Don’t expect anything historic at Trump-Kim summit

As I was typing this last night, news was breaking of Kim Jong Un’s arrival in Singapore for a historic summit with President Donald Trump of the United States.

So much rides on what will happen in Singapore on Tuesday. So much depends on how the meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Kim goes. But New Zealand, like the rest of the world need to be realistic about the prospects. We also need to harbour a healthy doubt until verified by neutral sources that Kim has indeed kept his promises made in the last few months.

I certainly have my doubts. Mr Trump is reactionary. Mr Kim is calculating. Mr Trump has the most powerful military in the world, but needs to be mindful of South Korea, whose capital Seoul is within artillery range of North Korean guns. Mr Kim’s military might be short on equipment, poorly trained and led, but it has the vast power of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to prop it up.

Not I believe war is going to break out. I don’t, but much as I would like to see the Korean peninsula become a nuclear free zone I do not believe that this is going to happen.

How do we know that Mr Trump’s presidential body guards and Kim’s guards will not have a fight? How do we know that one or the other will simply not turn up on the day and leave Singapore looking really embarrassed at having this fall over flat for no fault of their own?

I do not believe that the purported closure of Punggye-ri nuclear testing facility actually went ahead. How do we know that the explosions caught on video were actually at the Punggye-ri site? And if they were? How do we know that these buildings – some of which looked more like domestic tool sheds or something one might have done pottery in – were actually used for nuclear weapons purposes? We do not.

My view is that Punggye-ri is very much still functioning. The site might be closed for repairs following the large nuclear test last year, which generated an energy release equivalent to a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, but I doubt very much that it is closed for good.

It is well known if you believe the media, that Mr Trump has not done very much preparation. Given that this is a one in a life time opportunity to end one of the worlds longest running wars, make more stable the last active front line in Cold War geopolitics and potentially denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, these are very concerning claims make. And yet, given Mr Trump’s impulsive, child like attitude towards global diplomacy and world leaders, not actually dreadfully surprising.

Mr Trump left the G.7. early to get away from an international meeting that showed America at its least trustful, divisive worst. But he is now heading into another one where a wrong move by either side could have long lasting complications for global security long after Mr Trump leaves office and possibly cost Mr Kim a chance at solidifying himself as the next “Dear Leader”. He is heading into a meeting where the hand of China is the real power behind Mr Kim – China can crush Kim virtually overnight if it wants to, except that Mr Kim and his North Korean regime serve a useful purpose for Beijing by preventing a democratic Korean Peninsula existing all the way to the Yalu River.

So, I wait, like many others, with interest to see what will happen on 12 June 2018. Will a ray of sunlight break through the dark clouds lurking in international geopolitics, or we see a distant flash of lightning?

Why New Zealand must stand behind Iran nuclear deal

Yesterday the Prime Minister of Israel made a massive claim: Iran is lying. It is not compliant with the terms of its nuclear agreement with the United Nations Security Council P5 nations plus Germany. The claim, which is one that now brings huge pressure on Mr Netanyahu to deliver is also one he cannot afford to be wrong on if he wishes to retain any credbility.

It is also one New Zealand must make its position very clear on.

Mr Netanyahu has never supported the Iranian nuclear deal and insists that Iran is lying about its commitment to it. He points to 55,000 pages and 183 CDs worth of evidence that the Israeli Mossad allegedly stole

Mr Netanyahu is a proponent of fear. His Government makes Iran out to be an enemy capable of destroying Israel and willing to try. If that were true, it would have done so by now. Except there is one huge problem with Mr Netayahu’s thinking. Actually, two:

  1. The United States would not hesitate to use military force against Iran or any other country that attacks Israel militarily
  2. Iran knows in conventional military combat it cannot beat the United States, and – for fear of W.W.3. – Russia would think long and hard before it came to Iran’s support

But still the fearmongering goes on, both in Tel Aviv and in the United States with willing support from Fox News and Republican hawks.

The regime of the Supreme Ayatollah Khamenei might have also been lost in translation. Whilst there are definitely anti-Israeli forces in Iranian politics and no doubt supported by the Ayatollahs, there have been verified incidents in which Persian dialects have been badly translated by the Western media, leading to the perception Iran wishes to nuke Israel. One such case involving former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led to mass walkouts at the United Nations when he addressed the General Assembly.

The overwhelming expectation I imagine of the rest of the world is on Mr Netanyahu and that is simple: put up the evidence of Iran not being compliant or shut up.

New Zealand must stand firmly in support of the Iranian nuclear deal. Neither the United States or Israel have come up with a better plan that has the support of the rest of the United Nations Security Council or Germany, much less Iran. I sincerely doubt there is any plan to put a better proposal up.

There is a second reason for supporting the Iran deal. This is more important than ever now. There needs to be a deal that North Korea could potentially aspire to if the political situation on the Korean Peninsula ever gets to the stage where North Korea can be trusted not to use a reactor to make weapons grade material. The type of deal necessary is there – it just needs to be modified to suit the situation with the Korea’s.

But it will not be any use if the key players, the ones with the influence who can show North Korea right from wrong, walk away from it. This is why New Zealand needs to stand its ground, tell the world why we support it and not give an inch to anyone. Because walking away from this deal potentially pitches both parts of the world into a degree of uncertainty and fear that no one benefits from.

No one except the military industrial complex.


Can North Korea be trusted? Would the U.S. respect the peace?

On Friday evening, whilst in a bar scrolling through my Facebook, I saw breaking news that North Korea and South Korea’s leaders had met on the border and shaken hands. After polite greetings and a show of smiles for the camera, Kim Jong Un briefly invited his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae In, to cross into North Korea leaving the world stunned.

I am not a hawk. I would love to see lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. I would love to see a Korean Peninsula where there is no longer a Cold War-era hotspot waiting to flare up at a moments notice

But when I say North Korea should not be trusted, it is not built on anti-North Korean sentiment. It is not built on a want of war or a desire to keep up the division and the anger. Far from it.

The reasons why I do not advocate trusting North Korea are entirely to do with the regime. They are in large part to do with the scheming Kim’s who have a track record of pulling the wool down over the eyes of the West in order to gain more leverage. It happened in the 1990’s when North Korea wanted significant aid, and the West said it could have the aid if it stopped its then clandestine nuclear weapons and missile programmes.

Kim Jong Un is like any other dictator. Staying in power is everything. When a dictator is in power they have the police and military forces under their direction pretty much in lockstep on national security. Transparency suffers as does the human rights record of the dictatorship. Surveillance of potential dissidents; restrictions on the type of activities civilians can indulge in all come to the fore.

North Korea’s record on human rights is the worst of any planet. It has the only concentration camp in the world at Yodok. Its many prisoners are treated appallingly – sexual violence, torture of all sorts, execution and starvation are rampant. The gates happily open to let people in, but are rarely seen opening to let people out. The transparency in North Korea is about as good as a windowless room with no other light source. The corruption is as bad as anywhere else.

North Korea’s involvement in terrorist activities and helping prop up other regimes also comes into question. It has been linked to the training of police forces in Zimbabwe who have used terror as an instrument. It’s execution style murders of people outside of North Korea as well as its kidnappings cannot go unchallenged.

However the United States has questions to answer as well. In the 1990’s when North Korea asked for assistance, the U.S. made a set of concessions that were supposed to have been carried out within a couple of years if North Korea kept its end of the deal. Fast forward to 2003 and almost none of the American concessions had been actioned. This was despite North Korea having apparently complied with the American demands. If America could not keep its end of the bargain struck under former President Bill Clinton, could it keep any bargain that might be struck between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un?

Another question that needs an answer, although I am a bit afraid of what it might be, is whether or not National Security Advisor John Bolton, a hawkish figure who advocates war would tolerate peace? According to past N.S.A.’s there is apparently not a war that Mr Bolton disagreed with and yet to be a peace agreement that he agrees with.

If peace really does break out on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea must take a lot of credit. They have put up with North Korea’s antics for nearly 70 years. They have seen families broken up by some of the most cruel geopolitics in the world. They have been through who knows how many periods wondering if war is imminent.

Let us see how this goes, but now is not the time to be saying “oh, what a great man Kim Jong Un is”. Nor is it the time to be nominating anyone for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Hawaii missile warning a reminder of the times

Yesterday’s ballistic missile scare in Hawaii had haunting echoes of a time I had hoped had long since past. It only lasted about 40 minutes before officials announced it was a false alarm, but in that time, Hawaii had a terrifying taste of what to expect in the minutes before an actual missile strike. And more than 70 years after the first nuclear weapons test, it is a reminder of what a volatile world we live in and what we are bringing our children and grandchildren up in.

But let us have a brief look back in the time line of war scares and see how we compare today with earlier times. In 1947, a bunch of concerned scientists called themselves Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and instituted the Doomsday Clock.

The doomsday clock is no ordinary clock. Whereas an ordinary clock continually goes forward, except when the hour hand is wound backwards for the end of daylight savings, this one goes forward and back. It is designed to show how close the world is to nuclear midnight, a time at which if – heaven forbid – we ever get there, the world, or part of it, will be understood to be in the midst of some sort of thermo/nuclear conflagration.

Timeline of the nuclear doomsday clock (Source: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists).

The timeline shows how the clock has moved backwards and forwards over the years, depending on the level of international tension. It started life in 1947 at 23:53PM and kept slipping progressively forward as tensions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. increased. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis should probably be the lowest point (closest point to nuclear midnight)as during the 13 days of this crisis the United States was actively preparing to invade Cuba to destroy medium range missile sites installed by the U.S.S.R., aimed at the U.S., not away that short range sites also existed and could be aimed at the invasion beaches. At this stage, though not shown due to the short duration of the crisis it was probably 23:59. It improved after that, through the 1970’s, but started to deteriorate again to reach 23:58 in 1984 as a result of major wars between Iraq and Iran, and the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan.

When the Cold War ended at the end of 1991 it was 23:47, with major cuts happening in military forces across the world. The threat of nuclear war had receded. The major proxy conflicts between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. with their client states had ended.

A bigger problem was who or what would fill the void left by the collapsed U.S.S.R. Initially that was unanswered. Later in 1994-95 Russia began trying to reassert its influence by destroying a separatist movement in Chechnya. In 2000, current Russian President Vladimir Putin was elected for the first time. Nationalism began to infiltrate Russian politics and defence spending began to increase once more.

In China another rival of the U.S., the Chinese economy and military spending were both growing in near double digit figures. Their large, Soviet inspired military of the Cold War began a massive transformation into the second most powerful military machine in the world today, slimmed down in size but with weapons, tactics and training fit for the 21st century. With a roaring economy came a roaring demand for raw material – coal, oil, gas, wood, steel. And most recently a Chinese agenda for a century of the Dragon.

Decades of interference by the C.I.A. in other countries affairs bit America on 11 September 2001. Whilst the world and the U.S. were rightfully horrified at the huge loss of life, such interference was always going to eventually boomerang on them. The then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld may have been looking into a crystal ball when he said that the war might last 15-20 years and involve multiple invasions. Whatever the case, that has happened. But with a lack of obvious outcomes apparent, many have tired of the constant American emphasis on terrorism, especially when some of their actions have undermined the cause.

And all this time, the Kim dynasty of North Korea has quietly gone on its way observing events world wide and learning from American actions. With unfathomable brutality he and his daddy and grand daddy have made North Korea a vast prison camp with nuclear deterrence. With China (reluctantly and most likely more interested in their own one party state) acting as an insurance policy against American invasion, Kim Jong Un probably felt quite safe until Donald Trump assumed the Presidency.

We should not take anything for granted here in New Zealand. We should consider how we can mitigate the consequences of a war on the Korean peninsula – assuming in the first instance it is a conventional war with no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons involved. The political and economic fallout will be huge with huge loss in just about all sectors of the economy, and in particular the flow of international tourists to and from N.Z, but also various trading sectors.

Obviously I sincerely hope that the tensions de-escalate on the Korean Peninsula. However the level of fear and panic that was caused by the false ballistic missile warning in Hawaii, shows what would happen in the event of an actual attack, irrespective of whether it was in Japan where several warnings from actual missile over flights, or somewhere further afield.

These are fascinating times without doubt, but for all the wrong reasons. I don’t think I am the only one who really wants a de-escalation on the Korean Peninsula, whilst being acutely aware it could get much, much worse.

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.