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Only a fool would play nice with a thorny North Korea

Date

Gerard Henderson

Gerard Henderson

Gerard Henderson Illustration: Simon Letch

There is a certain predictability about international diplomacy in north-east Asia. Once again, the communist regime in North Korea has launched a unilateral military attack on the land and people of the democratically elected South Korean government. And, once again, the former Democratic United States president Jimmy Carter has effectively said that the way to handle the current crisis is to ask the dictators in Pyongyang what they want and then to give it to them.

The decision of North Korea to fire artillery shells at Yeonpyeong Island last week - killing civilian and military personnel alike - is just one of a series of provocative acts.

What Carter is on about is a revival of a form of the discredited phenomenon of appeasement. 

Not long ago, North Korean forces torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Recently, the regime in Pyongyang let it be known it was proceeding with developing uranium enrichment processes. Now it is warning of all-out war on the Korean peninsula.

Carter's response was typical of that part of the American left, which wants the US to disengage from the world, insofar as the projection of power is concerned. Writing in The Washington Post on Thursday, Carter opined that "it is entirely possible" North Korea's actions "are designed to remind the world that they deserve respect in negotiations that will shape their future". Well, anything is possible. Especially since virtually no one - including Carter himself - knows anything about the regime in Pyongyang, including its leader, Kim Jong-il, and his son and anointed successor, Kim Jong-un.

Carter's view that all North Korea wants is a bit of respect has been around for some time. The lesson is that the more the West gives dictators in Pyongyang, the more they want. This is scarcely surprising since what Carter is on about is a revival of a form of the discredited phenomenon of appeasement.

Fortunately, Barack Obama's administration has rejected Carter's advice. Obama had declined to send a respect-bearing envoy to Pyongyang. Instead he has dispatched an aircraft carrier to undertake joint military exercises with South Korea. North Korea has responded by threatening more strikes on South Korea. We shall see. But the fact remains that the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island took place before Obama sent out the latest manifestation of the message that the US will continue to back the government in Seoul - as it has for half a century.

There are no easy answers to the continuing crisis on the Korean peninsula. The physical location of Seoul, the South Korean capital, within artillery range of the North-South border, entails that South Korea is in a permanent hostage-style situation. The North would be destroyed in any military engagement with the US-backed South - but not before it had done considerable damage to Seoul and its environs. There is little alternative for the US and its ally to stand up to Pyongyang, as it has since the Korean War began in 1950. The hope is that North Korean communism will collapse as European communism did two decades ago - due primarily to the fact that it presides over an economic disaster, which entails even starvation.

The current instability in the Korean peninsula underlines the importance of the US to the Asia Pacific. The Kim communist dynasty answers to nobody outside of China and may not even respond to China's wishes. This is not clear. What is clear is that a number of nations in the region regard the US presence as essential. The list includes, of course, South Korea - along with Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Australia. At present New Zealand is working on improving its relationship with the US.

All of the above have what amounts to alliances with the US. Then there are nations such as Vietnam, which regard the US as a counter to China's growing power and influence. The commentators who regard Australia as too close to the US - under both Coalition and Labor governments - overlook the fact that the likes of John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard hold views on the importance of the US in the Asia Pacific that are shared by many of their counterparts.

As far as the nations of the Asia Pacific - along with India - are concerned, the US is not regarded as involving itself in unwarranted imperial overreach. This is a criticism of sections of the American left and right along with those who oppose US influence in the world.

It is not a complaint heard much in the Asia Pacific.

In his recent Quarterly Essay titled "Power Shift", Hugh White essentially argued that Australia should distance itself from the US and spend more time attempting to cultivate China. This is not a stand that many of Australia's friends in the region - including Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and India - would encourage. Nor is it likely that the economic woes now being experienced by the US will result in inevitable decline.

Sure, the US economy is of concern to America and America's friends alike. However, in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, Joseph Nye jnr makes a plausible case that the story of the decline of the US and the rise of China has been exaggerated. He points out that population growth, including immigration, is likely to have a positive impact on the US in the years ahead. Also the US is likely to be the world's pre-eminent military power for decades to come.

Over the past couple of years, Obama has refrained from delivering a message that the US has a special role in the world. Yet many of his countrymen still believe this - as do US allies around the world, including South Korea.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.

80 comments

  • The greatest threat to Australia's security isn't the mad regime in North Korea, they are not going anywhere, but rather allowing the China to take control of mining and primary industries. Instead of wasting our time trying to snuggle up to China we should be concentrating on extracting the best possible price in the long term for our resources.

    Commenter
    SteveH.
    Location
    .
    Date and time
    November 30, 2010, 5:49AM
    • It is not up to America to save the world all the time. The world should put its money where its mouth is and show unilateral condemnation for this rogue country and put the child in its place.

      Only a complete show of solidarity by all countries will achieve a result. Their should be absolutely no misunderstanding by North Korea that the nations of the world's reaction would be swift and resolute if they were to step out of line. Only then will we have peace.

      Commenter
      Nicolas
      Date and time
      November 30, 2010, 5:50AM
      • If North Korea had large oil deposits equivalent to Iraq then their regime would have been invaded and taken over years ago.

        It's funny how the world lets this little dictator murder millions of his own people and doesn't even bat an eye-lid. They let them make and sell drugs, weapons and murder innocent civilians and still nothing is done to them apart from "economic sanctions", which as far as I can tell has little to no impact on the ruling elite. He's on par with Saddam Hussein as far as the amount of blood he has on his hands, but nothing is ever done. Even China doesn't want to deal with him anymore, they know going to war backing North Korea is not in their interests.

         

        Commenter
        John
        Date and time
        November 30, 2010, 6:19AM
        • Yes, but what's to be done?

          It's all very well talking tough, but as you note, the North Koreans could obliterate Seoul, potentially killing hundreds of thousands in minutes and triggering a major economic crisis.

          Easy to be a tough guy on a keyboard.

          Commenter
          Redsaunas
          Date and time
          November 30, 2010, 6:26AM
          • Or is this just another, in the long list of Republican party failures, of the George Bush administration?
            During a discussion on Fox News Sunday, Cheney, who has adamantly defended Bush's policies when others tried to attribute current events to his administration's actions, said that the 43rd president failed to adequately sanction North Korea in the wake of some key incidents.

            "I do think what that we've seen there is an example of how provocative American weakness can be. And I think that unfortunately it is policy of weakness that has expanded back into the Bush administration, into the last years of the Bush administration," Cheney said. "I think that we've seen time and time again North Korea -- they test a nuclear weapon, there are no consequences, they build a reactor for the Syrians, there are no consequences. And what they have learned is that their belligerence, in fact, often times yields from us capitulation and concessions. I think that it's time for us to put them back on the terrorist list."
            It was Bush who dropped the ball and took Nth Korea off the terrorist list. Meanwhile current Republican great white hope "Sarah Palin" thinks Nth Korea is our ally, WTF?

            Commenter
            HFR
            Location
            Tweed
            Date and time
            November 30, 2010, 6:53AM
            • What must be remembered is that the Korean War has never ended - there was merely a truce/cease fire agreed in 1953. Since then, North Korea has repeatedly engaged in attacks on South Korean territory and citizens that would have driven other States to war including, but not limited to: kidnapping civilians, destroying civilian airliners and assasinations of members of government. China has been aware of these acts and not condemned any of them. South Korea has lived in a state of constant alert and military preparedness since 1953, something few Australians could comprehend.

              Since 1953, unbelievably, South Korea has sent aid to the North as the communist regime starves its people despite being able to afford arms and Swiss finishing schools for the children of the Dear Leaders and their cronies. This aid has been sent in part to tempt the North into peace talks. In return the North has killed South Koreans.

              The beligerence of North Korea has only been prevented from descending into another full scale war by the presence of the USA in the Korean peninsula and other areas of East Asia and the Pacific. Such a war would inevitably drag in (again) China, Australia, members of NATO and potentially Japan.

              As the Chinese grow economically and militarily and as long as China remains blind to North Korea's belicosity, it is all the more incumbent on Australia to maintain good relations with the USA and in our best interests to ensure a continuing military presence of the USA in our hemisphere. It is also necessary that we maintain a deployable, capable defence force able to commit to a conventional war as well as able to fight a low level, counter insurgency conflict.

              Commenter
              Andrew
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              November 30, 2010, 6:55AM
              • North Korea is a practice run or the world on how to deal with a rogue nuclear state. Unfortunately appeasment seems to be the solution. I wonder how we'll deal with Iran in a few years?

                Commenter
                Peter
                Location
                St Peters
                Date and time
                November 30, 2010, 7:10AM
                • The big stumbling block with North Korea is they almost certainly have a few nuclear weapons. If war broke out with North Korea, there is a good chance they would use these weapons, creating a situation too awful to contemplate. Seoul is a city with a population of 10 million people whichi is a short distance from the North Korean border.
                  This situation shows the importance of the US stopping other rogue nations like Iran from getting their hands on nuclear weapons.

                  Commenter
                  Anthony
                  Location
                  thehorans@optusnet.com.au
                  Date and time
                  November 30, 2010, 7:48AM
                  • The aircraft carrier was already going to be there as part of the military exercises, I don't understand why Gerard & the media in general have said it was sent as a reaction to Noth Korea's attack.

                    Commenter
                    Sid
                    Location
                    Office
                    Date and time
                    November 30, 2010, 7:55AM
                    • @SteveH. |6:49AM '.. we should be concentrating on extracting the best possible price in the long term for our resources.'

                      Yes, including a resources rent tax on the multinational companies that send huge profits offshore along with our minerals.

                      But what a predictable column from Gerard. Yet again he finds some topic on which there is broad agreement: North Korea is a rogue regime and a way must be found to counter it - and he scours the world for a wicked straw-man 'of the left' who doesn't agree with that. And comes up with an elderly former US President with no executive function.

                      What a hackneyed, tired approach to commentary on an important issue from Gerard.

                      Commenter
                      rufus
                      Date and time
                      November 30, 2010, 7:56AM

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