Kim Jong-un, Jeremy Corbyn, and the Trident Debate
Since at least the 1980s, the DPRK has been a poor and in many respects ineffectual state both at home and abroad. Pyongyang is well aware of these limitations; without nuclear weapons it would attract little interest beyond the boundaries of Northeast Asia. A North Korean interlocutor once inquired mischievously of his visiting foreign charges, “What is the language of diplomacy? Is it English? French? Russian? Spanish?” before answering his own question, “No, it’s power.” Nuclear weapons are North Korea’s path to, if not power, then at least a kind of influence.
The Kim regime’s reach in this regard has of late extended to London. Last week, politicians on both sides of the aisle took up the “North Korean threat” and how best to deal with it in a heated parliamentary debate over the renewal of the UK’s own long-standing nuclear deterrent, which is currently embodied in four Royal Navy Vanguard-class nuclear submarines (designed in Britain) carrying Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles (bought from the USA) topped with British nuclear warheads designed by AWE.
In 2007, a vote on early aspects of the renewal passed by a resounding 409 to 61. This time the margin was 472-117, but the 2016 debate was made more combative by the fact that the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, is a lifetime supporter of the anti-nuclear movement and has, to howls of strategic anguish from the military, already admitted that he would not push the nuclear button if he were prime minister. His unconvincing answer to the DPRK question remains a return to the Six-Party Talks. In this essay, Adam Cathcart looks at North Korea’s role in the debate over Trident renewal. — Christopher Green, Co-editor
Kim Jong-un, Jeremy Corbyn, and the Trident Debate
by Adam Cathcart
While the House of Commons was debating the renewal of Trident, the UK’s nuclear deterrent, a team of technicians was moving onto a highway south of North Korea’s capital to put on their own show of force.
Overseen by Kim Jong-un, the North Korean mobile launch team was anything but the product of robust legislative debate. As the votes were being tallied in Westminster, three missiles were launched from the tarmac at Hwangju, the news reaching the UK just as the vote was announced.
The North Korean state media subsequently described these actions as a “preemptive nuclear strike” exercise targeting US military hardware in South Korean ports. This test, undertaken by a country otherwise held together with string and tape, was a blunt demonstration of the flexibility of North Korea’s missile systems.
As British foreign policy reboots after Brexit, North Korea’s actions gave the new government of Theresa May a clear opportunity to demonstrate a tough side. Meanwhile, the splintered Labour response to Trident renewal and the suggested response to North Korean actions showed Jeremy Corbyn to be less than effective in advancing his idealistic agenda for Britain on the world stage.
The timing of Kim’s latest missile volley could hardly have been more useful for the new government of Prime Minister Theresa May. Conservative members of parliament had cited North Korea time and again as justification for the renewal of the UK’s deterrent capability, much to the aggravation of the North Korean side, and along the very same lines as argued by David Cameron during the last major nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula in spring 2013.
With its missile launches, Pyongyang managed to immediately render moot the earnest pleas of Jeremy Corbyn, the embattled Labour leader, for negotiation and disarmament as the only path toward peace. Corbyn also managed to cast aspersions upon his own knowledge of conditions in East Asia, by stating in the House of Commons his desire to throw more energy behind the six-party talks which have not convened since Gordon Brown was Prime Minister almost a decade ago.
The Labour leader’s emphasis on unilateral disarmament, negotiations and the assumption of good faith in aspiring nuclear powers may have mirrored aspects of the North Korean state line, but he was ignored completely by the country’s Korean Central News Agency in its solipsistic summary of the debate.
Meanwhile, May made waves by quickly answering in the affirmative to the question about her willingness to incinerate 100,000 civilians if necessary. The chances of a nuclear stand-off between Pyongyang and London are non-existent, not least as Pyongyang has a relatively active Embassy in London.
The North Koreans have also chosen not to emphasize the British “special relationship” with the hated Americans, and Trident is conveniently seen as fully divorced from US defense contractors and imperatives in the Pacific.
British Prime Ministers and MPs, however, have not always seen the North Korean threat as so hypothetical – or, in Labour’s case, as so easily dismissed. British contributions to the hot war against North Korea in the early 1950s were substantial, including infantry, air and sea actions. British ships pounded the North Korean coastline before the Inchon landing, and RAF brass like Cecil “Boy” Bouchier counseled Douglas MacArthur on firebombing North Korean cities.
During that conflict, Clement Attlee’s government was hailed for its moderation of wild-eyed American nuclear threats on North Korea and its Chinese ally. But the government was criticized during the war by Labour MPs like Tom Driberg and Monica Felton who sought an immediate cease fire and were vocal about the anguish that aerial bombing and nuclear threats were inflicting on North Korean civilians. Jeremy Corbyn’s suggested remedies for proliferation in Korea and his willingness to occupy the imaginative terrain of the potential victims of nuclear strikes in Asia stem directly from this lineage.
Corbyn sustains a line of unilateral disarmament which will be familiar to historians of Labour politics. It is by no means a majority position, but does have a lineage and deep reserves of support among a certain line of the party faithful.
As for Theresa May’s implied threat against North Korea, not all Conservatives have been in lock step with this position over time. National Archives documents describe one prominent Conservative minister registering his disgust with American napalm raids on the North, telling the Minister of Defense in August 1952 that “I do not like this napalm bombing at all.. we should make a great mistake to commit ourselves to approval of a very cruel form of warfare affecting the civilian population.” That Conservative was Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister and bridling at American pressure to accept the idea that napalm attacks on North Korean cities were essential to winning the war.
It has been a very long time since the Korean War, but the calculus of mutual nuclear threats, regional alliances, and North Korea continues to evolve. The Trident supporters correctly note that DPRK is indeed the only country in the world to have tested nuclear weapons in the new millennium. They have done it four times, in 2006, 2009, 2013, and most recently on in January, the last of which placed British diplomacy with North Korea in the deep freeze, and official visits from London squarely on the back burner. Trident supporters also note that North Korean proliferation is a real concern.
Well-meaning peace activists and politicians have advocated for a peace regime on the Korean peninsula for years, of course, and continue argue that an “Iran model” for North Korea could be the way forward, so Corbyn is hardly out on some unsustainable wing here. Trident has little to with the British government’s position on any of this in any case, but Corbyn’s assertion that the Six-Party Talks were ongoing, or, to be charitable, his assumption that British pressure to restart the talks would amount to anything, lend evidence to the view that he has been preoccupied with internal Party politics at the expense of preparing a convincing brief against May. If the Labour leader is to mount any sort of comeback, he would do well to keep Kim Jong-un and his missiles — if not inner-party purges — somewhere in the back of his momentous mind.