How to solve the North Korea crisis

Published by The ipaper (14th August, 2017)

It would take just 14 minutes for a missile fired from North Korea to reach Guam and military leaders in Pyongyang are reportedly finalising plans to fire four rockets into waters around the United States territory. Residents on the Pacific island who suddenly find themselves caught in the midst of a standoff between two maverick world leaders are being warned what to do if targeted in nuclear attack. In Japan, defence chiefs are working out routes missiles might take flying over their terrain. And in South Korea, armed forces are on maximum alert.

We must hope the twisted logic of nuclear weapons – that no-one would ever trigger armageddon – holds true even when those with fingers on the button are a blood-drenched despot and the most buffoonish United States president in history. Yet doomsday moved a little closer than is comfortable last week with Donald Trump’s foolish threat to unleash ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen.’ Five of the world’s biggest militaries are bristling with arms around the Korean peninsula.

James Mattis, the former general now serving as US defence secretary, warned that ‘a conflict in North Korea would probably be the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.’ Yet I have sympathy with Trump’s motivation, even if not with his methods. Four predecessors flailed around while the Kim dynasty developed atomic bombs. They tried tough talking, dusted down military options, but ultimately did nothing. Now the world’s most repellent regime can reach mainland America with increasingly-sophisticated missiles.

So what can be done? Start with recognition that Kim Jong-Un is not just another despot. He may have a sharp haircut but he heads a quasi-fascist regime that runs the worst death camps seen on this planet since the days of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. They hold up to 200,000 people, with three generations of families sent behind the barbed wire for supposed offences of one member. Survivors have told me stories of pure horror. And these cruel camps are the root of savage repression that condemns 25m people into servitude for a small elite.

Some argue for talks. They never say what would restrain Kim. For the dictator sees his fast-expanding arsenal of mass destruction weaponry as key to his survival, ensuring outside powers – and not just the United States – do not force him from the Hermit Kingdom throne. Yet despite his belligerence and bombast, the arms are primarily defensive. And having killed off family rivals and never visited a foreign state since taking power, he does not care about global reputations.

There have been suggestions of a new ‘Sunshine Policy’ bursting through the storm clouds following election of a liberal new South Korean leader. This has been tried before, running for a decade until 2008 and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet aid, engagement and peace talks just provided Pyongyang with useful cover to expand chemical and nuclear arms projects. One former member of North Korea’s special forces told me senior officers bragged that during negotiations over a nuclear deal they drew up secret plans for ‘revenge and war.’

The first step towards resolution must involve turning the screw on China over its client state. Beijing is keen to ensure the continued existence of a buffer state in Korea but seems uncomfortable with Kim. He has not been to visit his paymasters, unlike his father and grandfather, which indicates concern over his volatility and elimination of a senior clique with whom they had links. Beijing’s leaders seem equally alarmed over Trump’s infantile style. ‘Relevant parties should exercise restraint and avoid words and actions that would escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula,’ said President Xi Jinping on Saturday.

It is possible the brash property billionaire will panic them into withdrawing financial props for Kim’s regime, even removing Kim and evolving the state as seen with their own brand of communism. This is probably the most optimistic scenario. China backed mild new sanctions imposed by the United Nations earlier this month. Yet it still provides Kim with vital diplomatic, economic and fiscal lifelines.

Beijing cut off coal purchases after the US argued they helped pay for nuclear expansion but is expanding other trade with North Korea; clothes marked ‘Made in China’ often come from factories below the border to exploit cheap labour. The world should exert far more pressure to sever such links.

The new sanctions also prohibit countries from the increasing use of North Korean labourers, a crucial source of hard currency. This is state-sponsored slavery. Those forced to work in this way say their lives are just as rigidly-controlled when abroad as at home. The West should force allies such as Kuwait, Malta, Mongolia, Qatar and Poland to stop fuelling this sordid trade in forced labour.

Finally, we should do all we can to break the information blockade that seeks to stop North Koreans from seeing the contrast between their miserable system and other nations. Kim’s rule is built on lies drummed into his people, but slowly the flow of technology is breaching the walls his regime erected. Defectors have told me how even soap operas or films such as Saving Private Ryan blew their minds by showing everything they had been told by the state was false.

One legacy of the lethal North Korean famine at the end of the last century is a thriving black market. Aiding such efforts, promoted by defector groups at immense risk to smugglers and organisations such as US-based Human Rights Foundation, can assist hopes of political change in Pyongyang. The regime cannot last for ever. But neither nuclear war nor childish tweets are the answer to Kim’s challenge.

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