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.

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Trump Ascent Raises Nuclear War Fears: yet a nuclear accident remains far more terrifying

The possibility of nuclear war is a persistent concern of the human race. It seems to be the only way in which we can destroy ourselves in one fell swoop. Perhaps Donald Trump’s ascent to the US presidency will exacerbate these fears; perhaps his isolationist tendencies will alleviate them. Either way, the fear of nuclear destruction remains a constant, even if such a likelihood is in reality remote.

Some fear that a Trump presidency will lead to nuclear proliferation and perhaps war

Whether it is rogue states possessing nuclear weapons (North Korea, Iran), deranged leaders with their fingers on the red button (Kim Jong-un, Trump?), the potential for swift nuclear proliferation (the Middle East, Asia-Pacific) or the acquisition of nuclear devices by terrorist organisations, the worst-case scenario of nuclear war never fails to unsettle world leaders.

In part it is a hangover from the Cold War when mutually assured nuclear destruction did at times seem imminent, no more so than during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, as Dr Strangelove magnificently parodied, it would have taken major misunderstandings and maniacal decision-making for such an eventuality to have materialised.

A more plausible scenario for nuclear annihilation is an accident. We have seen in recent years the devastating radioactive fallout caused by the Chernobyl disaster – whose crumbling reactor is soon to be encased by a giant shield – and the Japanese tsunami of 2011 which caused major damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Disaster at Chernobyl, 1986
Disaster at Chernobyl, 1986

Such terrifying incidents have raised major questions over civilian nuclear power generation, not to mention further strengthening the case for nuclear non-proliferation.

Just as alarming as these unfortunate, if potentially avoidable, disasters are the ‘near-miss’ operational incidents involving nuclear weapons, most of which remain shrouded in secrecy.

The possible discovery by a diver last week of a missing Mark IV nuclear bomb off the coast of British Columbia brought such eventualities back into the spotlight. In 1950, a US Air Force B-36 aircraft began to experience engine trouble during a flight between Alaska and Texas. The device now thought to have been uncovered off the Canadian coast was jettisoned before the crew ejected, allowing the plane to continue on autopilot until it crashed into a mountain range. This was the first recorded loss of a nuclear weapon in history.

Although some aviation experts have dismissed the possibility of the device being the missing Mark IV, either way it is not nuclear-ready; i.e. it is has a lead, uranium and TNT filling but not the plutonium necessary for a nuclear detonation.

Other past operational incidents have further demonstrated the precariousness of ‘routine’ nuclear weapons deployment.

For instance, on the 27th July 1956 a B-47 bomber crashed into a storage igloo at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, within which three Mark VI nuclear bombs sat silently. As with the B-36 incident, the bombs did not contain any fissile material yet they had a considerable amount of high explosive content and a detonation could have proved catastrophic.

More controversially, on the 21st January 1968 a B-52 bomber crashed near Thule Air Base in Greenland with four hydrogen bombs on board during a ‘Chrome Dome’ alert mission at the height of the Cold War.

The nuclear payload of the four devices ruptured and dispersed across the sea ice as the conventional explosives in the aircraft detonated. More worryingly, despite an extensive clean-up operation by the American and Danish authorities, it has since been revealed that a secondary stage of one of the weapons was never accounted for. The Danes had kept the American nuclear presence on Greenlandic soil a secret from their own people, leading to a major political scandal almost three decades later.

Blackened ice at the Thule crash site
Blackened ice at the Thule crash site

There have been further military-related nuclear incidents, several associated with the meltdown of reactors in Soviet submarines. It is likely that others have yet to be disclosed and perhaps never will be without a whistleblower breaking the radio silence.

It seems that the apocalyptic consequences of a military-nuclear disaster resonate with us and our leaders in a more poignant way than ongoing crises such as climate change, rising sea levels and mass population displacement, all of which will ultimately have dire consequences if left unresolved.

Soviet submarine K219 sunk after a fire - possibly caused with a collision with a US sub - in a missile tube. It went down with 34 nuclear warheads which were not recovered
Soviet submarine K219 sunk after a fire – possibly caused with a collision with a US sub – in a missile tube. It went down with 34 nuclear warheads which were not recovered

Whilst efforts to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear technology at a state level remain critical, putting further safeguards in place to avert an accidental nuclear catastrophe are even more important, for such a scenario is considerably more likely than nuclear war.

As Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control has demonstrated, there is an ‘illusion of safety’ when it comes to nuclear weapons, regardless of the perceived responsibility of those powers controlling them.

In the absence of a nuclear-free world – now an unattainable goal – it is hoped that military leaders, and their counterparts in the civilian world, take note of the near misses of the past to try and securitise the future as best they can.