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Storm clouds over Korea

By Max Atkinson - posted Monday, 5 June 2017

On April 20 theHobart Mercurypublished an account of President Trump's first three months by US foreign policy expert Randall Doyle, who reminded readers that governments often focus on external threats to distract from domestic failures. He cited Trump's healthcare reforms, which saw a humiliating defeat by his own party. The risk is exacerbated, he explained, by Trump's impulsive personality and the Administration's lack of experience and expertise.

He might have noted another factor - the use of 'tweets' to avoid media scrutiny, which prevents the President being challenged on national television, and otherwise weakens the role of the press as the 'fourth estate' of democratic government. All of which highlights the need for experts like Doyle, along with historians, political scientists and international lawyers, to clarify issues which underlie foreign policy, especially where there is a risk of armed and even global conflict.

We should not, however, need experts to remind us that a despot's power rests on the support of those who command the military and police forces of a nation. That their power rests in turn on the loyalty of generals and their subordinates and so on down to those who man the tanks and pilot the bombers. And that this complex structure of state violence also rests on the support of citizens, albeit a minority, who presumably benefit from the system.


But if this is true why does US policy insist on annual military exercises, meant to simulate an armed invasion of North Korea, with nuclear armed ships, aircraft carriers and South Korean divisions massed on the border? This is being done in a way which can only bolster North Korean claims that it needs a nuclear deterrent. Nothing could more clearly serve the interests of those who lead this cruel and oppressive regime than a shared belief that their nation faces an ongoing existential threat.

US officials have spoken of a change in policy. The previous policy, they say, was based on 'patience' and 'containment.' Since this has proved fruitless it is necessary, they say, to increase the pressure on Kim Jong-un, first by asking China to use trade threats to stop the testing of missiles and nuclear devices and, if this fails, by the US itself taking direct action. In such a case 'nothing is off the table'.

Everything, it seems, now depends on China's statesmanship and ability to defuse tensions. Which is why a good deal more media attention should be given to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's Berlin proposal, made jointly with German Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on April 26, for an end to the highly provocative US-South Korean military exercises, coupled with a halt to North Korea's nuclear program, as the only realistic way to calm tensions on the peninsula.

Pyongyang's continuing nuclear tests were, Wang Yi said, a clear violation of UN resolutions. But, he argues, persisting with military maneuvers 'is not in the spirit of the resolutions. We can't risk even a one per cent possibility of war,' because 'a conflict would have unimaginable consequences. Therefore, we call on all sides to be prudent and refrain from any actions or words that could lead to new provocations'.

While Australia's response will, commentators say, be driven by our national interests and especially the 'US Alliance', it should accept that we also have a responsibility to the thousands of likely victims of an aggressive foreign policy, both in North and South Korea.

The only good news in all of this, according to Hugh White, ANU Professor of Strategic Studies, is that war is unlikely because America 'has no credible military options that offer a reasonable chance of destroying or even seriously obstructing North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.'


The bad news, he adds, is that 'the Trump Administration's bellicose and amateurish antics over the issue are undermining America's strategic credibility, while doing nothing to prevent North Korea building a missile with the range to hit the US mainland .... So Trump's signature mix of tough talk and feeble action is having exactly the effect his critics always expected and feared. It weakens America's position in Asia, and strengthens China's.'

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This article was first published in The Mercury.

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About the Author

Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.

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