North Korea, Mutual Incomprehension and Diplomatic Failure

I am fascinated by how extraordinarily powerful countries like the U.S. and allies like Britain and the E.U. can be so wedded to the idea that they are a stabilising force in the world, yet seem to fundamentally misunderstand the forces which they consider to be destabilising: North Korea, Iran, Russia, China. Take whichever one you wish, these countries are each in their own way antagonists to the Western world order. And despite their clear importance to the West’s geopolitical strategy, how much can we truly claim to understand them, their motivations and their ambitions? I want to explore one of the more recent security crises that the United States has blundered into, specifically with North Korea. Now, my purpose here is not to delve too deeply into the North Korean issue, but to explore in this and subsequent pieces, how a country, for this behaviour is not unique to the US, can so deliberately misunderstand the motivations of an antagonist.

North Korea continues to try and develop nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States and intercontinental missiles. This despite crippling sanctions that have been in place for more than a decade following North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. On April 8 amid growing concerns about North Korea’s defiance, US President Trump ordered a warship to be deployed to the Korean peninsula, the Carl Vinson strike group. The farce that followed, regarding the actual destination of that armada which was sailing no where near the Korean peninsula ten days later is well documented, but it doesn’t detract from the very real tension in the region. Regional neighbours, South Korea, China and Russia are all deeply concerned with the actions taken by the U.S. Russia moved troops to their border with North Korea, to contain the fallout from a possible military conflict between North Korea and the U.S. Meanwhile China emerges with the strongest calls for a diplomatic solution, with President Xi Jinping urging American restraint on a phone call with President Trump. Europe, being too wrapped up in its own domestic problems — Brexit, French Presidential elections, UK general election — has been of no help. South Korea in the meantime, does not appear to have been consulted by Trump on any of his actions. Traditionally, while South Korean regimes have vacillated on engagement with North Korea, they have been very clear that they oppose any pre-emptive strike, given that their country would most certainly suffer the most from any military fallout.

At this point, it would be far too easy to launch into a lengthy derisive essay on the inadequacies of Donald Trump as president, but that is not the purpose of this essay. Firstly, because highlighting the foolishness of Trump’s actions has already been explored in great detail and with greater aplomb than this writer could manage. But also, and more importantly, I do not wish to make Trump the centre of this piece, because I do not believe the crisis that he has found himself in to be one entirely of his own making. Virtually every American administration since Clinton has run into similar crises with North Korea. During the first nuclear crisis in 1993, President Clinton prepared for military action against North Korea. This went fiercely against the wishes of the South Koreans and then South Korean President Kim Young Sam. President George W. Bush consistently flirted with a pre-emptive strike against North Korea in 2001 and 2003. And again, this went against the wishes of South Korean Presidents, Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Mooh-hyun. Trump is not the first US President to approach North Korea in such a steadfastly aggressive manner, nor to disregard the feelings of South Korea in the matter. And should the North Korean regime endure, he is not likely to be the last.

The American establishment does not understand North Korea. It would certainly be a stretch to say that any country, including China, really knows what is going on behind North Korea’s borders, but it is not impossible to understand North Korea’s motivations surrounding its security. It is a completely isolated, poor country, with enemies to the south and to the east, both of which — Japan and South Korea — host army bases belonging to the most powerful nation in the world. In such a position, that North Korea should pursue with abandon a weapon that could guarantee their security from military invasion, should not be entirely surprising. Indeed, barring everything else that this country does, it is eminently rational. Every other superpower pursued their nuclear ambitions with expressly the same purpose. To focus on North Korea’s viscerally belligerent rhetoric, is to ignore a very clear pattern of behaviour: that countries pursue nuclear weapons purely as a defensive gesture. To truly consider the use of such weapons is to court your own annihilation. The U.S. misunderstands North Korea to such an extent, that it is capable only of a reasoning that falls back on the most childish of caricatures. So North Korea, rather than a country that is dealing with a desperate situation in the only way it feels it can to maintain its current state (however despicable that state is), becomes akin to a megalomaniacal Bond villain.

There are certain voices that have pointed to this problem within the American political establishment. Andrei Lankov, in an article for Foreign Policy magazine, has recently stressed that Kim Jong-Un’s actions are perfectly rational, for a regime in North Korea’s position. Max Fisher, writing for The New York Times, has highlighted that is has been the position of political and security scholarship for some time, that North Korea plays the madman role to extract concessions from its enemies. Yet this understanding of North Korea does not seem to have permeated the American establishment, which insists on still viewing the regime through the lens of George Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ — a term that frankly has no place in sensitive diplomatic matters.

So all that being said my project going forward will be to unpack those moments in geopolitics when mutual incomprehension becomes entrenched, and to explore the lead up to that moment. To explore how we are setting ourselves up for abject failure, time and time again. I do not claim to offer solutions to the ever more twisted scenarios the world is finding itself in, which some may view as unsatisfactory. I wish only to explore that which makes all parties race to the precipice, that which ensures that we are fulfilling the conditions of mutual incomprehension and therefore of failure.

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