Issue 118:2017 08 17:The Korean Crisis (Neil Tidmarsh)

17 August 2017

The Korean Crisis

A world-changer, even without a nuclear apocalypse.

By Neil Tidmarsh

Next week, South Korea and the USA are due to begin their annual joint military exercises.  North Korea regards these defensive manoeuvres as offensive, and its leader Kim Jong-un is threatening to fire missiles towards the Pacific island of Guam, an unincorporated US territory hosting American military bases, if the USA doesn’t stop what it regards as sabre-rattling.  President Trump has replied by saying that the USA is ‘locked and loaded’ and ready to respond with ‘fire and fury’.

The next issue of Shaw Sheet isn’t due to appear until the beginning of September (the team is taking a fortnight’s holiday); but under the present circumstances one wonders if it will appear at all.

A nuclear apocalypse, however, is so unthinkable and so unimaginable that it is (hopefully) unlikely to happen.  Nevertheless, the North Korean crisis does seem to be producing revelations and developments which will have very real consequences not just for south-east Asia but for other regions and for the whole world too.

First is the suggestion that Ukraine has played a crucial part in North Korea’s rocket building programme.  London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies said this week that the engine powering Kim Jong-un’s long-range Hwasong-14 missiles appears to closely resemble the RD-250 engine designed and built by a state-owned company at Dnipro, Ukraine.  The Institute says that the speed with which North Korea moved from a missile of only medium-range capability to an inter-continental ballistic missile can have only one explanation; “North Korea has acquired a high-performance liquid-propellant engine from foreign sources”.  It also points out that two North Koreans were caught stealing from Yuzhnoye, the Ukrainian state-owned rocket designing and building company, five years ago; that the company’s factory is close to the pro-Moscow rebel territories; and that the chaos and confusion of the country’s civil war might encourage and facilitate all kinds of clandestine transactions.

The Kiev government denies any such involvement with North Korea.  But the accusations are bound to affect the country’s already sensitive situation.  Kiev needs the support of the West against Russia, which backs the pro-Moscow Ukrainian separatists and is tightening its grip on the Crimea.  Some voices in Europe and the USA are beginning to suggest that relations with Russia should be re-set by relaxing the sanctions slapped on it for interfering in Ukraine, and by accepting its claim to the Crimea.  Allegations that Ukraine has been instrumental in turning North Korea into a nuclear power threatening the West will give those voices extra volume and resonance, to say the least.

Second, South Korea’s diplomatic attempts at rapprochement with North Korea are straining relations with its neighbour Japan.  In an attempt to lower the temperature on the Korean peninsula, President Moon of South Korea offered this week to open a joint investigation with North Korea into atrocities (such as the forced conscription of millions of labourers and the use of ‘comfort women’ sex slaves) committed during Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945.  The subject is extremely sensitive, and threatens the goodwill between these two Western-backed democracies which is crucial for the stability and security of the region.  Seoul is saying it might review the agreement it reached with Tokyo two years ago which was supposed to have settled the issue of ‘comfort women’ with recognition and reparations, just as South Korea and Japan need to show a united front against Chinese assertion in the South China Seas.

Third, the USA’s attempts to apply leverage to China to persuade it to bring Kim Jong-un to order are threatening a trade-war between these two super-powers which would have a drastic affect on the global economy.  The US Treasury Department is said to have drafted potential sanctions against Chinese bodies, and drawn up new quotas on imports – the Commerce Department has said that it could put an import tax of 80% on Chinese aluminium foil.  This week President Trump signed an executive order instructing trade representative Robert Lighthizer to examine allegations that China indulges in unfair trade practices such as stealing corporate secrets, counterfeiting and piracy.  The study will take a year to complete and will then decide whether a formal investigation should take place, leading to the possibility of retaliations such as tarrifs and other sanctions.  The White House insists that this move is not related to the Korean crisis – after all, Donald Trump has long promised to impose tarrifs on Chinese imports and complained about the trade deficit with China – but a few days later the President, talking about the crisis, said “If China helps us, I feel a lot differently about trade, a lot differently.”

The world may well survive this current threat of nuclear apocalypse, but it will not emerge from the Korean crisis unchanged. The stresses and tensions of the confrontation will alter allegiances, alignments and economies. The crisis is sure to produce further world-changing revelations and developments over the next week or two – let’s hope that we’ll still be around to write and read about them in a fortnight’s time.


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