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‘Nuclear Tinderbox’: Kim’s Threats Put North Korea on Wrong Side of History

As a distracted world looks elsewhere, US and China have a common interest in halting Asia’s accelerating nuclear arms race

or western liberals and progressive champions of open, democratic government, a clutch of recalcitrant regimes around the world seems firmly stuck on what Barack Obama once called “the wrong side of history”. Iran’s misogynistic theocrats and Myanmar’s genocidal generals are among the worst offenders.

Then there’s Vladimir Putin’s Russia, harking back to largely illusory former glories. Belarus, Syria, Nicaragua, Cambodia and Eritrea meet the regressive criteria, too. What all these regimes have in common is denial of the basic human right to self-determination – the individual’s right to have a say in how society is ordered.

Yet for sheer malignity, few can match autocratic, anachronistic North Korea, personal fiefdom and Kafkaesque playground of dictator Kim Jong-un, oddball scion of a dysfunctional dynasty. Like his father and grandfather before him, jailer Kim imprisons North Koreans in a sort of darkness-at-noon, cold war hell.

Kim’s leadership history shows just how wrong-sided he is. To unaddressed poverty, chronic food shortages and economic bungling must be added his inept response to the pandemic. A police state, fortified by prison camps, condemns most of his subjects to silent misery. Democratic, prosperous South Korea next door is a constant reproach. For a while, around 2017-2019, it appeared Kim might change course. UN and US sanctions were hurting, domestic pressures mounted. But Donald Trump, having blagged a rare diplomatic opening, messed up big time. After that fiasco, Kim dropped the North’s longstanding aim of normalising ties with the west – and lurched back to the dark side.

Preferring fear and force to peaceful development, Kim and his nuclear arsenal grow evermore threatening. Tests of ballistic missiles, some capable of striking the US, have proliferated rapidly. Last week’s first successful launch of a military spy satellite dangerously upped the ante once again.

A grinning Kim was subsequently shown viewing supposed aerial surveillance photos of the US air force’s Andersen base on Guam in the western Pacific. He vowed to build more satellites in order to extend the “fist” of North Korea’s military, state media said.

Officials in South Korea, Japan and the US angrily condemned the launch, which breached UN resolutions. In response, Seoul partially suspended a military pact agreed in 2018 to avoid accidental cross-border clashes. Now North Korea is threatening live-fire exercises along the demarcation line. And so the risk of confrontation grows.

One worry is that wars in Ukraine and Palestine, and high-profile US-China sparring over Taiwan, are obscuring greater, existential dangers posed by Kim. “While the world’s attention is focused elsewhere, north-east Asia has become a nuclear tinderbox,” Susan Thornton, former US assistant secretary of state for east Asia, warned this month.

“A full-scale arms race is under way. North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear weapons and missiles has grown and Kim has called for an ‘exponential increase’ in its arsenal,” she wrote. With all the regional actors moving towards “hair-trigger strategies”, some American officials believed nuclear annihilation was only “one bad decision away”.

The threat is ubiquitous and covert, too. UK security chiefs last week accused Kim of orchestrating cyber-attacks around the world. The claim came during a visit to London by South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk Yeol, partly intended to boost defence ties.

Kim’s shift also has a strategic dimension – for he’s clearly thrown in his lot with Russia and China. A recent summit with Putin focused almost entirely on armaments. The US believes Pyongyang is now supplying ammunition for Russia’s war in Ukraine in exchange for Moscow’s help with long-range missile and space launch technology.

These developments have symbolic as well as practical import. In effect, Kim is betting on the success of China’s attempt to usurp the post-1945, rules-based global leadership of the western democracies and substitute an authoritarian, human rights-free world order orchestrated from Beijing.

China’s president, Xi Jinping, buoyed by his “no limits” partnership with Putin, makes no secret of his wish to supplant the US. His ambition is a rallying cry to despotic, illiberal and democratically challenged regimes everywhere – and North Korea has evidently heard Xi’s siren call. It’s Kim’s big chance. Finally, or so he thinks, he could be on the right side of history.

Is Kim wrong again? The jury is still out on the 21st-century’s big geostrategic question. In the meantime, Xi’s face-to-face talks with US President Joe Biden in San Francisco this month appeared to ease bilateral tensions. Regarding North Korea, the White House said, they discussed denuclearisation of the peninsula and Kim’s possible next nuclear test.

Biden is trying to contain the North Korea menace and simultaneously respond to China’s rise, partly by strengthening regional alliances.

When it comes to Kim’s random, provocative antics, even Xi is not entirely sure what to expect

The US, Japan and South Korea signed a trilateral security pact in August. That followed Biden’s upgrading of the Quad, which groups the US, India, Japan and Australia; the new Aukus pact with Australia and the UK; and enhanced American support for the Philippines and Taiwan.

China views these developments with a mix of hostility and paranoia. Yet when it comes to Kim’s random, provocative antics, even Xi is not entirely sure what to expect.

Beijing is the North’s key trading partner. But it is suspicious, for example, of its growing military cooperation with Russia, not always a trustworthy friend to China. And like Japan and South Korea, it worries about nuclear security and stability.

That’s one reason, perhaps, why Xi has unexpectedly initiated a high-level dialogue with Tokyo and Seoul. It also suggests intensifying shared concerns about Pyongyang’s unpredictable panjandrum could yet prove a spur to enhanced China-US collaboration, building on this month’s talks.

Strange to think that scary Kim’s true historical destiny may not be to pick the “right” or “wrong” side – but to inadvertently act as a bridge between the world’s two great superpower rivals.

Source : The Guardian