Gerald McGhie: Engage over North Korea, don't dismiss

North Korean soldiers  cross the Yalu river  near Sinuiju, close to the Chinese border city of Dandong, Liaoning ...
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North Korean soldiers cross the Yalu river near Sinuiju, close to the Chinese border city of Dandong, Liaoning province. China has long been North Korea's main ally and trading partner, but relations are increasingly strained by continued missile testing and provocations by the regime of Kim Jong Un.

OPINION: In a recent TV interview the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gerry Brownlee, referred to Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, as "nuts".

To some Western observers Kim Jong Un, like US President Donald Trump, may seem unpredictable. But, in fact, he has a powerful elite behind him and as the grandson of North Korea's founding leader, Kim Il Sung, he heads the world's most astute despotic regime – a successful Communist absolute monarchy.

Rather than treat the North Korean leadership dismissively, it would be more productive for a country even as far from Pyongyang as New Zealand to try to understand North Korea's psychology of survival.

Although isolated, North Korea has, since its beginning in 1948 as a Soviet creation, depended for survival on large quantities of aid from a small group of nations. At the same time the regime has enforced loyalty through unrelenting purges and by the rigid imposition of a caste system (songbun) which classifies families as friendly, wavering or hostile according to their historical, political and economic background.

Discrimination extends to the children and grandchildren of suspects.

The Kims play a long game. To date their judgment, founded on the assumption that they can go on successfully fabricating crises to keep the economic concessions coming, appears to have worked for them.

They have also played the embattled-state-surrounded-by-enemies card. Thus to the policy elite a nuclear weapons capability is essential.

As with Russia, North Korea's acute sense of insecurity is at the heart of its nuclear programme. Any idea that this option can be negotiated away without considerable concessions is wishful thinking.

Western policy towards North Korea has wavered between flexible and firm. Neither has achieved a great deal of success. The flexible alternative hopes that concessions will see Pyongyang give up its rockets and nuclear weapons. It also means ignoring huge abuses of human rights with the further hope that the regime will adopt Chinese-style economic reforms.

When the North is in political, cultural and almost religious competition with South Korea one must wonder at how realistic such a policy is. As a major industrial state, the South must win the economic argument hands down.

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As President Trump must know by now, the firm policy option is highly risky. Any threat of military retaliation against Pyongyang will be met with a heavy response.

Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is well within range of the large arsenal of North Korean artillery. North Korea's new rockets can reach Japan and even possibly the United States.

For some years many analysts have seemed to assume that North Korea will simply collapse. However, it has proven to be exceedingly durable while predictions based on the idea that the regime draws on the deep culture of Korean tradition and anticolonial nationalism have proved to have a great deal more staying power.

North Korea has not departed from long-standing policies of corporatist politics and heavy-industry-first economics. Their attitude is best projected through the concept of "juche" which in summary means self-reliance and independence in economics, politics, defence and ideology. Simply put, juche means "Korea first always" which in many ways is a type of nationalism. Many readers may see a parallel here with Trump's own position on placing America first in relations with other countries.

North Korea must, however, be concerned at the continuing and widening gap between life in North Korea and that of their cousins in the South. The serious inadequacies of life in the North for the majority of North Koreans cannot be wished away or hidden from the general population forever.

Of course South Korea is not an uninvolved bystander. Seoul is very close to the North Korean border and there have over time been a number of serious incidents provoked by North Korean incursions. Seoul is very aware of the need to stay in touch with its northern neighbours and, even when relations between the two are in a downturn, discreet discussions have continued. The older generation, which remembers the privations of the Korean War and its aftermath, is concerned that the younger generation has little knowledge of and less concern about the North.

Those with longer memories also see the North's juche policy as representing some of the values lost in the South in its headlong rush to industrialisation and greater personal wealth.

Until the advent of Trump it was hard to imagine that either Seoul or Washington would start a war unless they were very seriously provoked. That situation may now be changing.

But if the US president seriously wishes to carry through his more belligerent stance on North Korea the costs of conflict involve nightmare scenarios – the evacuation of millions of civilians from Seoul with its suburbs under fire is only one.

Beijing, too, fears that serious turmoil would send millions of refugees into north-eastern China as various powers seek to gain control of North Korea's nuclear arsenal and rockets. Even more, in the longer term China might not welcome a possibly pro-Western unified Korea on its border.

Gerald McGhie is a former ambassador to South Korea and former Director of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs.

 - The Dominion Post

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