Some post-Question Time clarifications

I seem to be the Marmite man. People love me or hate me!

Thanks to all those people who posted messages of support, praise or congratulations either on this blog, the Question Time blog or on Twitter after I made my debut on that show last night. But as one tweeter pointed out, "@ns_mehdihasan is like Marmite." Indeed. I seem to have upset, annoyed and angered lots of people on the right, as well countless Lib Dem apologists. What can I say? That's life. Don't take it so personally. Let's agree to disagree.

QT is a great show and I had great fun appearing on it (even though Iain Dale thinks I didn't smile enough. Sorry, Iain!). But it's not a format that lends itself to forensic examination of policies or arguments, and despite the fact that I speak at ten words per second (thanks, David Prescott!), even I couldn't challenge or clarify some of Simon Hughes's claims.

For the record, I like and admire Simon Hughes and felt sorry that he had to defend the indefensible. Where is David Laws when you need him, eh? Oh, and while I'm at it, Michael Heseltine is my second-favourite Tory -- after Ken Clarke, who's my favourite (I know, I know, but I just can't help it!). It's a shame I've had to have a go at both of them in recent BBC panel debates. Where's Michael Gove when you need him?

So here are some post-QT clarifications:

1) Simon Hughes kept pointing to the Tory/Lib Dem proposal to raise the income-tax threshold to £10,000. He seems to believe this is a perfectly progressive policy. But he knows, as the IFS and others have pointed out, that such a policy will cost £17bn, of which only £1bn will go to the lowest earners. He also knows that the poorest people in Britain will not get a penny from this policy because they tend to be out of work and not paying any income tax to begin with. Oh, and as the Fabians' Tim Horton has pointed out, this policy is no longer funded by redistributive measures such as the mansion tax and the scrapping of higher-rate pension relief.

2) Hughes could not address the main issue: why did the Lib Dems agree to Tory cuts in spending this year, despite campaigning against such cuts? Aren't such cuts, to quote Vince Cable, a "smokescreen" for public-sector job losses? This is an unforgivable concession, in my view.

3) Talking of concessions, Hughes claimed that Labour had offered nothing and that the Tories had moved the most. I'm confused. In the end, the Tories adopted the Labour manifesto pledge to legislate for a referendum on AV (not PR!) but promised to campaign against AV in the actual referendum itself. How is that a better deal than a Labour referendum on AV which the Labour Party actually then backs? He also got lots of applause on the topic of civil liberties -- but omitted to mention that Labour negotiators had offered to drop ID cards in return for a deal with the Lib Dems.

4) I'm not an opponent of coalitions or coalition politics. I had hoped for a hung parliament because (i) I didn't believe Labour had earned the right to govern on its own, after 13 years of ups and downs in office, and (ii) I naively assumed that such a scenario might bring about a progressive realignment on the centre left and hasten electoral reform. I was wrong. And I'm angry that a coalition of Labour tribalists and Lib Dem power-seekers betrayed the progressive, anti-Tory majority in this country. But let me be clear: unlike Melanie Phillips, I have no problem with coalitions and think coalition government, in theory, can actually have a positive impact on the nation and on the economy. I just think this coalition is a coalition of convenience, unprincipled and unstable. But I hope, for the sake of the country, that I'm wrong and the optimists and apologists are right.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear