FOUNDER TOM PLATE WRITES — How can a fiery logjam be tamed by throwing more logs onto the fire?
The Backstory: The Korean mess began brewing long before the current U.S. administration took power. It is true that since January President Donald Trump’s madman/rocket man pugnacity has unnerved just about everyone except North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. But his administration did inherit a backlog of dreary-decades. The inheritance? No U.S. embassy in Pyongyang – and this since the 1953 Korean War ceasefire. No more Six Party Talks, despite the urging of the Chinese, who after all only live next door to the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and might deserve to be listened to carefully. And a missile-and-nuclear buildup in one of the world’s strangest places.
U.S. diplomacy, notwithstanding the occasional uptick, has been bland – hemmed in by an American media that sees only black-and-white, by a Congress than cannot see beyond blind anti-communism, and by a human-rights lobby that’s avoids the obvious, which is that to contain suffering you sometimes need to negotiate directly with the causer-in-chief.
Why not try to re-ignite diplomacy and avoid the risk of war by mixing up the diplomatic chemistry? Consider the recent ‘ray of hope’ editorial in China Daily that shined international attention into alert diplomatic and media circles. No wonder. In effect, it offered a chair at the negotiating table to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has begun to view Germany’s role on the world stage in a more expansive mode, and who this weekend won the right to a fourth consecutive term as Chancellor, though not easily.
China has something big in mind for her. Wrote China Daily earlier this month: “Today even the most sanguine geopolitical analyst would have to concede that the Korean Peninsula nuclear crisis has reached the most critical, if not the most dangerous, stage.… It is thus welcome news that Chancellor Merkel is ready to play a diplomatic mediator’s role to help break the peninsula deadlock…. Merkel referred to the negotiations that led to Iran curtailing its nuclear program as a ‘possible format’ for resolving the DPRK nuclear issue. Merkel’s suggestion echoes the rational voices in the international community that the DPRK nuclear issue should be resolved through peaceful consultations, and that war should never be an option.”
Seasoned diplomats in Asia and Europe were quite struck by this. China Daily, after all, is a major newspaper whose views can be counted on to reflect the central government’s thinking with precise fidelity. What’s more, Beijing rarely favors widening the circle of nations involved in a dispute in its own backyard. But, believes George Yeo, the brainy former Singapore foreign minister who has been to North Korea: “Chancellor Merkel would not have made the offer without some indication by China and possibly others that Germany’s involvement is welcome…. The Six Party Talks had not been able to make progress. Both North and South Korea suspect, with good justification, that the major powers are not in really in favour of eventual reunification which is the deep desire of all Korean people. The participation of a Germany reunited after decades of painful division sends a very different signal and may help to lower tension – and save face all round.”
China Daily painted pro-West Germany as a neutral interlocutor, admiring Merkel’s aversion to Wagnerian theatrics: “… Since Germany has no direct interest in the conflict, Merkel may be in a better position to help ease Pyongyang’s existential worries …. Although it is far too early to say whether Merkel’s sedate diplomacy would help stabilize the Korean Peninsula, the efforts made by Germany, and other countries, in the pursuit of a peaceful resolution to the DPRK issue will help build mutual trust and reduce the chances of war. Any effort toward that goal is highly commendable.”
The German chancellor will be quite busy hammering out a new governing coalition in the Bundestag with an ominous far-right party looking for trouble. The final vote could have turned out better for her. Even so, world diplomats agree that if Merkel were to pick up on Beijing’s invitation, she would emerge as a serious player and can place Germany (and thus Europe) as a ‘cooler’ between the aggrieved parties, the U.S. and DPRK. “The Chinese want a strong Germany because this will help create a third pole in the world which gives them more room in their relationship with the US,” adds Yeo.
Someone of global stature, such as Merkel, could help advance this scenario, as if some political psychiatrist doing couples counseling. Further stupid slanging between Trump and Kim Jong Un only adds the potential for serious injury to current insult. In a crisis, careful, sound diplomacy can prove a more deeply-rooted force for long-term stability than war, which creates destruction that’s not invariably creative.
America’s mad-tweeter mercurial leader seems ill-suited to captain the near-universal desire for de-escalation. Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, puts this well: “The problem with the madman strategy is that, if it can be turned on and off, it loses its credibility, while if it is wholly natural, it becomes dangerous. Trump’s inarticulacy, inconsistency and short attention span, combined with the constant efforts of his staff to provide a reassuring gloss on whatever he has said, are encouraging a tendency to ignore his statements.”
Similarly, North Korea’s young Kim should keep his missiles on the ground and his mouth, frankly, shut. It is high time for statesmen of substance and character to take center stage in the Korean crisis and prevent a risky slide into some nuclear nightmare. The Korean mess is no longer only a regional crisis. The world, after all, is still in the middle of the nuclear age. The fires of the next war may not be so conventional.
Columnist and Loyola Marymount University Prof Tom Plate’s new book about China and the U.S., from Marshall Cavendish Singapore, is titled ‘Yo-Yo-Diplomacy’. This column was published Tuesday 26 October in the South China Morning Post, where Plate is an op-ed columnist.