Kim and Putin Meet Amid Scenes Reminiscent of 1949

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin have met in an eagerly awaited summit near the city of Vladivostok. It is the first meeting between the two and follows the recent breakdown in talks between Kim and US President Donald Trump at their summit in Hanoi.

The early indications are that the meeting proceeded positively, with lots of friendly gesturing and declarations of mutual trust and support. Putin rather amusingly stated that “We need to restore the power of international law, to return to a state where international law, not the law of the strongest, determines the situation in the world”. Hypocritical yes…but pointedly aimed at Mr Trump nonetheless.

That the exchange was “very meaningful” – to use Kim’s phrase – is hardly surprising given how much is riding on the outcome.

North Korea needs economic relief, hampered as it is by international sanctions relating to its nuclear weapons programme.  For the Russians, it is another opportunity to undermine American prestige and take the lead in de-nuclearisation talks, something of significance to Moscow given the country’s shared border with North Korea.

North Korea and Russia share a short but significant border

Kim and his government have returned to a more bellicose stance in the wake of Hanoi, blaming the Americans (and particularly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo) for derailing talks, even though they offered little in the way of concessions themselves.  There is a degree of desperation – or at least hopefulness – in Kim’s visit to see Putin, with the stakes seemingly higher for him than his Russian counterpart.

To an extent, it is reminiscent of the meeting between Kim’s grandfather – North Korean founder Kim Il-sung – and Joseph Stalin in 1949 when the nascent communist state was feeling increasingly imperilled by the US-backed democratic government in South Korea.

Kim went to Stalin cap-in-hand and asked for assistance.  In a transcript of the official Soviet notes from the meeting, Stalin is apparently disinterested.  His responses are short, sometimes receptive other times dismissive.  He doesn’t seem to profess a great interest in supporting North Korea yet knows that as the leader of a new communist world he is somewhat duty bound.

Typical exchanges from the meeting are as follows:

Comrade Stalin says fine and asks in what amount they need credit.

Kim from 40 to 50 million American dollars.

Comrade Stalin – fine, what else?

Later we get:

Comrade Stalin asks in what currency they wish to receive credit.

Kim answers in American dollars.

Comrade Stalin answers that we do not now calculate in dollars but we calculate in rubles.

It’s clear who is in charge.

Putin is likely to be similarly lukewarm to the North Korean advances.  Russia has enough issues – both domestic and foreign – to consider without having to worry about North Korea.  Yet as the de facto lead (along with China) of the anti-America cabal in international politics, Moscow necessarily listens.

Of course, the true nature of Kim’s trip to Moscow in 1949 is obscured by the officially sanctioned notes. Stalin’s military and economic support ultimately gave Kim the confidence to invade his southern neighbours and push democracy on the Korean Peninsula to the brink of annihilation. Only a full-scale American invasion prevented the Seoul regime from collapsing.

Kim Il-sung with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1958 – the North Koreans attempted to straddle the Sino-Soviet split when it came

Putin’s support – along with that of Chinese President Xi Jinping – may embolden Kim Jong-un to stay his own course, albeit within the constraints of sanctions.  Neither Putin nor Xi want a nuclearised Korean Peninsula but it is highly likely that they see such a scenario as preferable to a unified Korea under democratic leadership, backed by American military power on Asian soil.

Unlike Stalin, whose gambit in 1949 was free from nuclear implications and the ire of the UN Security Council, Putin must exercise caution.  It is therefore likely that the proclamations of the Vladivostok summit will be just that…kind words.

What material difference it will make to Kim Jong-un and North Korea is debatable and it leaves the young leader with a conundrum.  Does he back down to American demands in the hope of retaining a limited civilian nuclear capacity and sanctions relief?  Does he throw his lot in with China and Russia knowing that their end goal is not too dissimilar to that of the US?  Or does he chuck his cap at the lot of them and plough on with nuclear and missile development, hoping that the terrifying thought of nuclear Armageddon will weaken the resolve of the world powers?

Kim’s pursuit of a nuclear arsenal has won him an oversized seat at the negotiating table

With an impoverished populace that is gradually being exposed to the outside world through covert channels, and a vast military hierarchy that needs continually appeasing, Kim Jong-un’s next move is not as straightforward as that of his grandfather.

Breaching the 38th parallel in the future will have far more severe repercussions for both the North Korean regime and the world at large.

Development & Archaeology: Water Scheme Inadvertently Reveals Mystery of Childrey Warren

We often lament the effects of ‘development’ these days…at least I do.  Our green and pleasant land slowly morphing into a concrete jungle, vast swathes of habitat converted into a barren moonscape by the teeth of excavators, animals seldom seen except as roadside carrion.

Just occasionally, however, the forces of upheaval shine an unexpected light on the past.  This occurred recently in Oxfordshire, where a burial site containing twenty-six bodies and countless other interesting artefacts from the late Iron/early Roman Age were found during a Thames Water scheme.

One of the skeleton finds

With the growing demand for water (from our growing and greedy population) putting pressure on a rare chalk stream, the utility company plans to install a new pipe to take water from the River Thames rather than Letcombe Brook.

Cotswold Archaeology has since uncovered the proverbial treasure-trove, including dwellings, animal carcasses, household items including pottery, cutting implements and a decorative comb.  Evidence of human sacrifice has even been mooted.

The dating of approximately 3,000 years ago puts the find in the same historical era as the famous White Horse at Uffington, a magnificent stallion gouged approximately 1.0m into the chalk above the town of Wantage in the southwest of the county.

The impressive Uffington White Horse

The National Trust succinctly describes the historic significance of the area:

The horse is only part of the unique complex of ancient remains that are found at White Horse Hill and beyond, spreading out across the high chalk downland…Crowning White Horse Hill is an Iron Age hillfort known as Uffington Castle. A simple design of one rampart and ditch, the castle at 860 feet (262m) above sea level forms the highest point in Oxfordshire, with views for miles around over six counties.

Across the property Burial Mounds can be spotted. These date from the Neolithic period and have been reused up to the Saxon age. The largest contained 47 skeletons. 

These latest discoveries at Childrey Warren will further aid our hazy understanding of a period of time barely comprehensible to most of us.  They are not unique hordes but they are certainly rare and illuminating.  Yet, such finds invariably have a downside.  Namely, they further the lust of commercial archaeological companies.

Deer antlers: thought to be used as a digging tool

Every project manager for a new housing estate, cable route, road construction or any other development, must consider the ‘risk’ of disturbing precious archaeology.  Yes, we don’t want to go blundering through what we believe to be undisturbed land, destroying our heritage (along with the environment) in the process.

But do we really need to dig trial trenches across the country?  Do we need to commit months of manpower and spend thousands of pounds dusting down Roman coins and pottery shards? Too often a desk-based archaeological study is only a means to an end; i.e. a commission to dig.  But surely if we have already committed to a development – whatever folly that might entail – we should not be held to ransom by the trowel?  Is it fair to say that some history just doesn’t need to be preserved?

Archaeological trenches in Cambridgeshire

Perhaps this is a ridiculous suggestion for someone who writes a history blog.  Perhaps it is not appropriate to give development the green light and only call the archaeologists in when something ‘interesting’ is uncovered.  After all, how many excavator drivers are cognisant of Iron Age artefacts?  You’d imagine they would notice a skeleton…but anything else…It just sometimes seems that resource could be put to better use than collecting more and more trivial evidence that does little to further our knowledge of the past.

Put simply, it seems as if there is too much development and too much archaeology in England today.  Chance finds seem just as likely to throw up a historical fascination as painstaking research and careful excavation.

Comb made of bone found at Childrey Warren

Either way, I suppose we should be grateful for the Thames Water people. They have saved Letcombe Brook and also inadvertently unleashed a prehistoric marvel.  How frustrated it must have made the project managers of this urgent £14.5million scheme is, I concede, beside the point.