I have been to both Koreas and wrote about my trip on these pages some time ago. I have seen a little bit of each country and understand a small amount of how each think.
So what is going on? Has Trump put enough thought into figuring out what each of the main players, North Korea, South Korea and China want out of this little standoff, or is he just guessing?
Firstly, to the North. UK, US, Soviets and the Chinese all fought side by side with the Koreans in the Second World War to expel the Japanese from their brutal occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Few remember we were all once allies.
Nearing the end of the war the Soviets and Americans agreed that the Soviets would liberate north of the 38th parallel and the Americans liberate south. The two soon-to-be-Cold-War-adversaries installed their puppet regimes on each end of Korea.
In the chaotic aftermath Kim Il-sung rose to lead the North. Today the Korean people venerate Kim Il-sung as a demigod whose year of birth now marks Year One in the new Korean calendar.
Then came the Korean War. Despite the overwhelming weight of objective evidence to the contrary, the history books of the North say the war began when the American invaded north. Regardless of the truth, the North believes the war was started by the Americans because that is what the demigod Kim Il-sung told them to believe.
For the North Koreans, the Americans have a history of wanting to destroy their country. And to be honest, the Americans would rather that the North does not exist. In other words the Northern fear of the Americans is probably an accurate fear to hold nowadays.
When looked through the eyes of the North Koreans, nuclear weapons seem like an essential element for their survival. If you were North Korean, would you fear the Americans? Getting the North Koreans to back down is not possible. To them, nuclear weapons are the essence of survival itself.
So would reunification fix the problem? North Korea still hopes to reunite the two Koreas – but under the Northern system of government. The South on the other hand wants to either reunite the peninsula under the Southern system or stay separate.
Citizens in the South are divided along with their age. Old people in the South want reunification, the young look at German reunification, see the cost and say “no thanks”.
But even for the unifiers, those on both sides will promote their own systems and defend an attack from the other.
Having spent time in both Koreas I cannot see a way for a peaceful reunification. The differences between North and South Korea are many times larger than the differences between East and West Germany.
Peaceful reunification of Korea as a solution to the current crisis is a pipe dream. Truthfully, both Koreas would like to see the other side’s government gone. There is no “government of national unity” option.
Neither Russia nor China would like to see American troops on their borders with North Korea. For Russia and China, a South Korean takeover of the North, with consequent US influence and troops, is just not on the cards.
Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a continuity of the status quo, until one day China takes over the North as a “semi-autonomous province”, a bit like Tibet.
China also knows, that if it wanted to, it could walk across the border and take over North Korea at the drop of a hat. But why would China want that instability? Isn’t it better for an unpredictable North Korea to keep the US on its toes?
Here, perhaps something more Machiavellian is at play. The United States defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War by slowly driving the Soviets bankrupt. Are the Chinese today doing the same thing to the Americans?
Fifteen years ago, when the US looked like cutting defence spending, the Chinese rattled their sabres in the Taiwan Strait. The US kept spending and borrowing. Five years ago, when the Americans wanted to cut spending, the North set off a nuclear test. The Americans kept spending, and borrowing.
Perhaps, up until now the Chinese haven’t stopped the North Koreans, because the North has been doing precisely what the Chinese wanted – keeping the Americans spending.
But what now, with Trump in the White House? Trump put the onus on the Chinese and the Chinese hate losing face. The Chinese don’t like a bluff being called.
Has Trump pulled a master stroke by putting the Chinese in a corner where they have to act? Do the Chinese want to appear impotent in front of Trump by not stopping Kim Jong-un?
China is battling the US for dominance by rebuilding the Silk Road, about which I have written on these pages before. While building their dominance the Chinese don’t want a shooting war when they are about to win the economic one. So what now?
What we are likely to see is the Chinese pulling Kim Jong-un back, just enough to appear in control, but not enough to stop the Americans spending money.
Andrew MacLeod is a visiting professor to King’s College London, chairman of Griffin Law, a former high-level UN official and co-founder of BrexitAdvisoryServices.co.uk
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