Years ago, while talking with Kim Il-Sung about Mediterranean issues, he told me about an episode concerning a country geographically very close to Italy, namely Albania.
During the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (October 17-31, 1961) – which marked the split between Russia and Albania – the delegation led personally by my friend did not accept Russia’s call to stigmatise the Albanian Communists at all, and not a word of condemnation was addressed to Albania.
Five years later, a delegation from the Korean Labour Party attended – with full honours – the work of the 5th Congress of the Labour Party of Albania (the third in order of importance after the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Vietnamese Workers’ Party).
The remaining Socialist countries that survived (and did not survive) the three-year period 1989-1991 suffered from major political crises (Madagascar); dissent and economic depression (Cuba, the former USSR); nationalism and irredentism (the countries of former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Republics, etc.); compromises with the armed opposition (Angola, Mozambique); radical reforms (the former USSR, Mongolia) or structural reforms (Vietnam, Laos), without forgetting the Cambodian civil war (1975-79); and wars between Socialist countries (Ethiopia and Somalia in 1977, Vietnam and China in 1979).
The only regime that survived unscathed the fatal moments of transition of international Communism was the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), apart from the States which, to a greater or lesser extent, adjusted their economic structure – namely the People’s Republic of China, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, etc.
One of the two basic reasons for North Korean resistance is the Juche ideology, lucidly analysed by Antonio Rossiello in an Italian newspaper in 2009.
The vulgate of perfect Marxism-Leninism in the Asian context has never been convincing. Only in the few serious studies which have been conducted so far in Italy on the people’s democracies in the Far East, including Rossiello’s, we can fully understand how the Asian traditions leave only formal room to the effects of the French Revolution.
While, in the West, Maoism somehow differentiated itself from the palingenetic myth of Stalinist Marxism-Leninism, Kim Il-Sung’s thought has never been fully explored because of the ostracism of Italian-style Communism and its priestlings, gallants, lackeys and pseudo-intellectuals.
Undoubtedly, the international position taken by the DPRK over the recent seventy years is the additional cause underlying the country’s internal and external stability.
In practice, for a large part of Asian peoples, the Second World War was a liberation war. In the short and long term, the Japanese message “Asia to the Asians” – aimed at developing the imperial design of Europe’s expulsion from Asia – led to a weakening of the old and new colonialist structures: in this regard, the Chinese revenge (1934-1949) and the Vietnamese redemption (1945-1975) are emblematic.
In the Juche ideology, the word freedom has no liberal-bourgeois, free-market capitalist meaning at all, but it merely means: “homeland without foreign presence on national soil”.
The DPRK (proclaimed on September 8, 1948, while April 25 is the Army Day) was ahead of its time, thus definitively anticipating the mainstays of its balancing policy, suggested and prompted by its contiguity with the two major Communist powers.
On December 25, 1948, Stalin’s Red Army and the Soviet administrative apparata withdrew from the DPRK at the request of Kim Il-Sung.
During the civil war (1950-1953) the DPRK enjoyed decisive Chinese help and support, although not tying itself to China afterwards. Nevertheless, that did not mean an entry into the Soviet or Chinese orbit: in the aftermath of war devastation, the DPRK refused to join Comecon (despite considerable pressure), making its stance public and defending it in clear and principled terms against any form of international socialist division of labour.
It was against that background that the Juche or self-sufficiency idea took shape: “economic independence is also a guarantee to eliminate all kinds of yokes”, in view of sparing the country a destiny as an economic, and hence political, province of one or other of its great neighbours.
When new States gained independence in the 1950s and 1960s, and various African, Asian, Caribbean and Latin American countries appeared on the world scene, the DPRK tried to develop its relations, which were limited to Socialist countries (but not with Tito’s pro-U.S. Yugoslavia).
Hence North Korea’s policy towards the Third World was oriented to diplomatic, economic and ideological goals, initially to gain support and later to improve its standing within the United Nations (of which it was not yet a member).
According to Kim Il-Sung, the Third World could protect North Korea’s interest by striving to gain favourable statements and indispensable votes on issues concerning the peaceful unification of the homeland, as well as facilitate the attempt to enter the Non-Aligned Movement.
Furthermore, the support for liberation movements and for some insurgent groups was seen as a means of creating new State entities that would erode the U.S. power, i.e. militarily oppose the White House in view of its final withdrawal from its zones of influence.
In 1957, the DPRK launched its first trade agreements with Egypt, Burma, India and Indonesia. In 1958 it recognised the Algerian provisional government and later signed cultural agreements with Afro-Asian States and Cuba.
General development aid went to the newly independent countries, which appreciated it very much as it was considered to be unconditional. Demonstrations of solidarity in the case of natural disasters by sending money to the victims were fundamental: in 1958 for the hurricane in Ceylon (Sri Lanka); in 1960 for the earthquake in Morocco; in 1961 for the typhoon in Indonesia and the flood in Somalia.
In the 1960s, the DPRK’s international prestige also increased due to its high level of development and autonomy, with control over resources, nature and the reasons for progress in a former colonial country with only a few decades of independence behind it.
The doubts about the Soviet policy towards the countries on its side in any kind of confrontation with the United States (see the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba), as well as the contrasts between the People’s Republic of China and the USSR in coordinating aid to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam),increasingly convinced Kim Il-Sung to take separate paths.
In this regard, it was one of the countries that provided a major contribution, not only verbally, to North Vietnam and the Viet Cong National Liberation Front (NLF). Its offer to send volunteers, however, was not accepted by the Vietnamese, despite the presence of South Koreans in South Vietnam. In so doing, the Vietnamese confirmed the aforementioned Asian sense of freedom, i.e. no foreigners.
Finally, Russia’s and China’s concerns over the capture of the American ship, Pueblo, by the North Korean forces (1969) showed Kim Il-Sung that the Soviets and Chinese were much more careful to protect their interests than those of the small “brother” countries.
In the 1970s, with increasing moderation and self-restraint in foreign policy – in view of reassuring the world public of his desire for peaceful unification -in his alliance with the Third World, Kim Il-Sung also accentuated the achievement of the cause of democracy between States, as well as national independence and social progress. Nevertheless, a common past of humiliation and insults, as well as struggles against colonialism and imperialism, was still alive in North Korea’s international activities.
The DPRK was the first country to offer volunteers to Cambodia after the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk (1970), and it also helped and funded numerous Afro-Asian and Latin American liberation movements.
In 1972, however, the North Korean government – except for military assistance to the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front– stopped active support to the movements (maintaining political solidarity with them) in favour of a systematic campaign to obtain widespread diplomatic recognition. In fact, it preferred to assist already established realities, namely Egypt, Malta, Mozambique, Seychelles, Uganda, Lesotho, etc.
The results were not long in coming: in 1973 it was granted observer status at the United Nations, as it was already a member of the World Health Organization. In August 1975, the Lima Conference of the Foreign Ministers of Non-Aligned Countries accepted the DPRK’s candidacy (while South Korea’s was rejected).
The efforts made directly at the United Nations achieved a great symbolic success, as for the first time a document recognizing North Korea’s position won a majority. That year, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 3390 B (XXX) of November 18 by 54 votes to 43, with 42 abstentions and 4 absentees, calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops present in South Korea under the UN flag and the opening of negotiations between the United States and the DPRK (the South Korean government was ignored).
Between 1975 and 1979, the DPRK kept on concluding new economic, scientific, transport and cultural agreements with emerging countries, leading up to the 6th Labour Party Congress –that opened on October 10, 1980 – which, faced with new international problems, clarified the traditional policy line without misunderstandings or compromise formulas.
North Korea denounced Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia (1978) but distanced itself from the Khmer Rouges, and did not invite Cambodian delegations to the Congress. Only a message from Sihanouk, who lived in the capital, was accepted.
When asked, some leaders made it clear that they had never approved of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, but that they did not want to take an official stance because it was “of no use”. During the Congress, they confined themselves to denouncing the “dominationistic” tendencies (the word “hegemonistic” was avoided because it was used by the Chinese against the Soviets).
Great importance was given by Kim Il-Sung in his report to the Non-Aligned Movement. The President rejected the Cuban theory whereby the Movement would be the natural ally of the Socialist camp, stating that “the aligned countries should absolutely not follow one or the other bloc, nor let themselves be influenced or allow divisions within them”.
Those statements were accompanied by an attitude of openness towards the parties of the Socialist International. Considering the many and large European socialist delegations invited, it was clear that the DPRK wished to attend the Socialist International meetings as an observer.
Although some Socialist parties (the German SPD) were more hostile than others to the nature of the regime, they remained sensitive to the will always expressed in those years and shown in the position taken during the first Gulf War (1980-1988). North Korea supported Iran – the victim of the attempted Iraqi invasion – by providing the attacked country with weapons and advanced technology at a time when Saddam Hussein had the United States, Russia and China on his side. The DPRK, Syria, Libya and Albania were the only countries to support Iran, which had the world against it.
In 1991, the two Koreas were admitted separately to the United Nations: the consensus was expressed at the opening of the 46th Ordinary Session of the General Assembly (September 17). That came about because the DPRK had decided on May 28 to permanently relinquish the principle of single confederal representation, following South Korean successes in gaining assurances from China and the Soviet Union that they would withdraw their vetoes on its candidacy.
A historic event took place at the end of 1991. The two Korean Prime Ministers, Yon Hyong Muk (for North Korea) and Chung Won Shik (for South Korea), signed a treaty of non-aggression and conciliation in Seoul on December 13, formally putting an end to the state of war that had existed since the Armistice (July 27, 1953).
The agreement re-established communications, trade and economic exchanges, and allowed for the reunification of families separated in the aftermath of the conflict (June 25, 1950). It also established the presence of a joint garrison in Panmunjon, along the demilitarised zone. That was the first step towards the unification of the peninsula, which was desired by both governments, albeit in different terms.
The positive outcome was first of all due to North Korea’s decision (expressed just twenty-four hours before the signing of the agreement) to relinquish the idea of negotiating only with the White House, as the counterpart of the Armistice. It was clear that the United States did not want to give in to North Korean diplomatic attempts to consider the Republic of Korea as one of its dependencies.
Over and above easy enthusiasms, distrust and mutual suspicions persist. The very permanence of U.S. forces (under the UN flag) – feared by North Korea – was reconfirmed by the then Secretary of Defence, Dick Chaney, in November 1991.
There are currently 28,500 U.S. military in South Korea. It is the third largest contingent of U.S. soldiers abroad – a figure that does not coincide with the typically Asian sense of freedom: Japan (53,732); Germany (33,959); South Korea (28,500); Italy (12,249); the United Kingdom (9,287); Bahrain (4,004); Spain (3,169); Kuwait (2,169); Turkey (1,685); Belgium (1,147); Australia (1,085); Norway (733), etc.
No Prospects for Denuclearization of North Korea
Analytical pieces—typically prepared by self-professed experts—abound as to whether denuclearization of North Korea could be possible or what its parameters would be. Such ruminations became particularly popular by the end of Donald Trump’s presidency when the negotiations eventually found themselves in deadlock. However, I would rather call it a “freeze,” and while this may not be the best solution to the problem, it is certainly not the worst either.
The crisis over North Korea’s nuclear missile program has been going on for some 15 years, and I would argue that the reason why no practical solution has been found lies in poor positioning. As I have repeatedly noted  North Korea’s nuclear missile program is not the root of the problem that disrupts the traditional world order; rather, it is a consequence of problems that are more global in their dimensions, reflecting the transition from the wonted world order to a new one.
There are a few signs to this new world order. First, some nations abuse the right to decide which state is a democracy and which is not, with the contrived singling out of “rogue states” to be countered through any methods, including those that seem ethically unacceptable. Broken promises are no longer perfidy but military stratagems. When it comes to North Korea, one might recall the Agreed Framework story or how President Kim Young-sam and his administration spared no effort to destabilize the situation in North Korea at a time when it suffered from what has been called the Arduous March. Seoul advocated providing no aid to the starving country, one South Korean official admits while privately talking to the author, in the hope that the famine would spur mass riots and subsequent “reunification.”
The second sign indicative of the new world suggests that international law and major arbitration institutions have lost their authority. UN Security Council resolutions that forbid North Korea to launch any kind of ballistic missiles is a good case in point. Incidentally, this violates the decisions enshrined in a number of other UN documents that guarantee the universal right to explore outer space for peaceful purposes.
The third sign has to do with the crisis of competence, which affects the quality of decision-making on the part of both politicians and subject-matter experts, blurring the line between the real country and its cartoonish propaganda image. This is well illustrated by the case of North Korea: any foolish news report about the country ultimately finds an audience. While the story of Jang Song-thaek being fed to a pack of dogs was debunked fairly quickly, no less fantastic death penalty stories for listening to K-pop are still popular.
Besides, the might of the law has been replaced with the law of the might. The new generation of politicians no longer fears a major war, rendering military conflict—“humanitarian” bombings of “rogue states” in particular—one of the acceptable means for achieving domestic and foreign policy goals.
Finally, under these circumstances, North Korea cannot use the conventional conflict resolution methods, thus being compelled to look for ways to defend itself on its own, especially since the threat of losing sovereignty is by no means hypothetical. Officially, the Korean war is not over, and South Korea’s Constitution still extends the state’s sovereignty to the entire peninsula, demanding that the president promote the country’s unification. What is more, the National Security Act refers to North Korea as an anti-state organization rather than a country. Even relatively liberal populists, such as Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in, failed to review this concept.
Relying on its nuclear missile program, North Korea sets itself two goals. The first is to achieve minimal and, eventually, guaranteed nuclear deterrence, which would certainly take a belligerent solution to the North Korean problem off the table. The North Korean leadership has certain reasons to believe that only North Korea’s nuclear weapons saved it from the fate of Iraq or Libya. It is well-known that once in a while the U.S. and its allies plan an offensive war against the North, whose elements are drilled at joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises irrespective of their scale.
The second goal is to achieve international recognition and ditch the “rogue state” yoke. Should North Korea theoretically join the “nuclear club,” this will put it on a par with the leading superpowers. This is the principal reason why—despite the UN Security Council’s internal disagreements—the Permanent Five have so far voted unanimously for yet another sanctions package each time North Korea has taken another significant step in developing its nuclear missile program. The current world order is based on the premise that only the five great powers are allowed to possess nuclear weapons. It also relies on the UN’s authority, which would collapse if it became known that at the end of the day North Korea got the UN to “cave in”—following nearly 30 years of condemnation, resolutions and sanctions.
It is no accident that the very term “denuclearization” is under discussion. American conservatives, such as John Bolton and others who adopt a strictly realistic approach, interpret “denuclearization” as meaning nuclear disarmament of North Korea, which should be stripped of all types of WMD and—to boot—of its nuclear program. This entails eliminating the North Korean threat both globally and regionally. In contrast, North Korea, as well as Russia and China, stress that denuclearization should extend not to North Korea alone but to the whole Korean Peninsula, which requires certain commitments on the part of the U.S. and South Korea, up to and including prohibiting U.S. warships carrying nuclear weapons from docking at South Korean ports.
It has to be noted that those who identify with the allegedly liberal approach to international relations view the North Korean issue as highly ideologically charged. Liberal democracy advocates and WASP conservatives alike perceive North Korea as an authoritarian regime imbued with atheistic collectivism, as an “Evil State.” They see it as the pure opposite of the ideal state—an abstract concept that exists in their minds. That, in turn, stimulates an intractable drive towards confrontation, since not only is the “Evil State” incapable of negotiations, such negotiations are impossible in principle. Any deal with such a regime is an unacceptable concession in terms of values, and value-based confrontations are always more inflexible than those political or economic in nature.
During the 2017 crisis, when I believed the probability of conflict really rose beyond 50%, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un emerged as pragmatic leaders, essentially putting the process “on hold.” The jury is still out on how this related to the Russia-China “double-freeze” plan, while each party would certainly have wanted more. Kim Jong Un would have loved to have the sanctions eased, with Donald Trump expecting further concessions. The pause that was achieved, though, allowed both parties a “small profit.” The U.S. president could say that, first, he prevented war and, second, that the sanctions were effective, with no missiles in the air and the U.S. having granted no unacceptable concessions. Kim Jong Un, on the one hand, got a peaceful breather, which allowed him to focus on the country’s economic development, and, second, his commitments were essentially unofficial and did not restrict the development of the nuclear missile program. This could be exemplified by multiple successful launches of short-range missiles as well as by presentations of new types of ICBMs and SLBMs, even though these were not tested.
Yet, since late 2019, both parties have been aware that “things are not going to get better.” In late 2019, Kim Jong Un said it was no use hoping for an easing of the sanctions, while allowing Donald Trump to “sit out” the final year of his presidency with no unnecessary tensions. As of the writing of this article, his moratorium is still in place, although American and South Korean experts believed that several dates came and went when Kim could have raised the stakes, opting for an escalation. I believe that Pyongyang is waiting for the White House to formulate and announce a new North Korean policy. So far, as Roman Lobov puts it, “the door is shut but not locked”; and Choe Song-hui, who seems to be still in charge of North Korea–U.S. relations, has not been dismissed from office and declares from time to time that the North will use force in response to force and amicability in response to amicability. The 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea emphasized that no change in the White House would change the U.S.’s overall hostility towards North Korea, which is why North Korea will hardly make the first step, choosing to wait for truly serious proposals from the U.S.
This is the situation three months into 2021, exacerbated by several additional aspects. The new U.S. president is the first such aspect. Of course, there is some hope that he will follow the same path as Donald Trump once did: a hardliner early in his tenure shifted to a more constructive approach once collided with reality. So far, however, it appears that the logic of factional strife is compelling Biden to go along “the main thing is not to be like Trump” pattern, and that means steering a course towards escalation. Such an approach will provoke North Korea to retaliate. More importantly, such blinders will keep the Biden Administration from rapidly developing a constructive approach to its interaction with the North. In particular, we can see that human rights issues in North Korea, all too valid for the Democrats, were not broached regularly under Trump while they have come under attention once Biden assumed office.
The U.S.-China confrontation is another aspect, which was pronounced to be value- rather than merely politics-based even under Trump. There has been no change to this approach under the new president. The U.S. attempts to restrict and contain China, with this confrontation being part of Russia and China’s more broad confrontation with what is perceived as the West.
I believe such a rift and its would-be consequences deal no smaller blow to the existing world order than Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. First, this reinforces North Korea’s conviction that the current situation makes the country rely on missile sovereignty. Second, rifts in the Security Council give North Korea a certain boost. It does not, however, mean that the Security Council will no longer remain unanimous should the North decide to raise the stakes sharply. Yet, if we consider the U.S.-China confrontation from the point of view of allies of both states, we will see that China could only rely on the North since it has for a long time stressed the two countries’ socialist nature and their friendship based on ideological values. Besides, North Korean media outlets have been condemning the U.S. for criticizing China’s policies. What this means is that China will keep Pyongyang afloat and contain American pressure to denuclearize Kim’s regime unless it decides that North Korea’s actions are too provocative. The same can be said of Russia, although the North Korean issue is less of a priority for Moscow, especially when compared to the post-Soviet states or the Middle East.
The coronavirus pandemic has also affected the global situation. First, self-isolation instituted throughout the country has generated a new spiral of suppositions revolving around the notion that its economic system is about to collapse and that a new Arduous March will ensue. Second, with diplomats and NGOs having left North Korea, gathering data has become more difficult, which has indirectly contributed to growing alarmist sentiments. Finally, we cannot rule out a situation when the North Korean issue may—for a number of countries—become a way to shift attention away from domestic problems, including those related to failures in fighting the coronavirus. In such a situation, any prospects for denuclearization are extremely vague.
The fourth aspect is the level to which North Korea’s nuclear program has advanced, which makes the monitoring methods used for the states that are at the early stages of their nuclear programs ineffective. Since North Korea is a de facto nuclear power, the set of measures intended to ensure complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization, as Vladimir Khrustalyov notes  will essentially demand that North Korea be essentially stripped of its sovereignty as far as the monitoring and checking powers are concerned, with which international inspectors should be vested.
Consequently, today it might be said that one can only go on talking about denuclearization for the sake of talking. It will take a miracle to move things forward. Option one is some fantastic change in the international environment, which would make North Korea no longer feel threatened and thus less reluctant to abolish its nuclear program. That would mean geotectonic rather than merely geopolitical shifts in the existing international security architecture. Option two, just as fantastic, provides for a North Korean Gorbachev who, for some reason, will make the decision to abolish an important component of North Korea’s political myth and its sovereignty guarantees. Harsher options envision denuclearization as a result of regime change, which is of very little probability as well.
Does this mean there is no way out of this predicament and that missile fireworks will follow sooner or later? No, it does not. The possibility of the “double freeze” is still there, and such a “freeze” could continue almost indefinitely. Another possibility requires more efforts as it entails resetting the agenda—while keeping the term “denuclearization”, new strategies would actually focus on arms control. Instead of destroying North Korean nuclear capabilities, efforts would be channeled into restricting it, operating on the premise that the existing capabilities already serve as minimal deterrence. Many scholars adhere to this stance, both in Russia  and abroad, while fully cognizant of the fact that a change in tack will prompt huge resistance, since this would go against the trend of preserving the global status quo. Any attempt to abolish the demand for full denuclearization of states aspiring to the nuclear club “membership” would amount to a crack in the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
On balance, true denuclearization of North Korea would require a radical change in the geopolitical situation in Northeast Asia: once the threat is gone, countermeasures will no longer be necessary. While there is no possibility of such changes, the Russia-China proposal of a “double freeze” settlement remains the most feasible solution, although far from ideal.
The study has been carried out with financial assistance from the RFBR (project No 20-014-00020).
- Asmolov, K.V. The Nuclear Problem of the Korean Peninsula as a Consequence of the Changes in the Global World Order (in Russian) // Paper presented at the All-Russia Academic Conference with International Participation “International Relations in the 20th-21st Centuries: 4th Chempalov Conference dedicated to the 75th Anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War and the 75th Anniversary of the end of World War II. 17–18 December 2020. Yekaterinburg.
- Zhebin, A.Z. The Korean Peninsula: From Denuclearization to Arms Control (in Russian) // Paper presented at the 25th Conference of Korean Studies Specialists from Russia and the CIS. 25–26 March 2021. Moscow
- Khrustalyov, V.V. (Vladivostok, North-East Asian Military Studies Project) On Fundamental Obstacles in the Way of Rapid, Guaranteed, and Irreversible Denuclearization of North Korea (in Russian) // Paper presented at the 8th International Conference “Russia and Korea in the Changing World Order – 2019.” 17–18 May 2019. Vladivostok.
From our partner RIAC
Kissinger Again Warns US, China Heading for Armageddon-like Clash
Last week, Henry Kissinger again warned US-China tensions are a threat to the entire world and could lead to Armageddon-like clash between the world’s two military and technology giants. Surprisingly, some Chinese are interpreting it as a threat to intimidate China in order to “accept and obey” the US-led world hegemonic order.
In January 2015, the peace group CODEPINK dangled a pair of handcuffs in front of the then 91-year old former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a Senate hearing. Twelve months later, at the February Democratic Debate Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton were seen engaged in a heated duel attacking and defending the acclaimed diplomat respectively. The late writer Christopher Hitchens in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger warned editors, TV news channel producers and presidential candidates to stop soliciting Kissinger’s “worthless and dangerous” opinions. The never ending outburst of enmity on the part of CODEPINK, Sanders and Hitchens was due to Kissinger’s role in the brutal killings of thousands of civilians, gang rape of hundreds of female detainees, and alleged slaughtering of over one million people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos among countless similar crimes against humanity since the early 1970s.
As documented in “Kissinger and Chile: The Declassified Record,” as some 5,000 people were being detained and tortured in Chile’s National Stadium, Kissinger told the ruthless Augusto Pinochet: “You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.” But Sanders-Clinton “spirited exchange” five years ago, as mentioned above, was not confined in Sanders’ words to Kissinger being “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history” of the United States. Sanders’ rare outburst also included Clinton defending her foreign policy mentor – Kissinger – on China. “[Kissinger’s] opening up China and his ongoing relationship with the leaders of China is an incredibly useful relationship for the United States of America,” Hilary Clinton emphatically pointed out.
Sanders responded disdainfully and berated Clinton for admiring Kissinger. “Kissinger first scared Americans about communist China and then opened up trade so US corporations could dump American workers and hire exploited and repressed Chinese,” Sanders had retorted. On the contrary, no one in Beijing either knows or seems interested in the so-called negative traits attributed to the veteran diplomat who is generally known as the most “influential figure in the making of American foreign policy since the end of World War II.” As according to Peter Lee, editor of the online China Matters and a veteran Asia Times columnist, the CPC leadership value Kissinger as the “symbol, custodian and advocate” of a US-China relationship that is special.
Professor Aaron Friedberg, author of A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, described the re-opening of relations with China as Kissinger’s greatest achievement. In a review of Kissinger’s massive book On China, Friedberg wrote: “Kissinger’s six hundred pages on China are an attempt to apply the principles of foreign policy realism to the most pressing strategic challenge of our day.” (Emphasis given) However, the approach, taken alone, was far from adequate in anticipating the behavior of an increasingly powerful China on the one hand, and for prescribing an appropriate American strategy to deal with a rising China on the other, Friedberg went on to add.
Since Mao, all successive top Chinese leaders have met with Kissinger one-on-one in Beijing, some even more than once. China’s current President Xi Jinping is no exception. In fact, given the deep esteem with which reform era CPC leadership has been embracing Henry Kissinger, the general wisdom in Beijing is President Xi has horned his diplomatic skills by learning well his (Kissinger’s) oft-quoted aphorism “you don’t go into negotiations unless your chances of success are 85 percent.” Kissinger had first met with Xi in 2007, when Xi, as the party secretary in Shanghai, had received the most frequent foreign visitor to China on a visit to the city. When asked for his assessment of the party’s new general secretary within days of the 18th party congress in November 2012 by the Wall Street Journal, Kissinger had said “Xi Jinping is a strong leader capable of rising up to any challenge.”
In the past four decades of Kissinger-CPC bonhomie, the first decade thanks to Cold War passed off rather smoothly and uneventfully. The second decade ushered in with perhaps the first most serious test for both Kissinger as well as for the US-China relations since the unfreezing of the bilateral ties by Nixon-Kissinger pair in the early 1970s. In June 1989, the CPC rulers used brutal force to crush peaceful student demonstrators at the Tiananmen Square and launched nationwide crackdown on suspected dissidents. Though criticized by the US political elite for “Kowtowing to Beijing” for defending the CPC authorities by saying “a crackdown was inevitable,” Kissinger did influence the Bush administration in imposing comparatively mild sanctions while deflecting congressional pressure for tougher action.
In third and fourth decades respectively, unlike during the first two stages, ideology gradually regained initiative over geopolitics in influencing the bilateral relationship. There are mainly two factors for this. First, from 1979 to the end of the last century, China was relatively weaker than the United States both economically and in military technology. Following China’s rapid economic growth beginning late 1990s and at the turn of the twenty-first century, a section in the US political elite became apprehensive of China’s assertive and highly competitive stance. These concerns soon gave birth to the “China threat theory” which Beijing unsuccessfully tried to pass off as “China’s peaceful rise.”
The second factor has much to do with the world financial crisis in 2008 which resulted in the beginning of decline of the US economy on the one hand, and the unfolding of the seemingly evident intent of the CPC leadership to “eventually displace the US” and “re-establishing their own country as the pre-eminent power in East Asia.” In other words, with Cold War and the Soviet Union both long gone, and China perceived as threatening to soon replace America as the world’s number one economy, the communist rulers in Beijing were under no illusion that the ideologically hostile US was plotting “color revolution” to replace the CPC with democratically elected leaders in the People’s Republic.
The chilling of US-China bilateral relations during the first year of Obama presidency itself, with China replacing Japan to become the world’s second largest economy in 2010 and further hardening of the US stance towards China, and finally the US “pivot to Asia” strategy introduced by the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton – all these were perceived by Beijing as the US “creating political framework for a confrontation with China in order to maintain the global hegemony of American dominance.” Even Kissinger was very much aware of the changing stance in Beijing, as is reflected from what he wrote in On China: “China would try to push American power as far away from its borders as it could, circumscribe the scope of American naval power, and reduce America’s weight in international diplomacy.”
Interestingly, although the most frequent US visitor to China has continued to visit China ever more frequently during the past decade, given the changing nature of polity in both the US and in China – especially the increasing “rivalry” under the Trump administration, it is not incorrect to conclude the Kissinger magic has gradually faded away from the bilateral relationship. It is least surprising therefore last Friday, when the “old friend of China” warned both Beijing and Washington in a speech at McCain Institute’s Sedona Forum in France, that their escalating tensions were leading the world towards Armageddon-like clash, the opinionated, vocal Chinese social media reacted with caution. “Kissinger used the so-called end of the world argument to threaten and intimidate China in order to accept and obey the hegemonic order by the United States,” a blogger responded.
A commentary in Chinese last week pointed out, ever since Trump launched “all out political war” against China, Kissinger has been in subtle and cunning way warning China to “cooperate” with Washington. The signed article entitled “Kissinger Continues to Scare the Chinese People” stated: “For the past two years or more, Kissinger has been repeatedly saying China must continue to compromise and obey the US hegemony and US-led global order. Otherwise, China will face the danger of World War I-like situation.”
To sum up, while calling Kissinger’s veiled threat a bluff, a reader posted in the chat room of guancha.cn – one of China’s most widely read online Chinese language news platform: the old man is a veteran who, more than anyone in China, has interacted with most number of China’s founding leaders. It is therefore his responsibility to explain to the world why most American politicians have failed to co-evolve with China’s leaders, Chinese government and with Chinese people? Why has America relentlessly carried on slandering China? Why America has been consistently accusing, vilifying and provoking China? Mr. Kissinger, please answer. Thank you.”
Post COVID-19, Can China Emerge as the New Global Power?
Authors:Makam Khan Daim and Mohammed Seid Ahmed*
There are many unknowns about the virus and that makes it incredibly challenging for every government to wage war against the common enemy. The politically divided United States was not ready for a crisis like such and is already going through a deep political division that is deviating the superpower’s attention from leading the world. The United has already left multiple multilateral agreements and organizations that it helped create in the first place Trump administration was running the nation without any clear policy goals. Trump’s administration was retreating from world leadership but at the same time reluctant to give up its position as a global superpower. Though the policies of the administration are pulling the US back from years of progress as a global leader. As the world waits for the US leadership in the outbreak of the virus, the administration and supporters downplayed the harsh nature of the virus. The repercussions of failing to contain the virus at an early stage have put the US as the leader in infections and death toll above all the affected countries around the world.
The previous US administration chose to engage in a war of words with China rather than undertaking measures to contain the virus at home and be an example to the world. On the other hand, the Asian nations have taken “draconian” measures in the American eyes but were successful in containing the virus more than any country in the world. China’s has 102,517 cases with 4846 death, the numbers might be disputable for some, however, figures from democratic countries like South Korea and Japan revealed that the Asian nation has successfully contained the spread of the virus. As of May 2nd, 2021, Japan has 82, 425 with just 1493 deaths, Korea has 123,240 cases with just 1833 deaths according to the latest data compiled by the John Hopkins University of Medicine, coronavirus task force. The US on the other hand, in the same timeframe, has registered a staggering 32,392,667infection cases and 576,722 deaths. Although Chinese figures are disputable the recent reopening of all cities and provinces, indicates that the virus is contained, and things are going back to normalcy.
Power is shifting to the East as many political scientists predicted and China as an Asian superpower is in the final stage of preparations to take the role of global leadership. India is the other Asian nation that can contest China, but India’s domestic issues, its relatively weaker economy, and the ever-growing population have been a challenge for the subcontinent to be a serious contestant for China’s activities in a global scale. In fighting this pandemic, the US has missed another opportunity to lead the world and take responsibility as a superpower. The administration’s adherence to the outdated protectionist policies, that is harming American workers, let alone leading the world in the fight against COVID-19, Trump’s denial of the reality and his enablers within the government put the nation in harm’s way and has culminated in the death of thousands of Americans.
New Zealand has come out of the battle against COVID-19 as a winner with its early lockdown and strict measures with the extraordinary leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Arden and her administration. The European nations Italy, Spain, France, and Germany that have been hit hard with the virus are getting a sigh of relief after their worst at the beginning of the outbreak. Their large size aging population have become the victim of the virus, with a series of lockdown and extreme measures they have finally managed to mitigate the likelihood of more deaths related to the virus. Africa to the surprise of lots of people is the last continent that has started to see new cases. Africa’s young population under the age of 35 that makes up over 60 percent of the continent’s population could have worked in favor of Africans because of the viruses’ nature to attack mostly immune compromised and aged population. Nonetheless, the recent increase in testing for instance in Ethiopia is revealing hundreds of cases every day. Now, Ethiopia is reporting 258,062, with just 3709 deaths related to the virus. South Africa and Egypt are among the worst hit countries from Africa, in which the former has reported 1,582,842 cases and 54406 deaths, and the latter reported 228,548 cases with over 43,402 deaths respectively. Although, the death of a single person is painful, with all the indications and data available Africa is surviving this outbreak with fewer casualties. If whether this could be attributed to the nature of the virus or African government’s measures is remained to be seen in further researches and reports in the foreseeable future.
The problems that Africa could face if the infection rate increases drastically are dire, given the continent’s record in poor healthcare infrastructure, scarce of ventilators, hospital beds, small size healthcare professionals in relative to the population size. Developed countries with advanced technology and healthcare system in place have not been able to cope up with the patients’ demand and has been extremely challenging for the government and professionals to fight the virus. It is no brainer the challenges that Africans could face without the infrastructure. Nonetheless, while all the traditional global powers closed their doors and were fighting the pandemic, there is one rising superpower who has emerged to play the global leadership role in the fight with the virus. China has emerged not only as the hotbed for the virus but as a global power who is using the pandemic to project its soft power around the globe and play the role of the so-called “responsible power”.
In conclusion, China would be the winner in this epidemic, because of the measures it took and its quasi-leadership in fighting this pandemic using its soft power. It has already lifted the ban in Wuhan and now things are slowly going back to normal ahead of many other countries, which is beneficial for China to survive the economic fallout. Economists are predicting a global recession following COVID-19, but even if that is the case China will not be the biggest loser, United States, Europe, and the rest of the world are. One thing we all learn from this pandemic is that because of our intertwined interests and living by each other there is nothing that the world could achieve today without the cooperation and collective actions. Time will answer the question that will the United States take the lesson, embrace multilateralism again, and get back to lead?
*Mohammed Seid Ahmed, Freelancer(M.Phil International Relations at Zhejiang University, currently based in California, the US)Mohemmed can be reached at mahmedseid89[at]outlook.com
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