A web of lies: The impossibility of progress in Korea

A web of lies: The impossibility of progress in Korea

After North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test, many fear US President Trump will respond with violence. But this is an unrealistic proposition; words, more than actions, will define Trump’s policy and we will witness game-playing on a grand scale between the powers involved.

Pyongyang’s provocations

Last weekend was an eventful one for North Korea. On Saturday, to mark the Day of the Sun celebrations, the national military proudly showcased a collection of new missiles. On Sunday, one of these missiles was launched off the east coast, although it exploded almost immediately after takeoff.

Despite media hyperbole, the risk of war with North Korea remains small. While Trump launched military actions in Syria and Afghanistan, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is infinitely more complex. The rogue regime has regularly conducted missile tests over recent years, and the timing of the latest is highly strategic; a carefully calculated move designed to test the mettle of the new US administration.

Washington sees these tests as a direct threat. Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence have adopted a hard rhetorical line with Pyongyang, with Pence declaring the Obama-era of ‘strategic patience’ over. Such rhetoric is troublesome if not followed through with action, allowing leader Kim Jong-un to believe he can act with impunity. Yet the same geopolitical quagmire that has perplexed his predecessors will likewise thwart the Trump administration.

Web of lies

Despite National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster’s claim of an ‘international consensus’ to act, we will instead witness a web of deceit, game-playing and brinkmanship being spun by the key powers: China, US and North Korea.

The United States is currently deploying the THAAD system in South Korea to intercept North Korean missiles.

The US and North Korea

Trump’s rhetoric notwithstanding, military force is impracticable. As Warren Strobel acknowledges, the secrecy around Pyongyang’s operations and the ‘extreme isolation’ of its communications networks have sharply limited foreign intelligence. This will hamper effective military action, let alone covert operations. Should a military strike occur, it would place South Koreans living near the border at high risk, in easy range of North Korean artillery. It would also force Kim’s hand, leading to a cataclysmic escalation of violence against its southern neighbour.

As for more conventional routes, Trump’s proposition to impose sweeping sanctions will prove fruitless. North Korea will not respond to sanctions or UN ‘condemnations’, as other countries would. The same applies for diplomatic talks, trade deals and so on, considering its unequivocal anti-western stance. Negotiating with a socialist despot is not in keeping with Trump’s image, though Trump is nothing if not unpredictable – which some view as his greatest asset. Traditionally, North Korea has broken its negotiation promises to halt its nuclear programme. It will not change for Trump, who likely epitomises the stereotype of American vulgarity that defines Pyongyang’s propaganda machine.

Chinese support for North Korea should not be underestimated

A celebration of North Korea’s alliance with China in Pyongyang.

North Korea and China

Many view China as key to getting through to Pyongyang, although relations have frozen over in recent years. Since entering office in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has not met with Kim. The execution in 2013 of Jang Song Thaek, a pro-China and pro-business advocate for the socialist republic, seriously damaged political ties. The recent assassination of Kim’s estranged brother, Kim Jong-nam, further harmed relations between the two.

Kim’s brother had been exiled from North Korea in 2003 for criticising the regime, and living under protection in Beijing. Following this incident, China banned coal imports from North Korea until 2018. North Korea is dependent upon China’s economy for 80% of its food and fuel exports. Despite Pyongyang’s retort that Beijing was now ‘dancing to the tune of the U.S.’ there will be no substantial ideological shift. Beijing fears that economic collapse in North Korea would lead to an influx of immigration into China. It will thus do enough to appear to punish Pyongyang, while avoiding going ‘too far’ and creating permanent and irreversible damage with its traditional ally.

US President Trump and Chinese President Xi at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

China and the US

During the US presidential campaign, Beijing largely ignored Trump’s anti-China rhetoric, preferring instead to see how things would play out in reality. President Xi has certainly been maintaining closer ties with Washington than many predicted. After their meeting at Mar-a-Lago, Trump praised Xi for his cooperation on the North Korea issue. He encouraged more in this respect, in return for a softer stance on trade with the Asian giant. Vice-President Pence, whilst visiting South Korea, also said he was ‘heartened’ by China’s recent efforts. But the US has thrown China into a highly conflicting position, and its cooperation may be superficial at best.

The sticking point for Washington is to convince Beijing that facilitating Pyongyang’s denuclearisation would not harm its strategic interests. For James Kynge, this is ‘wishful thinking’, considering the ongoing power plays in the South China Sea and the fight for regional control. North Korea provides ‘strategic stability’ in a region full with US presence, ending which requires nothing ‘less than a genuine – and potentially terrifying – crisis’. China certainly benefits from having America onside, but it will likely feign cooperation whilst continuing to protect North Korea; a buffer against US militarisation on the Korean Peninsula. The China-North Korea alliance is deeply and historically entrenched; built up over decades of opposition to western influence.

Looking forward

One need only examine the controversy surrounding South Korea’s intention to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system, to understand the difficulty of reaching any diplomatic resolution. China is highly sceptical of South Korea’s intentions, and this mistrust will obscure any clear path forward. In Pence’s words, America’s ‘iron-clad alliance’ with South Korea will always come first.

Regardless of Trump’s rhetoric, nothing is likely to change. His options are limited, and he will be forced to align with his predecessor’s policy. This is about maintaining a delicate status quo, achieving which might not be possible for such an error-prone administration. This is certainly true if the recent aircraft carrier blunder is anything to go by.

There is certain to be another crisis, and Washington knows this. But the threat by North Korean state media of a ‘super-mighty pre-emptive strike’ is a signature example of the rogue regime’s anti-western histrionics. The same goes for Pyongyang’s claims that its weapons can strike US soil (although this is definitely possible in the future). More concerning is the blind confidence of Kim Jong-un himself; though if a military outbreak does occur, he will be aware of his slim chances of victory. Perhaps – we can only hope – he is just a sheep in wolf’s clothing, at least on the international stage.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Alexander Macleod

Alexander is a doctoral researcher at Newcastle University with a focus on Southeast Asian politics and geography. He has recently completed his PhD thesis, which critically assesses the role that online media play in promoting and sustaining Malaysia's racialized political landscape during general elections.