Putin Courts North Korea: taking a leaf from Stalin’s book to test the courage of the West

Relations between Russia and North Korea are warming; Kim Jong-un looks set to make an official visit to Moscow, President Putin has written off vast amounts of North Korean debt, and there are plans for the Russians to build a transcontinental railroad and gas pipeline across the hermit kingdom. It is no surprise, of course, that this brightening in relations comes during a period of increased hostility between Russia and the USA.

Putin looks set to snub the West further by moving closer to North Korea
Putin looks set to snub the West further by moving closer to North Korea

Washington retains a persistent concern over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and has proven unable to bend the Kim dynasty to its will, either through strong economic sanctions (which the North appear to be bypassing) or via diplomatic concessions. That Putin now seems keen to forge closer ties with Pyongyang – two rogue states in league – could set alarm bells ringing on Capitol Hill.

Most analysts see Putin’s charm offensive as a political game to rile Washington. They argue that, should it come to supporting the North in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula, Russia would stay well away. Whilst this seems a rational theory, Putin has quite clearly demonstrated in recent months his refusal to kowtow to the demands of the international community or to act with any political convention. Indeed, it is worth remembering the period leading up to the Korean War to get a sense of the significance that the Putin-Kim relationship may potentially have.

In 1949, Joseph Stalin had no intention of supporting a North Korean takeover of its southern neighbour, which had been in the American-occupied zone after WWII. A direct confrontation with American forces was something the dictator was keen to avoid, as Putin would be today.

Yet the success of the communist revolution in China, and the promised support of Mao Zedong, allied with North Korean enthusiasm, led Stalin to sanction an invasion of the South in 1950. The proviso was that no Soviet forces would be engaged in open combat. Rather, Stalin used the North Koreans and Chinese as a proxy army against his ideological enemy whilst helping direct the war through the presence of Soviet advisers in Pyongyang and covert air support.

Stalin backed Kim's bid for the Korean Peninsula, testing American fortitude in the process
Stalin backed Kim’s bid for the Korean Peninsula, testing American fortitude in the process

Putin himself has shown a willingness to make use of proxy fighters, from Georgia to the Caucuses and, presently, in eastern Ukraine. He has also had no problem publicising Russian arms deals to Iran, despite widespread international opposition. Indeed, Putin shares a similar worldview to Stalin in that it is Russo-centric, predicated on expansionism and belligerent to the end.

Whilst Russia is unlikely to come to North Korea’s rescue should Kim make a foolhardy move against the South, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Putin will seek to create further Western alarm on the Korean Peninsula and, in the process, turn its attention away from Eastern Europe.

In recent years, North Korea has acted petulantly by shelling South Korean islands and sinking its ships. Russian technology and intelligence could make such ‘small-scale’ provocations more targeted, without risking a major US response. Cyber attacks – which the North has already shown a penchant for – are another possible arena of cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang.

Put simply, the Russians have already done far worse in Ukraine and got away with it. North Korea has the added benefit of a functioning (if small) nuclear deterrent which will naturally inhibit any deadly response to attacks against the South. Should Putin also manage to attain Chinese support for any such cover operation (tacit or otherwise), he will gain the ability to influence the geostrategic balance in Northeast Asia.

America stood firm in 1950 and prevented a communist takeover of the Korean Peninsula. Stalin tested American mettle and was met with a ferocious reply. Times have changed and the disgraceful inaction over Ukraine (in addition to Nigeria, South Sudan and a whole host of other places) shows that the West has lost its bottle.

The Incheon landing, which saved Korea, was a great act of American courage and strategy
The Incheon landing, which saved Korea, was a great act of American courage and strategy

It may be logical to believe that Putin would not risk a close alliance with the world’s ultimate pariah state. Yet at this moment in time he must feel invincible. Until the West stands up to him, as it did to the Soviet leaders during the Cold War, he will not back down. If he cannot shape the world in Russia’s image, he will at least ensure that American predominance is tested in every region within which he is able to exert his considerable influence.

Advertisements

Civil War Looms in Libya: Western intervention and the failure to plan ahead

The UN Mission in Libya has called for an immediate halt to hostilities currently ongoing between rival militias in Tripoli and Benghazi as the proposed democratic transition after the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi remains severely troubled.

Rival militias and a proliferation of weapons has led Libya to the brink of civil war
Rival militias and a proliferation of weapons has led Libya to the brink of civil war

NATO and its members involved in the downfall of Gaddafi have remained suspiciously silent as a virtual civil war has developed in the North African state, whilst the USA remains scarred by the attack on its consulate in Benghazi in September 2012 which resulted in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

The lack of forethought and planning towards the stabilization, reconstruction and reconciliation phases in countries subject to Western intervention is quite alarming. Indeed, in the past few decades it has arguably led to a de-securitization of several regions rather than a peaceful new era.

There is no argument that the world is better without the deranged Gaddafi whose sponsorship of international terrorism, belligerence towards the West and brutal repression at home was a constant cause for concern. However, his strong (if brutal) leadership had prevented the fragmenting of Libyan society into the bloody strife we see today.

Before intervening, NATO should have made a concerted effort to assess the factional rivalry within Libya and to determine whether a simple bombing campaign against Gaddafi strongholds was sufficient to ensure a satisfactory transfer of power.

NATO's bombing campaign was an undoubted military success but its strategic value is debatable
NATO’s bombing campaign was an undoubted military success but its strategic value is debatable

Similarly, Saddam Hussein was rightfully derided as a bloody dictator and yet his strongman rule prevented the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that now threatens to destroy Iraq. One of the major criticisms of the US-led intervention is that no adequate transition plan for political power was formulated.

Having supported the imposition of Mobutu Sese Seko in DR Congo in 1965, the West became content that his kleptocratic dictatorship was a necessary evil to prevent the spread of communism and, potentially, a horribly destabilizing civil war. Yet there were no complaints when Mobutu was overthrown in 1997, even if his departure has intensified violence in one of Africa’s largest countries, allowing DR Congo to become a safe-haven for warlords and rebel militias alike.

On the other hand, the West has been more reluctant in offering full support to the rebels in the Syrian Civil War, having been provided with plenty of evidence that a rebel victory may be even less satisfying than the retention of the callous Bashar al-Assad.

Throughout the decades of the 20th century, the global powers were active in positioning their ‘own’ dictators in the seats of power, either for ideological reasons or to ensure stability in a nation, at whatever the cost. 

Making the transition from a dictatorship to a political system resembling democracy is challenging enough.  Continued Western interference, minus a clear post-intervention strategy for peace and stability, will only lead to more, not less, global security challenges as the ‘wrong’ rebels win and domestic violence spills over international borders.

The USA saw value in Mobutu yet ultimately allowed his overthrow
The USA saw value in Mobutu yet ultimately allowed his overthrow