Another day, another North Korean missile test. Usually these are dismissed as having “not met the objectives stated by Pyongyang”. The latest one however is being taken more seriously. And here we go again, and this is about as good as a scenario scripted by Hollywood.
We are told that “within a few years” (meaning sooner than that, but we don’t want to panic people) North Korea will have an ICBM capable of hitting the US. The State Department is threatening to use force to prevent the further development of these missiles, and hoping it can also persuade China to apply diplomatic pressure to achieve the same end.
Notice anything missing from this narrative? One obvious absence is any mention of South Korea. Neither North nor South Korea formally recognises that the other has any right to exist – the Korean War of the 1950s is still technically being fought. South Koreans appear to be discovering, yet again, that the country they consider their friend and ally regards them as little more than collateral damage in the area where they most need that ally’s support.
But the other is the map. If North Korea has long range nuclear missiles, which can strike targets beyond its borders, there are plenty of other countries it can hit. As it has fallen out with almost everyone, including its fair weather ally China, all these countries are under just as much threat as Alaska. But despite the long tradition of countries fighting proxy wars against each other on other people’s territory, modern Syria and 1930s Spain being examples, no one is talking about where else North Korea might try and destroy with a missile.
Why? Because the most obvious such target is Russia. No country likes a former great friend (and ever-open wallet) turned ideological enemy, as Russia has for North Korea. Russia also has a border with North Korea, and for Pyongyang the ultimate crime is fleeing the country. It has every political reason to hate Russia and none to like it, at present.
If North Korea wants to blast another country to show what it can do, it could wreak havoc in the Russian Far East, far from the centres of power and troop deployment in European Russia. But you would be hard pressed to find a Western media outlet which will talk about this possibility. Why? Just imagine it: poor Russia attacked by an enemy of the US, and the West being forced to complain and come to Russia’s aid! This would turn global politics on its head.
The countries surrounding Russia ever more tightly with their own missiles and bases would be happy to help other competitors, such as China. But having to treat Russia as a friend would be their worst nightmare. The West would rather preserve the global balance of power by encouraging a US-North Korea conflict than wipe North Korea off the map by enlisting the aid of Russia, just as we have seen in Syria, the refusal of a united front against terrorism and the removal of Viktor Yanukovych for wanting to accept aid from both the EU and Russia.
So is the West really concerned about the North Korean nuclear tests? Is it now threatening to use force in order to stop Kim Jong-un? Or is this latest ratcheting up of the conflict actually aimed at Russia, rather than the world’s greatest pariah state?
Psychopaths have feelings too
It was all a lot easier in Cold War times. Commies on one side, the Free World on the other. You could get away with anything in the name of preventing the spread of Communism, because everyone knew who was on which side, and why it was necessary to support your own side’s governments in their geopolitical games.
The reality was rather different though. Yugoslavia was one of those Communist countries, but because it famously fell out with Moscow it was presented in the West as “Communist with a human face” long before Dubček coined the term. It was the hangover from this which encouraged the West to support the maintenance of Tito’s internal borders, designed to protect him from the Serb majority, rather than apply self-determination across the board. We all know how that worked out.
North Korea was largely bankrolled by the Soviet Union for most of the latter’s existence, but it insisted ever more firmly that it was ideologically different. Far from being like Todor Zhivkov’s Bulgaria, one of “two lungs in the same body”, its official ideology was Juche – “self-reliance“. North Korea was a loose cannon in the Communist world, which had to be supported to prevent it providing aid and succour to its own enemy, the US, by splitting the red bloc even further than it already was behind the propaganda.
If the West could have used North Korea against Russia in Cold War times it would have done. It is no coincidence that Nixon reached out to China when Sino-Soviet tensions were at their height. When the Soviet Union fell, and North Korea had to actually become self-reliant, this provided the West with a great opportunity to settle old scores and reunite Korea with the help of their new Russian partner. Instead, it decided that it would rather leave North Koreans under the evils of communism than allow Russia to play a part in the new markets which had now opened up.
North Korea is the ideal thorn in Russia’s flesh, from a Western point of view. If Russia doesn’t oppose it, the West can say that Russia supports the last remaining Evil Empire. If it does, the West can accuse it of trying to restore its old sphere of influence. If it advocates negotiation, as it is now doing, the West can refuse to give it a seat at the table, deeming it unimportant, and therefore leave it out of any solution, under as much threat as before.
North Korea is like ISIS. If you can portray it as a problem affecting Western countries, you leave it free to inflict those problems on everyone else for not being part of the Western alliance. The victims of Trump’s travel ban, who can’t escape Muslim fundamentalism because he declares they come from Muslim countries, see this all too clearly. As long as North Korea can be set against Russia, it will be implied that Russia somehow deserves this for not sharing Western values, whatever those really are this week.
Wrong iron fist in wrong velvet glove
The US is now talking about using a combination of force and Chinese diplomacy to rein in North Korea. Apparently the Chinese can speak to them nicely, and if that doesn’t work the tanks can roll in.
It would be easier to send Chinese tanks in without causing an international incident, as this could be portrayed as a human rights intervention by a friend rather than a restarting of a dormant war by a combatant side. But the US is insisting it must be this way round: you can be the protector, but we will be the bully.
China is North Korea’s biggest supporter, both politically and economically but has little or nothing to gain from maintaining this relationship. The more it expands into other countries, the less it needs North Korea. China hardly needs North Korean labour either, though it has become notorious for exploiting North Korean escapees, who can be forced to do anything to avoid being sent back.
China is maintaining ties with North Korea precisely to prevent a mass influx of such escapees: the Chinese feel North Koreans are going to come and take their jobs, despite China still being nominally Communist. But if war broke out, and China and the US found themselves on the same side, that situation would change. Fleeing North Koreans would be victims of a war which was helping make China great, not economic migrants. All these joint Western-Chinese ventures would absorb them, while China would no longer pay for the North Korean war machine, including its ICBM programme.
All this would again threaten Russia. The West has long portrayed any form of Russian-Chinese partnership as a challenge to NATO or the EU. Nevertheless, it has increasingly courted China economically, despite China’s disturbing employment practices, which hardly create the free and fair competition the West claims to believe in. The US also tried to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as an observer in 2005, despite not having a border with any of its members or other observers. Observe what, exactly?
The West is too overstretched to combat any Sino-Russian alliance. Its only way forward is to split it up by taking control of one party and using it against the other. Involving China in a war, armed or diplomatic, which Russia has been excluded from is a good way of achieving this. If Russia supports North Korea this breaks up that alliance. If it joins in the war uninvited it will be sidelined while the main players share the spoils, and end up with a much more dangerous combination of countries on its doorstep.
It is not as if the West hasn’t known, for a long time, about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions or capabilities. Both Russia and China are also nuclear powers, and Western nuclear defence policy is based on deterrence: that it possesses arms to stop the other side using theirs, not to use them itself.
If this policy is genuine, the West should work with both China and Russia, as any North Korean nuclear threat would be faced down by the far greater capacities of its two big neighbours. Instead, we are told that all the nuclear weapons in the countries round it are failing to deter North Korea, and only war involving one neighbour can achieve what Western policy can’t when delivered through two neighbours.
No answers if you ask the wrong questions
Russia has been involved in talks about North Korea’s nuclear programme, and theoretically still is. War led by the US and China would isolate it from that involvement, without making the world any safer.
The latest US threats are designed to prevent the US becoming a target, either directly or through South Korea. China doesn’t want to become a target either, but Russia burnt its bridges with North Korea long ago, so is a much more likely victim of North Korean nuclear aggression than either the US or China to begin with.
Every step is being taken not to involve Russia in a solution to the North Korean nuclear weapons problem, and instead put pressure on it through North Korea. So does the West really want these weapons removed? It may not want Russia turned into a victim it has to support, but does it actually want the threat which could make it a victim taken away?
When the US recognised China Beijing asked to join the non-aligned movement. This stunt had the symbolic significance of presenting the country to the West as no longer part of the Communist world, whilst remaining Communist. It was widely welcomed, only for the same West to roundly criticise Communist Cuba during its two terms of leadership of that movement for not being non-aligned enough because it was still Communist.
China now enjoys far better relations with Russia than it did with the Soviet Union. Both countries have embraced Western economic ideology, which is supposed to be an extension of political ideology as both are imported by the West to its partner countries elsewhere. But when these relations began to thaw it was Russia which was seen as the senior partner. Now China is the more globally assertive, and has gained a place at all the same tables. It doesn’t need Russia as much as Russia likes to think it does, and North Korea is the playground where it shows this.
Any strike against North Korea would not ultimately have as its aim the destruction of North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability. That could have happened long ago, with the participation of both China and Russia, if anyone had cared enough. Nor would it be designed to liberate its people from a repressive regime: that also could have been achieved long ago, specifically during the Great Famine of the 1990s, which is why further sanctions are being imposed on the country now, to weaken it in the same way.
Is the US is preparing to take military action against North Korea to prevent it attacking Russia? Not to help Russia, or the rest of the world, but to maintain North Korea’s nuclear potential, and the gradual isolation of Russia from efforts to deal with it, as a perceived threat rather than a real one.
All the Western rhetoric about Vladimir Putin is wearing thin, the nature of his rule and his ambitions for his country and region, is little different to what is said about Kim Jong-un. For now, the US would rather encourage North Korea to attack Alaska than remove the threat it poses to Russia, hoping that in time it will force the two countries into the same camp, and bag both together.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.