South Korea is one of the countries I most admire. At the end of the Korean War it was one of the poorest in the world with per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) below that of Somaliland, now it is a member of the OECD, an organisation of wealthy states. It has achieved this with few natural resources other than the hard work and industry of its people. It has not asked for or received subsidies but has built world beating companies such as Samsung or POSCO.
By comparison the Kim dynasty in North Korea has made its country poorer while its neighbour has prospered. It has been an object lesson in the benefits of capitalism and latterly democracy over socialism and the powerful centralised state which it entails. In North Korea the elite have good things while others are left to starve, the military establishment has been disproportionately favoured and with surprising speed has developed a nuclear capability with the force to kill millions of fellow Koreans.
Kim Jong-un was not taken seriously when he first took over from his father Kim Jong-il. It was thought that a tubby schoolboy could not seriously threaten the safety of the world and that other forces in North Korea might depose him. He soon put paid to such optimism with brutal killings, carried out theatrically to ensure maximum deterrence, while following a policy of goading the West by increasing nuclear and ballistic testing. Dismissing him as mad is no longer an option, in fact from his own immoral perspective he has played his cards incredibly well and won every round against the rest of the world so far.
It is hard to judge the role of China in this. The People’s Republic has an incentive for maintaining a buffer state between its territory in South Korea where thousands of American troops are based. It has learnt from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact that United States interests can creep ever closer. It does not want to risk an exodus of refugees from North Korea and the instability that would cause. Yet it is difficult to believe that China wants Kim Jong-un to behave as he is currently doing. The PRC is run by clever people who have no desire for nuclear explosions in the Korean Peninsula nor this risk of war with the US. It is as if a client state has “gone rogue” with little that the suzerain can do.
Previous United States policy towards the North has been to do nothing other than complain. It has sat on its hands as Kim Jong-un has committed outrage after outrage. This has inevitably shown other dictators that to secure their own position they need to acquire nuclear weapons. Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi would probably both be ruling today if they had acquired a nuclear arsenal. Weakness and token sanctions have not deterred the North Koreans whose rulers do not care about the suffering of their own people.
Donald Trump has taken a different line and promises to meet fire with fire. Although he has said he would defend America’s allies there is little consolation to the South Koreans as Seoul is only 35miles from the border and could be annihilated before any response was launched. On the other hand, twenty years of appeasement has neither stopped Kim Jong-un nor persuaded China to act, which it may no longer be effectively able to do.
It is not easy to see what the solution is but it will inevitably involve China however much its influence has been diminished. It will need to be tough, a rouge state with a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile is already too dangerous for the world to accept but regrettably there is now no risk free option.