When Mao Zedong sought to describe China’s alliance with Kim Il-sung’s North Korea, he said they were “as close as lips and teeth”.
This week, Malcolm Turnbull also reached for anatomical analogies. To stand by Donald Trump’s America in the current Korea crisis (and keep the Manus–Nauru deal on track) he declared that “in terms of defence, we are joined at the hip”.
It makes you squirm. But fortunately we may be spared following our Siamese twin into a nuclear exchange. Tuesday’s anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945 passed with Kim Jong-un deciding to forgo his generals’ suggestion of bracketing Guam with missile warning shots. He would “watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees”.
The Americans will still go ahead with their yearly war games with South Korea next week, at which Australia will have its usual token presence.
China this week told North Korea openly that it would not come to its aid if it started a war with the US, as Mao had done in 1950, but it would do so if the US attacked, at least until the current pact expires in 2021.
Beijing also gave orders to start implementing the latest UN Security Council sanctions, which will cut North Korea’s exports by a third. The apparent source of North Korea’s astonishing advance in missile capability –a cash-strapped former Soviet missile factory in Ukraine – was also revealed by London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. Kim’s rocketry progress may now slow.
All this points to Washington accepting North Korea’s limited nuclear capability, as it did with China’s decades ago, and applying the logic of nuclear deterrence that has worked so far.
Talks with the North may then centre on ways of reducing tension resulting from conventional forces. The Americans and South Koreans could offer to scale back their exercises and advance forces, notably, if the North also pulled its artillery array along the demilitarised zone further back into its territory, out of range of Seoul. Mutual recognition by the North and South, and of the North by the US, could be part of a peace treaty replacing the 1953 truce.
Korea’s ongoing war
Meanwhile, in all the past weeks’ tension, there has not been any reference by Australian political leaders of any obligation to defend South Korea. On one side, it has been all about showing alliance loyalty; on the other about lack of independence, following the US again into war.
Only Peter Jennings, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, pointed out that Australia does have a national interest in South Korea. It’s our fourth-largest trading partner, and a major source of tourists and students. We had 340 soldiers killed and 1200 wounded defending what has since become a vibrant, creative democracy.
The Australian National University’s Andrew Selth points out, in the Lowy Institute’s blog The Interpreter, that our obligation to South Korea stems not so much from ANZUS as from our participation in the 17-nation UN force during the Korean War. North Korea, China and the UN Command (on behalf of members including Australia) signed an armistice only in 1953. The Korean War continues, at least formally.
Australia remains one of the UN Command’s few active members, with its defence attachés in Seoul and Tokyo involved (one commands the rear echelon in Japan). Some of Australia’s military equipment purchases, such as the army’s Abrams tanks, can only be explained by a new Korean war contingency.
After the armistice was signed at Panmunjom, the 17 UN combatants issued a formal statement that “if there is a renewal of the armed attack ... we should again be united and prompt to resist”, Selth points out. “Australia has never repudiated any of the obligations contained in this document, which envisaged future hostilities extending beyond the peninsula.”
Trump’s civil war
Trump was back in civil war territory this week – literally so, after the violence that broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia, last Saturday over the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
Trump repeatedly drew a moral equivalence between the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups – some waving assault rifles – who opposed the removal, and the anti-racism counter-protesters who were hit by a white supremacist driving his car into them at high speed, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and wounding 19. Former KKK leader David Duke praised Trump. After corporate chiefs quit his two business advisory groups in disgust, Trump dissolved these forums and thereby much of his remaining economic credibility.
In the background, a civil war has been raging inside the White House. The Charlottesville incident renewed pressure for Trump to dump his alt-right adviser Steve Bannon. Trump’s national security adviser, General H. R. McMaster, has been steadily knocking off the more extreme conservatives Trump had installed on his staff, and would clearly like to see Bannon off the premises as well.
The week before the violence, Breitbart News, which Bannon founded, was reporting that the “oldest pro-Israel group in the country had completed its analysis of … McMaster’s behaviour and determined him to be a threat to Trump’s agenda”.
This refers to the Zionist Organisation of America, founded in 1897, which has been a hardline opponent of concessions to the Palestinians. Current president Mort Klein is regarded as close to Bannon and accuses McMaster of being soft about Israel and unserious about the threat of radical Islamic terrorism. According to the Axios website, he’s called for Trump to “reassign” McMaster “to another position where he can do no further harm on these critical national security issues”.
Jones’s history war
Tony Jones, host of the ABC’s Q&A program, has reignited the mini-Balkan wars that used to play out around Australian cities between Croatian nationalists and representatives of the former Yugoslavia.
On his sabbatical earlier this year, he wrote a thriller based on the 1972 armed incursion into Yugoslavia by 19 Croatian exiles from Australia and elsewhere who hoped to spark an uprising. They all died, some in a shootout with government forces on a Bosnian mountain, others executed after capture. Jones builds a fictional survivor into his yarn, called The Twentieth Man, along with a probing female Aussie reporter who gets to the truth of it all.
In this exercise Jones was closely advised by former ABC colleague Mark Aarons, son of the late Australian Communist Party chief Laurie Aarons, and by Kerry Milte, Lionel Murphy’s federal police adviser at the time of the late Whitlam-era attorney-general’s famous “raid” on ASIO headquarters to find out what the spooks were hiding about Croatian extremists, such as the fascist Ustaše.
Some younger Croatian-Australians − who this week welcomed the president of the post-Yugoslavian nation of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, to Australia – are irked that Jones has raked up the old Ustaše slur. They’ve also turned up the amazing coincidence of another thriller based on the same incident, by Yugoslav author Đorđe Ličina in 1979, also called The Twentieth Man, or Dvadeseti Čovjek in Croatian.
When the public library of Ryde, in Sydney’s north-western suburbia, agreed to a book launch event next Tuesday they were expecting the usual bunch of elderly bookworms, not the irate Croats who have registered with the local police plans for a protest outside.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 19, 2017 as "US will have to deal with Kim going nuclear".
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