The World This Week: North Korea Fires Missile and Goes Nuclear
China is in a bind as North Korea’s nuclear explosion heightens risks of a calamitous catastrophe.
Last week, Houston was in the limelight. This week, the Indian subcontinent is under the microscope. For centuries, the monsoons have brought both life and death to this region. Without a good monsoon, ponds run dry, rivers shrink into a trickle and the land turns parched. Crops wither, cattle die and human beings suffer hunger if not death. Yet far too bountiful a monsoon brings floods, disease and death.
According to the United Nations, monsoons have brought misery to more than 40 million people this year. Floods and landslides have killed at least 1,200 people in India, Bangladesh and Nepal over the last fortnight. A third of Bangladesh is under water. Torrential rains, waterlogged streets and collapsing buildings have brought life in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, to a standstill.
The only silver lining for the region was that India and China ended their standoff over Doklam. Both China and Bhutan, India’s most loyal ally, claim this region. The Indian press claimed a great victory because this is the first time India has confronted its bigger neighbor and not backed down. M. Taylor Fravel, a professor at MIT, believes India did not quite “win” the standoff. Regardless of who won the confrontation, it is reassuring that these two nuclear powers kissed and made up.
The last edition of The World This Week highlighted how circuses are distracting humanity from the compelling issues of our times such as increasing inequality, rising authoritarianism and climate change. It turns out that English Premier League clubs spent a record £1.4 billion ($1.81 billion) during this summer’s transfer window. This is 23% higher than last year and the sixth consecutive year that spending records have tumbled. Other European clubs have spent well over $1 billion as well.
Roy Keane, the former Manchester United captain, joked that some of his teammates would cost $1 billion and Ryan Giggs $2 billion. The Irishman quipped: “If ever there was a time to be a professional footballer it’s now. Average players are going for £35 million [$45.4 million], my goodness.” Keane is right. The football marketplace has gone absolutely bonkers. If this was a time of robust economic growth, flourishing schools, well-run hospitals, a rising middle class and decreasing poverty, this spending would make sense. However, this orgy of expenditure on sporting circuses is a terrible misallocation of capital. It is also deeply unjust and disgustingly obscene. Yet few economists, high priests of the supposedly efficient global marketplace, are shining the light on the absurdity of the current situation.
Even more absurd than the football transfer market is the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea. This week, it fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan and into the Pacific. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese government found the test an “unprecedented, serious and grave threat” and requested a United Nations Security Council meeting along with the US and South Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has now overseen more than 80 missile tests, a greater number than his father and grandfather managed together. US President Donald Trump warned that Kim’s regime had been “threatening and destabilizing.” He declared, “All options are on the table.”
Trump’s words did not have the desired effect. Kim’s North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, the most powerful to date.
JAMES BOND VILLAIN OR AUSTIN POWERS BADDIE?
It is invariably dangerous to use Manichean analogies as Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, is wont to in his waning years. Ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty underlie most international issues. Besides, the idea of a superhero from the land that ran the largest empire in history is little more than polished propaganda, which would make the likes of Joseph Goebbels or Edward Bernays proud. Yet, at times, the James Bond and Austin Powers movies can provide a metaphor for real life. The picture of pudgy Kim inspecting, what North Korean state media called, a hydrogen bomb could be straight out of either of the two movies. He seems to be telling the world: Don’t mess me with. I am mad, bad and dangerous.
The February 26 edition of The World This Week conducted a deep dive into the Hermit Kingdom after the macabre murder of Kim’s half-brother in Malaysia. Kim’s paunchy sibling was killed in Malaysia, using a VX nerve agent, a banned chemical weapon. Most suspect Kim of masterminding the murder. In 2013, Kim executed Jang Song-thaek, his uncle and mentor, as part of a Stalinist purge in which 140 senior members of his party met an untimely end.
Kim is heir to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, his grandfather and father. Both were bloody and ruthless. In fact, the latter once “feasted on lobsters delivered by air to his private armored train using silver chopsticks even as his countrymen were dying of famine by the thousands.” Kim has set new records of brutality even for his family. He qualifies more than perhaps anyone else as the world’s most dangerous villain or scary baddie.
In 2017, Kim has used a banned chemical weapon and detonated a powerful nuclear bomb. It is clear that the North Korean leader is ratcheting up his ability to unleash violence. His nuclear bomb caused “a first tremor of 6.3 magnitude with a depth of 23 kilometers” and a second one of 4.6 magnitude eight minutes after the initial tremor. The second tremor was felt as far away as the Chinese city of Changchun, about 400 kilometers northwest of North Korea’s test site at Punggye-ri. Unlike Saddam Hussein, Kim has conclusively proved to the world that he has weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to strike his enemies.
North Korea’s foes now are in a bind. Trump tweeted that the country’s “words and actions” were “very hostile and dangerous.” Japan called the test “unforgivable,” and South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants the “strongest possible” response, including new sanctions to “completely isolate” the country. The test came just after American and South Korean forces finished their joint military exercise. Joint exercises take place twice a year — in March and in August. As usual, Pyongyang issued threats before firing a missile and detonating a nuclear bomb.
Tensions have been ratcheting up for the last few months. Trump has threatened North Korea with fire and fury. Clearly, his bluster is not working. Kim is turning ever more belligerent. The current sanctions do not seem to be having the desired effect. Teddy Roosevelt once quoted a West African proverb: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” It is clear that Trump does not pay heed to good old Teddy. The US president is an incorrigible loudmouth who has made one impolitic comment after another. What Trump has failed to realize is that those who enjoy drawing swords have to use them. Otherwise, they risk ridicule and cease to be taken seriously.
Does this mean that another Korean war is around the corner? Perhaps the answer lies most of all with China.
The Middle Kingdom has a troubled and tortured relationship with the Hermit Kingdom. China acts as North Korea’s godfather, but the relationship has not been entirely untroubled in recent years. The February 26 edition of The World This Week pointed out how the murder of Kim’s brother was “a massive embarrassment” to China because he was under Chinese protection. Kim’s purged uncle was also close to China. Naturally, President Xi Jinping is reportedly not too fond of Kim. It seems Kim reciprocates Xi’s sentiments. Stephen McDonnell of the BBC writes that the timing of North Korea’s nuclear explosion was “a clear slap in the face for Beijing.” It occurred precisely when Xi was hosting the BRICS summit.
Part of the reason China resolved the Doklam standoff with India was the BRICS summit. Xi wanted the summit in Xiamen to go off smoothly and be the center of global attention on home soil. Instead, Kim has stolen Xi’s thunder and cast unfavorable light on North Korea’s godfather. In May, Kim had done the same when President Xi was preparing to unveil his One Belt One Road initiative. In March, Kim fired a rocket just as Xi was about to meet US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Apparently, Kim feels betrayed by Xi, under whose leadership China has backed sanctions against North Korea and implemented them by turning back coal shipments. China has not gone further yet because it has historic ties with the Hermit Kingdom. Its junior partner also acts as a useful military buffer with South Korea. China’s recurring nightmare is the presence of American troops on its borders. It deeply fears being deprived of influence in its near neighborhood. Furthermore, Barack Obama’s Asia Pivot evoked ghosts from the past for the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese worry about an alliance of India, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and the US hemming them in a limited sphere of influence. Much though Xi may detest Kim, he fears turning the screw too much because the consequences of a North Korean collapse would be a nightmare for China.
Already, North Korea is a country with malnourished people familiar with hunger and even famine. The UN estimates 41% of the population to be undernourished. Kim’s lavish lifestyle and extravagant military expenditure are sustained by the abject penury of his people. Juche, a toxic ideology that links the security and independence of North Korea to the absolute loyalty and unquestioning obedience of the people to their leader, helpfully keeps Kim’s people in line. Yet Kim’s hold on power is tenuous. Every dynasty has to die and the Kims are no exception. If China was to freeze oil and gas supplies or choke off access to laundered North Korean cash in its bank accounts or impose tighter sanctions, North Korea could collapse. Apart from the risk of US troops on its border, the Middle Kingdom fears an exodus of starving North Koreans into its border states.
Even more importantly, China is terrified of chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands or Fukushima-type disasters in North Korean nuclear plants. These are inconveniently located close to the Chinese border. Kim is the devil Xi knows and probably detests. However, the specter of mass deaths in the Middle Kingdom and American troops on China’s borders makes Xi tolerate Kim despite his repeated provocations.
To mitigate its headaches, China has suggested a cunning plan known as “freeze for freeze.” It involves the US and South Korea suspending their annual military exercises in return for North Korea halting its nuclear and missile tests. Russia backs this plan, but the US is not buying into it. Even Obama was unlikely to go along with this plan, but a warlike president such as Trump cannot afford appear weak by giving North Korea any wriggle room. Besides, Kim needs the US as an enemy to rally his people behind his inhuman regime and Trump needs a foe to keep attention away from the scandals, incompetence and chaos of his shambolic administration.
In a more rational world, China and the US could conspire to get rid of Kim, plan a phased reunification of the two Koreas, and remove US troops from the Korean Peninsula to alleviate Chinese fears. To do such a deal requires intelligence and imagination. It also requires trust. All of these are in short supply as pantomime villain Kim saber rattles and ignorant Trump blabbers about bubonic plague for North Koreans. Sadly, we are living in dangerous times, not just interesting ones.
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