Interview with Sir Malcolm Rifkind on North Korea, part 1

Photo: Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former UK Defence (1992-1995) and Foreign Secretary (1995-1997) and Chairman of Intelligence and Security Committee

VM: — Soon, the leaders of the US, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan will meet in Vietnam at Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum and North Korea will be in the centre of the talks. Korean Peninsula has become the hottest and the most dangerous region in the world. Here, the world has come as close to a nuclear war, as nowhere else. The system of nuclear non-proliferation is collapsing. The crisis in US – North Korea relations threatens lives of millions of people. The US President Donald Trump threatened North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with aircraft-career group and nuclear submarines, which are considered weapons of last reserve… What do you think about the policy of the present US Administration? What will happen, if Kim Jong-un turned to be “tough guy” and will not succumb under the US threats?
MR: — I do not agree that the system of non-proliferation is “collapsing”. Iran has, at least for the next few years, terminated its nuclear programme. No other country, so far as we know, apart from North Korea, is developing nuclear weapons capability. There is the serious risk, however, that if North Korea achieves its ambition of deploying nuclear weapons there would be pressure within Japan and South Korea to go the same route.
We should not underestimate US determination to prevent North Korea becoming a state that could threaten the United States, itself, as well as her allies, with inter continental nuclear weapons. The North Korean leader says that that is his objective and if Hilary Clinton had become President her strategy would be the same as Trump’s even if the rhetoric was different.
The key to avoiding a military confrontation is, of course, China which has, in recent years, failed to use all the economic and diplomatic leverage it has to force the North Koreans to the negotiating table. There are modest signs that that may be changing. There has been a significant increase in the price for gas in North Korea, which might be the result of tough economic sanctions on petroleum imports imposed by Beijing.
The objective must be to persuade North Korea towards a deal as similar as possible to that negotiated with Iran before it is too late. Russia, too, can encourage Kim Jong-un towards negotiation. Trump’s willingness to declare that it is no part of his objective to bring down the North Korean regime was a serious indication that he would favour negotiation over military confrontation.
North Korea is much weaker, economically, than Iran was when it agreed to negotiation. If Russia and European states can make clear to Xi Jiaoping that China should use its economic muscle to ensure peace on the Korean peninsula the current crisis could be resolved.
VM: — The world community opposes attempts by North Korea to become a nuclear power with missile capability to deliver nuclear warhead thousand kilometers away from its borders. The question is how to make North Korean leadership to stop developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
It is clear that this can be achieved only through negotiations. Trump and North Korean leader both are in favour of negotiations. North Korea insists on guarantees of its security and protection from any attack. Kim Jong-un demands, as a first step, the cancellation of military exercises of the US armed forces in South Korea. That was his message sent through the Chinese leader Xi Jiaoping to Trump. However, the US leader preferred to further increase military threat and to use China to apply additional pressure on North Korean leader.
North Korean leader responded with nuclear tests, including the recent test of hydrogen bomb, and ballistic missile tests.
What will happen next?
MR: — The time for the United States or anyone else, to offer concessions to North Korea in exchange for Kim Jong-un terminating his nuclear weapons programme would be as part of negotiations that were already under way. So far, the North Koreans have shown little interest in a negotiated, diplomatic initiative that would end the crisis.
VM: — I am afraid that Trump and other Western leaders overestimate capacity of China to influence and apply pressure on North Korea. Juche, traditional Korean medieval philosophy, which serves as ideological foundation of the regime in North Korea. It is based on the idea that Koreans, if they want to survive and succeed as nation, cannot yield to any pressure. This is the main principle of the Koreans mentality based on Juche, grown up in communist country and nourished among the North Koreans by the regime in isolation through several generations.
I am afraid that China may stop some export and import operations with North Korea, it may create additional problems to North Korean economy, but it will fail to force Kim Jong-un to stop his defence programmes in the situation, when the US increases its military presence on the Korean Peninsular. Will it be more appropriate to make changes in the US approach to the Korean problem and to reduce military presence and tension?
MR: — I do not doubt that the North Korean regime wish to maintain their country’s independence and the power of the regime itself. I would not expect them to sacrifice their vital interests because of external pressure from China or anyone else.
But the issue here is their nuclear weapons programme. They may, at present, see that nuclear programme as a vital interest. But they must also see a good relationship with China as also a vital interest in preserving their power. They rely on China for most of their energy supplies and as a conduit for their trade. They have no other allies, except Russia to a certain degree.
Losing Chinese friendship would do serious damage to their vital interests. China cannot force them to stop their nuclear weapons programme but can force them to make a choice between that programme and Chinese friendship and cooperation. If they lose their access to China for their energy and other vital supplies they seriously endanger their ability to ensure their independence and finance their weapons programmes.
In any event the purpose of international pressure (including that from China) is not, in the first instance, to demand that the North Koreans drop their nuclear weapons programme. It is to seek to persuade them to enter into meaningful dialogue and negotiations with South Korea, with the United States and the wider international community to identify alternative ways of safeguarding their independence and perceived national interests. So far, they have shown no serious interest in doing so, hence the need for serious pressure and sanctions from China, Russia and the rest of the international community.
VM: Pressure from China and Russia has limitation, and the Korean leader knows it well. North Korea is a buffer zone protecting Chinese and Russian borders. Both, China and Russia, don’t want North Korea to obtain nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. These systems threaten not only South Korea, Japan and US military basis, but they are potential threat to all neighboring countries, including China and Russia.
However, if North Korea collapses under military attack or under economic sanctions, the US bases and missiles will appear on the Chinese and Russian borders, as they appeared in Rumania, Poland and Baltic States. Neither China, nor Russia can accept this. In case of a real threat to North Korea, China and Russia will be forced to support it. Kim Jong-un understands this perfectly well.
Kim Jong-un looks at nuclear weapons as the only one guarantee of his and North Korea survival and protection from the US. China and Russia look at North Korea as the guarantee of their borders protection. How is it possible to depend on China and Russia in attempt to force Kim Jong-un to abandon his nuclear and ballistic missile program? Is it more reasonable to reduce threat to North Korea, as Kim Jong-un demands? His demands are supported by China, Russia and even by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the majority of the population of South Korea. Now Japan and other countries in the region also demand reduction of tension. How far will Donald Trump go with his pressure? Don’t you think that there are other reasons behind the US strategy?
MR: I fully understand the points that you are making but the question you ask leaves out a crucial dimension. If North Korea is allowed to become a nuclear weapons state that will be an unprecedented threat to Japan and South Korea not just to the United States. They will feel bound to respond. They can only do so in one of the two ways. Either they will, very reluctantly, become nuclear weapons states themselves or the United States will be required to expand its military presence in the Far East and give to Japan and South Korea the same guarantee that is given to non-nuclear European countries under Article 5 of the NATO treaty. That could even include the presence, for the first time, of nuclear weapons in Japan and South Korea, as is the case in Western Europe, including Germany.
It has been a prime objective of both Russia and China to work for a reduction and, if possible, an end to the American military presence in the Far East. Their current reluctance to put pressure on North Korea would make that inconceivable for the foreseeable future. The American presence would become even greater than it has been including the inescapable need for anti-ballistic missile weapons systems in both Japan and South Korea.
There is a final consideration. At present Kim Jong-un’s main preoccupation is to safeguard his regime. If he is allowed to become a nuclear weapons power without resistance he is quite likely to expand his ambitions and begin to think that he could also dominate South Korea and force reunification of the peninsula under Pyongyang not Seoul.
Buffer states are of little strategic use if your potential enemy has nuclear weapons. It is about time that Russia and China realise that their long term strategic interest as regards North Korea and Kim Jong-un is not very different from the United States.

Backgrounder 1:

In 1950-s and 1960-s, independent position of the North Koreans and their leader Kim Il-sung was understood in the West as an attempt by Kim Il-sung to distance North Korea from China and the Soviet Union, as freezing of the relations with “two Big Brothers”.
Some of the Soviet leaders, including Nikita Khruschev, also found Kim Il-sung’s policy “unpleasantly surprising” and not “pro-Soviet”.
The Chinese leader Mao Zedong also was unhappy with refusal by Kim Il-sung to follow Maoist path and policy.
At that time, the Soviet Union and China applied tremendous pressure on the Korean leader trying to force him to follow Moscow or Beijing. The economic, financial and military help from both “Brothers” was reduced tremendously, but nothing worked. The North Koreans faced the difficulties in the economic development, but kept their policy.
I am to stress that from Juche point of view, the policy of the first leader of North Korea was absolutely “pro-Soviet” and “pro-Chinese”. It was simply based on one of the basic principles of Juche, on the believe that only through independence and self-reliance the Koreans and their State can become not only successful for themselves, but also important and helpful for the Soviet Union, China and the international communist movement. The Koreans understood that by simply following the USSR or China, copying them, North Korea will be unsuccessful, it would weaken the Communist movement, not strengthen it.
Mao was more close to Korean mentality, compared to Khruschev. He understood Juche better, and the Chinese leader was clever enough to maintain relations with North Korea.
The leaders of the Soviet Union had not understood the Korean leader. More, they were offended by the bias of North Korean leaders, because of the tight links of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il to the Soviet Union.
Kim Il-sung married in the Soviet Union. His son, Kim Jong-il was born in the Soviet Union and had the second, Russian name — Yuri. Both of them spoke Russian language fluently. Kim Jong-il ( Yuri Kim ) spoke Russian language without any accent.

Photo: Kim Il-sung with his family

From Nikita Khruschev’s and Leonid Brezhnes’s point of view, the Korean leaders were to be and remain the members of the “Soviet team”. The development of the Korean ideology, based on mixing Juche and Marxism, was met in Moscow by Soviet leaders with suspicion and disapproval. Nikita Khruschev and Leonid Brezhnev were both from Ukraine and had the Ukrainian mentality, which is different from native Russian, which is more close to the Eastern mentality and accepts more religious and cultural diversity. As a result, the USSR drifted away from North Korea.
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, he looked mainly at the West and did not bother about North Korean or Chinese ideas. Boris Eltsin went even further and didn’t bother to congratulate Kim Jong-il ( Yuri Kim) with becoming new Leader of North Korea after death of his farther Kim Il-sung! Only when Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia and North Korea returned to cooperation and friendly relations. Kim Jong-il visited Russia, went to Siberia, where he was born, and to Moscow. He lived in the Moscow Kremlin.
The Commandant of the Grand Kremlin Palace and the Residence of the President in the Kremlin Nickolay Dyomin told me one story about Kim Jong-il’s visit to Moscow. Dyomin asked North Korean leader if he would like to have something what reminds him of his childhood, when he lived in Russia. Kim Jong-il asked if it is possible to get a salty cucumber. At that time, he said, there were cucumbers, very big, puckered, salted in big wooden barrels, with salty water inside.

Photo: Kim Jong-Il (Yuri Kim)

Actually, these were the cucumbers produced in the Soviet times, the cheapest, about 5 pence per kg. These cucumbers were not produced since 1980-s, and that became the most difficult operation of the Russian Federal Service of Guards to find the cucumbers, not available in the shops, thousands kilometers away from Moscow, somewhere in the Far North, at the warehouse and deliver these cucumbers into the Kremlin. It was done in 24 hours. Kim Jong-il was really happy eating salty cucumbers with every meal…

VM: You have just raised two very important points. One is regarding Pyongyang’s, as you said, “ambitions” to dominate on Korean peninsula, and another one that strategic interest of China and Russia in Korea ”is not very different from the United States”.
Let us consider the first one. I am sure that the North Korean’s plans and “ambitions” to dominate South Korea and re-unite Korea under Pyongyang are much older and of much higher priority than nuclear ambitions.
Pyongyang is sure that the USA stands in the way and prevents unification of Korea. If the US is kept out of the Korean peninsula, the Koreans will be united very soon under Pyongyang, — that is the understanding of Kim Jong-un, and that was the understanding of his farther Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung.
Is it possible to change this mentality by force, by pressure so vividly demonstrated in Donald Trump’s speeches in the UN, in Japan, in South Korea and in China? Is it possible to change the policy of Pyongyang and to convince North Korea to terminate its main defence programme without guaranteeing its security and, what is equally important for Pyongyang, of non-interference by the USA in Korean affairs, mainly in the process of re-unification?

MR I do not doubt that the North Korean regime’s aspiration to reunify Korea under Pyongyang’s rule preceded their nuclear programme. The point, however, is that without nuclear weapons Kim Jong-un could never expect to defeat South Korea.
South Korea, with a population of 51 million, is twice as large as North Korea. Its wealth and GDP are vastly greater than that of North Korea. It is North Koreans who flee, in their thousands, to South Korea whenever they get the opportunity. Very few choose to go from the South to the North.
South Korea has powerful armed forces of its own as well as being able to call on the US if they were the subject of attack.
Only if North Korea had a monopoly of nuclear weapons would they be able to threaten nuclear blackmail against the South and, in the absence of help from the US, force them to submit to Pyongyang. If Kim Jong-un was to succeed in deploying nuclear weapons, without China doing all it can to try to stop him, the North Koreans would be tempted to turn up the pressure on Seoul. That cannot be allowed to happen.

Backgrounder 2

Korea never attacked or conquered any neighbor. Korea was the colony of Japan until the end of the Second World War. In 1945, Korea was divided in two zones: one – under control of the Soviet Union, and the other one – under control of the USA. The American part declared itself as a separate state – the Republic of Korea in 1948. For the Koreans, that meant that the US divided Korea, and as reaction to this decision, the territory on the North was proclaimed as Peoples Democratic Republic of North Korea. The plans to re-unite Korea were born in Pyongyang at that time.
In 1950, the war was started by North Korea as the war not against the Koreans of the South, but for liberation and unification, for the united Korea. According to the official Soviet history, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was against this decision by Kim Il-sung, but both, the Soviet Union and China were forced to support Pyongyang. The North Koreans and the Chinese volunteers, assisted unofficially by the Soviet military supplies and advisers, were fighting this war against the US, though the US were fighting this war under the UN flag.
1,3 million Koreans and 1 million Chinese volunteers, including the son of Mao Zedong, the Chinese leader, who was young lieutenant and fought as volunteer for North Korea, were killed in that war.
Now, there is information that in the Soviet archives there are documents, which show that Stalin approved the decision by Kim Il-sung to start the war against the US. It is obvious, that Mao Zedong also new and approved Kim’s decision. That means that the re-unification of Korea under Pyongyang was in strategic interest of both, of the USSR and China.
Kim Il-sung was the officer, captain of the Soviet Army during the Second World War. He was selected and supported by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Communist International and the Soviet Secret Service in raising to power.
However, even at that time Kim Il-sung kept independent position. For example, he was against making Korean revolutionary units as part of the Soviet Army. He insisted that revolutionary forces of different nations should keep their independence. Protecting his views, Kim Il-sung confronted the Head of the Soviet Secret Service in Siberia, where he lived at that time. Can you imagine? Confronting Soviet Secret Service in Stalin’s times! He appealed to Stalin personally and luckily got Stalin’s support.
Only in 1942, when it became clear that the war between the Soviet Union and Japan is inevitable, the Korean fighters were included in the Soviet Army and Kim-Il-sung became the commander of the unit of the Soviet Special Forces to fight on the Chinese territory occupied by Japan and to liberate Korea, and that he was doing in 1950, now against the US and Japan.
The war was stopped in 1953, but no peace treaty was signed. There was no political settlement. The plans for re-unification of Korea remained and still remain as the first priority of Pyongyang.
North Korea is still looking at the USA as its enemy. It gets itself ready for the war. There is no peace, only temporary truce. The ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons are considered by Kim Jong-un not as weapons of re-unification of Korea, but as weapons, which can stop the US to attack North Korea.
(To be continued)

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