By Daniel Dombey, US Diplomatic Correspondent
You can understand why the latest flare-up of tension in the Korean peninsula has left Barack Obama none too happy.
Obama has had a pretty poor November so far, what with historic reverses in the midterm elections and a wretched G20 in Seoul where, rather than rallying the rest of the world against China’s currency policy, he found himself at the receiving end of several countries’ strictures about the Fed’s attempts to reflate the stumbling US economy. Read more
North Korea has launched an artillery barrage against a South Korean island, killing two servicemen and seriously injuring more than a dozen troops and civilians, in a dangerous escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula.
South Korea returned artillery fire after North Korea on Tuesday unleashed a hail of 200 shells on Yeonpyeong island in the Yellow Sea.
In this week’s podcast: How can Ireland escape its fiscal crisis? The mayor of Moscow is ousted in a show of strength by the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev – but is the power struggle over? And in North Korea a succession plan is emerging as Kim Jong-Il’s third son is promoted to general – but what role will his aunt play? Gideon Rachman hosts the world podcast, with guests David Gardener in the studio, Catherine Belton in Moscow and Christian Oliver in Seoul. Produced by Rob Minto Read more
When a regime as brutal, unpredictable and desperate as North Korea puts itself on a war footing and severs all ties with its bitter enemy to the South, then the world has every reason to be worried. Under the circumstances, a fall of just over 3% in the South Korean stock market sounds like a fairly moderate response.
The markets obviously think the risk of war is still fairly small. And I think – and hope – that the markets are right. The fact is that neither side has a real reason for wanting conflict. The North Korean government would risk a humiliating defeat and a loss of power. Unlike in the Korean War, it has no external backer to come to its rescue. South Korea is a rich, sophistictated society with a rising international profile – why should it risk all that, by being sucked into a conflict with its crazy neighbour to the North? Most South Koreans also have zero desire to shed the blood of their unfortunate compatriots. Read more
By Geoff Dyer, FT China bureau chief
Barack Obama’s efforts to reach out to ordinary Chinese on his Asia tour may have fallen a little flat, but there is one trump card he can play to score points with his hosts – the three members of Obama’s Cabinet who can get by in Chinese. Read more
So Bill Clinton returns in triumph from North Korea, with two grateful female journalists for company on the flight home.
Naturally, there is lots of speculation about what lay behind the trip. Was the release of the imprisoned journalists really pre-arranged? Was Clinton’s mission purely humanitarian, or did he discuss other matters in his long meeting with Kim Jong-Il? Read more
Dispatch from Iran: Some Police Soften on Neda’s Day: Steve Clemons posts an email from an anonymous observer in The Washington Note. A protester describes trying to access the grave of the young woman who was killed during Iranian elections and the trouble that ensued.
Pressing Pyongyang On Rights: Roberta Cohen wonders whether a preoccupation with North Korean nukes is leading us to neglect human rights
Gary Samore is the kind of sane, well-informed and low-key professional who makes me glad that Obama is now in control of US foreign policy. He works on the National Security Council and has a long and complicated title to do with arms control and nuclear non-proliferation, but he says the president refers to him as “my nukes guy”, which about sums it up. That means that Samore spends his days grappling with some of the most sensitive dossiers in US foreign policy – in particular Iran, Russia and North Korea.
Yesterday he was in London on his way back from the Moscow summit and he gave an on-the-record briefing at the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Naturally there are limits to how frank you can be in such a setting, but I still thought he had several interesting things to say:
First, the nuclear-arms reduction deal agreed in principle in Moscow is essentially a modest first step. The START (strategic arms reduction) treaty runs out at the end of the year, and it is important to have an interim agreement on further reduction – if only to keep the mechanisms for mutual inspections and co-operation going. If they can nail down all the details on this initial relatively modest reduction in nuclear weapons, Samore hopes that Russia and the US will then be able to negotiate a deal for much deeper cuts in nuclear-weapons stock-piles. He says that at that point Russian concerns about missile defence will become more valid. The Americans argue that the system they are working on is so modest that it could only be effective against a country with a very small number of nuclear missiles – such as, potentially, an Iran that went nuclear. Read more
I have taken to more or less discounting sabre-rattling from North Korea – such as the latest batch of missile tests. But maybe that is wrong.
One of China’s leading experts on North Korea, Zhang Lianggui, professor of international strategy at the Communist Party school in Beijing, believes that “the likeliehood of a military confrontation on the Korean peninsula is very high.” The North, he writes, believes “it has overwhelming military superiority” and so would inevitably win a conflict. Prof Zhang seems to think that conflict is most likely to break out initially at sea, perhaps as a result to search ships heading for North Korea. The fight would then spread to the mainland. Read more
A great graphic from the FT on the key members of Kim Jong-il’s mystery-shrouded family.
And so it was that Barack Hussein Obama visited Europe. In London, he rescued the world economy. In Strasbourg, he healed the Nato alliance. In Prague, he rid the world of nuclear weapons. In Ankara, he reconciled Islam and the west. And on the seventh day, he got back on to Air Force One and disappeared into a cloudless sky. Read more
For a while this felt like it was going to be a bad night for Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton won a huge victory in Kentucky – and the television pundits had hours to dwell gloomily on Obama’s failure there. But Kentucky was then offset by a big win for Obama in Oregon.
The fact that Obama chose to give his evening speech in Iowa – the site of his first crucial victory – had excited speculation that he was going to claim that the Democratic race was over. Instead he contented himself with the claim that he is”within reach of the Democratic nomination” – which is undeniable. Instead Obama chose to signal his inevitable victory by a change in tone and focus. He was magnanimous towards Hillary, in the manner of a victor. And he focused the most effective part of his speech on an attack on John McCain. Read more
Tony Blair is working right up to the last minute. Some FT colleagues and I went to see him earlier this week, for top-secret discussions about the future of Europe. But just as interesting as the off-the-record stuff (I thought), was what Blair had to say about the Oscar-winning film, “The Queen” – which portrays Blair and the Queen, dealing with the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana.
During the cold war, western diplomats told a joke about the frustrations of negotiating with the Soviet Union. It was like putting your money into a Coke machine and finding that the machine had not delivered you a Coke. At that point you had three options: you could put some more money in and hope that the machine delivered the second time around; you could try and break into the machine and get the Coke you had paid for; or you could give up and decide you didn’t want a Coke after all. But the one thing that was not going to work was trying to talk to the machine.
For hardliners in the Bush administration, trying to negotiate with the "axis of evil" is like trying to talk to a Coke machine – an exercise in futility.
Given this deep scepticism about the utility of chat, the North Korean nuclear deal announced yesterday represents a remarkable change of strategy. It has involved two things that are traditionally anathema to the Bushies: tortuous multilateral negotiations and compromise. As Gary Samore of the Council on Foreign Relations, who negotiated with the North Koreans for the Clinton administration, explains, the Bush administration has effectively abandoned its insistence on complete North Korean disarmament. Samore says –
I think this was available at least three years ago when the North Koreans indicated that they were prepared to accept a freeze on their plutonium production. At that time, the Bush administration was insisting on complete disarmament. And unfortunately, that just wasn’t an attainable objective. And I think the Bush administration recognized that it wanted to stabilize the situation on the Korean peninsula and avoid the danger that North Korea would walk away from the talks and resume nuclear testing. It was better to accept a more limited practical agreement to freeze and engage in subsequent negotiations, because insisting on total disarmament was simply not attainable.
Following the North Korean deal, the Bush administration finds itself in the unusual position of being condemned by neo-conservatives and praised by the editorial pages of the New York Times.
The obvious question is whether this new spirit of compromise in Washington will be extended to Iran.
It must be irritating – not to say alarming – for the world’s superpowers to be outwitted by a lunatic, operating from the world’s most isolated state, North Korea. But if it’s any consolation, in the game of nuclear brinkmanship, lunatics may actually start with an advantage.
This theory was outlined by Richard Nixon to Bob Halderman during the Vietnam War. As Halderman recalled in his memoirs Nixon explained that he wanted the Vietnamese to believe that he might just be crazy enough to use nuclear weapons. Halderman recalled him saying: "I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ — and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace."
It seems entirely possible that Kim Jong Il is following Nixonian logic – and was hoping that North Korea’s nuclear test will persuade the United States and his Asian neighbours to treat him with a little more kindness and consideration.