On Tuesday, New Zealand Time amid conflicting news about a mysterious deal that President Donald Trump announced, purportedly involving New Zealand, another interesting piece of news emerged. Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters might be off on a trip to North Korea talk peace and encourage the rogue state to see reason.
Anything that delays or stops a military confrontation between North Korea and the United States must be a good thing.
But will it honestly work? I do not know the answer, but I think in honesty – it would be great if I am wrong – Mr Peters’ influence on the United States and North Korea is severely restricted. Pyongyang has backed itself into a corner from which it has nowhere to go – any move to appear accommodating on nuclear weapons compliance would be a climb down that Mr Jong Un cannot afford, as it would make him appear weak before the military whose compliance he needs.
And if it does work and miraculously Pyongyang agrees to return to the negotiations table, there is a frustrating and dangerous truth: everything that has been negotiated in the past has been thrown out the window by North Korea months or years later. If somehow a deal were to be struck, how do we know this would not end up on the growing pile outside the proverbial window?
Pyongyang has another problem. Even if it DID want to comply with demands to dismantle its nuclear weapons and the facilities used for them and were to start doing so, the sophistication that has now been achieved means it would have considerable difficulty undoing its weapons programme. It would need to wind up its enrichment facility, remove, disable or downgrade any nuclear reactors it has. The stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and any plutonium it has managed to manufacture would have to be handed over. The only way any of this could happen is if the orders to do so came from Kim Jong Un. And Mr Jong Un has very explicitly said North Korea will never surrender its nuclear weapons programme – at least not peacefully.
The stakes are high. Japan, with its long and dreadful memories of American bombing in the late stages of World War 2, has had numerous emergency drills to prepare its citizens in the event a conflict does start. It’s hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to weaken the constitutional constraints on Japanese military activity that were imposed by the occupying Allied Powers in 1947, a move that could potentially alarm its neighbours.
South Korea, which has to contend with the cantankerous North on a day to day basis, might be the least concerned. After all as the significant southern half of Korea, many of its citizens will know people in North Korea and share the – probably – very far off dream of a united peaceful Korean peninsula. It does so against the cold and no doubt nerve wracking reality that North Korea’s artillery is within firing distance of Seoul and even a short bombardment would probably cause tens of thousands of casualties.
And then there is China. Don’t ever forget the one country that can crush North Korea’s regime pretty much whenever and however it wants, or prop it up. This is the same China – albeit a much stronger one economically, politically, militarily in 2017 – that invaded North Korea in 1950 to prop the regime up against the United Nations advance, forcing the Korean War into a bloody and ultimately undecided stalemate.
Mr Trump might have nasty visions of North Korea attaining a degree of nuclear weapons prowess that threatens United States security. But North Korea will have noted the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. It will have noted the anti-Iranian rhetoric emanating from the White House and as the third member of former U.S. President George W. Bush’s “rogue state” clique, the North Korean regime knows neoconservative America would love to get rid of it.
Would a young, possibly impressionable dictator with reactionist tendencies take very kindly to invtervention by a Minister of Foreign Affairs from a nation not one of his impoverished countrymen know anything about? Would he just laugh it off and use it to create propaganda against the United States and South Korea? Maybe.