Back in February, shortly after North Korea launched a satellite into space, I wrote an article for Sputnik in which I lamented the total absence of Western diplomatic engagement with North Korea.
I pointed out that endless angry rhetoric and sanctions extending back to the Korean war of the 1950s have completely failed to achieve their stated purposes: the North Korean regime is still there, it has not changed or moderated itself or its policies in any way, and so far from its ending its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, those are racing ahead.
I also pointed out that any idea that North Korea would now willingly abandon the nuclear weapons technology it has acquired after so much effort is simply delusional. Having worked for decades to achieve a nuclear weapons capability in the teeth of Western hostility and Western sanctions, it is not going to give it up.
Insisting that North Korea part with its nuclear weapons technology, and making that a condition for any engagement with North Korea, is simply a guarantee that no such engagement will take place.
The latest nuclear test in North Korea – the most powerful yet – merely provides further confirmation of all of this.
Since the West refuses to talk to North Korea, or come to any sort of agreement with it which does not involve North Korea’s total capitulation to Western demands, the North Koreans have no incentive to change their behaviour or to rein in their nuclear weapons programme.
To be clear, whilst there is no possibility of the North Koreans now giving up the nuclear weapons capability they already have, there might be a possibility that in return for some meaningful concessions from the West – for example involving an easing of sanctions or some sort of confidence building measures on the North Korean peninsula of the sort that worked well in Europe during the Cold War – they might be prepared to place some limits on it.
That after all is what was done during the confrontation between the US and the USSR during the Cold War, and it was generally successful.
To those who say that attempting to agree to any sort of arrangement with the North Koreans is hopeless because of the totalitarian nature of the North Korean regime, I would say firstly that unless an attempt is made to engage with them we cannot know, secondly that when engagement was tried briefly by the Clinton administration in the 1990s despite numerous difficulties it appeared to work, and thirdly that in the absence of any attempt at engagement the situation will simply carry on as it is now, with North Korea acquiring more and more nuclear weapons and more and more ballistic missiles as more and more time passes, with no reason for it to stop doing so.
The trouble is that instead of talking directly to the North Koreans – no Western leader has met the North Korea leader Kim Jong-un since he succeeded his father in 2011 – the West imagines it can achieve its objectives in North Korea by talking to the Chinese instead.
The idea seems to be that the Chinese will bully the North Koreans into submission on the West’s behalf, though what precise benefit the Chinese would get from the West for doing this is never explained.
Though there are undoubtedly strains between China and North Korea, it should be obvious by now that China will never apply the sort of pressure on North Korea the West wants it to. That is not surprising because on any objective assessment applying that sort of pressure on North Korea is not in China’s own interest.
Everyone agrees that China does not want to see the collapse of the North Korean regime, and that it considers the survival of the North Korean regime to be in China’s vital interests. Why China would therefore want to take steps that might threaten the survival of the North Korean regime at a time when China’s own relations with the West and with the pro-Western states of South Korea and Japan are so strained is not clear.
Though the Chinese will undoubtedly be very angry about the latest North Korean nuclear test, if they have not placed North Korea under the sort of pressure that might seriously cause North Korea to change its behaviour in the past, then it is simply not credible that they will do so now.
As it happens China’s response to the latest North Korean nuclear test has so far been muted, with China merely saying that it would lodge a diplomatic protest with North Korea and releasing a statement urging North Korea “to avoid further action that would worsen the situation”.
Of course it is possible that behind all the fire and thunder there are some people in Washington and even in South Korea who are content with the present deadlock. The North Korean nuclear programme means that they have a North Korean scarecrow to keep the South Koreans and the Japanese in line, and to press ahead with programmes like THAAD.
According to the geopolitical calculations so loved by certain people in Washington, the worst possible outcome would be the building of economic and trade links between the two Koreas, China and Russia, for example the gas pipeline from Russia to South Korea through North Korea that was being mooted a few years ago.
According to this view such a project would risk “detaching” South Korea from the US, turning it into a potential ally of China and Russia.
If these calculations are indeed what lies behind Washington’s otherwise strange behaviour, then it should be said clearly that the building of economic and trade links between the two Koreas, China and Russia is far from being the worst possible scenario even for the US, which would in fact benefit from the economic boom this would lead to.
The worst possible scenario for the US and everyone else is an uncontrolled nuclear arms race in Eastern Asia, which over time would risk drawing in China, Japan, South Korea and possibly even Russia and the US, and over which – because of the US’s intransigent refusal to talk to the North Koreans – there would be no upper limit and no agreed rules.
That would be potentially an extremely dangerous situation – far more so even than the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR in the 1950s and 1960s – precisely because there would be so many players involved and no clear rules. Yet that seems to be the situation we are drifting towards.