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Korea – Past and Present

At Glover Cottages on Tuesday 20 June, our guests were Michael Pembroke, NSW Supreme Court judge, writer and historian, and Peter Rowe, former Australian ambassador to both Koreas. Their discussion was about the current situation on the Korean peninsula, and the likely aims of the North Korean regime. Michael drew from impressions he had gained during travels into North Korea in 2016, and research for a forthcoming book he is writing on Korea. Peter’s perspective was from his experiences as ambassador from 2006 to 2009.

Michael said that Kim Il-sung’s attempt to unify the peninsula under Pyongyang had been rebuffed by September 1950, and the war should have ended there. Instead, General MacArthur pressed on through North Korea to the Yalu River, bringing China into the war, resulting in a stalemate along the 38th parallel and an armistice rather than a peace treaty. The US bombing campaign during the conflict was the most destructive of any war to that time, leaving a legacy of bitterness throughout North Korea.

Michael said he was no flag bearer for Pyongyang, which had created a harsh and repressive regime. But there had never been a citizens’ uprising, and Kim Jong-un seemed to be well in control and highly rational. During Michael’s tour with a small group of westerners in 2016, he had witnessed trucks laden with goods crossing and re-crossing the Chinese border, and outward signs of material prosperity, especially in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-il had introduced minor reforms, including the regime’s first internet connections. His successor, Kim Jong-un, had introduced limited agricultural reform, allowing farmers to sell some of their produce on the open market. And despite increased sanctions imposed by China as Pyongyang refused to curb its nuclear weapons program, Sino-Korean trade had recently increased by 40 percent.

Peter took a more pessimistic view. He doubted an apocalyptic end to the Pyongyang regime, as Kim Jong-un was neither irrational, suicidal nor unpredictable. But the regime saw Korea as unfinished business. It regarded South Korea, despite all its prosperity and industrial accomplishments, as a puppet of the Americans, essentially flawed and weak.  As soon as the Americans withdrew their military forces, North Korea would again attack and try to occupy South Korea. Peter thought the ROK army was weak and institutionally flawed – for example, the length of compulsory conscription had been reduced, and the Army had no warrant officer class. Its troops lacked backbone and direction.

Meanwhile, China protested too much about its inability to curb Pyongyang. It could if it wanted to, but saw the regime, nuclear-armed and hostile to the United States, as a complicating factor for the Pentagon in its war-planning, for example, in a conflict over Taiwan. It actually suited Beijing to support the Pyongyang regime. The last thing Beijing wanted was a conflagration that could lead to the whole peninsula being occupied by a regime hosting US forces. And if North Korea feared a US attack, as it claimed to do every time a combined US-ROK force exercise was held, why did it keep its troops in an offensive configuration along the 38th parallel, instead of defensively protecting population centres?

A lively discussion followed from the floor, including a heart-felt plea by guest Michael Kirby to keep in mind during all such geo-strategic discussion, the fact that Pyongyang ran a thoroughly inhumane and nasty regime, a regime that should not be tolerated by civilised societies. Another speaker pointed out however that Responsibility to Protect (R2P) obligations were dependent on an enabling  UNSC resolution, and none would apply to North Korea because both Russia and China would oppose it.


Report by Richard Broinowski

Published June 23, 2017