not appropriate to consider their perspective?
Even as they cancelled exercises, the Americans said they would send an aircraft carrier back to the Yellow Sea whenever they chose to do so and the Chinese had no right of veto over who sailed in the Yellow Sea.

Big talk from a debtor to its creditor.
Now attention is swivelling directly to China. Australia's Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, expressed a Western consensus when he said the world expected China to be much tougher in its dealings with North Korea.

Yes, the world's attention is on Korea not because of so much violence and death and fear, not because a major power has changed its mind; but because Heavy Kevvie has made a speech. Really, Sheridan.
Rudd has spoken at length to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and to the foreign ministers of South Korea, Japan and other regional nations. Soon, the US will attempt to lead strong condemnation of North Korea in the UN Security Council.

Beijing's response will be critical in judging whether it is acting with any goodwill in this matter, or whether it should be judged to be to some degree complicit in North Korea's actions.

It will also demonstrate the limits of bullhorn diplomacy. The whole idea of Rudd as a Mandarin-speaking representative of this country (whether as junior diplomat, PM or Foreign Minister) was that he might engage a bit more sensibly with China. Instead, he's doing nothing different to what Stephen Smith or even Downer in his more sober moments would have done.
There are two unpredictable dynamics at work, one in North Korea, and one in China.

Ah yes: the wily Orientals.
But perhaps the worst element of the situation is China's role. Not once this year has Beijing uttered a word of criticism of its close ally.

Close ally? Really? What does China get out of the North Korea relationship except embarrassment? The fox does not condemn the chicken before eating it.
Sometimes Beijing's leaders say they do not have decisive day-to-day influence on Pyongyang. But this justification lacks all credibility if Beijing will not even utter condemnation of Pyongyang's behaviour.

And if they did, what? Would North Korea continue their defiance (a Beijing pantomime) or would they snap back into line (clear evidence of Beijing control)? Plenty of time to do that, more in sorrow than in anger, once North Korea lies eviscerated at their feet.

Sheridan ends by declaring his intellectual bankruptcy. His last four paragraphs ignore the possibility of China switching off North Korea's life support (that "blood ties" stuff is intellectually dishonesty verging on lazy racism) and can't bear to assume that China is smart, strong and skilful enough to lance its own boils.

Sheridan's article assumes Australia is irrelevant to Korea (except, of course, for the decisive intervention of Rudd on the world stage). He might be right, but there's no need to rub it in.

Sheridan referred to China exerting itself in the region, but missed the possibility that it might be strengthening its position, not weakening it, by letting North Korea go. Missing the point is his singular talent, charming in a young idealist but somewhat pathetic in a Foreign Editor. China's geopolitical position was strengthened, not weakened, when the neighbouring USSR dissolved in 1991. Korea is the tenth largest economy in the world and a competitor with Chinese manufactures: saddle it with the wreckage of the North and see how long Seoul remains a competitor, turn that buffer zone around. None of these occurred to Sheridan, fixed as he is on gunboat diplomacy and Washington gossip.

And there you have it: our politicians and media serve us so badly when it comes to big, world-changing events. We can't even articulate our interests, let alone act on them, but I still think it's a slander to suggest we have the politicians and media we deserve.


  1. Intriguing post. I wonder though if our 'skin' in this slow unravelling is not more likely to come from our gonads sitting on the fence, straddling US and Chinese interests.

  2. Of course in 1938 conservatives wre not right: After all they supported mostly Chamberlain. Or Daladier in France etc.