Escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula as China’s Xi hosts Western billionaires

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Colin Chapman, President AIIA (NSW)

NOTES ON THE NEWS: Picture 30-year-old Kim Jung-un this last weekend. The supreme leader of the Democratic Republic of North Korea – his praetorian guard in close attendance – contemplates a fast drive in his red Ferrari or sporty Ford truck. Or possibly, a drink or two with his pals.  Or maybe cooking up another attention-grabbing threat designed to unnerve countries in close proximity and to encourage the United States to make another move on the chess board – like last week’s deployment of a missile defence system to Guam.

But if he turns on his television he will have seen some pictures that will be unnerving to him. On China’s Hainan island, the country’s new president, Xi Jinping, chairman of the Communist Party of China, and ally of Pyongyang, can be seen warmly welcoming the leaders from 12 nations in the region, all of them countries that have eschewed communism and embraced the market economy. Worse still there are members of the Obama administration attending the Boao Forum for Business, as well as more than 1000 business leaders from around the world.

There are billionaires like Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates, and the financier George Soros, who single-handedly broke Britain’s short presence in the European Monetary System. There is Xi chatting to Australia’s iron ore titan Twiggy Forest, and to Australia’s woman prime minister Julia Gillard, who has reaffirmed her country’s loyalty to the United States and dared to mention China’s record on human rights.

Why, young Kim must have pondered, why had he not been invited to a gathering that is now being branded as an Asian Davos.

I don’t know whether he was invited or not, but I doubt it. Yet the staging of this event, its location, and the importance attributed to it by the new Chinese leadership and the Chinese media, serves to illustrate North Korea’s problem.

What is so often forgotten in the media reporting of the repeated and growing belligerence from North Korea is that the issue for Kim Jung-Un is not war with the United States or its allies, but his own survival. That was the case with his father Kim Jung Il, and his young son has simply turned up the volume.

A lesson I learned from my time at the London Business School was that in negotiations you always try to see what it is the other side is after, and then if it is possible to accommodate it. Sometimes you can; sometimes you can’t.

In the Korean confrontation this was brought home to me a few weeks ago when our member Leonid Petrov introduced us to Dr Alexander Zhebin, director of Korean studies at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, and who had once been a long standing Tass correspondent in Pyongyang.

In a lengthy talk at the Glover Cottages, he stressed that the first goal for the North Korean leadership was regime survival, and that, in his opinion, there was no way that Pyongyang would give up its nuclear weapon without that being guaranteed. I asked him whether he meant the survival of the Communist Party or the Kim dynasty, now in its third generation.  I did not get an answer to that, but it was clear he saw the two as one and the same thing.

Historically, North Korea’s carefully choreographed series of threats, signs of instability and weakness, and unpredictability have been, in part, designed to preserve the regime. It has been no secret that North Korea would like direct negotiations with the United States.

Despite its so-called pivot back to Asia, Washington is not biting. There are several reasons for this – not least of which is that the United States would prefer there be an agreement with China, Japan and probably Russia on how to guarantee peace on the Korean peninsular.  It knows that a reunited Korea is not an immediate possibility, and that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to guarantee the Kim dynasty survival, even if that were desirable.

But Kim Jung-Un’s recent actions have rattled the United States, though not to the extent he would have hoped for or to the degree suggested by The Guardian.

Last week, a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Hayden, came up with the same answer, put a different way. He described the possibility of North Korea launching a nuclear attack as “somewhere between extremely remote and zero”, while at the same time calling the current situation “extremely dangerous”.

What this means is that the chances of a major confrontation are slight, but there is still a risk of a maritime attack. South Korea has very limited options. As Stratfor’s Korea expert Rodger Baker told me this weekend, there is no prospect of Seoul mounting a pre-emptive attack on the North’s missile facilities, because Kim Jung-un has sufficient artillery to cause substantial damage to the South Korean capital and much of its industry.

There is not an early end to this in sight. 

Colin Chapman is the President of the AIIA (NSW).

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