The ominous spectre of a totalitarian regime transplanted to a western setting was a regular feature of dystopian post-war fiction for decades, covering everything from ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ through to television dramas like ‘1990’ (produced by BBC2 in 1977). The worst development for a democratic society was perceived to be adopting the Eastern Bloc model, though it proved to be a fruitful source of material for dramatists. Watching any new broadcasts from North Korea in 2017 – especially in the last couple of days – one cannot help but shiver at the way in which they appropriate all the clichés from futuristic fiction produced in the late twentieth century and come across as especially toe-curling. Then the viewer remembers that, for North Korean viewers, this is actually the real deal; this is what they see whenever they switch their TV sets on.
The news that North Korea’s latest foray into punching above its limited weight has been manifested as the launching of an intercontinental ballistic missile a couple of days ago has added further layers to increasing tensions in the Far East, arguably the world’s most prescient powder-keg whilst the planet’s eyes remain focused on the Middle East. Yes, the pre-inauguration promises of The Donald to ‘deal’ with the issue of North Korea reflected an awareness of the problem the tiny rogue nation poses to world peace; but it’s probably true to say so much attention has been devoted to instability in Middle Eastern hotspots ever since the 2003 invasion of Iraq that Kim Jong-un and his bizarre regime has been allowed to progress to nuclear power status largely unimpeded.
Trump expects China to pull its finger out and lay the law down to North Korea in a way that complements its long-time role as one of the country’s few allies; but, to be fair China’s real investment in North Korea expired several years ago. Kim Jong-un’s kingdom today largely exists on its own terms, without recourse to Beijing. China has too much money and good will invested in western powers (as well as Africa) to fall back on old alliances with archaic Stalinist states that have outlived their usefulness. Prior to Nixon’s groundbreaking approaches to Maoist China in the early 70s, Peking’s isolation from Moscow had forced it to forge allegiances behind the Bamboo Curtain; today, this no longer applies. It has friends in far higher places. In many respects, North Korea is viewed by China as an embarrassing throwback to old-school Communism that has little relevance to its own free-market interpretation of Marxism.
Since the distant days of Mao and Nixon, China has healed its rifts with Russia, and the Kremlin has exploited American fears of a nuclear arsenal that could reach as far from Pyongyang to Alaska by urging both sides to stop flexing their military muscles. The implicit accusation is that both sides are as bad as each other, and with such an unpredictable character as Trump in the White House, Russia could have a point. Then again, how is the US supposed to react when one of its own states is within the sights of Kim Jong-un’s toys? When an even closer nuclear arsenal was spotted on Cuba in 1962, America’s response could have had cataclysmic consequences for the world had not Kennedy successfully called Khrushchev’s bluff. The thought of Donald Trump being placed in a similar situation is not one guaranteed to ease sleepless nights.
The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that ‘it is perfectly clear to Russia and China that any attempts to justify the use of force by referring to the UN Security Council resolutions are unacceptable, and will lead to unpredictable consequences in this region which borders both the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China’. Yes, at times, North Korea, with its endless military parades and penchant for showing off its big missiles, is reminiscent of a man constantly stressing how hard he is without actually putting his money where his mouth is; but being able to distinguish between the reality of its threat and the propaganda is difficult when few outsiders can gain access to it.
Fifteen years on from being bracketed along with Iran and Iraq as ‘The Axis of Evil’, North Korea remains a stubborn sore on the planet’s backside, led by a man even more unhinged than his late father. The phrase itself was credited to George W Bush’s speechwriter David Frum, and it reeks of old world order certainties, whereby ‘rogue states’ were headed by unelected dictators redefined as cartoon Bond villains; they ruled over specific landmasses with clearly defined borders that could be found on maps of the world. It’s no coincidence that ‘Axis of Evil’ sounds like a team of Marvel super-villains that can only be defeated by the Fantastic Four or the Avengers. Such terms simplify antiquated concepts of evil and make them palatable to a western audience raised on Good Vs Evil battles in black & white terms via the movies and the inherited memories of the Second World War, when we knew who our friends and enemies were.
It was telling that Dubya reserved his ire for Iraq above the other two members of the club, extending the simplicity of his language to describe the ‘Axis’ by assuming the problem of Iraq could be solved simply by invading the country and removing Saddam Hussein from power. Ironically, the consequences of Dubya’s intervention there have probably served to dilute his monochrome vision of evil so that what we have today is the likes of ISIS – a fluid, multi-headed, stateless organisation that may view itself as a state even if it’s no more a state as we would recognise it than Israel was before 1948. At least we can still understand North Korea. It adheres to the traditional template.
President Trump said today ‘something will have to be done’ about North Korea in response to its ‘very bad behaviour’; what that ‘something’ is remains to be seen, though America’s recent record when dealing with small, insignificant Asian countries that stand up to it isn’t exactly a blueprint for success. As the Sun said a few years back in one of its occasionally inspired front-page headlines, how do you solve a problem like Korea? It would appear nobody yet has the answer.
© The Editor