The Korean Peninsula is heating up, without a resolution in sight. Are we headed for war?
One of the difficulties for observers is that so little information gets out of North Korea that it is hard to figure out how they think. Yet to be successful in any negotiation one must look more at the other side’s view and try and figure out what they’re thinking.
I have been to the North (as well as the South). I have seen a little bit of the country and understand a small amount of how they think. I wrote about my trip on these pages some time ago.
So what is North Korea thinking, what is South Korea thinking, and more importantly, what is China thinking?
One needs to go back to World War Two to get a full perspective. Australian and Korean soldiers fought as brothers in arms to expel the Japanese from their brutal occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Few people remember that Australia, Korea, the Soviets, the Chinese and the US were all allies, fighting and dying together.
Under an agreement between the Soviets and the Americans, the Soviets liberated the country north of the 38th parallel and the Americans liberated the south, with the two regions having governments installed by the respective liberators.
According to most historians the Korean War then began when the North, under Kim Il-sung, invaded south of the 38th parallel to reunite the Peninsula under one government.
Despite the overwhelming weight of objective evidence, the history books of the North say the war began when the American invaded.
For North Koreans, the Americans have a history of wanting to destroy their country. To them, the lack of peace agreement proves the Americans’ ongoing intent to attack.
And to be honest, the Americans would rather that the North did not exist. To the North, nuclear weapons seem like an essential element for their survival.
North Korea still hopes to reunite the two Koreas – but under the northern system of government. The South, on the other hand, wants to either stay separate or reunite the Peninsula under the southern system.
Those who want a unified Korea, on both sides, would prefer a peaceful unity, but under their respective systems. Both will defend an attack from the other, and both perceive the other as wanting to attack them.
Having spent time in both Koreas I can’t see a way for a peaceful reunification. The differences between North and South Korea are many times larger than the differences between East and West Germany. A peaceful reunification is probably just not possible. But is a peaceful coexistence possible?
What of China?
Neither Russia nor China would like to see American troops on their borders with North Korea. For Russia and China, a South Korean takeover of the North, with consequent US influence and troops, is just not on the cards.
But there is something more Machiavellian at play.
The US defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War, in part, by slowly driving the Soviets bankrupt. Are the Chinese today doing the same thing to the Americans?
When the US looked like cutting defence spending 15 years ago, the Chinese rattled their sabres in the Taiwan Strait. The US kept spending and borrowing.
Five years ago, when the Americans wanted to cut spending, the North set off a nuclear test. The Americans kept spending and borrowing.
Perhaps, up until now, the Chinese haven’t stopped the North Koreans because the North has been doing precisely what the Chinese wanted.
China also knows, that if it wanted to, it could walk across the border and take over North Korea at the drop of a hat. But isn’t it better for an unpredictable North Korea to be keeping the US on its toes?
China is battling the US for dominance, about which I have written on these pages before. But the Chinese don’t want a shooting war when they are about to win the economic one.
What we are likely to see is the Chinese pulling Kim Jong-un back, just enough to appear in control, but not enough to stop the Americans spending money.