Observers of the permanently fractured Korean peninsula are keeping busy. For a country of well under 26 million, North Korea does an incomparable job generating international angst, whether it be firing ballistic missiles over Japan, conducting UN-prohibited nuclear tests, starving its own population, or murdering those who have fallen from grace using anti-aircraft guns, mortars, and nerve agents.
Is this hermit nation with its ruling dynasty dating from Stalin’s time just badly misunderstood? Or is it simply beyond reason? The fruitless “strategic patience” diplomacy of President Barack Obama’s two terms seemed to suggest the latter.
Obama’s mercurial successor, Donald Trump, has taken a more confrontational line than anything seen since the Cold War. That posture is likely to be reinforced by the recent replacement of H.R. McMaster, his hardline US national security adviser, with the even more hawkish John Bolton. The North Korean state, consistently ranked worst in the world by France’s Reporters Without Borders, has described Bolton as “human scum” and a “bloodsucker”.
And where does China stand in all this? The all-powerful President Xi Jinping recently entered the picture when he received North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to Beijing. How might this tie into a possible meeting between Trump and Kim? The White House has made warlike noises, but how could it possibly follow through? As a columnist in The Atlantic recently observed: “The last US invasion, in October 1950, provoked Chinese military intervention and the biggest battlefield defeat the U.S. Army ever suffered. Even without nuclear systems able to hit the US, Kim’s nuclear and huge conventional arsenal suffices to deter any invasion.”
James Trottier, a former career diplomat, is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He directed political and economic diplomacy at the Canadian embassies in South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines, and also served at Canada’s permanent mission to the United Nations in New York. He was accredited to North Korea and led four Canadian diplomatic delegations to Pyongyang in 2015 and 2016. He also served as a diplomatic liaison officer to US/UN Forces in South Korea.
Phillip Hynes is head of political risk and analysis for ISS Risk, and leads a team that analyses and researches security and terrorism threats across Asia. A frequent visitor to North Korea, he has also undertaken investigations, due diligence, background checks, and threat and risk assessments in China, Mongolia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Bangladesh, India. and Hong Kong. Hynes served 10 years in the British army, specializing in counter terrorism, intelligence and communications, and was involved in the Northern Ireland peace process in the 1990s.
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