Just how Prime Minister John Key thought that invoking the “proud history” of our 1950s Korean War contribution would help to minimize the current tensions on the Korean peninsula is anyone’s guess. If nothing else, such utterances would confirm the worst fears of the paranoid clique in North Korea that the imperialist war-mongers were indeed out to get them, once again. Key has since backpedaled and said that New Zealand would in fact “consider its position” and that he was talking about an extreme situation that was very unlikely to happen. Which only makes one wonder why if that’s the case, why did he mention the prospect of war in the first place?
If it was thought through at all, Key’s initial statement – in which he said New Zealand would support the US and Australia if it came to war – indicated that it would be the actions of those traditional allies, and not a UN mandate, that would be the main determinant of our response to any military aggression by North Korea. That’s quite a shift from the more independent, UN-focused foreign policy stance of the Clark government – which served to keep us out of the fighting in Iraq, when it was very clear that a National-led government would have dutifully followed our traditional allies into that misguided conflict. This time, Key’s “proud history” signal about North Korea was probably intended for Washington’s ears. In the same week that we are winding down our efforts in Afghanistan, Key chose to re-assure Washington that come the worst over North Korea, New Zealand could be relied on to support any action that the US and Australia should deem appropriate.
The “proud history” statement and the subsequent backpedal haven’t been a good start to Key’s China expedition, if the PM was hoping that China would be a diversion from the gaffes that marked his handling of the Fletcher affair. In China, Key will be leading a large New Zealand trade delegation – including leaders in tourism, dairy trade and education – that will be arriving in the country just as many other world leaders are attending the Boao Forum on Hainan, the Asian equivalent of the Davos summit held in Switzerland. Key will reportedly have only six minutes to address the Forum proper.
Just in case Key should try to advise his Chinese hosts how to use their influence on their allies in North Korea, perhaps Key should read this article in Atlantic magazine first, which is based on a report by the US Council of Foreign Relations on the relationship between the two countries.
Yes, China provides 90 percent of North Korea’s energy imports, 80 percent of its consumer goods, and 45 percent of its food. Does that give China leverage over North Korea? Not as much as you’d think, as the Atlantic points out: “If China suddenly decided to cut ties to its mercurial neighbor, North Korea would almost certainly collapse. That, precisely, is the point: China really, really doesn’t want North Korea to collapse.” And why not? Because (a) a collapse would create a flood of refugees across the border into China and because (b) any collapse of the Kim regime in North Korea – especially if it led to the re-unification of the two Koreas, would result in China having a new, US–friendly regime right on its border. Even in its current dismal state, North Korea still plays a very useful role for China as a buffer zone.
South Korea has a different version of the same concerns. Any collapse of the Kim regime would send a tidal wave of refugees south as well. And while the yearning for re-unification is a central aspect of Korean nationalism, the South Koreans are also realists. They know that re-unification would lower their standard of living for a generation, as they struggled to lift their Northern compatriots out of their current feudal state and into the 21st century. Essentially, Korean re-unification would be the problems of the German re-unification of the 1990s multiplied by a hundred fold – since West Germany at least was dealing with a fairly well educated, reasonably literate influx from East Germany after the Wall came down. The gap between the two Koreas is far wider. Re-unification would be far more painful, and costly.
The Kim regime in North Korea knows all this. They know that their apparent weakness is in fact, their strength. That’s why they can, and do, flout China’s attempts at controlling them. So Key (and Julia Gillard) should back off from telling China how to deal with Pyongyang. It would be like outsiders telling a family that they’ve got to do something about that crazy nephew of theirs. The family is very aware of the problem. And aware of how little they can do to control the nephew, without causing some really nasty repercussions for themselves – who’d have to look after the kids, and Lord knows who might move in next door – as well as for everyone else in the neighbourhood.