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.

Stay out of North Korean crisis, Bill


On Friday, Prime Minister Bill English said that there is a possibility that if the United States and North Korea went to war New Zealand would offer help to the United States.

I found this quite disturbing. A Prime Minister prepared to offer military help in one of the most dangerous parts of the world North Korea and the United States both appear quite happy to unnecessarily ratchet up tensions. North Korea has systematically ignored United Nations resolutions and sanctions do not appear to slow it down – indeed the most recent ones only seem to have poured more oil on the fire.

There are only three circumstances under which I will ever support the use of armed force:

  1. New Zealand is physically attacked – self defence is a natural right of any nation or person
  2. The United Nations Security Council mandates the use of armed force – such as when it did in 1990 against the Iraqi occupation forces in Kuwait
  3. One of our smaller neighbours or Australia is physically attacked by another nation

A lot of wars fought in the modern age have highly questionable reasons for starting, or are the resumption of hostilities from past conflicts. New Zealand should not have a role in either of these cases unless one of the above three scenarios is tripped.

Prime Minister Bill English cannot just direct New Zealand Defence Force personnel to attack another nation. Before any such directive is given, he must inform Parliament, which must then hold a vote. I believe that such a vote should not be a case of a simple majority, but require say at least 60% of Parliament to support the cause.

For the most part New Zealand has pursued the right course in diplomacy. Up to 11 September 2001, the conflicts New Zealand was involved in were generally ones where a U.N. mandate was sough and given – the American led liberation of Kuwait from Iraq; the East Timor peace keeping operation.

If North Korea tries to strike the first blow, I expect that the war would short and bloody. North Korea would attack Seoul in the hope that the huge civilian casualties (about which it cares not a jot). As the attack on Seoul begins, a massive South Korean and U.S. military response will begin as well. But this however is highly improbable. North Korea knows its regime would be finished inside a day if it made such a move as China has signalled it will stay neutral in the event of a North Korea military attack.

If the United States attacked North Korea pre-emptively as U.S. President Donald Trump suggests it might be prepared to do so, there is a very high risk of a direct superpower confrontation. China has said it will use armed force to protect North Korea if the U.S. attacks. In 1950 they did just that when the North Korean regime was only days or a couple of weeks away from being annihilated by the United Nations force.

What have we to gain from being involved militarily? Nothing much. Despites North Korea’s contempt for international law, its obsession with nuclear weapons and being able to use them how would we – an army with two not fully manned light battalions, a pair of frigates and no air combat wing – be able to realistically help anyway, even if New Zealanders DID want to help?

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?

The crisis New Zealand should pay attention to


Whilst the world focuses on United States President Donald Trump and his strange tweets, there is a crisis simmering away in the Middle East that many people should be paying attention to, but are not. It is between Saudi Arabia, a host of other Arab nations and its much smaller neighbour Qatar. The crisis, which pertains to Saudi Arabian accusations that Qatar is sympathetic to terrorist groups has been followed by a cessation of Saudi-Qatari relations, a list of demands and the cutting of travel links with the outside world.

Whilst it is true that in the past I have said New Zealand should cut and run from Middle East politics, because New Zealand has been seeking to improve ties with Saudi Arabia and other M.E. countries, this is a crisis that we would do well to pay more attention to. Saudi Arabia is the ring leader. It is the regional power that challenges the perceived encroachment of Persia into the Middle East.

We should pay attention because there are several troubling aspects to this crisis that have the potential to affect New Zealand:

  1. There is a possibility that the United States would ask for more New Zealand involvement and New Zealanders should know the arguments for and against
  2. Whilst we should not have military involvement in Middle East wars without a United Nations directive, it is quite okay to raise concerns about human rights, breaches of international law and humanitarian issues should they arise
  3. Another crisis in a region already beset by wars and civil wars will just further complicate an already problematic situation in terms of trying to restore some semblance of stability
  4. The list of demands is bullying type behaviour from a country that has no respect for human rights, dissenters and has been accused of committing war crimes in Yemen

But if one were to ask the average New Zealander on the street what they think of the Qatar crisis, the respondent – assuming they even know where Qatar is – would most likely say “I don’t know” or “I don’t care”. Fort them there are bigger problems in life than a geopolitical crisis in the Middle East, such as paying rent, having enough money to put food on the table and so forth.

The media seem pretty content paying no attention whatsoever. Stuff, the main website for New Zealand newspapers may be the exception rather than the norm to this. Newshub, 1 News, Radio New Zealand and other outlets have shown little interest.

Whilst there is no immediate signs of a potential clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the stakes are very high if one does occur. Iran, like Syria is a major Russian ally in the Middle East; Saudi Arabia, like Israel is an equally major ally of the United States, to the point that a massive arms deal was concluded when United States President Donald Trump visited there last month. And there is a question that only Saudi Arabia and Iran could answer: would both sides refrain from directly attacking each other and risk dragging in their world power allies? Given the relative lack of regard for international law shown by Saudi Arabia and Iran this is a question of considerable magnitude.

What Rex Tillerson wants


United States Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is a man on a mission. Sent by United States President Donald Trump to soothe troubled waters and placate the people that Mr Trump has offended, Mr Tillerson is likely to be coming to New Zealand to do the following:

  1. Ask for more troops in the Middle East
  2. Defend the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord despite the Accord being unofficially about quite a bit more than just the climate
  3. Talk about negotiating a new trade deal
  4. Talk about the U.S.-New Zealand relationship

Mr Tillerson’s mission will be difficult. There cannot be any doubt that the very vast majority of New Zealanders – myself included – want nothing to do with the war in the Middle East. Yes it is sad and Iraq and Syria are in an unholy mess, but if one looks at the history of the region, who the key players are and what they have done, it is hard to have much sympathy for the American agenda, no matter who is in office.

It gets harder still with the American withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord and the international community vowing to push forward without the United States. When even China and to a lesser extent India also come on board and make commitments, it is a sign that there is a major problem. Mr Tillerson is going to have a difficult job trying to sell the American position to New Zealand and New Zealanders when we see so many environmental issues starting to become problems here as well.

If there was going to be a kinder subject for Mr Tillerson to talk about, trade with New Zealand would be it. Far from supporting the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement as many people thought a wealthy person like Mr Trump would, one of the first things he said upon announcing his candidacy in 2015 is that America would withdraw from the T.P.P.A. For that, in spite of so many other policies of his being anathema to New Zealand, this one was probably welcomed by many.

Finally, Mr Tillerson and his counterpart New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs Gerry Brownlee will want to look at the overall relationship between the two countries. How far it has come since the cold days of the 1980’s when America, furious with our anti-nuclear nationalism, denounced New Zealand? How far it has come from Prime Minister Helen Clark refusing to have anything to do with the war on Iraq that started in 2003? A long, long way is the answer. But the real one now is, whilst Donald Trump is at the helm, how much further are New Zealanders prepared to watch this relationship advance?

Find out over the next couple of days.