Winston Peters going to North Korea?


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.

A naval battle New Zealand should remember


Many people will not be aware, but last night 12-13 November was the 75th Anniversary of the first phase of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. This was the naval battle that finally eliminated any threat of a Japanese invasion of Australia or New Zealand in World War 2.

The Guadalcanal campaign started on 07 August 1942. Three months earlier the United States Navy (U.S.N.)had stopped the Japanese task force trying to attack the Papua New Guinean capital of Port Moresby. However another strand of that task force had successfully landed at Guadalcanal and had started building an airfield. This would put most of the Solomon Islands and eastern Australia within bombing range. The Americans concluded that this was an unacceptable threat and had to be stopped.

The invasion started okay, but the naval forces protecting got the surprise of their lives on the night of 08-09 August 1942 when a Japanese raiding force sank 3 American and an Australian cruiser. Thus began 4 months of naval battles intermixed with brief but bloody ground battles each time a wave of reinforcements came ashore. 3 major land battles and a host of smaller skirmishes were reported during this time with large loss of Japanese life.

By mid September the Americans had local air superiority. However the Japanese were still the better at night fighting. But this did not stop significant naval clashes. Between mid-August and early November, there was:

  1. The Battle of the Eastern Solomons
  2. The Battle of Cape Esperance
  3. The Battle of Santa Cruz Island

All of these were attempts to establish naval superiority in the area, but also to support the landings of ground forces or to bombard Henderson Field in order to put the American air power there out of business. None of them were cheap – across the three battles the Americans lost 2 carriers, 2 destroyers with 2 cruisers and 3 more destroyers damaged and 500 dead; the Japanese losses were a carrier, 2 destroyers, 2 cruisers with several cruisers, destroyers and carriers damaged with about 1,000 killed.

But for all the losses, neither side had gained clear superiority. Both had no invested substantial forces both at sea around Guadalcanal and onshore. For the Japanese, Guadalcanal was starting to become prohibitively expensive. For the Americans, it was an island that simply had to be held onto if they were to stop Japanese expansion. Thus the scene was set for what was described as a bar room brawl and one of the last exchanges between battleships.

The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal happened in two phases:

  1. An all in brawl on the night of 12-13 November 1942 involving five American cruisers and eight destroyers with a superior Japanese force clearing the way for a convoy to reinforce Guadalcanal – despite their losses the Americans succeed in delaying the convoy’s approach
  2. On the night of 14-15 November an American force with battleships U.S.S. Washington and U.S.S. South Dakota surprise the Japanese just as the convoy makes a second attempt at reaching Guadalcanal

It was a costly battle for both sides. The Americans lost 2 cruisers and 7 destroyers and a total of 1730 personnel. For their part the Japanese lost 2 battleships a cruiser and 3 destroyers as well as transports from the convoy with over 2,000 killed.

But the battle was strategic. The Japanese military never made another serious attempt to reinforce the island of Guadalcanal and in December 1942 with permission from Emperor Hirohito, the I.J.N. began to evacuate the remaining forces. Although the Japanese had localized naval victories a combination of increasing American numerical superiority, better American tactics and weapons and Japanese indecisiveness meant no further large scale blue water defeats were suffered.

Japanese forces in Papua New Guinea were confined to a couple of tiny pockets in the north, when the war ended. Rabaul, from where so many of the Japanese naval operations had originated was neutralized in early 1944 after the Americans, not wanting a bloody, months long battle decided to strangle the Japanese base with air and naval power. The Solomon Islands were liberated by the end of 1943.

North Korea vs United States: Everyone should read their history


The history of the Korean peninsula dates back thousands of years. The history of South Korea an North Korea stems back to the aftermath of W.W.2. when only Soviet Union and the United States had troops to disarm the Japanese forces on the peninsula. In the rapidly deteroriating post-W.W.2. geopolitical climate war time friends had become cold war rivals. The geopolitical climate had changed much for the worse and everyone needed to be careful.

It is highly improbable that North Korea will risk any further than it already has, the security of its regime. I am talking about a regime that has gone to extreme lengths to suppress its opponents. People in North Korea understand the phrase “Yodok Prison Camp” or Kwan-li-so No. 15″ in the same way Germans and understood the phrase “Prinz Albrechtstrasse” during the era of Hitler – a person enters and is generally never seen or heard from again.

The North Korean regime is unique not only in its sheer ruthlessness – Kim Jong Un – had a relative, General Jang Song Thaek executed with anti aircraft fire, even though he was a relative – it is not in the least bit afraid to violate international law. This it might be said is also done with a degree of callousness that suggests only a regime change or some sort of assassination attempt would put Kim Jong Un out of business.

So how does that affect the international situation with North Korea?

Before we look at the options for knocking off the North Korean regime, we need to remember a couple of things:

  1. China has said to North Korea and the U.S. respectively that if North Korea attacks the U.S., China will stay out of the conflict. It has also said – which should concern the bellicose U.S President Donald Trump – that it will not ignore a U.S. attack on North Korea

    Effectively this is a warning to both sides China is not in it for either side, though it definitely prefers a non-democratic state on its land border.

  2. China invaded North Korea in October 1950 to stop the North Korean regime as it was then from being rolled by the United Nations operation. Whilst China is quite irritated by Pyongyang’s refusal to give up nuclear weapons, it will not ever compromise the security of its own one party state, and if that means invading a second time – Korean history for the last several hundred years is littered with Chinese invasions – no one should be surprised.

Will Pyongyang give up its nuclear weapons. I think we know the answer to that very well. Kim Jong Un has seen United Nations sanctions at work and no one wants to challenge him directly. Having a suiperpower in its corner helps Kim immensely even if China is growing impatient with the regime in North Korea. Kim does not seem to be put off in the least by U.S. warnings. On the contrary, one might try to argue he is saying “Bring it on!”

I think the message going into the weekend and beyond as we watch the latest round of sabre rattling is that signs of impatience, frustration and the potential for an accidental missile discharge is not so unlikely as to give them no further consideration.Kim Jong Un is so far up the proverbial creek without a paddle that the only thing for him to do is go further. He will not admit defeat and always look for a way to blame other countries for something that is very much a break down of north Koreans ability to do the job their Dear Kimmy requires.

We need to be careful. North Korea is easily provoked. It would not take much to accidentally trigger an international incident where one side or the other open fire prematurely. The problem is once the shooting starts, where will it stop?

Appreciating our war time history


Passchendaele.

A name of a Belgian town, and New Zealand’s bloodiest battle in World War One.

In a country where so much was given in two world wars, the Battle of Passchendaele was more than another dreadful, relatively static battle in World War 1. It was about a little nation half a world away from New Zealand and a battle in 1917 that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

We never said Gallipoli was great and just campaign for New Zealanders to be involved in – it was not, and many lives were lost. It was not and yet all of these years later there is a substantial and long lasting respect between Australia, New Zealand and Turkey. Not only that but Turks, New Zealanders and Australians show a general respect for each other’s forces many could learn from.

Today is history from another war, and I think it is appropriate that it be announced.

There is much to be annoyed about with America on the world stage these days. But two naval battles in May 1942 at the Battle of the Coral Sea and June 1942 at the Battle of Midway, were the difference between Australia being invaded and New Zealand being put in bomber range.

It started with a surprise American bombing raid on Japan in April 1942 where U.S.S. Yorktown sailed 16 B-25’s within bomber range of Japan. The Japanese Combined Fleet Commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was sufficiently by the raid as to figure out how to put Japan beyond bomber range. That meant attacking Midway.

At Coral Sea a Japanese task force was made to turn back from attacking Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, where a staging area for an attack on Australia would have been established. The day before the carrier I.J.N. Shoho was sunk, as was U.S.S. Lexington. Another carrier U.S.S. Yorktown was damaged. Although the honours were not quite even, it was an American victory and a chance to hone their skills at naval warfare involving the use of aircraft carriers. Admiral Yamamoto was not deterred. He had said:

“I shall run wild for six month’s to a year after which I can guarantee nothing”.

75 years ago today 4 June 2017, Admiral Yamamoto’s stunning foresight became reality.

An air raid on the island of Midway was meant to knock out anti aircraft batteries, enemy installations and support facilities in preparation for attack. The air raid failed, and the Japanese pilot in command requested a second strike (more on that later) 5,000 troops in troop carriers had been sent to Midway. This was going to be their chance to participate in history.

Whilst the Japanese were attacking Midway, a squabble had broken out between the key Japanese commanders at two levels. At the top, Admiral Yamamoto’s Chief of Staff Captain Kuroshima knew of a cancelled Japanese reconnaissance mission to Pearl Harbor, but never passed news of the cancellation on. He refused to lift secrecy and tell the commander of the attacking task force the reconnaissance mission had been scrubbed. The second squabble was in the fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, responsible for attacking Midway. His chief of air operations Commander Genda believed the American fleet  was in the area, but Vice Admiral Nagumo’s Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Kusaka did not. Commander Genda wanted to bring a second wave of planes on deck with torpedoes in case the Americans did were spotted by reconnaissance. Admiral Kusaka believed faulty intelligence that had first said the Americans were still in the Coral Sea where they had defeated the Japanese a month earlier, and also believed that even if the Japanese had left that there was no way they could have gotten to Midway.

Admiral Nagumo initially ordered the second wave to brought on deck, then halted. When it resumed precious time had been lost. The aircraft that had bombed Midway were returning and the decks needed to be cleared for them to land, so more time was lost.

The squabble was to prove disastrous for Japan. But the squabble was also about whether or not America even knew what was happening. They did. Everything. They were not fooled by a diversion attack on the Aleutian Islands on 3 June 1942. It was also about American naval brilliance, and how America transited the crippled U.S.S. Yorktown in from the Coral Sea, did as much repair work in as they could in 72 and managed to send her to Midway.

U.S.S. Enterprise and Hornet had set off under Admiral Jack Fletcher heading for Midway. Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance followed in the U.S.S. Yorktown a few days later.

So, imagine the shock on Nagumo’s face when the air raid alarm pointed to an American attack on 04 June 1942. American torpedo bombers had found the four Japanese fleet carriers supporting the attack on Midway. It was shot down completely and only one American pilot survived. But less than an hour later another attack happened. Same result, but with a massive difference. The attack had drawn the Japanese fighter cover down to sea level. High off in the distance with no enemy fighters between them and the four Japanese carriers were squadrons of dive bombers. And their flight decks were stacked with bombs and torpedoes.

In the space of 15 minutes on 04 June 1942, the Japanese went from being only a couple of months away from potentially doing what Yamamoto did not think was possible, and winning the war, to a decisive American victory from which there was no Japanese recovery possible. In those 15 minutes three Japanese fleet carriers I.J.N. Akagi, Kaga and Soryu were crippled beyond repair and either sank or were scuttled. I.J.N. Hiryu was crippled later the same day and was scuttled.

U.S.S. Yorktown was attacked twice. After the first attack the Americans managed to get her underway again. After the second attack there was no hope and she had to be abandoned. A Japanese submarine finished her off two days later.

Today is the 75th Anniversary of that.

You can say all you want about America. But on this day, 75 years later, with a copy of the the Japanese invasion plans for New Zealand understood to be in Te Papa, I would like you to join me in saying three words and three words only:

THANK YOU AMERICA. 

I will come back to Passchendaele in late July.

Japan five years after 11 March 2011


Like Christchurch a few weeks earlier in 2011, five years ago today Japan was rocked by its most destructive earthquake ever. At a whopping magnitude 9.0 it was one of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded on modern instruments. It’s three-five minutes of full on shaking and the tsunami that followed have created some of the most powerful – and disturbing  earthquake and tsunami footage ever recorded. And just as New Zealand did after the Christchurch earthquake Japan screamed for help. Five years later the debris has been cleared and most people are in new homes.  But how much has Japan really learnt from this earthquake?

It is an interesting question and one that the world would like answers to as it awaits clear answers on the extent and severity of the radiation leaking out of Fukushima reactors. The questions come as Japan prepares to charge Tokyo Electric Power Company with professional negligence and survivors and politicians look to the future.

Sadly I think the answer is more “no” than yes. Japanese society is deeply conservative and despite the earthquake and tsunami higlighting major gender differences in terms of roles Japanese women have in employment, the failure to give women proper parental leave and appropriate renumeration is holding hundreds of thousands of mothers and potential mothers to be, back. Also Japanese women do not feature in board rooms other than perhaps in a secretarial role. The failure to encourage a more level and less chauvinistic approach means board rooms lack a degree of accountability considered standard in most other western countries. At T.E.P.C.O. the lack of diversity in opinions may have contributed to their very poor response to what is no doubt the greatest crisis in their history.

However Japan can say that its population, normally seen by the world as wanting to stay out of major overseas conflicts and wary of anything with a militaristic theme, has probably never been more politically militant since before World War 2. Protests to raise awareness of T.E.P.C.O.’s responsibility and failure to play their cards straight when telling people about the radiation risk have never been bigger, more frequent or more colourful.

To Japans credit though on the whole – and certainly much better than in 1995 after the Kobe Quake – the authorities did well containing the damage from the quake, which was compounded by the tsunami and in some cases also by fire. Within a couple of weeks of the earthquake roads that irreparable in mid-March were largely operational again. Within a year most Japanese were back in new homes paid for by their insurance. To minimise the radiation in the soil around Fukushima, the Japanese authorities had teh topsoil and several centimetres below removed and bagged for disposal of.

But Japan still has much work to be done to get to the stage New Zealand and European countries such as Denmark – once considered the happiest country on the planet – have with labour laws, gender equality and employees rights. A nation whose population appears to be largely stagnant, it has been the challenge of successive Prime Ministers to improve the economic performance of Japan.