JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
October 29, 2016
Two seemingly unconnected incidents this week suggest Washington and North Korea are limbering up for another bout in their two decades-long wrestling match over the Pyongyang regime’s nuclear weapons program.
The first event was a quiet meeting in Malaysia’s principal city, Kuala Lumpur, between two senior officials from Pyongyang and an “unofficial” United States’ delegation. The U.S. team was led by Robert Gallucci, Washington’s chief negotiator with North Korea in 1994 during the Bill Clinton administration.
Gallucci is reported to be a close adviser to Hillary Clinton. Thus his two-day meeting with North Korea’s Vice-Foreign Minister Han Song Ryol and Pyongyang’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Jang Il Hun, suggests that Hillary Clinton’s team is already thinking beyond its expected defeat of Donald Trump on November 8. It is looking at some of the foreign policy problems likely to be at the top of her in basket in the Oval Office and exploring possibilities for movement.
North Korea does not send officials of the stature of Han and Jang to semi-clandestine trysts in distant cities for the fun of it.
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Neither does Washington. Gallucci was accompanied by Joseph De Trani, former special envoy to the so-called “Six-Party Talks,” which included China, Russia, South Korea and Japan as well as the U.S. and North Korea, in efforts to agree the ending of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
It didn’t work. But it is a reasonable assumption that at last weekend’s meeting both sides were trying to get an idea of the potential for progress when the new Clinton administration takes office next year.
That sounds more optimistic than it is, in part because of the second episode this week.
That was an odd comment on Tuesday during an interview in New York by James Clapper, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence. Clapper said in the course of a meeting with the Council on Foreign Relations, “I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause. They are not going to do that … that is their ticket to survival.”
This comment appears to be a heresy of the worst sort. Since 1993, when North Korea renounced its ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) after using the pact to acquire bomb-making know-how, all Washington administrations have stuck to the same script: the only acceptable resolution of the problem is North Korea’s “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.”
On Tuesday, the State Department was swift to deny that Clapper’s remarks indicate a change of policy or viewpoint in Washington. “No, nothing’s changed … that’s not our position,” a department spokesman said when asked about Clapper’s statement. “Our policy objective is to seek to obtain a verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
Now, everyone involved with the efforts to deal with the problem of the increasingly viable nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles being developed by Pyongyang knows that Washington’s position on North Korea is no longer obtainable or realistic.
With five tests of nuclear warheads under its belt – two of them this year and the last on September 9 – and regular tests of increasingly reliable medium and long-range missiles to carry them, Pyongyang is well beyond the point of no return. The best outcome that can be hoped for now is some sort of containment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, probably in the context of a major program to foster economic development in the benighted hermit state. Pyongyang will doubtless hold out for freezing its nuclear weapons stockpile at a level that will deter Washington – or other potential enemies such as Japan and South Korea – from attempting to oust the regime of Kim Jong-un. Kim, 30-something, is the third generation of his family to rule the Marxist monarchy since the end of the Second World War.
There’s a big question whether a resolution would also involve recognition of Pyongyang’s status as a nuclear power, as President George W Bush did with India. The difference is that unlike India and other unacknowledged nuclear weapons states like Israel and Pakistan which never signed the NPT, Pyongyang cheated on the international treaty. It signed in order to get access to the technology to make bombs, and then dumped the NPT once it had the information. There’s a broad international consensus that such duplicity ought not to be rewarded. Contempt for Pyongyang’s methods will continue to influence Washington’s attitude.
Andrei Lankov, the Russian scholar who did graduate studies in Pyongyang and who is one of the few reliable commentators on North Korea, said in an essay this week he remains unconvinced that Washington can or will acknowledge the truth of what Clapper said. Any U.S. administration, Lankov wrote, has to think about nuclear weapons and non-proliferation in a much broader context than just North Korea.
Were Washington to drop its demand for full denuclearization before negotiations with Pyongyang “it will create a dangerous precedent,” Lankov wrote. “Both domestic political opposition in the United States, and, more importantly, the entire world, will see the development as a case where a successful blackmailer state is paid for its boldness by the United States and, by default, the international community.”
“It will demonstrate to the world that a country can abuse the existing non-proliferation structure to get vital intelligence and then end up both nuclear and rewarded by the U.S. taxpayers.” Such an outcome would encourage other rogue states to follow the same example, he said.
Lankov doesn’t mention it, but Washington’s management of the delicate business of Iran’s nuclear development program, and trying to prevent it moving from power generation into weapons production, is an immediate example of the wider context.
Closely linked to Iran is the issue of Tehran’s main rival in the Middle East; Saudi Arabia. Riyadh helped Pakistan acquire its “Islamic Bomb” in return for a guarantee that Islamabad would give the Saudi government nuclear weapons when needed. But since Pakistan spurned Riyadh’s call to join the fight in Yemen against rebels backed by Tehran, the Saudi government is now unsure whether Islamabad is a dependable ally in a crisis. The answer for Riyadh may be to get its own bomb.
Dependable allies are also an issue in Asia. President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia has been underwhelming. Witness Washington’s less than fully committed response to China’s island building and de facto occupation of most of the South China Sea. It is perhaps no wonder that the Philippines President, Rodrigo Duterte, has decided that despite the U.S. being his country’s traditional main ally (as well as former colonial power), he needs to appease the bully on his doorstep. Duterte’s recent visit to Beijing was sickening in its sycophancy.
Japan is already beefing up its military and the scenarios in which they can be used. This is in part because of Washington’s desire for its allies to carry a greater share of the mutual defence load, and in part because Tokyo senses that the U.S. will not necessary come running when called.
There is as yet no constituency for Japan to acquire nuclear weapons. But there are similar anxieties about North Korea and Washington’s dependability evident in South Korea, with right wing parties even demanding that Seoul develop its own nuclear weapons.
Donald Trump, in his dismissive remark that as president he would leave Seoul and Tokyo to their own devices, has made such thoughts semi-respectable.
Yet there are other possibilities for the resolution of the North Korean problem besides a bilateral deal between Pyongyang and Washington, with or without the other four members of the Six-Party formula.
The Kim regime is not sustainable in the long term. In essence, it is a slave state run by a feudal family. The economy is in tatters. In recent years millions of North Koreans have died in famines created in part by adverse weather conditions, but mostly by criminally stupid economic policies. Tens of thousands have fled across the Yalu River border into China, where there are now substantial refugee communities. For the past 20 years or so North Korea has been kept on life support by its northern neighbour and brother-in-Marxist-Leninism, China.
If it wished, Beijing could tomorrow force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. But, while Beijing would be happier if the Kim regime was not building a nuclear weapons arsenal and the missiles to deliver the bombs, it has more immediate strategic worries. If Beijing stops propping up North Korea with a minimal diet of economic calories – some of it in defiance of UN sanctions – the Pyongyang regime will collapse.
At the moment, that prospect alarms Beijing even more than Pyongyang having nuclear weapons. Collapse would almost inevitably mean a rushed reunification of the two Koreas under the domination of the South, which is immeasurably more wealthy and a well-founded democracy. Beijing cannot abide the idea of a prosperous and vigorous democracy on its border, especially one that it allied to Washington.
So, even though Beijing has voted in favour of UN sanctions against North Korea and has on the surface applied trade embargoes, goods continue to flow across the border. In the past month, China’s importation of coal from North Korea – a major money earner for Pyongyang – has been cut by 27 per cent. This appears to be a punishment for Pyongyang’s nuclear test at the beginning of last month. But it comes after China’s imports of North Korean coal in August were the largest since 1998, and total imports from the North were still $US228 million in September, a marginal decrease over the same month in 2015.
And China’s export of aviation jet fuel to North Korea jumped nearly 400 per cent in September from a year earlier, in clear defiance of the UN sanctions resolution adopted in March after Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test.
There is also a huge clandestine maritime trade between China and North Korea. The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported this week that every day North Korean and Chinese ships meet off-shore to exchange goods such as food, construction materials, agricultural goods and even minerals such as coal and iron ore. The report quotes South Korean intelligence sources as saying that even though the official North Korea-China trade last year was worth $US5.5 billion, the illicit trade was worth another $US2.2 billion.
However, Beijing has been given cause to re-examine its priorities after the July announcement that South Korea has agreed to the deployment on its territory of Washington’s advanced anti-missile system known as THAAD, Terminal High Altitude Air Defense. The justification for deploying THAAD is, of course, to defend South Korea against missile attacks from the North, nuclear or otherwise. But the view from Beijing is that THAAD, which can knock out missiles at an altitude of up to 50 kilometres, is also an effective counter measure against China’s own intercontinental ballistic nuclear weapons. That makes China’s nuclear deterrent impotent and, in theory, opens the country to a nuclear “first strike” from the U.S.
That would be more of a concern to everyone with Trump in the White House. But the events of this week say that the North Korean game is back again in play, though to what end is anyone’s guess at the moment.
Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016
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Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
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