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Korean Nuclear Standoff in the Context of International Rivalries – How Nuclear-Free New Zealand Could Help Out

circa 1950: An elderly woman and her grandchild wander among the debris of their wrecked home in the aftermath of an air raid over Pyongyang, the Communist capital of North Korea. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

By John Gallagher (with input also by Dennis Small)


Prefaratory note, 17-7-17

This blog describes the ongoing Korean crisis in the context of fraught wider international relations and proposes ultimately comprehensive ongoing, academically-supported, inter-embassy conversations in Wellington, the capital of Nuclear-Free New Zealand.

The blog is longer than usual for this website. It was originally published on the Peace Researcher website in November last year. Changes made to that website made the article less accessible, so it is being republished here (in a slightly re-edited and updated form).

To mention a major development since then: earlier this month (July 2017), North Korea successfully tested an intercontinental Hwasong 14 missile, as pictured above. This is assessed as capable of reaching Hawaii or Alaska. Kim Jong-Un is quite explicit about wanting to be able to hit the United States with nuclear-armed missiles if a conflict arises, something that a United States that regularly conducts major naval exercises in its proximity is well able to do now to North Korea.

While the Korean situation is continually changing, mostly considerably for the worse, there is a need to lift the diplomacy around it in ways that can work as they have conspicuously not been able to to date. This blog makes some specific proposals for so improving diplomatic conversations. If  any want to get specifically to these proposals more quickly, they could skip to the section, “New Kinds of Conversation Needed?”

The original blog follows below:-


As I write this blog (on September 9, 2016), Korean Peninsula tensions are again on the boil.  North Korea has just conducted another nuclear test , its second this year and its fifth altogether (the previous being in 2006, 2009, 2013 and January last).

This test followed two weeks of war games near its borders by 50,000 United States and 25,000 South Korean forces that ended on September 2nd.  These war games included mock pre-emptive attacks on North Korean nuclear and missile sites .

The North in turn constantly threatened to launch a pre-emptive strike on the event, including while test-firing a ballistic missile from a submarine on 24th Aug into Japanese waters, to which Japan and the United Nations Security Council, of which New Zealand was a member at the time, reacted strongly .


Counterproductive United Nations and United States Pressures 

Severe United States-driven United Nations (UN) sanctions have been placed on North Korea 5 times in the last 10 years since its first nuclear test in 2006 (ibid).  While causing much deprivation for North Korea’s people, they have had nil deterrence effect on nuclear tests while deepening the regime’s sense of threat and further entrenching its power.

The United States itself has also applied a policy of continual military threats while branding the regime part of an “axis of evil” and a rogue or pariah state.  The United States also refuses to negotiate positively until North Korea “give(s) up its nuclear weapons program first” (“Nuclear test offer unlikely to succeed”, The Christchurch Press, 25/4/16).

This produces a catch-22 situation given that North Korea claims it adopted its nuclear programme because of the war games and a generally “aggressive” United States posture, while it would negotiate for a peaceful future if the United States gave up this stance (along with South Korea).

Continually under such pressures, North Korea regularly threatens nuclear attacks on South Korea and on the United States itself, for which it is continuing to develop its nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities.  South Korea is also in turn threatening now “to reduce Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, ‘to ashes’ if Kim Jong-Un’s regime shows any signs that it is planning to carry out a nuclear attack”

The United States has given similar warnings.  But China’s ire is also being raised.  The United States is setting set up a missile monitoring and defence system called THAAD in South Korea, which it says is intended to monitor North Korea.  However, this system will also enable the United States to surveil half of China and the southern part of Russia’s Far East region (Uncle Sam’s hidden agenda behind THAAD deployment).  China will be concerned that the United States is here making use of the North Korean situation as a cover to monitor it more closely.

The sober assessment of the United States intelligence community is that even North Korea would only use nuclear weapons in very extreme circumstances (PDF: The Changing Military Balance in the Koreas and Northeast Asia – Centre for Strategic and International Studies )

Unchecked and unresolved, however, Korean Peninsula tensions could build up into major (nuclear) power confrontation and even war between the United States and China.  For instance, China is not likely to tolerate a nuclear attack on North Korea, or a full-scale attack that could occupy territory up to its border with North Korea, without going to the regime’s aid.  The United States could alternatively, in conjunction with the UN and ideally China, adopt a whole range of measures to defuse this situation rather than perpetuate one in which each side keeps exchanging raucous, and often nuclear, threats in response to the other.


Attempts at Diplomacy – the Six-Party Talks

Six-Party Talks involving China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States began in 2003 when North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty.  These talks aimed to be provide a multilateral forum to achieve the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.  Five rounds of talks produced little progress, and the parties have not met since December 2008, when the talks stalled over verification issues (Six Party Talks ).

New Zealand played a constructive liaison role that helped briefly to restore communication between North Korea and the United States when this had broken down towards the end of these ultimately failed talks.  I shall return to this further below.

The Six Party talks ended formally in 2009 when a UN Security Council Presidential Statement of April 13, 2009 condemned a (failed) North Korean satellite launch.  North Korea responded angrily, declaring on April 14, 2009 that it would pull out of Six Party Talks and that it would resume its nuclear enrichment program in order to boost its nuclear deterrent (ibid.).  This development was followed by further nuclear tests and the present diplomatic impasse.


Deep historical, Cold War roots that still persist

To understand and address these tensions effectively they need to be seen in their deeper historical and wider contemporary contexts.  They are historically unique and remarkable given that they first emerged at the very beginning of the Cold War some 66 years ago in 1950.  Then North Korea invaded the South and communist China came in to assist the North against a UN force in which the United States was the principal actor.  After reaching a stalemate, an armistice was signed in 1953 (for both relevant background here and the problems that arise from the United States forcing isolation on the North, see Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, Chalmers Johnson, Time Warner Paperbacks, 2000/02).

So much of the North’s heightened sense threat stems from American mass bombing during the 1950-3 Korean War (see Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth Century History, ed. Yuki Tanaka & Marilyn B. Young, The New Press, 2009).  In the past, the United States has razed North Korea to the ground in “a barbaric air war” (ibid.).

Tensions have outlasted the Cold War itself, which ended 27 years ago in 1989, and a full and permanent peace treaty has yet to be signed between the two Koreas.

Both sides use the security phobia for internal control.  Back in 1983, “Kim Dae Jung, the [then] political leader of South Korean democratic forces” pointed to “many, many instances in which the [South] Korean government has exploited the security danger to justify repression” (“On Korea”, Kim Dae Jung, World Policy Journal reprint, Vol.1, No.1, Fall 1983, p217 & 228).  The totalitarian North is not the only culprit in this regard.


Now part of a new rolling snowball of international crises?

Tensions are now intensifying in the context of a cluster of emergent wider and deepening geostrategic and political crises that began with the United States’ “War on Terror” response to the “September 11” attacks in New York, and have been accentuated especially since its “Pivot” into the Asia-Pacific region in 2011.

To resolve any one of these areas of tension effectively will probably require – or at least would certainly be greatly helped by – a more general thawing of tensions between the United States and China and Russia, including a general willingness to engage in serious conversations that genuinely seek to develop solutions. Otherwise, conversely, a significant worsening of tensions in any one region, especially including the highly volatile Korean Peninsula, could make it more difficult to prevent other situations from also further deteriorating, potentially to a point where they cascade out of control in the world’s final “perfect storm”.

To briefly transverse the wider geopolitical backdrop to the Pivot: in response to the September 11 attack on its soil by Islamic terrorists the United States and NATO sent forces into Afghanistan, and then Iraq, as well as latterly intervening in Libya and supporting interventions in Syria.  As a result, millions of refugees have flooded into Europe, creating massive and destabilizing pressures there, including major terrorist acts inspired by Islamist extremists who feel aggrieved at these interventions.

This year Russia has also sent bombers, missiles and troops to support Syrian President Assad against the Islamic terrorists in areas where the United States and its ally Saudi Arabia are on the ground supporting “rebel” Syrian forces to depose him.This has the potential to lead, for the first time ever, to Russian planes bombing and killing United States military personnel!  [Note to the reader – this link works fine despite the strikethrough line that runs through it. I’ve not been able to remove this line.]

United States defense officials say the United States has asked Russia to avoid bombing an area of northern Syria where American special operations forces were working with Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State group (John Kerry Meets Vladimir Putin to Discuss New Syria Plan).

The net outcome is that for the first time ever, the major former Cold War rivals are – very dangerously – both fighting in the same territory where they have not only some (very uneasily) shared goals to fight terrorists, but also directly opposite ones with respect to support for Syria’s Assad regime.  By mid-September, a crisis had indeed erupted with the Russians accusing the Americans and Australians of targeting Assad’s army.  All the while, be it briefly noted, tensions are also building up between NATO and the Russians along European border areas, most manifestly in Ukraine.


The United States’ 2011 Asia-Pacific “Pivot” & Rising Regional Tensions

When the Obama Administration came to feel by 2011 that its heavy Middle East engagements were diverting it from the rise of China, it decided on a “Pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region.  Since then, for whatever reasons, tensions have certainly been increasing there, notably in the dispute-ridden South/East China Seas.

For example, the Spratly islands in the South China Sea have been the subject of competitive claims on the part of several East Asian countries” (Enquiry Into ‘New Zealand’s Place In The World’ and ‘New Zealand’s Role In Asia-Pacific Regional Security, Report Of The Foreign Affairs, Defence And Trade Committee, New Zealand House of Representatives, 1997, p31).

In the South China Sea, China lays claim to waters and islands claimed variously also by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.  China is, indeed, turning some such islands into military or potentially military bases, and creating other, artificial islands.

To the east, Japan and China both claim islands situated between them that the former call Senkaku and the latter Daioyu.  Ominously, the United States has said it would back Japan as its treaty partner in any conflict with China over the Islands (Obama says United States will defend Japan in island dispute with China).

The Philippines has succeeded in getting the UN Court of Arbitration at the Hague to affirm its rights to areas of the South China Seas claimed by both it and China. The ruling also affirmed the application of the UN “Freedom of Navigation Convention” to these Seas in rejecting China’s extensive “historical” claims in the region (Philippines wins arbitration case vs. China over South China Sea).

The United States, which has not itself signed the convention, has declared itself neutral on the issue.  However, its new interest in these regional issues and its presence as a rival to China, including its willing to challenge Chinese claims by taking its own warships and planes through disputed China Seas areas, all help give claimants more confidence to press their particular claims.


New Kinds of Conversation Needed?

Not since the height of the Cold War has the world seen so many areas of tension and conflict, all presently with little prospect of resolution.

Cities and towns across the Middle East are being reduced to rubble, and millions of people fleeing as refugees. Sources of conflict between NATO and Russia continue to accumulate in Europe.  Now the United States is proceeding with its geostrategic Pivot into an Asian region riven with mounting tensions that involve a nuclear-armed China.

The Vietnam invasion created one quagmire in the 1970s from which the United States extricated itself with considerable difficulty.  It now faces the prospect of a string of quagmires stretching from Libya across to Korea.

Change for the better is not likely to result from simply trying to sort out, militarily or even diplomatically, the separate problem areas one after another. The accredited venue for dealing with these sorts of issues, the UN, is too overloaded and sclerotic to take on much more than it is already struggling to manage.  It, too, could do with more help.

New kinds of conversation are now urgently needed between all concerned in which overall global and regional problems, the consequences of continuing to deal with them as at present, and other more effective ways of moving forward, can be clarified and pursued.

In other words, positive conversations in which a relatively much better informed “big picture” that works could be constructed by participants.  All this could be usefully supported by relevant academic experts and study programs.


How an Antipodean Nuclear-Free New Zealand could help if it wanted: Infrastructure for New Conversations

So I have sketched out in some blogs a new infrastructure that could support such conversations in antipodean Wellington.

As the capital of a “nuclear-free New Zealand”, which is almost unique as a relatively stable, developed country more remote than most from the world’s trouble spots, Wellington could be an ideal mediation venue.  Essentially, it has many political, diplomatic and academic personnel and institutions that could be very productively networked. It hosts diplomats in numerous embassies, including from the U.S., Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and various Asean nations.  Even North Korea has consular representation there.  The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), as well as its political decision-makers, also operate from this location.  Furthermore, there are specialists in international relations at Victoria University and from other universities represented in the capital.

The diplomats could very usefully engage with one another in conversations of various types, supported by relevant academics and others, including students and scholars brought in from various parts of the world on related scholarships and study programmes. All of these personnel could be very usefully networked in what could grow into a very alive, “Antipodean Diplomatic Village” buzzing with unique, potentially highly productive conversations.

To achieve the best results, such conversations could be usefully pursued simultaneously and synergistically at various levels.

At a basic, ongoing level, socialising among diplomats and relevant academics in a relatively “argument and politics free” environment could be usefully encouraged and facilitated by Wellington political, diplomatic and NGO hosts. The aim of this would be to help conversation partners to get to know each other, to enjoy talking together more or less regardless of where they come from, who they were, or what sort of ups and downs their countries might be having with one another at a given time.

Australia already has a “Canberra Diplomatic Club” that could provide some ideas for Wellington to look at. It has a Facebook page that could be very usefully checked out, and perhaps imitated!

Convivial, social connection-building like this should make it easier to then pursue more focused, structured and successful conversations on issues where parties wish, and in some cases really need, to find common ground and solutions that may be rather better than they might otherwise.

Officials, politicians, relevant academic specialists and NGO members or interested parties might also help stimulate or facilitate conversations and help set up seminars on various topics in which a range of countries and their diplomats might be interested.

Relevant academic courses and research programs on topics of shared interest could be conducted in which participation by diverse local and international scholars and students, some on special scholarships, could be encouraged.

A convivial and productive “Diplomatic Village” might thence emerge where ongoing conversations both social and focused, small-scale and large, could take place between any and all who were represented or able to be in Wellington.  Such interactions could include exchanges between and with representatives of major powers like the United States, China, and Russia.

Over time, relatively in tandem, broader diplomatic understanding and frameworks conducive to the solution of both wider and individual issues could emerge, along with better ways of resolving them by parties directly involved.  As Winston Churchill so famously said, “To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war!”


Conversations That Could Engage North Korea?

The synergies of such ongoing, multi-level conversations, social as well as substantive, informal and formal, could help to draw in and engage a nation that often feels so excluded from such fare like North Korea.  While it has consular representation in Wellington, its nearest ambassadorial representation is in Jakarta.  With the kinds of conversation proposed here, North Korea might well see some point to setting up an embassy in Wellington to better observe and participate in them.

Also, a “nuclear-free New Zealand” government that took its nuclear-free status and mission seriously could provide just the right ambience for conversations about a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, while also addressing Korean regional and wider tensions that have to date helped to keep this from realisation.

Indeed, when the New Zealand public and politicians made their country nuclear-free under the 1984-90 Labour government the goal was not just a nuclear-free government, but a nuclear-free world.  To be sure, New Zealand’s nuclear-free status came to be affirmed even by a United States President when Barrack Obama, after decades of United States opposition to it, held his 2010 Washington Nuclear Security Summit attended by our prime minister John Key (Obama praises New Zealand’s nuclear efforts).

For more context on the change in the United States president’s attitude, see also my blog: President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit, & New Zealand Villagers).

There is a precedent, dating from when George W. Bush was United States President, for New Zealand to help work towards a nuclear-free North Korea.  That was when, in 2007, Helen Clark’s Labour Government had been considered suitably placed to liaise between North Korea and the United States to help restore broken communications between them.  Her Foreign Minister Winston Peters visited both Pyongyang and Washington, with the understanding and support also of China (North Korea leads Peters’ talks in Washington).


New Zealand as a peace-broker

New Zealand could so act because of its nuclear-free credentials in conjunction with the good relations it had with all the parties involved.  This was precisely the kind of peace-brokering envisaged in 5 remits passed at annual Labour Party conferences when it was in power for 6 years in the 1980s.  These remits proposed a foreign policy based on “positive neutrality”, which sees neutrality as a platform to enable peace brokering work between conflicting parties.

So it was interesting to see that even the National Party Government that succeeded Labour in 1990 continued both with its predecessor’s nuclear-free policy and its efforts to help mediate – successfully – in the destructive Bougainville dispute that had raged in the 1980s and 1990s.

New Zealand has also campaigned successfully under the current National Government for a seat on the UN Security Council.  Notably, the main plank in this successful campaign was New Zealand’s ability to act, as its Prime Minister John Key acknowledged, as an honest broker (New Zealand wins seat on UN Security Council).  Also for more details and possibilities, see my blog: New Zealand as Security Council Honest Broker – With (Convivial) Diplomatic Village Support).

So far, New Zealand has seen such brokering in the main as helping represent the interests and views of smaller nations to others, such as in forums like the UN, although on the Security Council at this particular moment it is also having to try to get the United States and Russia to cooperate on helping alleviate or resolve the Syrian situation.

The kind of infrastructure proposed in this article would help provide an additional platform for it to assist more effectively with communication between larger powers.  It should not be too difficult to put this infrastructure in place or make it work: basically, it entails encouraging and facilitating embassy representatives to talk with one another where otherwise they would find it difficult to do so regularly and in depth.

Relevant academics and student programmes involving students from different parts of the world could help bring wider and more informed perspectives, and generate more productive options.  Such programs might cost some money, but they would also help give New Zealand a lot of more of the much-valued wider, high-level access to world decisionmakers and their decision-making tables that could also help bring benefits to its economy amongst other things.


Towards Positive Peace-Making

Arguably the world would not have survived the Cold War without neutral nations (Switzerland, Austria, Sweden and Finland) providing permanent, mutually acceptable venues for opposing parties to engage in conversations, negotiations, and mediation to help address issues or prevent crises.

There is no such permanently available centre for such diplomacy in the whole Asia-Pacific region, despite its manifest and intensifying problems.  So there is a gap for a government of Nuclear-Free New Zealand that has vision and would like to help broker solutions for problems like the persistent ones on the Korean Peninsula, and for that matter between nuclear-armed China and the United States.  There is now a desperately urgent need to address the issues involved.  The alternative would be to be sucked again into helping one oppose and perhaps fight the other to the death in a final, nuclear conflict.


John Gallagher (an autobiographical note)

John Gallagher worked closely with Larry Ross throughout the highly successful local authority, “Nuclear-Free New Zealand” campaign that Larry and the New Zealand Nuclear-Free Zone committee he founded took to the country in the 1980s. What particularly impressed and inspired John then and ever since was Larry’s complementary concept of New Zealand engaging in peacemaking diplomacy, which Larry called “positive neutrality.”  John specialised in research, publicity and lobbying for this at the time, and in today’s online environment he has taken to creating publicity and lobbying by writing blogs and tweeting about how Wellington might function as a “diplomatic village” where such diplomacy could be carried out.

Comment by Dennis Small: A note here is appropriate in regard to John’s peacemaking efforts.  For many years, John has been quite unique on the New Zealand scene with his creative, path-charting efforts to help clarify how some innovative ways practical international peacemaking programmes could be put in place in New Zealand.  Such work is absolutely vital if humankind is to have a future worth living.


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