US and North Korea face off; Reaction to Syria’s chemical attack; Australia helps Japan with new spy agency: Novel ideas on Chinese diplomacy. By Hamish McDonald.

Seoul searching as Trump, Kim face off

Members of a propaganda troupe perform in Pyongyang  this week.
Members of a propaganda troupe perform in Pyongyang this week.

Residents of Seoul will be keeping an eye out for the nearest bomb shelter this weekend as a mighty game of chicken is played out over their heads by Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

South Korea’s many Christians will be celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ. Their North Korean counterparts will be rejoicing on the 105th anniversary on Saturday of the birth of Kim Il-sung. Although their Great Leader was a mortal, his spirit is said to live on through grandson Jong-un.

To mark the day, the region fears the North Koreans will let off their sixth underground nuclear explosion or fire another ballistic missile. President Trump has declared this behaviour must cease, and if China can’t rein in its little ally, the US will take action on its own. To back up this threat, the US Navy diverted an aircraft-carrier group to Korean waters.

Pyongyang declared itself “ready to react to any mode of war desired by the US” and improbably talked of nuclear strikes on the US. Its real threat is against the large part of Seoul in range of its artillery along the border. Unless Trump is prepared to risk this, unlike all his predecessors, his rhetoric and manoeuvres looked more aimed at China. 

The US barrage of cruise missiles against the Syrian air base that launched the April 4 sarin gas attack on a rebel-held town was in part a demonstrator for Beijing. Trump told China’s visiting leader, Xi Jinping, about the strike over chocolate cake at his Florida resort as it was happening. Then Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, put some words in Xi’s mouth: Xi had agreed “the situation has intensified and has reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken”.

Seoul’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper said China had moved 150,000 troops up to its North Korean border in apparent anticipation of conflict and refugee flows, but China’s foreign ministry and South Korea’s defence ministry played down the report. When Trump rang him on Wednesday, Xi said he wanted a “peaceful solution”, suggesting he was thinking more of economic sanctions. China turned away North Korean coal ships that were still turning up, despite Beijing having announced suspension of the coal trade from February 19. The Beijing tabloid Global Times, often used to float official threats, suggested “severely restricting” China’s oil supplies to North Korea if Kim went ahead with a nuclear test.

Chemical reaction

Some “realists” have suggested that whether it’s sarin or barrel bombs, you die anyway and Bashar al-Assad still has to be part of the solution to the Syrian civil war, rather than the main obstacle.

That overlooks the sheer nastiness of the nerve gas, discovered by those scientists at I. G. Farben in Nazi Germany whose earlier work yielded Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide used in the death camps. Thankfully, the big powers agreed to destroy all their sarin and other such stockpiles under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. The harrowing pictures of the Syrian victims were enough to move Trump into action. It got him accolades from some who’d been saying his presidency was an unmitigated disaster.

Analysts are now wondering what next, and whether 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles was the best response first off. Assad’s air force was quickly back in action from the same airbase this week against the same rebel town, though with conventional bombs. Washington says destroying Daesh remains its priority in Syria, but is sending mixed signals about Assad.

The question is whether Russian and Iranian support for Assad now softens or hardens up. Initially, Russia sent another warship to its Syrian base at Tartus, and said the sarin was released from a rebel stockpile. Tillerson went to Moscow on Wednesday, armed with new sanction threats from Atlantic and Japanese allies. He and other Trump officials said Moscow was either complicit in the sarin attack or “incompetent” in its guarantee Assad had surrendered all chemical weapons. Putin insisted Assad was framed. Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an investigation.

Iran, Assad’s other main ally, showed unease, supporting an independent inquiry. In 1988 Saddam Hussein had used sarin against Iranian troops, after earlier killing some 5000 of his domestic Kurdish opponents with it.

Russia and Iran will want to keep the regime going in Damascus, but Assad must be feeling less indispensable and looking over his shoulder at his generals.

Chinese takeaway

Meeting Chinese think tankers in Beijing recently, your world editor found some of them seemed puzzled at Australia’s reservations about China’s long-term strategic objectives, and hopeful Julie Bishop’s new foreign policy white paper, for which she summoned all her ambassadors back to Canberra for brainstorming last month, will remedy this.

“In the genes of the Chinese people, there is no idea of expansion or invasion,” said one senior official at a Communist Party institute, perhaps forgetting the People’s Liberation Army attack on Vietnam in February 1979 as “punishment” for invading Cambodia.

Our delegation leader, Bob Carr, pointed out that Canberra was showing some resistance to US calls to line up against China, joining China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank against Washington’s advice, and not responding to three calls by US admirals to join defiant patrols through South China Sea waters claimed as Chinese territory. He expressed strong doubts Australia would help defend Taiwan.

On the other hand, the Chinese were well aware of the “rotation” of a US marine strike force through Darwin, plans for more use of Australian bases by US warships, bombers and drones, and tightening defence and security co-operation with other Asian powers.

Japan’s spy school

Australia’s growing closeness to Japan in defence and security is also noted, with Australia’s spooks joining the British in helping Tokyo set up a new foreign intelligence agency, one of whose main targets will of course be Beijing.

Japan’s intelligence work is currently spread across several parts of the bureaucracy: the National Police Agency, the Justice Ministry’s Public Security Intelligence Agency, the Self-Defence Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the Cabinet Research Office. But cases of Japanese citizens taken hostage in the wilder parts of the world have led to calls for a more robust and proactive secret service along the lines of Britain’s MI6, on which the Australian Secret Intelligence Service was also modelled.

Bugs and Cicada

Any Chinese worries about Australia’s help for Japanese spies may be allayed, however, by a reading of the thriller Code Cicada by former ASIS officer Warren Reed, which was recently published in translation by the People’s Publishing House and is available in all good bookshops in China.

Set around the 1995 revelation that Australian and US agencies had built bugging devices into the then new Chinese embassy in Canberra, the book paints a dismal picture of the service Reed quit amid great acrimony: an amateurish chief seconded from Foreign Affairs, corrupt and traitorous senior staff.

It’s also extremely flattering to China’s Ministry of State Security, whose worldly spymasters quickly draw on millennia of statecraft to turn the bugging bombshell to advantage, reducing Australia’s prime minister to an abject supplicant in return for China staying silent to save Canberra’s intelligence exchange with the Americans. No wonder the book is now under study for a film adaptation, as Reed tells me.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 15, 2017 as "Seoul searching as Trump, Kim face off".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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