With John Kerry flying into Beijing yesterday, and China moving to level One military mobilisation for the first time in years, Murray Hunter unpicks what's really going on in the Korean Peninsula.
IN HIS FIRST TRIP to the region after becoming US Secretary of State and after a whistle stop in South Korea John Kerry flew into Beijing on Monday to meet with China's State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Saturday. If one reads the BBC report about this meeting, it appears written in a manner to make us believe that China is sympathetic to the US version of events and condemning "any provocative acts" from North Korea. However this is a quote from John Kerry himself, rather than any official statement from the Chinese Government.
In fact, Yang Jiechi stated that China is "firmly committed to upholding peace and stability and advancing the denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula.......peaceful through dialogue", (also reported later in the article) without any further elaboration.
The only agreement the U.S. got with China was that both sides agreed to further discussions.
So what was the purpose of Kerry's trip to China?
The chronology of events on the Korean Peninsula are well known. However, in the "western media", events have been portrayed in a manner where anything that North Korea says is a provocation and anything the US does is a necessary defensive response. This is hardly objective, when North Korea is well known for its "aggressive statements", especially around the time of the joint U.S.-South Korean Foal Eagle joint military exercises each year.
In addition, North Korea's statements have not been followed with any specific actions, except the closing of the Kaesong Industrial Zone, and the US is not just talking but moving some of its most sophisticated military hardware right onto the doorstep of North Korea. North Korea may be guilty of verbal escalation, but the U.S. is the only party that has actually escalated anything militarily, although the "western" media is continually warning of possible North Korean Military action, which so far has not happened or even looked like happening.
Every BBC online article publishes a map of the supposed range of North Korean missiles and warheads — that have not even been tested by North Korea to validate these claims. No articles have asked the question whether North Korea actually has the capacity to produce nuclear weapons that are capable of being put on missiles as warheads? From the test of a crude bomb to miniaturizing bombs that actually work is a major step in technology, which is unlikely Korea possesses at present.
Some very brief historical context may shed some light on this show of force, not witnessed for decades.
The Clinton Administration signed an accord with North Korea's then leader Kim Il-sung, where Japan agreed to build a light water reactor for electricity generation and supply oil until the reactor was ready to go online. The then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung also initiated the "Sunshine policy" with the North in an effort to build up trust and cooperation which would lead to an eventual form of unification, a deep aspiration of most Koreans. It was out of this agreement with Kim Dae-jung's successor Roh Moo-hyun that a further agreement was made to build the Kaesong Industrial Zone, something that gave a symbolic connection between the North and South.
This eventually led to an exchange of visits in 2000, between the U.S. and North Korea where then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went to Pyongyang and Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok, the second in command in North Korea visited Washington. At this point the U.S. and North Korea were on the verge of official diplomatic recognition and the North agreeing to end its missile testing program.
However, upon the incoming of George W. Bush as president, the pending missile agreement didn't precede as the new administration did not believe North Korea could be trusted. Then came 9/11 and President Bush labeled North Korea as one of the "axis of evil" in the forerunning rhetoric to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
U.S. accusations in 2002 that North Korea was operating a uranium enrichment plant saw application of further sanctions on North Korea. The North seeing the U.S. invasion of Iraq would have easily contributed to Pyongyang believing that this could happen to the them.
In 2006, North Korea exploded its first small nuclear bomb. This, at the time, led to some scepticism —with some believing the explosion was faked with an extremely large amount of TNT.
President Bush, under Condoleezza Rice's, advice urged U.S. participation in six party talks with North Korea involving China, Japan, Russia, and both North, and South Korea. These talks led to North Korea blowing up the Yongbyon cooling tower as proof that no uranium enrichment would take place.
Then in 2008, when Barak Obama was running for U.S. President, and promised that his administration would talk to both Iran and North Korea, there was some hope in Pyongyang that the steady peace process may continue. However, upon Obama taking office, this hope was quickly dashed with the new Secretary of State Hilary Clinton adopting the doctrine of "strategic patience", waiting for Kim Jong-Il to die and see a regime collapse through internal power struggles. Both Obama and Clinton made it clear to North Korea that there would be no more talks until the North would denounce nuclear weapons and open up the country. Kim Jong-il soon died passing on leadership to his son Kim Jong-un, without any change in policy or outlook.
In addition, South Korea's then President Lee Myung-bak also took a harder line on North Korea, dismantling the "sunshine policies" of his predecessors.
In 2010, the Obama Administration sent a delegation of former high ranking officials to Pyongyang who met with senior officials of Kim Jong-il's Government. It was reported that even though North Korea was willing to ship out all nuclear fuel rods to a third country in exchange for a U.S. pledge that it has no hostile intent towards North Korea, the Obama Administration wasn't interested.
Then, in March 2010, North South relations deteriorated with the torpedoing of the ROKS Cheonan, a South Korean Warship, killing 46 South Korean sailors. Although the North has denied responsibility for this act, an investigation in the South put the blame on the North. However China, Russia and the United Nations Security Council all did not concur with the conclusion of that report.
Then the North warned the South if any shells during a South Korean military exercise landed across the disputed border, they would retaliate with shelling of their own, which they did, killing seven civilians on the Island of Yeonpyeong. South Korea appalled with the North's retaliation continued the exercises scaling up tensions in the area. These tensions only subsided when the South stopped the exercises upon U.S. warnings.
These current tensions were started by the North launching a satellite into orbit, which many countries have done before. Then in February, the North carried out another nuclear test and the UN placed further sanctions upon North Korea. Tensions continued to rise with escalations of talk and "sabre rattling" as the world has been watching over the last month.
From the North's perspective, the United States literally bombed North Korean into the ground during the Korean War, and they showed again during the Iraq war that they are fully capable of doing it again. Kaesong Industrial Zone is something that is very symbolic of Korean unity and its closure could be viewed as a display of the North's anger towards the South's rhetoric. Finally, with China's change in direction over the last few years, Pyongyang could be a little uncertain about China's support if a war with the U.S. eventuated.
The North talks of annihilating the U.S., while the U.S. talks about bringing down the current regime in Pyongyang.
Administration rhetoric and media reporting about this "reckless regime bent on nuclear war" according to US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel presents what he called "a real and clear danger and threat". The build-up of U.S. defensive missile systems on Guam, Alaska and on the West Coast of the United States to counter this "grave threat" will require funding. One wonders how much did the issue of future military funding come into the administration's calculations? Media reports indicate a change in many congress members attitudes to funding cuts since these tensions started.
Then last Thursday, President Obama and his spokespeople sort to calm down the situation through winding back the military exercises with South Korea to lower tensions. After that, on Friday, came Secretary of State John Kerry's trip to the region.
The United States cannot really afford military action against Korea — it's not in their interest. North Korea is a "good enemy" to have, and can be "managed" through upping and downing tensions on the peninsula. Korea is a good excuse to place military hardware close to China in the East Asian region. A collapsing North would be a disaster for the US, which would result either in a united Korea where there would no longer be any excuse for a strong military presence, or there could be some conflict between China and the US to install some other form of order in the vacuum.
I postulate that Secretary Kerry's trip to China was the result of a miscalculation by the administration in heightening the tensions on the Korean Peninsula, where any further escalation could lead to irrational responses in defence. From a North perspective, an attack could be seen as the best defence to these tensions.
In realizing this miscalculation, John Kerry had to visit China to seek some form of "face saving" measure, where the US could unilaterally de-escalate the rhetoric and action without being seen to back down.
This points to very poor policy handling on the part of the Obama Administration in this episode on the Korean Peninsula. Unfortunately, the Clinton approach of the 1990s was dropped in favor of the Bush-Cheney "strategic competition and aggression" doctrine. This escalation was aimed at both "enhancing North Korea's image as an enemy", and making an excuse for more military activity in the region. By doing so, the Obama Administration is the first to trigger a Chinese Level One military mobilization since the Korean War — many years ago.
With the U.S. putting conditions on North Korea before the six party talks can be resumed, the Administration is playing tactical military games with North Korea without any ability to communicate, which is extremely dangerous. Maybe Kim Jong-un's message through Dennis Rodman – "Obama should call me – did have more significance to it than was given credence at the time.
This is not to say that the North is the innocent bystander in all of this. The North Korean official media is not slow in making threats and statements that intentionally add to the tensions. This confrontation is also very opportune for the young Kim Jong-un in assisting consolidate his position as leader within the country.
In fact, one of the consequences of this action is that it may actually be raising Kim to the status of a "hero" inside the North and hardening the support of those around him. Much of what is going on, the rhetoric, the drama, the closure of the Kaesong industrial zone, etc., is to consolidate North Korea's citizens in the support of their leaders, all leading up to the coming spectacular to celebrate Korea's first leader Kim Il sung's birthday, on April 15th.
This confrontation has ensured that there will be no letting up on authoritarianism in North Korea, or chance of opening the economy to the outside world for years to come.
For the citizens of the region, it appears the media has, also, through its manner of reporting played some role in heightening the tensions. In fact, the playing up of tensions by the media, may have put the Obama Administration in the corner in need to "save face" and de-escalate tensions. There has been very little reporting from the North Korean perspective, with most of the media choosing to report only what the U.S. Administration is saying. Even the London School of Economics has put in a formal complaint to the BBC, because BBC officials didn't disclose their true intentions of making a derogatory documentary about North Korea during a student visit there.
If there is to be a long term solution to the Korean Peninsula, the Obama Administration needs to think very hard about what they need to do — as what they are currently doing is not working.
Also, the media, through skewed reporting, has actually become one of the tools of the U.S. Administration during this Korean escalation. The memories of weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi war are still fresh, and that makes one worry if the truth has been the greatest casualty of this incident.