Wed, Jan 31, 2018 - Page 9 News List

The Korean thaw and global post-diplomacy

By Ian Inkster and Mark Lai

Back to North Korea. Other things being equal, it might be expected that an exhausted poor nation, even one under a proto-religious, familial and cultist dictatorship, would slow down its relentless search for status and national security once its nuclear capability had risen to the level of an effective threat. That seems to have become a working understanding within the existing nuclear club, at least until recently.

This could even be extended to the thought that effective deterrence reduces threats from the US or China or more certainly South Korea, and it allows a more relaxed political strategy and even — for the first time in a long, long while — some economic growth and a greater focus on social welfare.

Does the present thaw represent any measure of this? Almost certainly not. Rich nations such as the US or Britain have been prepared to increase nuclear capabilities in the face of slowing economic growth and growing social inequality. And, despite the tiredness of their institutions and the tiresomeness of their leaderships, they are indisputably democracies.

However, the real reason that we might not expect a result for North Korea that is even loosely in conformity with history since 1945 is that the global context of its new nuclear capability has changed so radically in the past few years.

For at least the last decade or so, developments of information technologies that have spread information flows not only geographically, but geopolitically — excluding almost no one from learning of very recent statements, events or intentions; destroying thoughtful diplomacy everywhere — have removed the room to move and to adjust to nuclear newcomers. Secondly, over the past year or so this feature has combined with the even more rapid deterioration of global governance (institutions) and political leadership (a handful of hot-spot political groups headed by relative outsiders to diplomacy).

James Clapper, a former US director of national intelligence and a normally cautious public servant, recently described US President Donald Trump’s behavior and actions in diplomatic matters as “downright scary and disturbing.” This immediately introduces as a major component of any thoughts on North Korea what is now best seen as a first phase of global post-diplomacy.

At the beginning of the nuclear arms race, the leaders — the US, the USSR, the UK and France — were also the leading conventional weapons powers, and had long been the largest economies of the world, the exception being the non-nuclear and treaty-bound Japanese. They had much to lose from a nuclear war, and the task of diplomacy was to safeguard global checks and balances.

Today, nations are driving themselves into abject poverty to gain nuclear status. The underdevelopment of conventional weaponry among lesser economies is indeed a major cause of the rise of global terrorism — on the one hand, there is nuclear capability; on the other, sporadic terrorist attacks, with far less of conventional warfare in between.

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