North Korea: a tale of two superpowers

The latest round of instability on the Korean peninsula reveals a great deal about American and Chinese influence today.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics World

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Seen in isolation, the recent actions and gestures of North Korea, with its boyishly chubby leader Kim Jong-un very much to the fore, look wilfully bellicose. After all, Kim has denounced the 1953 armistice which signalled the cessation of the Korean War, declared that it is time to ‘settle accounts with the US imperialists’, and announced plans to reactivate North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility, a plant capable of producing weapons-grade fissile material. He’s even been pictured in front of a map showing missile flight paths right into the belly of the imperialist beast, the US.

Yet these warmongering gestures from North Korea, complete with Soviet-era rhetoric, ought not to be seen in isolation. In other words, they ought not to be reduced to the actions of a mad tyrant hellbent on destroying the US, a man who is not a ‘rational adversary‘, as one broadsheet columnist implies. Rather, this small, impoverished territory – North Korea’s GDP is $40 billion, the UK’s $2.3 trillion – is caught, as it has been for many, many years, in the nexus of other, far more powerful states’ interests. Its current, periodic outbreaks of almost absurd militarism, from nuclear missile launches to promises to reduce US-sponsored South Korea to a ‘sea of fire’, should be grasped in this context. A context, that is, in which the US attempts to flex some ageing moral muscle abroad, while the world’s emerging, rival superpower, China, desperately tries to maintain the status quo.

It’s worth remembering that North Korea owes its very existence to external political forces, in this particular case to the postwar standoff between the US and the USSR. The provisional agreement to divide the Korean peninsula in two in 1945 was eventually to lead to the Korean War (1950-53), in which the Communist-backed North battled itself to a standstill against the US-backed South. And, then, for nearly 40 years, North Korea’s fate was broadly subject to the vagaries of the Cold War.

Now, however, with the certainties and the Soviet backing of the Cold War a distant memory, North Korea, its autocratic rulers and its frequently starving population have found themselves trying to survive in a rather different context. That is, this small, isolated and politically besieged state has frequently found itself at the sharp end of America’s post-Cold War search for some foreign-policy purpose. So while it may be true that over the past 20 years ‘successive US presidents have given written and verbal assurances of non-hostile intent and a willingness to engage with North Korea over 33 times’, the US has also increasingly used North Korea as an object of moral affirmation, a caricature of dictatorial evil beside which the US can pose as a force for virtue.

Back in 2002, for example, then US president George W Bush, during a now infamous State of the Union address, stated that ‘North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens’. He concluded that, alongside Iraq and Iran, it was part of an ‘axis of evil’. This, in many ways, was a key moment. Officially branded a threatening pariah by the world’s most powerful nation, North Korea began to conduct itself as such.

So, over the past decade, North Korea has increasingly used the manifestation of its evilness, namely its now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t nuclear programme, as a means to conduct a relationship with the US-led West. Hence one minute it is promising to disarm (and reform) in return for aid, the next it is threatening to reduce South Korea to molten ash. In 2003, for instance, North Korea withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on the basis that the US had failed to make good on aid and non-aggression promises. Then in 2007, when the UN passed resolution 1718 to forbid nuclear testing, North Korea tried to ingratiate itself with the West by destroying its Yongbyon reactor and cooling tower. Now, of course, with the UN having passed a new raft of sanctions following a nuclear missile test, North Korea has responded with the threat of reviving the Yongbyon reactor. And so it continues.

The principal driving force here is a US foreign policy based less on strategic or material interests than on moral posturing – in this instance, realising a vision of a world without nuclear weapons, as Barack Obama, president of the largest nuclear power in the world, put it in 2009. The effect of such a foreign-policy imperative is that US actions in relation to North Korea have acquired a strangely reckless quality. So, last week, just to prove what the US military could do if North Korea did not change its wicked ways, nuclear-capable stealth bombers took off from the US, flew over the Korean peninsula, dropping some dummy munitions, before flying back to the US. The Pentagon claimed this was to show that the US airforce could conduct quick, precision strikes from long-range, at will. What it also showed, however, was a complacent willingness to further militarise the situation in the Korean peninsula. This has since been compounded by the decision of the US this week to move an advanced missile system to the Pacific island of Guam, a response, claims the Pentagon, to North Korean threats.

Yet while one superpower, struggling to define its role in the twenty-first century, has been enjoying a militarily sustained search for moral purpose over this tiny Asian peninsula, another, emerging superpower, China, has been desperately trying to maintain the stability of the region, providing North Korea with aid and helping it negotiate with the UN. And with good reason. If North Korea collapses, if war does indeed break out between the North and America’s Pacific proxies, then China will have to deal with an influx of refugees, instability in its border regions, not to mention the disappearance of a not insignificant economic partner (the 2011 China-North Korea trade figures of $5.7 billion represent a 62.4 per cent gain over 2010). China’s foreign ministry made its position clear last month when a spokesman, discussing North Korea’s military, rocket and nuclear spending, declared: ‘We would also like to actively encourage [North Korea] to develop its economy and improve people’s living conditions.’

So while the US is still determinedly trying to use one third of Bush’s axis of evil to repair its now rather threadbare moral authority, the Chinese state, lacking the moral and political capital to assert itself politically, is solely concerned with developing its economic authority.

It is not, then, the madness of a pudgy-faced dictator playing itself out at the centre of the current turmoil in the Pacific; it is rather the respective struggles of two very different superpowers, for which North Korea is merely useful.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics World


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