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Why is no one talking to me? North Korea’s Kim


No1-2017-09 North Korea

Why is no one talking to me? North Korea’s Kim


Watching the flailing (and failing) attempts by U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to stamp their authority on the North Korean "crisis," veteran observers (including myself) of the East Asia scene have experienced a strong sense of déjà vu lately.

We have “been here before” and each time the world goes there, it gets more dangerous. Washington and its allies (notably Tokyo, but also Seoul) have been railing for months and years at Pyongyang over its missile launches while continually vilifying North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – but without ever asking him in person what he thinks he's up to.

Kim has become almost universally hated by people who never stopped to consider that he might have a case – or at least without trying seriously to find out what that case was so that they could judge for themselves. Which, of course, leads on to the conclusion that there are “none so deaf as those that do not wish to hear.”

There is, to my knowledge at least, no “hot line” between Washington and Pyongyang or between Tokyo and the North Korean capital. Instead, Messrs. Trump and Abe resort instead to “megaphone” diplomacy, hurling mutual abuse instead of engaging in dialogue. Yet Moscow (along, presumably, with Beijing) does appear to have a hot line with Pyongyang.
This takes me back to the year 2000 when I attended the Group of Eight (G8) summit in Nago, Okinawa, to which Russian President Vladimir Putin had been invited for the first time. As it happened, the Russian leader arrived in Japan fresh from a visit to Pyongyang.

At a press conference given by Putin, a Japanese journalist asked the Russian leader in rather scandalized tones why he had been to North Korea, "in the enemy camp" as it were. North Korea's alleged abductions of many Japanese citizens in past decades may have coloured the journalist's views.

The calm and collected answer from an unabashed Putin was, I felt at the time and feel even more so now, both wise and instructive and one which more impetuous and less statesman-like leaders on both sides of the Pacific Ocean would be wise to heed today.

It seemed to me, said Putin (and I paraphrase) that "the Americans were talking to us (Russians) and to the Japanese, Chinese and South Koreans about North Korea. The Japanese were talking to us about North Korea and the Chinese were talking to the South Koreans about North Korea."

But no one, added the Russian leader, was actually talking to the North Koreans. So, he added with a frankness guaranteed to disarm his critics, "I picked up the phone and called (North Korea's then ‘Dear Leader’) Kim Jong-il and asked, 'Can I come and talk to you?'"

The late Kim Jong-il apparently replied to the effect, "Certainly. Why don't you come next week?" That was precisely what Mr Putin did, and after his visit to the so-called "Hermit Kingdom," the supposedly reclusive North Korean leader began to loosen up somewhat.

So much so that several countries which until then had dutifully toed the shortsighted U.S. line of ostracising North Korea (or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK, as it calls itself) decided to grant it diplomatic recognition. Japan, of course, was not one of them.

Even then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright followed in Putin's footsteps and visited Pyongyang in 2000 to meet Kim Jong-il in order to lay the groundwork for a visit by U.S. President Bill Clinton. Sadly, this never happened while Clinton was in office.

Today, we have an almost identical situation with major powers talking "about" rather than "to" the latest head of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. Donald Trump indulges (from a distance) in hate speech promising Kim "fire and fury" and Kim, unsurprisingly, responds in like terms.

Of course, all this is for public consumption, Trump practising the "art of the deal" in the only way he knows (diplomacy not being his strong suit) by threatening to crush North Korea unless it agrees to U.S. surrender terms and Kim (who even Trump call a "smart cookie") calling his bluff.

Why doesn't Trump take a leaf out of Putin's book, pick up the phone and call Kim? He could even tweet his intention to do so. That would be a diplomatic masterstroke that could assure even Trump the legacy of being a statesman. And it could soften Kim's defensive-aggressive posture.

For that matter, why doesn't Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, take the lead and call Kim, again giving him the reputation of being a statesman? What can they be afraid of – that the "deranged dictator" will lob a miniature nuclear warhead at them? Or are they afraid of facing reality?

This reality is that the U.N. Supreme Commander had to accept less than victory in 1953 against North Korea which had launched war on U.S.-occupied South Korea in 1950. Instead, the allies had to accept an armistice with the Korean People's Army and with the Chinese People's Volunteers.

With no formal peace agreement, merely a cessation of hostilities, the two sides are technically still at war. The U.S. has no wish to admit "defeat" now by signing a peace treaty with Pyongyang – and Pyongyang certainly has no desire to concede to U.S. terms for a peace treaty.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that Washington might be willing to talk to Pyongyang. But such offers have been heard before and have usually been premised on a set of preconditions – North Korean unilateral disarmament – designed to be unacceptable to Pyongyang.

Yet, more than 60 years later, the world has moved on. China is a major power capable of standing up to the U.S. and one with no desire to see U.S. troops stationed in South Korea drive right up to its eastern border as they did in the 1950s under General Douglas MacArthur.

China will naturally do all it can to preserve North Korea's territorial integrity and its viability as a state until such time U.S. troops are withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula (and maybe from Japan too) as successive North Korean leaders have demanded.

Beijing will condemn North Korea's actions from time to time and indulge half-heartedly in economic sanctions against Pyongyang, but China knows, and North Korea knows, that the nuclear threat is the only way to guarantee the status quo pending a more radical solution.

That solution is for the U.S. to sign a formal peace treaty with "the North," as the state is dismissively referred to in the U.S. and Japan. Only then – and critically when the U.S. military presence in South Korea has been reduced – can meaningful talks on Korean reunification begin.

Unfortunately, no one (outside of China and Russia) seems to be the slightest bit interested in holding talks with North Korea, absent a clearly unacceptable (to Beijing as well as Pyongyang) agreement by North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons, its only guarantee of safety.

So, we are condemned to continue with the absurd charade where the U.S. and its allies seek to portray Kim Jong-un as a mad dictator out to wreak havoc upon East Asia, a kind of "enfant terrible" or "rebel without a cause." The charade is a dangerous game when powers are armed to the teeth.

Maybe one way out would be for Chinese President Xi Jinping, Putin and Kim to each present "their side of the story" to the world. If Western leaders, especially the one currently occupying the White House, are unwilling to talk "to" Mr Kim, he could find a way to talk "over" them.

In the meantime, the North Korean “crisis” serves to help deflect attention from the many problems that Mr. Trump and Mr. Abe face at home with their domestic policies and scandals. Nothing unites a nation better and faster than a perceived external threat. Veteran observers can only look on with the deepest cynicism – and alarm.

Anthony Rowley is a former Business Editor and International Finance Editor of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review and has spent some 40 years writing on Asian affairs from Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo. He currently writes for the Singapore Buiness Times among other publications.


Published in: September 2017

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