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.

Ardern meets Trump

The handshake was not a crusher. Unlike the potentially crushing power of the office of the man who shook Prime Minister Jacinda Arderns hand earlier today. As T.P.P. negotiations roll on we look at the major issues where New Zealand and America might dis/agree on.

It will be interesting to see how a decidedly left leaning New Zealand Government will get on with the most far right Government America has ever had. Mr Trump stands for a lot of the things that Ms Ardern and her Labour/New Zealand First/Green Party coalition balk at point blank, such as considering military spending as essential to the economy, cutting taxes, rolling back environmental laws and getting out of the Paris Climate Accord.

Mr Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement within a couple of days of taking office in January. Despite most of the Labour Party grass roots and both of her support parties being totally against the T.P.P.A., Ms Ardern seems content to sign the agreement with a few more concessions. Mr Trump is on this rare occasion on the right side of history, whereas New Zealand and the other countries negotiating are going to end up on the wrong side.

Mr Trump’s administration might not yet be fully aware of New Zealand’s attempts to get some of the refugees from Manus Island. How much it impacts on a supposed deal being negotiated between Australia and the United States remains to be seen. It would not be the first time New Zealand has interceded on Australian refugee. We took some of the refugees from the M.V. Tampa, a freighter that the John Howard Government claimed was carrying terrorists and baby drowners in 2001. Those refugees turned out to be quite an asset, with all contributing substantially to their adopted New Zealand communities, setting up small businesses and becoming doctors and lawyers. Hopefully Mr Trump sees the Australian xenophobia for what it is and offers to take some instead of being sucked into Peter Duttons hate machine.

New Zealand is a small bit player in the North Korean issue, but a potentially valuable one. Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has had prior experience negotiating with North Koreans and they invited him to visit Pyongyang, something that few other leaders have been offered. Aside from supporting the rule of international law at the United Nations and trying to get all sides to dial down the rhetoric, there is not realistically much else that New Zealand can help the United States with on this topic. No one will win if a war starts on this.

On the subject of climate change, New Zealand needs to stand firm, invest heavily in renewables and look at what sorts of environmentally responsible technologies it can develop, patent and export overseas. In short it needs to go in the opposite direction to the United States, which will find itself isolated by the international community in some respects – something New Zealand cannot afford to do.

Mr Trumps performance on the world stage, including his bellicose rhetoric against North Korea and Iran will also be watched closely. When he tweets the world takes notice just incase it is a foreign policy announcement. No doubt Ms Ardern and her press secretary keep close tabs on @realDonaldTrump and @POTUS.

America’s black and white view of the world ignores many, many shades of grey. New Zealanders seem to understand that they exist, but not why. Understanding those shades and where they fit into the spectrum – whether we agree with their purpose being another story altogether – is important, as is getting past the left-right political spectrum which is thoroughly redundant. Perhaps the most important thing though is not following this nonsense of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Whilst this remains the thinking in Washington, we need to keep America at arms length, something I think Ms Ardern understands, but Mr Trump does not.

Why the North Korea crisis should scare you

Picture this – it actually did happen: 27 October 1962. A U.S. destroyer enforcing the blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis detects a Soviet submarine and challenges it by deliberately dropping depth charges in the vicinity of the submarine to make it surface. Unbeknownst to the U.S. the submarine is armed with torpedoes that have nuclear warheads on them. If fired on, assuming the Commanding Officer and the next two most senior officers agreed, they would have fired one.

Had Vasiliy Arkhipov not disagreed, this would have instantly started World War 3.

The Cuban Missile Crisis fortunately ended the following day. But most people do not realise the U.S. was going to invade Cuba and that the operation for this would start on 29 October 1962. The Soviets had short range nuclear missileson Cuba pointed at the invasion beaches….

Fast forward to 1983: Cold War tensions are at dangerously high levels. The President of the United States has started a missile defence programme nicknamed “Star Wars”. The President of the U.S.S.R. is a paranoid death bed ridden man convinced America is going to start World War 3. Yuri Andropov had never been to the U.S. and knew nothing about America or Americans. But in these dangerously paranoid days he was convinced Ronald Reagan would give the order.

On 26 1983 Stanislaw Petrov was in his command bunker controlling the U.S.S.R.’s vast intercontinental ballastic missile arsenal when the most terrifying thing happened. The warning alarm for an incoming attack started to howl. He had 30 minutes to determine whether or not W.W.3. was starting and whether he needed to authorize a response. If he had to, there was a chain of command that had to be follow.

But there was something odd about this. Common logic dictated that if a nuclear attack is launched, you launch enough warheads so as to ensure no response is possible. But the satellite responsible for the warning had only picked up five. And ground based radar had detected none at all.

Common sense won the day. Petrov decided nothing was happening and ignored the alert.

On 1 November 1983 the N.A.T.O. alliance started Exercise Able Archer. This was a war on paper that would result in a mock nuclear attack. Unfortunately the U.S.S.R. picked up the transmission of signals regarding the exercise. Over the next ten days the mock war that existed only on paper gradually ratcheted up.

And so did the danger. Convinced war was coming the Soviet military machine began to mobilize. I.C.B.M. launchers began to be removed from their hiding places. Submarines and surface ships began to disperse. Bomber squadrons were put on rapid reaction alert.

And then, suddenly as it started, it ended. The communications went quiet. The officers involved went back to their regular day time roles. It was as if nothing had happened.

Go forward to 2017 and here we are again. Teetering of the abyss of nuclear war. This time on the Korean Peninsula. Dealing with a rogue maniac totally uncowed by America. Just like 1962 and 1983, only one shot fired in anger away from W.W.3.

Will we never learn?

The H-Bomb test that should not have been

The world should have seen this one coming. North Korea’s nuclear testing was always going to eventually result in a hydrogen bomb.

After seeing and reading what I did about the nature of an American thermonuclear weapon, it is what Kim has a achieved is a major advance in North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. To be clear, a hydrogen bomb test has a many fold increase in the release of energy over a non-hydrogen bomb. We are no long talking about a device that can wipe out any New Zealand’s largest city. We are talking about a quantum leap in the increase in productive power.

When Kim Jong-il first achieved the ability to test a nuclear weapon at all in 2006, this was a major step backwards. It meant a nation that openly criticizes the world order and even its own Chinese allies now had a weapon capable of wiping out a small city. The devices being tested then were not big – at 12.5 kilotons they were a bit smaller than the device dropped on Hiroshima. Successive tests up to the one just over a week ago, only yielded relatively minor increases in destructive power – a 12.5 might have become an 20kt device. Destructive test, yes, but compared with the huge Tsar Bomba test by the U.S.S.R. in 1960, absolutely tiny.

Kim Jong Un has gone one better. In conducting Friday’s test, North ┬áKorea conducted a test about 20x bigger than the largest of the previous North Korean tests. At 250kt, we are taking about a nuclear warhead that could destroy Christchurch many fold over. Despite the worlds many attempts to curtail Kim, China continues to fund North Korea. The thing only propping up the regime is China.

Now that Mr Jong Un has such a powerful device, we need to play very carefully. around this issue. China could invade North Korea to prop up the country, except that this would likely start WW3 or some sort of larger conflict at risk of spiralling into WW3.

Kim Jong Un will keep testing nuclear weapons and making refinements. The fact that he has made the ones he said he would in 2017 without regard to increasing U.N. sanctions or the international community, tells me we have reached a dangerous cross roads.

Where we go from here puts millions of lives on the line as well as the global economy, human rights for millions and millions of people. Kim Jong Un does not care, but the West – for obvious reasons – do not have that luxury.

North Korean vs U.S. brinkmanship steps up a notch

At 1236 hours local time, North Korea tested another nuclear weapon, its sixth and easily its largest. With a yield of about 100 kilotons, this test was about 5x more powerful than the device dropped on Nagasaki and about 10 times larger than most of their previous tests.

This represents a significant escalation in the game of nuclear brinkmanship that is going on. It means North Korea have a warhead now capable of destroying a city larger than Christchurch or Wellington.

United States President Donald Trump now has a serious problem on his hands. He warned North Korea that it would face fire and fury unlike anything it has seen before if it continued to play the current high risk game of brinkmanship. Today North Korea essentially said to Mr Trump “I dare you to. Go on. I DARE YOU!”.

Neither side will want to be seen to be backing down. The range of options for containing North Korea has failed one option after the other. Probably every single sanction that has been put in place has been ignored by the successive Kim regimes. It has been offered carrot (aid/easing of sanctions/South Korean economic co-operation and so forth), in return for giving up its nuclear weapons programme, enforced by the stick (normally a tightening of sanctions).

The options for President Trump are limited. If he tightens sanctions further, North Korea will most likely simply ignore them and probably test another weapon or continue other provocative acts, such as firing more missiles. The fact that this happened just days after North Korea fired a missile across the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, triggering civilian warning systems shows that the regime cares not one jot.

Normally there is a rule of thumb that can be applied to this. If the people of South Korea, and in particular Seoul are not worried, then nor should we be. But a missile fired across the island of a sovereign neighbour and now the biggest nuclear test the world has seen since the end of the Cold War might change that.

However one nation holds the key cards in this dangerous game: China. The Peoples Republic can crash the North Korean regime by exerting overwhelming economic and diplomatic pressure if it chooses to. To some extent China needs the regime to survive as much as the regime needs China. Without the North Korean regime there is no buffer between China and the democratic South Korea. China has spent a massive amount of time and resources maintaining its regime and has an appalling human rights record, perhaps only exceeded by North Korea. But China’s economy could not survive without its huge trade with the United States. Thus increasingly China is becoming the nation to watch, perhaps as much as North Korea and the United States.

Here in New Zealand we can do two things:

  1. Be extremely grateful for the distance between us and the Korean Peninsula
  2. Vote for a Government that actively encourages all parties to pull their heads in

Other than that, buckle in for a roller coaster ride I don’t think most people want to be on.