Dear Leader’s big moment for détente?

Negotiating with North Korea was never simple — but as threats of confrontation with the South ease,

Signs are emerging that the tensions in the Korean Peninsula are beginning to subside after months of noisy confrontation. On 7 September the North released the captured seven-man crew of a South Korean fishing boat; days later, it proposed the resumption of a family reunion programme that has been suspended for longer than a year. Seoul, swallowing its distress at Pyongyang's sinking of its naval vessel the Cheonan in March, with the loss of 46 South Korean lives, is giving sympathetic consideration to North Korea's request for aid.

Meanwhile, Washington is pushing for resumption of the six-party talks on the North's nuclear programme, involving China, Japan, the Koreas, Russia and the US. And a rumoured party conference this month is expected to reveal who will be the next leader of the world's most notorious pariah state. But there is unlikely to be any progress unless Washington, in particular, learns from past mistakes.

North Korea's Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, is in poor health, and preparations for the coro­nation of his son Kim Jong-un have prompted speculation that the transition might push the cash-strapped regime to collapse. Pyongyang recently offered to repay its debt to the Czech Republic in kind - 2,000 tonnes of ginseng, which, at current rates of consumption, would keep the Czechs going for 200 years. But North Korea has seen worse times: the last transition happened in 1994, when it was suffering a savage famine. Even so, the regime retained its grip. Its legitimacy, such as it is, rests on a nar­rative of patriotism and defiance that feeds on internal hardship and external hostility.

The escalation of economic sanctions by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is a sign that, in Washington, the diplomatic cupboard is bare. Despite decades of isolation and sanctions, North Korea remains a potentially dangerous nuclear state capable of attacking Tokyo and destroying Seoul. The military shadow-boxing of the past few months is nature's way of reminding us that the world's last cold war stand-off remains a potential flashpoint.

Efforts to resolve this stale confrontation are constrained by domestic politics on all fronts: in Washington, right-wing politicians are hostile to the suggestion that any deal is possible with an "axis of evil" state, and Pyongyang uses US hostility to justify its belligerence and excuse its failures. The US, North Korea and South Korea all proclaim unification as the ideal outcome for the divided peninsula, but none can produce an acceptable scenario to achieve it.

Reunification is the Augustinian goal of both Koreas - an outcome to be invoked, but not to be achieved any time soon. In Washington, regime collapse in the North is portrayed as the prelude to reunification along the lines of the German model, in which the capitalist South would absorb the discredited communist state. This is the storybook ending, after all, to evil regimes. But China, Pyongyang's only friend, would not allow that to happen.

There is little affection these days between Beijing and Pyongyang. The North Korean regime is a truculent and unpredictable neighbour that both depends on and fears Beijing's power. Pyongyang takes care to set limits on Beijing's influence. But although the Chinese find little to love in North Korea, they prefer to prop it up, rather than see a takeover by South Korea that would bring US influence to the banks of the Yalu River, on the frontier between China and North Korea.

Half a century ago, China fought US-led troops in Korea back to the 38th parallel to prevent hostile forces from camping on its border. Today, it props up the Kim dynasty for the same reason. Dismal though North Korea's daily reality is, the status quo, for China, is the best achievable option.

New rhetoric

Given Beijing's strategic imperatives, what can the US do? First, it should abandon the festering corpse of George W Bush's "axis of evil" rhetoric and return to an era in which Washington had a sensible North Korea policy. In 1994, on President Bill Clinton's watch, a deal was struck in which North Korea promised to freeze and eventually dismantle its plutonium-producing nuclear facilities. In return, the US offered to supply 500,000 tonnes of heavy-fuel oil a year, while Japan and South Korea pledged to build light-water reactors to address North Korea's severe energy shortage.

Had it come to fruition, North Korea would have had enough energy to revive its economy and Japan and South Korea could have escaped the threat - never to be discounted - that the North's nuclear capability might one day lead to a live war that nobody wants. But, in 2002, Bush accused North Korea of violating the deal. North Korea expelled the nuclear inspectors, fired up the Yongbyon reactor and reverted to a policy of threat. From Pyongyang's perspective at least, it works.

North Korea has a few, relatively straight­forward, diplomatic ambitions: a peace treaty, normalisation of relations with the US and some version of the aborted Clinton agreement. If that could be achieved, long-suffering North Koreans could aspire to modest prosperity and a less paranoid state. China's security concerns would be addressed, Japan could sleep more easily, and a more stable North Korea might become a possible partner for eventual reunification. Now that the other options have failed, perhaps the lessons can be learned.

Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue.net

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times