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Vladimir Putin: US ultimately to blame for North Korea’s nuclear weapons

Russian President Putin in answer to journalists’ questions in Beijing has squarely laid the blame on US foreign policy for causing North Korea to launch a programme to acquire nuclear weapons.

This is how President Putin spoke about North Korea’s programme during a press conference he gave in Beijing today

Question: News came in during the forum that North Korea has carried out another missile launch. What is your view on such reports and how do you assess the threats these launches pose?

VladimirPutin: Firstly, I would like to reiterate that we categorically oppose any expansion to the club of nuclear powers, including by means of including North Korea. We have made our position clear to our partners, including the North Koreans. We consider this counterproductive, harmful and dangerous.

On the other hand, we understand that the recent global developments, in particular blatant violations of international law, invasion of foreign states, regime change and the like, are spurring this arms race. In this context, we should act comprehensively to strengthen the system of international guarantees with reliance on international law and the UN Charter.

In any case, we believe that nuclear and missile tests are unacceptable. Dialogue with North Korea must be resumed, attempts to intimidate the country must stop and a way to settle these matters peacefully must be found.

Is this possible? I believe so, especially considering the positive experience of such dialogue with North Korea. As you may remember, there was a period when North Korea announced the termination of its nuclear programme. Regrettably, the negotiating parties failed to muster the patience to translate this intention into reality. I believe we should resume these discussions.

As for the latest missile launch, the Russian Defence Minister reported to me about it immediately, and the issue was later covered in the media. I have nothing more to say on this. This launch did not present a direct threat to Russia. However, such launches can provoke a conflict, which is not good at all.

(bold italics added)

Putin whilst in Beijing has had detailed discussions with the Chinese leadership including President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang.  It is a certainty that the subject of North Korea featured highly in these discussions.  What Putin said about North Korea therefore almost certainly reflects China’s view of the crisis on the Korean Peninsula as well.

The key point Putin is making is that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programme – though illegal and illegitimate – is the inevitable consequence of the US’s foreign policy of “blatant violations of international law, invasion of foreign states, regime change and the like”.

Compare that with what I said recently said about the reasons behind the North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programme

North Korea decided to acquire nuclear weapons not out of some fanatical desire to attack the US, or because it wants to use its nuclear weapons to conquer South Korea or to hold the entire world hostage – all of them suicidal acts of no conceivable benefit to itself – but because it feels threatened by the US…..

…….in the 1990s – at a time when North Korea was struggling with an existential economic crisis caused by the cut-off of Soviet aid – the US openly gloated that the North Korean regime was about to collapse, and in the late 1990s it also embraced a policy of regime change around the world, which was first and foremost targeted at a group of countries lumped together by the George W. Bush administration as the so-called “Axis of Evil” which included North Korea.

It is completely understandable therefore that the North Korean government felt threatened by the US, and that in the absence of a reliable superpower protector like the USSR it should have sought to protect itself from the US and South Korea by developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons…..

……it is the US, not North Korea, whose actions are propelling the crisis in the Korean Peninsula.

In other words North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programme is purely defensive and has been provoked by US actions.  The North Koreans say as much, as I have pointed out what they say makes complete sense, and Putin – almost certainly reflecting Chinese thinking – is now saying the same thing.

Moreover Putin’s comment that the way forward with North Korea is not to seek to intimidate it but to pursue dialogue reflects China’s view as well.

The Chinese have rejected the Trump’s administration’s call for all embracing sanctions against North Korea such as might put in jeopardy the survival of the North Korean government.  I have previously explained why the Chinese will never agree to such sanctions

The Chinese have never made any secret of their strong disapproval of the North Korean nuclear programme, which they recognise – even if the West does not – as partly intended to reduce North Korea’s strategic dependence on them.  They have also never hidden their contempt for the dynastic nature of North Korea’s political system, and for their strong preference for the establishment in North Korea of a system of government more like their own.

That there are tensions and even a measure of mutual dislike between the North Korean leadership and China is shown by the fact that Kim Jong-un has not visited China or met publicly with any senior Chinese official since he became North Korea’s leader in December 2011.  Moreover since becoming leader Kim Jong-un seems to have acted to curtail Chinese influence in North Korea, firstly by executing in December 2013 his uncle Jang Song-thaek, who is believed to have been close to China, and who some think was China’s choice to succeed Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il, and secondly by possibly ordering the murder of his half-brother Kim Jong-nam, who appears to have enjoyed a measure of protection from China.

However these tensions and this dislike cannot change the fact that China’s prestige and the internal stability of China’s own government are bound up with the survival of the existing regime in Pyongyang.

Not only did China fight a war against the US in the 1950s to secure the survival of the North Korean regime, but China simply cannot afford the humiliation of having a regime with which it has such longstanding ties being overthrown and replaced by a US backed regime on its own border.  Such an event would undoubtedly provoke a massive political crisis within China, and any Chinese leaders who allowed it to happen would not survive it…..

The result is that though the Chinese regularly voice their disapproval of North Korea’s actions, and from time to time go through the motions of imposing sanctions on North Korea, in practise they always stop well short of doing anything that would seriously injure or undermine the North Korean regime…..

Rather than make demands on China to which China will never submit, or make threats against China which can only backfire, the US would be far better advised to do what it has consistently refused to do, which is talk to North Korea’s leadership about agreeing limits to that country’s nuclear weapons programme.

Putin is saying in the same thing, that threats against North Korea – whether via all embracing sanctions or military action – are misconceived and counter-productive.  Instead – since North Korea’s actions have been provoked by the US’s actions – the way forward is the one the Chinese have proposed: dialogue between the US and North Korea to allay North Korea’s concerns in return for a freeze of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programme.

Here is what I have said previously about this

…..since North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme is intended to be defensive and is not intended as a means of aggression, there is no cause or justification for the current hysteria and panic about it.  Provided North Korea is left alone there is no danger of an attack by North Korea on anyone.

Since North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme is defensive, a political settlement of the Korean crisis should in theory also be possible.  I have already discussed the outline of what such a settlement might be.

Given that it is fear of the US which is driving the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme, it is also obvious what the first step to defuse the Korean crisis should be.

This should not be more threats against North Korea, which can only make the crisis worse.  It should be an immediate start of a dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang as proposed by China following upon a suspension of the joint military exercises the US conducts regularly with South Korea.

Since the US would not want to appear to accept the linkage between these exercises and the North Korean nuclear programme that the Chinese and the Russians – because of the US’s own ham-fisted actions – are now making, it should announce their suspension unilaterally, relying on the Chinese and the Russians to ensure that the North Koreans suspend their nuclear tests in response, which they would almost certainly do.

Direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang could then follow, in which case a way might finally be found out of a crisis, which because of thoughtlessness and bombast, first and foremost in Washington, has over many years been driven into a dangerous impasse.

Moreover as Putin points out when dialogue with North Korea was attempted before in the 1990s it bore fruit.  Here again is what I have previously said about this

When the US did briefly talk to North Korea in the 1990s the agreements it made then appeared for a time to work, until the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations foolishly went back on them.  That set the scene for the crisis we are in now.  It is time the US went back to that approach.

The Korean crisis is neither intractable nor unsolvable.  On the contrary the way forward is clear.  The Chinese, the Russians (as in Putin’s comments) and the North Koreans themselves have all pointed the way.

It is for the US to abandon its dream of overthrowing the North Korean government – whether through military action or through all-embracing sanctions imposed by China – and begin instead to talk directly to North Korea about achieving a peaceful settlement of the conflict in the Korean Peninsula.

Though such a negotiation will be extremely difficult given the extreme level of mistrust, there is enough commonality of interest between the parties – first and foremost the US and North Korea, but also China and South Korea – to make a final agreement possible.

The alternative is the disastrous arms race Putin refers to in his comments in Beijing and which is what we have now.

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