On 11 September 2017 the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2375 imposing further sanctions on North Korea in response to its latest nuclear test. This was the latest and ninth such resolution since 2006. There is no reason to believe that it will be any more successful in achieving its purported objectives than any of the other previous resolutions.
The commentary in the western media surrounding the latest North Korean nuclear test treats the problem in an historical vacuum. North Korea has good reason to be distrustful of attempts to limit its nuclear program. It appears to have been forgotten by those commentators that North Korea, with Russian and Chinese assistance, fought a devastating war in 1950-1953.
Neither North nor South Korea were blameless for the onset of that war, but it was only given a veneer of legitimacy as a United Nations operation because the United States took advantage of a boycott by the Soviet Union of the Security Council (over the refusal to recognise the Peoples Republic of China as the legitimate representative of China) to launch its grossly misnamed ‘Police action’.
During that war, that has never formally ended, North Korea was devastated. Every town and city was reduced to rubble; its agriculture destroyed through chemical warfare; napalm was used on civilian populations; and more than three million of its citizens were killed.
American troops have occupied South Korea ever since. Through threats, military exercises on or near its borders, blockades of its territorial waters, and a relentless propaganda war, North Korea has been in a state of effective siege ever since the 1953 armistice.
There was a modest thaw during the Clinton administration in the 1990s, where an Agreed Framework was negotiated, which included North Korea signing the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The agreement provided for regular inspections by the IAEA to ensure North Korea’s compliance with the NPT.
In return, the Americans agreed to provide light water reactors for peaceful civilian use. That part of the deal, vital for North Korea’s energy requirements, was never kept. That and other violations of the agreement led to North Korea resuming the secret enrichment of uranium.
With some good faith on both sides it might have been possible to rescue the situation from sliding inexorably downhill to the present impasse. The advent of the second Bush administration doomed that prospect. Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2002 labeled North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” (along with Iran and Iraq).
The North Koreans observed that the US and its “coalition of the willing” invaded Iraq the following year (after a decade of punitive sanctions) on the manifestly false pretext of Saddam having weapons of mass destruction and being likely to use them. They similarly observed what happened to Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, again on the basis of false allegations. Both countries (Iraq and Libya) were destroyed by those American interventions. The disastrous repercussions will continue to flow for many years yet.
It was in these circumstances that the North Koreans took steps to ensure that in the event of their being directly attacked they had the means to retaliate. That retaliation is not confined to nuclear weapons. The North Koreans have the capacity, through conventional military means as well as biological warfare, to inflict unacceptable damage to both Japan and South Korea. They may or may not have the means of delivering a nuclear-armed ICBM to the US mainland, but it hardly matters given their other capabilities.
Seeing the fate that befell earlier victims of American intervention, developing a nuclear capability is from the North Korean perspective, an entirely rational response. Attempts by the western media to portray Kim as irrational is a dangerous miscalculation. One may not agree with his policies and methods, but in terms of preserving the regime and protecting his country from further devastation, Kim has no military alternative.
One of the greatest dangers at present is that with the ramped up belligerent rhetoric on both sides, the risk of either party doing something foolish, or making a fatal miscalculation leading to a wider war, in exponentially increased.
It was with this background that Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin proposed the genesis of a roadmap to a peaceful resolution of a very dangerous situation. The two presidents issued a joint statement following Xi’s visit to Moscow in early July 2017.
Their proposal was that North Korea should immediately freeze its nuclear and missile programs, and that the US and South Korea should simultaneously freeze their large scale military exercises directed at North Korea. The US and South Korea would also immediately cease the installation of the THAAD missile system which, American claims to the contrary, is manifestly directed at China and Russia.
Xi and Putin went on to say that military means to resolve the issue should not be an option. Instead, the UN Resolutions should be fully implemented; North Korea’s reasonable concerns should be respected; and that every effort should be made to resume a dialogue aimed at achieving a lasting peaceful resolution of the issues.
These proposals would strike most reasonable people as eminently sensible. Instead of welcoming the opportunity to take steps to reduce tensions and lower the risk of an all out war that would be disastrous for all parties, the Americans responded with a series of barely coherent Presidential tweets and more belligerent and frankly stupid rhetoric from the US’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley.
The Foreign Ministers of Russia and China, following a meeting in Manila on 6 August 2017, reiterated the call for the “double freeze”. Mr Lavrov pointed out that the July joint initiative created “a roadmap for the gradual restoration of trust and provide conditions for the resumption of the Six Party talks.” Mr Wang for his part pointed out that “the purpose is to pull the peninsula nuclear issue back to the negotiating table, and seek a final solution to realise the peninsula’s denuclearization and long term stability.”
Again, these suggestions were ignored by the Americans, and barely reported in the western media, as was also the case with the North Korean leadership indicating their willingness to negotiate a resolution of the issues. Reporting a willingness to negotiate does not square with the relentless portrayal of Kim as totally irrational.
In an article published on the Kremlin website Putin warned that the two sides (US and North Korea) were “balancing on the edge of a large scale conflict.” He noted that efforts to pressure North Korea would prove “futile”, and that the only tenable solution to the standoff should be a dialogue without preconditions. Provocations, pressure and bellicose and offensive rhetoric, he said, is “the road to nowhere.”
Putin made similar comments at a press conference on 5 September 2017 following the BRICS meeting in Xiamen, China. Ramping up the military hysteria in such circumstances, he said, is senseless. It could lead to a global planetary catastrophe and a huge loss of human life. The way to restore North Korea’s security was “the restoration of international law.”
The BRICS summit, an enormously important geopolitical and economic development, was almost completely ignored by the western media. It was immediately followed by the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. That conference was notable for a number of reasons, not least because it was attended by North and South Korea, as well as Japan.
The spirit of the meeting was clearly one of “strategic cooperation” as stressed by both the Japanese and South Korean Foreign Ministers, and also economic cooperation that would link both Koreas into China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Russian led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
South Korea’s President Moon invited Russia to jointly develop what he called building “nine bridges of cooperation”. These nine bridges included gas pipelines, the Northern Sea Route, shipbuilding, agriculture and railway linkages. South Korea is presently isolated from both the BRI and the EAEU and the logical physical connection would be via North Korea to link up with the rapidly developing high speed rail links from China to Europe. As the world’s fifth largest exporter, such economic and other linkages make eminent sense for South Korea , but it would be all but impossible unless the North Korean problem is solved.
All of the parties in Vladivostok, as in Xiamen a few days earlier, see the integration of North Korea into the economic cooperation and development of the BRI and EAEU that is transforming Eurasia’s future as a viable route to a secure future for North Korea.
The great stumbling block, as it has been since 1945, is the United States’ insistence that the rest of the world play to its rules alone. The most recent threats from Washington only serve to emphasize the magnitude of the task ahead. As the above points make clear, there is a peaceable alternative and if it is to occur then Eurasia will need to make its own future free of the outside influences that have bedeviled its progress.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.