German Election Losses Leave Merkel's North Korea Stance in Limbo

German Election Losses Leave Merkel's North Korea Stance in Limbo
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel previously advocated Germany take a lead role in brokering a diplomatic solution to the crisis in North Korea. But election losses for her Christian Democratic Union party have left her weakened at home, and the country's future stance on the issue in doubt.

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Angela Merkel will remain the German Chancellor. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), suffered sweeping losses, but remain the largest force in the new German parliament, the Bundestag.

On the campaign trail, much of the talk had been around populist movements taking root across the planet, but in the final weeks before polling day, the spotlight trained on North Korea. The world watched transfixed as the country demonstrated its progress in developing a credible nuclear weapon, while the U.S. and its allies scrambled to respond.

Roughly a year ago, upon the departure from office of former U.S. President Barack Obama, Merkel was hailed by The New York Times as potentially “the liberal West’s last defender.” So as North Korea’s autocrat leader, Kim Jong-un, ratcheted up the rhetoric around obliterating various parts of the United States, it was only natural to turn to the German leader for a response. In the course of public appearances and interviews, Merkel did her bit and offered Germany’s diplomatic support to resolve the conflict.

In Germany, media coverage of Asia is generally sparse, save for pieces about flashpoint issues such as the situation on the Korean peninsular. There is of course a certain interest in the rise of China, yet this is generally framed in a narrative of fear and anxiety rather than one of potential and opportunity. In Germany, too, populists from the left and the right drive a more inward-looking (some would say navel-gazing) agenda. Outsiders, such as China, are therefore characterized as a threat. It was in Germany after all, that the late-19th century government of Kaiser Wilhelm II drew on the xenophobic Yellow Peril metaphor to rally propaganda around European attacks on China. A negative perception continues to be prevalent, when it comes to China, but the issue has taken a backseat for the last 15 years as media attention has focussed on less existential threats: terrorist acts by various Islamic militant groups.

Consequently, Merkel speaking up about North Korea and pledging diplomatic action caught many observers by surprise: What would a German diplomatic intervention look like? As a matter of fact, pundits in Berlin see in the North Korean leader as a rational actor; someone with whom it is possible to open dialogue and negotiations after all. By highlighting an alleged capacity to arm and deploy nuclear missiles, Kim’s intention is to blackmail the international community in the same manner as, say, Iran. The goal here, so the story goes, is to use the threat of military action to ease sanctions and provide money for necessities — a purpose which is being ultimately defeated with every extra turn of the screw on sanctions by the U.S., and more importantly, China. His second motive for having nuclear weapons is to ensure he avoids the fate suffered by the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who in the view of the North Korean leadership was overthrown because he lacked the weaponry with which to defend himself against the coalition raised against him.

German media highlights that Merkel’s diplomatic overture is massively at odds with the approach of U.S. President Donald Trump, who is exuberantly unpopular amongst Germans and Europeans in general, and deemed equally as rock-headed as Kim. From the tabloids to the weekly political magazines, the majority of the coverage echoes the mainstream line — that Kim is the source of the conflict and destabilization. Yet there is a small fraction of the public and media that reflects deep-seated resentment of the U.S., and rails against its perceived imperialism.

Things have escalated too far already to hope for a repeat of the scenario with Iran, in which six world powers, including Germany, came together to negotiate and finalize an accord that limited Iran’s nuclear development. Kim’s provocations have gone beyond the pale, not to mention that Trump hates the Iran deal and is doing his best to undermine it. There’s no chance of the administration in Washington treating with what they view as another nuclear blackmailer. And so could it be left to Germany to pave the path to peace? That would involve affirming that Kim actually has demands he wants met in return for a curtailment of his nuclear program. At this point there is no reliable line of communication to and from Pyongyang — a lamentable circumstance that should change as soon as possible.

Angela Merkel may originally have wanted to raise Germany’s game on the international stage, but the election result has left her weakened. The chancellor may now be forced to focus on domestic issues rather solving global conflicts: The new right wing party Alternative for Germany, which rebelled against the Merkel government’s favorable stance towards Syrian refugees, has become the second-strongest party in some parts of the country. Merkel’s CDU has lost one million voters to this new right wing extremist party. Most of these voters express sympathy for Russia, not the United States. How things progress on North Korea may also be influenced by how this powerful new force in parliament articulates itself. The likelihood is, Alternative for Germany will fall into line with Russian and Chinese policies on the issue.

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