By Giancarlo Elia Valori*
North Korea’s military strength is the strength of its nuclear potential. As the North Korean Foreign Minister stated at the ASEAN Forum in early August 2017, the United States must be “blamed” for wanting to bring “the nuclear war into the Korean peninsula”. He also reaffirmed that North Korea would never discuss the issue of its missile and nuclear arsenal at the negotiating table with the United States and its allies.
At the time China said that a critical point had been reached, but it could also be the beginning of new and more effective negotiations between North Korea, the United States, China and the Russian Federation.
It is therefore obvious that the two missiles launched by North Korea on July 4 and 28 last are certainly capable of reaching the US territory, but they were fired at such an angle as to avoid the impact on the ground.
It is further evident that North Korea launches missiles towards the United States because it wants to prevent it from permanently mobilizing for a regime change in North Korea.
On the other hand, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson maintains that -before sitting at the negotiating table – North Korea must not only put an end to the nuclear military tests, but even begin a genuine, stable and definitive denuclearization process.
Incidentally, although officially keeping NATO as a “nuclear alliance”, the US obsession with Europe’s denuclearization did not bring luck to the countries like Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey which had been heavily denuclearized by the United States between the end of the Second World War and the establishment of the Atlantic Alliance.
The Atlantic Alliance which, according to Lord Ismay, the first Secretary General of NATO, had “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down”.
It is not possible to figure out what would have happened if Italy had had a small, albeit credible nuclear military system, but certainly the Mediterranean situation would be better today.
Turkey’s nuclear threat to the USSR would have changed and limited its Middle East policy. The nuclearized West Germany would have not experienced the penetration of the DDR intelligence services that later tormented it. The Netherlands would have had a role to play in the North Sea and Belgium would have had more stable and less factional governments.
Italy experienced all this, but that is another story.
Just to quote Henri Bergson, the philosopher who developed the concept of vital impulse (élan vital), the nuclear power is “the force that is not used.”
A force which, however, we must show to have and be able to use – not on the ground, because it is of no use, but in the decisive phases of foreign policy.
A country without nuclear power, however, is a country without a foreign policy and strategy.
Nevertheless, reverting to the ASEAN Forum held last July, all the Foreign Ministers present condemned the “missile tests and urged a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea”.
At this juncture, without imposing an either-or deal, we could say that North Korea cannot accept to resume the Six Party Talks, which began in 2003 and ended in December 2008, without clarifying a single and central point: maintaining a nuclear armament share for North Korea, but fully verifiable by IAEA.
And also without further ascertaining that the new IAEA agreement applies to both Koreas at the same time, so as to later foster North Korea’s economic integration into the regional system – hence including Japan, Vietnam (an old friend of North Korea) and obviously South Korea and India.
The economic and humanitarian instruments of the Six Party Talks were significant, also on the part of the United States: one million tons of heavy oil or oil equivalent – the expenses of which had to be shared among the six parties; support for North Korea’s energy spending and supplies; the US funding for the denuclearization costs; assistance to IAEA; 12.5 million tons of food – from 1995 to 2003 – with a view to alleviating the very harsh conditions of the North Korean population.
Hence support to North Korea is expensive, but it is better to help it now rather than triggering a military spiral that can only be solved by a limited and, ultimately, nuclear war, which is in no one’s interest.
Not to mention the damage that – hopefully in a very distant and even impossible future – the strategic wound between the United States, Russia and China could cause in Southeast Asia, as well as the block – also for the EU, the Asian region, India and the Gulf countries – of all the routes from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea.
It would be one of the deepest global destabilizations occurred in the modern era, even worse than the two World Wars which Asia has always seen as regional conflicts.
Hence limiting the North Korean strategic pressure area and concurrently reducing the perception of strategic encirclement and impoverishment currently felt not only by the North Korean leaders, but also by the local population.
North Korea’s nuclear system, however, is needed: 1) to ensure the survival of the regime; 2) to support its military prestige and its weight, also at economic level; 3) to achieve an asymmetrical strategic superiority over South Korea.
South Korea has more and better trained armed forces, but it has a nuclear power system of which only the United States has the access keys.
Therefore it would be rational to shift from the rhetoric of North Korea’s total denuclearization – which is impossible to achieve and is strategically dangerous even for the United States – to a more rational “classic” negotiation for the strategic control of nuclear weapons, which we deem would be acceptable also for North Korea.
Since 2013 Kim Jong Un’s policy line has been to link economic development to nuclear projects, thus focusing all the North Korean Armed Forces’ efforts on the nuclear arsenal.
As all well-informed ruling classes do, the North Korean regime interprets its own choices on the basis of the recent history of the world’s leading strategic actors. Kim Jong Un knows all too well what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar El Gaddafi, although the Iraqi dictator had accepted the US “advice” and weapons to begin his ten-year war against the Iranian ayatollahs.
Furthermore, the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine is regarded by North Korea as the final break with the 1994 OSCE Agreement of Budapest, which mainly regarded Belarus’, Ukraine’s and Kazakhstan’s accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The agreement reached in the Hungarian capital city was guaranteed by the United States, Russia and Great Britain, while China and France had provided less precise assurances in separate documents.
Hence, against this general background, what does it mean and what is the point of sending an Italian general and MP to negotiate with North Korea?
What could Italy say to the leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, considering that Italy is a country blindly repeating the US and EU strategic mistakes?
Surely it could say something if it had some autonomous residual voice in the matter.
For example could it inform of the fact that – in a new context of resumption of the Six Party Talks for a policy designed to control North Korea’s nuclear potential – Italy would take the initiative (in the legal sense of the term) and the lead for North Korean economic development, jointly with China, where Italy is operating well?
Do you believe that two – albeit titled – quisque de populo can convince both the United States and Kim Jong Un? Or that the funny TV comedian Razzi can be enough?
Italy could also ensure that an agreement with Russia, China and the United States is reached for the progressive reduction of North Korean nuclear potential – not to be destroyed, but to be used together with investments for a new Korean industrialization.
Do we really want to entrust Federica Mogherini or General Rossi, the Defence Junior Minister of former Renzi’s government, with the task of saying so?
Everything can be done, only to later maintain that North Korea’s missiles can reach the EU “ahead of time” – as French Defence Minister Florence Parly said. Furthermore the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, has announced a new, unspecified “EU programme of sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” – a programme which, indeed, has been existing since 2006, in line with and implementing the sanctions decided by the United Nations.
Let us simply look at data and statistics. In 2016 trade between the EU and Korea was worth 27 million euros.
The current share of European investment is very low.
The restrictive measures – namely those already taken between 2006 and 2016, without Mogherini obviously knowing anything about them – regard the sale of technologies somehow related to the nuclear system, as well as any kind of computer software, dual use techniques, luxury goods and financial assistance.
As always happens, sanctions favour two equally dangerous actions for those who impose them: the development of internal substitution economies – often with lower production costs than those already recorded on imported goods – and intensified trade with friendly countries, which are really glad to gain the new market shares abandoned by those who moralize at people’s expense.
In fact trade between North Korea and China increased by ten times between 2001 and 2015.
In April 2016, however, China temporarily stopped coal imports from North Korea, with the only exception of the amounts connected with the “people’s wellbeing”.
Formal prostration – namely a kowtow – to the sanctions decided by the UN and also approved by China.
China, however, supplies North Korea with much of its food and with 90% of its total trade.
Moreover, in the first half of 2017, bilateral trade between China and North Korea has been 37.4% higher than during the same period of 2016.
Since September 2015 both countries have opened a fast cargo and container line for Korean coal exports, while a high-speed rail line is already operational between the border towns of Dandong and Shenyan.
Dandong is the town through which 70% of China-North Korea’s trade transits.
Obviously, for China, the primary goal in the Korean peninsula is political and strategic stability.
China deems that if there were any clash between South Korea, the United States and North Korea, no one could be declared the winner and, above all, China would see a huge number of migrants coming from the North Korean border, which would destabilize its Southern region.
Who would take advantage of it?
Moreover, with its missile programme, North Korea wants to play for time in order to solve the issue of its geoeconomic equilibria. It must still dispel some reservations on the resumption of the Six Party Talks, with specific reference to South Korea’s denuclearization – as this is not the strategic equation between the two Koreas – but a genuine Peace Treaty between North Korea and the United States would be really welcome.
This is what Kim Jong Un really wants.
This would put an end to the armistice and would create the conditions for a new negotiation between the United States, North Korea, Russia and China.
South Korea would have a Protection and Military and Civilian Aid Pact on the part of the United States, also signed by the other four participants in the Six Party Talks.
After signing the future Treaty between the United States and North Korea, a further South Korean protection treaty, including nuclear protection, should remain in place. In a new geopolitical context it could become an autonomous Region of a peninsular State that would include some Northern Russian and Chinese areas.
Hence weaken, control and again weaken. A careful regional geopolitics knows how to operate on Korean tensions.
The mistakes made in the previous negotiations with North Korea are now evident: the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea was based on the fact that the Americans were asking North Korea to stop its nuclear programme – a request which, however, was met.
In 2002 it was discovered that North Korea has an uranium-enrichment programme.
At that juncture, Bob Gallucci – a still unparalleled expert of relations between North Korea and the United States – admitted that the US real aim was to stop the plutonium operations rather than the enriched uranium ones.
Two different things, two different strategic lines.
That was the solution.
Instead of hoping for an impossible collapse of the North Korean regime, it was better to let it have a share of operations – at the time even accepted by IAEA.
Obviously, after 1989, the collapse of Communist regimes in the world and of their reference parties in the “capitalist” West created an understandable tension in North Korea.
The regime had supported Yasser Arafat and North Vietnam. It had a very special relationship – also at nuclear technological level – with East Germany and actively supported Somalia and other “Socialist” African States. It loved the Soviet Union that helped it with nuclear power, which in fact began there in the 1950s. It also had good and unavoidable relations with China which, however, could not materially help North Korea at least until the 1970s.
Ceausescu was one of the family in Pyongyang, as many leaders of the “Mediterranean Eurocommunism” of the time.
Nothing is as it may seem.
North Korea’s Communism and Kim Il Sung’s, in particular, was a comprehensive and global platform for effective negotiations between the East and the West.
It is worth recalling that the Six Party Talks started in 2003 and ended on September 19, 2005.
The final text made reference to the procedures for North Korea’s denuclearization. North Korea clearly stated its desire to formally stabilize its relations with the United States and the other Western countries. Mention was also made of the creation of a peace organization for the whole Korean peninsula, which should be the first issue for a smart and brilliant Italian mission to North Korea. In 2005 North Korea accepted and implemented the Six Parties’ agreement.
Hence forget about the rhetoric of “human rights” – more or less accurately identified, which happens seldom – and the further vilain” rhetoric – as Shakespeare’ vilain who embodies all evils and hence must be destroyed.
The issue lies in thinking about the strategy and carry out the rational operations it entails.
About the author:
*Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “La Centrale Finanziaria Generale Spa”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group and member of the Ayan-Holding Board. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title of “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France.
This article was published at Modern Diplomacy