Monday, March 13, 2017

Korea: Trump back in the bottle; too much in the bottle but no war this year.

I drafted this text below on 9 March 2017 for another blog but was asked to rewrite it because it contained too many links for a blog. I declined to rewrite. In the era of Trump it is essential that we maximise links, not just assert from whatever claimed status.

Since I wrote this the impeachment of the President of the Republic of Korea has been confirmed by the court. A presidential election must now be held by 9 May 2017. There is a possibility that a new president may be more open to the DPRK. The consequences for relations with the USA are not clear. That's a new subject for separate treatment.


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In January 2016, candidate Trump argued that South Korea was going to have to do more to defend itself. In March 2016 Trump argued that South Korea and Japan should pay their share of defence and consider developing their own nuclear weapons.

That was at the same time as annual exercises between US and ROK forces involved a much larger than before number of US and south Korean troops and astonishing 'platforms'.

This report in The Guardian emphasises the expanded character of the 2016 exercises and reports that the DPRK believes the drills reportedly now include training designed to prepare troops for the invasion of the North’s capital and “decapitation strikes” aimed at killing top leadership.

The World Socialist Web Site has reported on the 2017 exercises thus.

The numbers involved in the 2017 exercises, begun on 1 March do not appear to be published but are likely to match last year’s.

As business as usual, the US Eighth Army continues to advertise a posting to Korea as a great opportunity.

The US Republican Party’s foreign policy platform – “America Resurgent” – put Korea up front in Asia, desiring, in particular, that “China … recognize the inevitability of change in the Kim family’s slave state”.

In thinking about the apparent assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam  in Kuala Lumpur with VX applied to the skin, there is context of that Republican Party platform advocacy of regime change, of DPRK apprehensions about the changing nature of US-ROK exercises to include preemptive decapitation of the leadership in Pyongyang ... AND ALSO the ruckus attending the 2014 US comedy The Interview about assassination Kim Jong-un, including reprisal against Sony but where the fictional CIA plan was to assassinate with Ricin. Compare VX and Ricin here. Underscore this: the ruthless, cutthroat, authoritarian dynasty in the DPRK is currently ruled by a less senior family member, Kim Jong-un, than the reluctant prince, his half brother, now assassinated, perpetrators not legally determined. The more senior, playboy Kim Jong-nam, had been living mainly inside the Peoples Republic of China. Both, as is the pattern of their family for male descendants, Swiss educated. Edward VIII, say hello to Stalin. Kim Jong-nam say hello in heaven or hell to Lin Biao. Deng Xiaoping, which of these four will you exclude from a bridge game? (Someone of more classical education might name the relevant Shakespeare.)

The new US Defense Secretary James Mattis went swiftly to Seoul and Tokyo to give assurances on 2 February of continued stable support and spoke with the ROK Defence Minister on the first day of the current exercises, including expressing appreciation of acquisition of a golf course by the ROK government for location of the THAAD missile system. The long-anticipated deployment of THAAD was announced on 6 March, the day after the firing of four missiles by the DPRK into the Sea of Japan. The missiles were nothing new (nor was the attendant media hysteria) and their firing undoubtedly enabled all sides to test reaction and counter-reaction to such event, when everyone was on alert with the current exercises. See these links at allthingsnuclear and 38North.

38North is a coherent advocate for negotiation by the US with the DPRK, but such does not seem feasible in the current situation in Washington, probably also Pyongyang (we have knowns about the US, mainly unknowns about the DPRK).

Some excited reports said missiles had fallen within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Here is a paper published in the journal of the US Naval War College on the legality of military activities in other people’s EEZs.

In February the DPRK scheduled a missile launch to coincide with the visit to the US of Japanese Prime Minister Abe, exposing to the world some shonky processes of national security deliberation, surely now tightened up ... and leading to a cautious response by the White House.

There has been no formal end to the Korean War (1950-53). Every day, year by year, a pantomime of hostility and balance and occasional incident is played out in the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone, dead centre of this extraordinary continuing gamesmanship. Book a visit.

Sound familiar? Source
The point is not what he had in mind, but how he was perceived.
There was subsequent quibbling, some indignant, about the defensive line drawn in East Asia by Dean Acheson, US Secretary of State in a speech to the Washington Press Club in January 1950 — a defensive line drawn from north of Japan, including Japan, the Ryukyu Archipelago (which includes Okinawa) and the Philippines... but not the Korean peninsula.

Whatever later quibbling, Acheson made the speech and it was open to interpretation at the time that US support for South Korea was less than firm. North Korea launched a full attack on the south on 25 June 1950. It is reasonable to consider that the DPRK this year considered it appropriate to test the resolve of Trump... unless you consider the North Koreans simply mad, in which case please also consider Trump simply mad. Neither is true, though each side bewildering from time to time. Trump says he seeks to bewilder, so I think does the DPRK.


So where is the balance this month?

·     •  Trump has been put back in the bottle of established US security policy and machinery on Northeast Asia. US military posture is sharper.

·     • THAAD is in place in South Korea, with a little action by the DPRK to make it easy, much to the fury of China.

·      • China is a major target in US high policy focus on Korea, as it was in 1950. There are nuclear weapons on the table.

·      • If China ever had any notion that Kim Jong-nam could be a replacement for Kim Jong-un, that game is over. We have a neglected/ignored/avoided framework of DPRK apprehensions in which to find understanding of the murder of Kim Jong-nam.

·      • There isn’t going to be a real war this year: I have revised my perspective away from anticipation of war in preparing this note.

·      • We need to watch the election campaign in the ROK. The doorway to not-war is via the relationship between Seoul and Pyongyang, not the big powers around them.

PS: for another perspective see Geoff Miller Too Nuclear to Fail?


Dennis Argall has been an observer of north Asian affairs since 1970 
and was Australian Ambassador to China in the 1980s.

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