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?

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.

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.

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.

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?