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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

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Four key thinkers more deserving of a revival than “Trump’s philosopher” Ayn Rand

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely.

A recent story in theTimes carried the headline, “Trump’s philosopher is heading for your local pub”. The philosopher in question was Ayn Rand, whose works The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) have been a profound influence on the American right since they were published, and are apparently enjoying a resurgence.

The story went on: the previous week, “about 15 people packed into a room above the Plumbers Arms in Victoria, central London” to discuss Rand. You read that right: 15! Three more than a dozen! Their cups runneth over indeed. We later discovered that Britain’s first Ayn Rand Centre is being set up. Moreover, new groups dedicated to Rand have popped up in Reading and Milton Keynes.

Everything about this story was designed to make me angry. For one thing, Rand was above all a novelist, not a philosopher. For another, it’s generous to suggest that the star of America’s Celebrity Apprentice, who is also the current occupant of the White House, is deeply familiar with her overall body of work. He said he enjoyed The Fountainhead; that’s some way short of her being a favourite philosopher.

But the thing that really riles me is this fashion for stories about intellectual fashions. Last year, apparently, there was an upsurge of interest in, and sales of, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. During the financial crisis, displaying knowledge of Hyman Minsky’s oeuvre became the columnist’s trope du jour – just as, in the recession that followed, flaunting one’s knowledge of John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory was a mark of cool and learning.

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely. So here, apropos of nothing in particular, are four other key thinkers that are being unfairly neglected.

1. Polonius The true hero of Elsinore, who manages to distil in one speech more wisdom than the self-indulgent prince manages over five acts. Where Hamlet’s meandering vanities take him hither and thither to no great end, Polonius speaks the language of uncommon common sense to which this column aspires. And how prescient is he? His “neither a borrower nor a lender be” anticipated the post-monetary policy era four centuries before Mark Carney took the reins in Threadneedle Street. And his advice to “Give every man thine ear but few thy voice” is the perfect coping mechanism for social media. 

2. Judith Kerr If you have young children, chances are you are more than familiar with Kerr’s seminal work, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In it, Sophie is having tea with her mother in the kitchen when a big, furry, stripy tiger knocks on the door. It joins them and promptly eats and drinks everything in the house, forcing the family to go out for a special dinner when Sophie’s father comes home from work. Naturally, I don’t approve of the stereotypical gender roles in this plot; but the message of instinctive generosity and openness to unfamiliar outsiders, with unforeseen benefits for family life, undoubtedly carries lessons for our age of mass migration and rapid demographic upheaval.

3. Meryl Streep Less neglected than my other candidates for your attention, I’ll grant; but I really think Meryl Streep’s assertion, when asked in 2015 by Time Out if she was a feminist, is crucial. She said: “I’m a humanist.” In doing this she proclaimed the connection between feminism and universal ideals, placed feminism within a broader philosophical tradition, and revived interest in humanism at a time when religiosity is again on the march. Given the current conniptions over gender in our public domain, this was an important contribution, don’t you think?

4. Humphrey Appleby Have you noticed that, amid the toxic warfare over Brexit, the once unimpeachable integrity of Britain’s civil servants is now being traduced? Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised them only the other week. I recommend he revisit Yes, Minister, in which the peerless Nigel Hawthorne played the ultimate British bureaucrat. His dictum that “a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist” is both plausible and the perfect coolant for our
overheated democracy.

Back to the Ayn Rand philosophy club: I don’t believe I’ve tried the Plumbers Arms in Victoria. But I’ll make an exception if some New Statesman reader is prepared to start the first UK society dedicated to the propagation of these thinkers’ ideas. Anyone fancy a pint? 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist