Sunday 11 March 2018

Kim & Donald: A Love Story

Can the worst of enemies become the best of friends? We might find out, given the news Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump are set to have a face-to-face meeting. "I may leave fast or we may sit down and make the greatest deal for the world", declares Trump. Yet, bizarrely, reading past the tragicomic threats routinely made by the North Korean monarchy and the incomprehension establishment commentators approach the Kimist regime and the chaoscracy headed by Trump, the chances of a deal might be good.

On Kim's side, as argued here repeatedly, North Korea is not "mad". Kim is caricatured as some kind of Bond villain with the sinister global designs and weapons to match, but these lazy takes cover for the failure to analyse the North Korean regime, make sense of its internal dynamics, tendencies and power struggles, as well as the preoccupations of its leaders, its position in the international system, and the drivers of the regime's militarism. It is eminently knowable and can be understood in such terms. There are two main concerns Kim has: the keeping of power and its preservation in the long-term. These objectives were shared by pops and grandpapa, and is the main filter through which the regime's actions should be perceived.

Take the nuclear programme and missile programme. An attempt to conquer the world? Or the means of deterring an attack from a cabal of the most advanced and powerful nations in possession of a record of attacking and invading countries without access to such weaponry? For decades, the North has maintained their own cold war frontier against bigger and more sophisticated militaries not by mutually assured destruction, but making certain any war would be prohibitively expensive. Whether it's artillery pieces pointing at Seoul and threatening to obliterate it before American and South Korean air power can take them out, to the extensively booby-trapped border, to over a million personnel on active service at any given time, to nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them, a war would be catastrophic with a huge price due the victors payable in blood. Since Soviet aid was withdrawn in the 1970s, being forced to rely on itself to maintain the stand off has led to a lop sided development of the economy and a huge diversion of resources into unproductive assets. Infrastructure and consumption has suffered - to the point of not irregular food shortages and famine - and only intense repression maintained by an overblown police state has kept a lid on tensions. Yet Kim isn't stupid. China provides a model of a dynamic state-led capitalism, massive growth figures and breakneck development alongside the retention of the party and, now Xi has got his way, one-man leadership for life. This is what the regime aspires to, and going down this road means freeing up scarce resources currently pouring into the army. Nukes and rockets, while initially expensive, over the long-term render obsolete the need for a huge military. Just as Deng Xiaoping struck deals with the People's Liberation Army that allowed them to become a privileged economic actor, so Kim the younger has tried taking a similar approach.

Following this, the overriding objective of North Korean foreign policy is neutralising the militarised frontier. Not that Kim wants to relive the early days of the Korean war, but because taking them out of the equation removes the requirement for the weapons' programme. Therefore it is seeking an accommodation with the US and would like to draw it into a non-aggression treaty. In this it is entirely unremarkable. Much of Trotsky's output in the 1930s was his persistent criticisms of the Soviet Union and its willingness to sell workers' struggles down the river on condition Stalin's regime be left alone with its special shops for the favoured and the gulags for the unpeople. As the broken machinery of state planning in North Korea can't keep the regime afloat indefinitely, especially as new sanctions start biting, including China's capping of petrol exports, it's clear something has to give before the hairline cracks in the regime's foundations become something more serious.

How about Trump, what does he and the US gain from brushing aside the Bush and Obama-era approach and coming to a deal with Kim? There is personal vanity, of course. Defusing the tensions on the Korean peninsula would be a masterstroke of diplomacy and assure Trump goes into the history books as something other than a joke. It wrong foots the Washington foreign policy establishment and enhances his credibility over whatever Beltway insider the Democrats decide to run against him in 2020. Also, because a deal is possible. Trump may be profoundly unintelligent and ignorant, but he knows deal making. He has the sort of low cunning to be able to read the position of opponents vis a vis his and act accordingly. What he sees in Kim is someone not too dissimilar to himself, but is playing a poor hand well. And he knows how desperate they are to come to some kind of arrangement - the threats the regime is famed for compute as cries for help to Trump, but he's savvy enough to realise they're playing the same sort of unconventional game that brought him to the White House. Additionally, the issue just isn't that intractable. As complexity goes it's nothing like Syria, Israel and Palestine, or Northern Ireland before the Good Friday Agreement. A little bit of give, perhaps the phased removal of troops and easing up of sanctions, costs America very little assuming the North reciprocates and they agree to means for each side to monitor the other. Second, there is a real will in the South for better relations. The President, Moon Jae-in, is a popular centre left leader associated with a new "sunshine policy" with regard to the North, and one of his objectives is a formal peace treaty that brings the official state of war to an end. He has certainly drawn criticisms from the right but, as elsewhere, the Democratic Party's key voters tend to be younger and are less amenable to the anti-Kim buttons frequently pushed by conservative opponents. Conservative voters are never going to vote for him regardless, and as his right wing predecessor got sent down for 30 years and another former president is in the dock on serious corruption charges, Moon can afford to sideline the right as so much bleating. Therefore Trump has a willing partner with connections and a good relationship with the regime.

Lastly, there are realpolitik aspects to consider. Detente with the North opens a possible front against China. Relations between China and North Korea grew more strained over the course of 2017, even to the point of the regime declaring Russia its BFF. Cooperating with UN sanctions helps China's reputation as a responsible actor on the international stage, but ultimately they are a weapon to try and bring the North to heel. Beijing prefers having the North as a buffer against the US-dominated South, and is trying to use economic pressure to render them a quiescent if occasionally noisy client. For Trump a US-North Korea deal weakens Kim's dependence on its big neighbour, and could drive a wedge between them in much the same way Nixon used clever diplomacy to widen the rift following the Sino-Soviet split. With a firm if unstable ally suddenly became less reliable, then China might not prove to be as assertive elsewhere - such as prosecuting its claims in the South China Sea. It also gives Washington a lever for inflicting economic damage in the event of Trump's trailed trade war. North Korea might not amount to much with regard to the Chinese economy as a whole, but shrinking trade with them will impact negatively on a region not quite as dynamic as other parts of the country.

Whatever the case and whatever the motives, the prospect of a permanent settlement is suddenly possible. One that serves the interests of an appalling regime, the designs of the world's biggest superpower, and the vanity of the White House's most awful occupant certainly. But there is also a chance of burying permanently the prospect of an ugly, mass casualty conflict with worrying geopolitical implications. An imperial peace is still a peace, and can only open a new period with new tensions and contradictions, not to mention new opportunities for political change.


Robert said...

The Chinese would rather have a concentration camp on their border than a US ally. If Trump succeeds in defusing tensions with Kim the Chinese may not be happy.

Paul said...

This CAN work......
Kim adores fake blondes with large breasts.

Anonymous said...

North Korea will want some guarntee of non agression from the Americans which is as reliable as North Korea's possesion of nuclear weapons. It is hard to see what that could be.