May 8, 2013

Dennis Rodman Wants Kim Jong-un to "Do Me a Solid"


Former basketball star* Dennis Rodman has waded into international politics yet again, this time pleading with the North Korean regime to "do him a solid" and release American Kenneth Bae, who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly plotting to undermine the Pyongyang regime.

Rodman visited North Korea in February where he supposedly made a "friend for life" in Kim Jong-un.

We'll see if that friendship will pay off.

(AP Photo)

(* Full disclosure: I am a New York Knicks fan. I disliked Rodman intensely when he played for the Chicago Bulls and I don't particularly like him as an international diplomat, either.)

April 30, 2013

A War in Korea Would Be Really Bad for the Electronics Business


Leaving aside the significant humanitarian and geopolitical consequences of a war on the Korean Peninsula, such a conflagration would also catastrophically damage the global supply chain for the electronic gadgets we've come to rely on for work and play.

According to a report from the research firm iSuppli, a war in Korea would deal a major blow to components, such as NAND flash memory and DRAM, that are vital for manufacturing PCs, tablets and smartphones.

South Korea is home to many leading technology firms such as Samsung, LG and SK Hynix -- two of which (Samsung and Hynix) are headquartered in Seoul. Aside from being name brands, these firms hold significant market share in major product categories. Samsung and LG alone represent 30 percent of the worldwide market for cellphones and smartphones, iSuppli noted. Samsung is also the top TV maker worldwide.

Were a war to break out, we'd see massive supply chain disruptions, product shortages and sky-rocketing prices across the entire IT and consumer electronics industry.

While the research firm thinks it's unlikely that we'll see a war, it did warn "forward thinking tech companies" to begin planning for the worse.

Just in case.

(AP Photo)

April 5, 2013

U.S. Politician Wants the World to Collapse the North Korean Regime


Congressman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, thinks the international community should "collapse" the North Korean regime by squeezing its money supply.

These kind of glib statements aren't really surprising given North Korea's worrisome antics and atrocious human rights record (who wouldn't want to see the regime swept away), but they do highlight one of the deeply problematic aspects of the standoff. No one wants to see the Kim regime endure and no one wants to see it end chaotically.

I'm still in the camp that thinks it's unlikely that North Korea will start a full-blown war, but there's less doubt that the collapse of the regime would cause immediate havoc in both China and South Korea and very quickly in the U.S. as well.

The South Koreans have looked at German reunification and, according to Jochen-Martin Gutsch, here's what they found: refugees will flood into the country "rapidly, in large numbers and inexorably." South Korea has a vibrant and healthy economy, but not healthy enough to add millions of starving and under-educated civilians to its institutions instantly.

China has its own interests in keeping the status quo in tact: it not only doesn't want the refugee influx, it's worried about a reunified peninsula under South Korean control hosting American military facilities.

The Brookings Institute's Michael O'Hanlon did a run-down of potential Korean collapse scenarios and none of them look pretty from a U.S. stand point, either:

The problem is more complex than a peacekeeping mission, however. To begin, some significant fraction of North Korea’s million-strong army may fight against South Korea even in an apparent collapse scenario. Collapse is likely to imply a contest for power among multiple North Korean factions rather than a literal, complete, and immediate dissolution of authority nationwide. Some significant amount of the South Korean army could therefore be in effect on war footing, fighting from village to village and city to city.

A calculation based simply on overall force requirements also ignores the dimension of time. How long would it take South Korea to spread out and establish control of the North Korean territory—and how much time can we afford? In fact, and of course, speed would be of the essence in any mission to find and control DPRK nuclear-related assets.

The collapse or end of the Kim regime is inevitable -- if not in a "ocean of fire" than in the decay that erodes all political dynasties (especially those built on brutality and oppression). But deliberately provoking it without an adequate plan in place to deal with the aftermath is insane. Things are likely to go awry even with the best unification plan in place.

(AP Photo)

March 22, 2013

China Is Returning North Korean Defectors


China reportedly captured and returned 12 North Korean troops who had defected after shooting their senior officer.

According to Korean media reports, there have been a series of defections among North Korean soldiers due to food shortages. North Korean border troops have been forced to cultivate their own corn and potatoes to survive and several groups have decided to roll the dice on escaping, only to be caught by Chinese border patrols.

It's not just North Korean soldiers who are having trouble escaping. In January, the New York Times reported that it was becoming "increasingly difficult" to smuggle refugees out of North Korea thanks to a crack down by China's border control.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has formally approved a probe into North Korea's human rights abuses.

(AP Photo)

March 13, 2013

Americans Drink Snow, Live in Tents and Shoot Their Children

Well, North Korea's trolling video propagandists are back. Last time, it was a depiction of New York City burning to a karaoke rendition of "We Are The World." This time, well, just watch:


We have been punked. Too good to be true...

February 26, 2013

This May Be the First Instagram Image from North Korea


The Associated Press's Jean Lee has taken what is believed to be the first Instagram photo from inside North Korea. The country's telecom operator Koryolink recently allowed foreigners to access mobile data services.

According to Jon Russell, North Korea has recently relaxed some rules regarding foreigners and technology following a visit from Google's Chairmen Eric Schmidt.

(Photo: Jean Lee/Jon Russell)

February 18, 2013

Five Things Americans Fear the Most


What do Americans fear most? When it comes to America's international security interests, the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs are deemed most threatening, according to a new survey from Gallup. Americans were giving a list of nine developments and asked to rank them from more to less critical. Here are the top five threats Americans say are most critical:

1. The nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea (tied for first)
2. International terrorism
3. Islamic fundamentalism
4. The economic power of China
5. The military power of China

The poll was conducted before North Korea's most recent nuclear test.

Other issues that had previously ranked higher -- such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and tensions between India-Pakistan -- have declined.

Here's a look at the full list of Gallup's results:


(AP Photo)

February 14, 2013

Now South Korea Is Talking About Getting Nukes


Following North Korea's successful nuclear test, South Korean politicians are openly mooting the idea of acquiring their own nuclear deterrent, according to a report in the Korea Times.

One such politican, Won Yoo-chul, suggested that the country develop nuclear weapons on the condition "that we immediately scrap them if the North gives up its nuclear program." Another conservative lawmaker described the current state of South Korean defenses as trying to defend your home with a pebble against a gangster with a machine gun.

Other lawmakers prefer to remain under the U.S. nuclear umbrella (the U.S. stopped basing nuclear weapons in Korea in 1991 as efforts to "denuclearize" the Korean Peninsula began). And there are several legal obstacles in front of South Korea: they would have to pull out of the Non Proliferation Treaty and a bilateral nuclear accord with the U.S. before it could obtain nuclear weapons.

Still, one can see the logic of South Korea's nuclear threats: they may just be enough to goad China into taking a tougher line against Pyongyong.

(AP Photo)

February 12, 2013

Why the Kind of Bomb North Korea Tested Matters


The Center for Strategic and International Studies' Victor Cha and Ellen Kim explain why it matters whether North Korea tested a uranium-based weapon or a plutonium bomb:

A uranium-fueled test would suggest several disturbing new problems in the effort to denuclearize North Korea. First, it would mean that the DPRK has not one, but two ways to make a bomb which doubles the problem. Second, highly-enriched uranium is much easier to hide than plutonium. It can be made in from centrifuges operating in buildings the size of a warehouse unlike the big and easily identifiable footprint of a plutonium nuclear plant facility. Third, the North can potentially produce a lot more uranium than it can plutonium and proliferate horizontally to others (like Iran) who may not need to test a device and feel confident that it has acquired a working device. Moreover, if this is proven to be a test of a miniaturized device as the North claims, then they will have crossed another technological threshold in mating a nuclear warhead with a long-range ballistic missile that could threaten U.S. security and that of its allies. Basically, none of this is good at all.

(AP Photo)

'Fatty Kim the Third' or How China's Web Users Are Reacting to North Korea's Nuclear 'Earthquake'


China has long propped up the North Korean regime as a buffer state between it and U.S. ally South Korea. But China's patience with North Korea is reportedly running thin and this latest nuclear test may be the atom that broke the camel's back, at least if China's web users had their say (which, of course, they don't).

Liz Carter of Tea Leaf Nation took the pulse of Weibo (China's version of Twitter) and found the response decidedly hostile to North Korea. One commentator described China's policy of propping up the Hermit Kingdom as "raising a mad dog to protect your house."

Josh Kim is also surveying China's online reaction, where several commentators have had harsh words for "Fatty Kim the Third." Lian Peng, anewspaper columnist, complained that the "bitterest loser" of North Korea's antics is China. Another, Yao Bo, argued that if "China continues to tolerate this thug nation, we will lose big."

The official Chinese reaction is more restrained, with the Foreign Ministry claiming to be "strongly opposed" to North Korea's nuclear experimentation.

(AP Photo)

February 5, 2013

North Korean Propaganda Video Shows an Attack on New York

This video above was distributed by North Korea's state-run media. It depicts a man dreaming of a rocket attack on New York -- to the tune of "We are the World."

The captions inform us that “[s]omewhere in the United States, black clouds of smoke are billowing. It seems that the nest of wickedness is ablaze with the fire started by itself.” And “[d]espite all kinds of attempts by imperialists to isolate and crush us … never will anyone be able to stop the people marching toward a final victory.”

January 29, 2013

Eric Schmidt: Stealth Cartographer?


Possibly, says Patrick Clark:

Shortly after Google Chairman Eric Schmidt returned from his much-ballyhooed trip to North Korea, his daughter and traveling companion Sophie published an extended diary of the adventure, revealing, among other things, that her father’s response to staying in a bugged hotel room was simply to leave his door opened wide.

At the time, that sounded like so much useless indignation, but—ho ho!—may actually have represented an effective bit of trade craft.

For while Mr. Schmidt was touring the country’s universities, delivering stern warnings on the danger of North Korea’s virtual isolation and providing a platform for former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s perpetual cravat, Google’s engineers were apparently working on a little Pyongyang surprise.

Not two weeks after Mr. Schmidt and entourage returned home from North Korea, Google unveiled a highly detailed map of the isolated nation, labeling everything from “Pyongyang’s subway stops to the country’s several city-sized gulags, as well as its monuments, hotels, hospitals and department stores.”

(AP Photo)

January 28, 2013

Man Executed for Cannibalism in North Korea


There's rarely a shortage of awful news emanating from North Korea, but the most recent is particularly gruesome. The Times (paywall) is reporting that North Korea has executed a father for allegedly killing his two children and eating them during a famine last year that may have killed as many as 10,000 people.

RCW contributor Todd Crowell wrote about this latest man-made famine last week:

The Hwangwhe provinces, north and south, lie just south of the capital, between Pyongyang and the South Korean border. They are often said to be the “breadbasket” of North Korea, supplying food to both key elements of North Korea’s social order: The million-man army, many of them deployed along their southern border facing South Korea; and the capital, Pyongyang.

For the past year, however, these provinces have not been able to feed themselves, due in part to the demands of these two powerful groups. In particular the capital has required considerably more of the provincial agriculture output to feed the thousands of workers who were imported to work on the major construction projects underway for the past three to four years.

So to the familiar list of culprits of food shortages -- floods followed by severe drought -- can be added a political, and completely man-made, dimension that has not been seen as much in the previous food shortages that have plagued North Korea for the better part of the last decade.

(AP Photo)

Man Executed for Cannibalism in North Korea


There's rarely a shortage of awful news emanating from North Korea, but the most recent is particularly gruesome. The Times (paywall) is reporting that North Korea has executed a father for allegedly killing his two children and eating them during a famine last year that may have killed as many as 10,000 people.

RCW contributor Todd Crowell wrote about this latest man-made famine last week:

The Hwangwhe provinces, north and south, lie just south of the capital, between Pyongyang and the South Korean border. They are often said to be the “breadbasket” of North Korea, supplying food to both key elements of North Korea’s social order: The million-man army, many of them deployed along their southern border facing South Korea; and the capital, Pyongyang.

For the past year, however, these provinces have not been able to feed themselves, due in part to the demands of these two powerful groups. In particular the capital has required considerably more of the provincial agriculture output to feed the thousands of workers who were imported to work on the major construction projects underway for the past three to four years.

So to the familiar list of culprits of food shortages -- floods followed by severe drought -- can be added a political, and completely man-made, dimension that has not been seen as much in the previous food shortages that have plagued North Korea for the better part of the last decade.

(AP Photo)

December 13, 2012

How Will China React to North Korea's Missile Test?

By all accounts, the North Korean missile test was a significant technical milestone in the advancement of the country's arsenal. Jonathan Pollack wonders whether the test will strain the Hermit Kingdom's ties to China:

The bigger risks for Pyongyang concern its relations with China. The US, Japan, and South Korea have already called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, since the North’s test are in direct violation of Resolutions 1718 and 1874, which prohibit North Korea from undertaking any rocket tests “using ballistic missile technology.” Since North Korea announced on December 1 that it would attempt another satellite launch, there have been persistent reports that the Obama Administration would seek to impose even harsher sanctions, even though North Korea is probably already the world’s most heavily sanctioned state. The US thus seems very likely to put great pressure on China to agree to additional sanctions. In recent weeks, the Chinese have openly cautioned the North Koreans from undertaking another test, without signaling what China would do should Pyongyang decide to test. Beijing’s first comments on the test had an ominous tone: “all parties concerned should stay cool headed and refrain from stoking the flames so as to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control.” How China chooses to respond will be the first foreign policy challenge for the newly installed Party General Secretary Xi Jinping.
Just a guess, but chances are the response will be in keeping with previous episodes. There will be a pro-forma denunciation from the United States and allied powers, a bland reproach from China and then everyone will quickly look the other way until the next provocation.

December 22, 2011

Read Communist Propaganda

The Korean Central News Agency of the DPRK has a useful round-up of links to articles memorializing the "Dear Leader." Click the link to read why, among other things, Kim Jong-il's field jacket was an object of devotion:

In that dress he inspected the posts on the defence line of the country including the post under shrub pine trees, Mt. Osong, Mt. Taedok and Panmunjom to protect the independent destiny and future of the people.

This dress instilled the wisdom and bravery capable of matching a hundred into soldiers.

He visited time and again many factories, enterprises and co-op farms in his field jacket reeking of soil of heights, leading the people to a victory.

Creepy and compelling at the same time.

December 20, 2011

Why They Weep for Kim Jong-il

Millions of people have viewed the above video depicting North Koreans bawling over the death of Kim Jong-il. NPR's Louisa Lim offers an explanation:

When Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il-sung, died in 1994, the party actually conducted surveys to see who displayed the most grief. And those people who stayed dry-eyed and just got on with their jobs as normal and didn't cry, they were actually punished. So that kind of thing looks like it's happening again.

The Psychology of Dictatorship


Jason Goldman has a fascinating post that delves into the psychology of several infamous dictators. (Click on the picture for a larger-sized image.) Goldman observes:

Further comparisons among the dictators revealed that Kim Jong-il had more in common with Saddam Hussein (their profiles had a correlation of .67) than with Hitler (their profiles had a correlation of .20). Indeed, both Jong-il and Hussein had sadistic personality disorder as their highest rated item, and their scores were nearly identical – more than three standard deviations above the population average!

However, Howard French argues against seeing Kim Jong-il as a madman:

The focus on Kim's foibles and on his reputed unpredictability always hampered understanding of the man and of the real nature of the regime. From beginning to end during 17 years of rule, he was capable of minutely sliced and, it must be stressed, rational calculations about how to stay in power and how to keep the world at bay.

December 19, 2011

North Korea and State Collapse

The death of Kim Jong-il brings to the fore the hopeful-yet-daunting possibility that North Korea's long nightmare might be coming to an end. It's hopeful for obvious reasons - among the world's nasty regimes, Kim Jong-il arguably ran the worst. But it's daunting too, for reasons Robert Kaplan laid out in a 2006 piece:

For a harbinger of the kind of chaos that looms on the peninsula consider Albania, which was for some years the most anarchic country in post-Communist Eastern Europe, save for war-torn Yugoslavia. On a visit to Albania before the Stalinist regime there finally collapsed, I saw vicious gangs of boys as young as eight harassing people. North Korea is reportedly plagued by the same phenomenon outside of its showcase capital. That may be an indication of what lies ahead. In fact, what terrifies South Koreans more than North Korean missiles is North Korean refugees pouring south. The Chinese, for their part, have nightmare visions of millions of North Korean refugees heading north over the Yalu River into Manchuria.

Kaplan goes on to note that a true, disorderly end to the regime in North Korea would result in the largest "stabilization" mission since World War II and possibly in history:

On one day, a semi-starving population of 23 million people would be Kim Jong Il’s responsibility; on the next, it would be the U.S. military’s, which would have to work out an arrangement with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (among others) about how to manage the crisis.

December 7, 2011

Clinton to Pyongyang?

Scott Snyder thinks it's possible:

Secretary Hillary Clinton’s historic visit to Myanmar, the first by a U.S. secretary of state in over fifty years, has stimulated speculation among journalists (including at the end of her interview with the BBC in Rangoon) regarding the circumstances under which she might visit North Korea. The conditions in Myanmar also suggest some likely benchmarks for what it would take for the secretary of state to visit Pyongyang: an embrace of nascent economic and political reforms (including the possible release of some political prisoners); a return to the denuclearization commitments embodied in the September 2005 Six Party Joint Statement; and a South Korean political leader with the credibility to champion U.S. engagement so as to protect the administration from conservative congressional criticism.

August 30, 2011

Cyber Aggression

While the world's attention gravitates to North Korea following high profile incidents - a nuclear test or the sinking of a South Korean battleship - less attention is paid to the low-level cyber-war being waged by the North:

After nearly half of the servers for a South Korean bank crashed one day in April, investigators here found evidence indicating that they were dealing with a new kind of attack from an old rival: North Korea.

South Korean officials said that 30 million customers of the Nonghyup agricultural bank were unable to use ATMs or online services for several days and that key data were destroyed, making it the most serious of a series of incidents in recent months. But even more troubling was the prospect that a belligerent neighbor had acquired the tools to disrupt one of the world’s most heavily wired nations — and that even more damaging attacks could be in store.

August 22, 2011

Leon Sigal on North Korea and Carrots

Leon Sigal’s piece in the National Interest on "Using the Carrot in North Korea" has numerous troubling issues from my perspective, the most prominent of which is: has Sigal or his editors been paying any attention to recent history on the peninsula?

Sigal writes: “[M]utual deterrence makes the likelihood of deliberate aggression on the peninsula quite low.” Really now? Was Sigal serving on a sequestered jury for the entire period between, say, March 26, 2010 (the sinking of the Cheonan) to Nov. 23, 2010 (the shelling of Yeonpyeong)?

As things stand, it’s fairly clear that North Korea has opened an intermittent war against the South, and that South Korean and American deterrence against the North is failing. Sigal's answer is the same cocktail of impotent diplomacy and extortion payments that made North Korea a nuclear power and extended Kim Jong-il's longevity, while doing the exact opposite for the great majority of his pitiful subjects.

Next, Sigal proceeds to cast all of the current tension as the fault of President Lee of South Korea, for abandoning “engagement.” But effectively, this approach translates to propping up Kim Jong-il with billions of dollars in cash, aid efforts which do not purchase any real reform, relaxation of oppression, renunciation of drug dealing, counterfeiting, proliferation, or any other pullback in aggression toward the South. I’d like to ask Sigal: is this reality at all Kim Jong-il's fault, or does he have an excuse for it all?

Perhaps we just need a larger carrot to compete with the Russians, with whom Kim is meeting this week. Or perhaps we need to reconsider the value of Ronald Reagan’s saying from the perspective of the South: “To sit back hoping that someday, some way, someone will make things right is to go on feeding the crocodile, hoping he will eat you last – but eat you he will.”

July 19, 2011

Korean Unification


Asia Sentinel looks at the harsh reality of what a potential reunification between North and South Korea would entail:

It is not possible to predict how, when or if such an event could happen although the United Nations World Food Program said in May that the north’s food supply is about to run out and that perhaps a quarter of the country’s people would be at risk of starvation. But if the north does collapse, it is likely to make the reunification problems between East and Western Germany look like a picnic. “What would be likely if that time arrives, however, is a massive outflow of refugees because of the brutal living conditions in the North. South Korea’s struggle to integrate quite small numbers shows what an immense challenge this would be for the region and international actors.”

North Korean defectors, the report says, “are sicker and poorer than their Southern brethren, with significantly worse histories of nutrition and medical care. They have distinctive accents, use different words and have little experience in the daily demands of life in a developed and open society. In the North, their education, employment, marriage, diet, and leisure were determined by the government, which assigned them to a class of people based on family history and political reliability. In the South, the array of choices presents them with endless difficult decisions that can be overwhelming.”

There's often a lot of frustration in the U.S. regarding Chinese and South Korean cooperation on North Korea. But judging from the massive social and economic dislocation that would result from a collapse of the North Korean state, it's little wonder they're not enthusiastic about regime change.

(AP Photo)

July 1, 2011

Korean Teens See Japan Threat

Interesting poll via Japan Security Watch on a recent survey of youth in South Korea:

Asked about enemies, 44.5% chose Japan, 22.1% chose North Korea, 19.9% chose the United States, 12.8% chose China and 0.6% chose Russia, showing that 44.5% of teenagers believe that Japan is an enemy.

May 13, 2011

North Korea's Hacker Army

Via Marcus Noland, a report on North Korea's extensive cyber war capabilities:

North Korea's 1,000 or so hackers are as good as their CIA counterparts, experts believe. Due to difficulties in expanding its conventional weapons arsenal following the economic hardships during the 1990s, North Korea apparently bolstered electronic warfare capabilities.

The regime opened Mirim University, now renamed Pyongyang Automation University, in the mid-1980s to train hackers in electronic warfare tactics. A defector who graduated from Mirim University said classes were taught by 25 Russian professors from the Frunze Military Academy. They trained 100-110 hackers every year.

March 2, 2011

America's Allies Want America's Nukes

By Elbridge Colby

The FT reports today that the White House has disavowed the reported statement by Gary Samore, NSC non-proliferation czar, that the United States would redeploy shorter-range nuclear weapons to South Korea if Seoul requested them. (Cold War-era U.S. tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from the Peninsula in 1991.) The story is interesting on a number of levels, not least because this is a fairly anemic denial: it states only that Washington “has no plans or intention” to redeploy them, has the effect of signaling to Pyongyang, Beijing, Tokyo and others that such a move is not beyond the pale. This is doubly so because it comes on top of earlier murmurs from Seoul seeking consideration of redeployment.

Just as interesting, though, is how the story reflects what has been a dormant but looks to be a reemerging dynamic: the push by U.S. allies to gain more visible and, to some, more credible manifestations of a U.S. nuclear commitment. Ultimately, a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon, whether it is on the ground in South Korea or somewhere thousands of miles away on a submarine or ICBM. But there has long been a perception that “forward-deployed” or “theater” weapons (including not only ground-based but also forward-deployed aerial and sea-based systems) have some value in demonstrating a specific commitment to the countries or areas in which they are deployed. So, back in the Cold War, NATO allies pushed for Washington to maintain nuclear weapons in Europe, weapons that were viewed as more credible for the defense of Europe and essential to linking European and U.S. security.

Today, U.S. allies in Northeast Asia worry about North Korea and the Chinese military build-up. In the Middle East they worry about Iran’s weapons program and regional ambitions. And in Eastern Europe there is concern about Russia’s continued truculence, as well as some reports that have unnerved capitals in the former Soviet Empire. Assuming these disturbing trends don’t all halt and reverse themselves, watch for allies to signal interest and maybe eventually push Washington to put some nuclear forces back to the front.
Elbridge Colby has served in several national security positions with the U.S. Government, most recently with the Department of Defense working on the follow-on to the START Treaty and as an expert adviser to the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission. The views expressed here are his own.

February 7, 2011

U.S. Views on Forward Deployments

Rasmussen offers some grist for the coming austerity battle:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 49% of Likely U.S. voters think we should remove troops from Western Europe and let the region defend itself. Forty-eight percent (48%) feel the same way about Japan. However, 60% say the United States should leave its troops in South Korea....

Earlier polling found that voters are fairly evenly divided as to whether the federal government spends too much or too little on national defense, but most also appear to dramatically underestimate how much is actually spent. Removing troops from Western Europe and Japan could reduce military spending by tens of billions of dollars annually.

December 10, 2010

Kim Jong-il Looking at Stuff

A new Tumblr.

[Hat tip: Asia Sentinel]

December 7, 2010

War on the Korean Peninsula

Victor Cha writes on the strategic logic of war in Korea:

There is a real possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula. The cause is not a second North Korean invasion of the South like in June 1950, which was successfully deterred by U.S. and South Korean forces. The danger stems from two combustible trends: A North Korea which mistakenly believes it is invulnerable to retaliation due to its nascent nuclear capabilities, and a South Korea that feels increasingly compelled to react with military force to the string of ever more brash provocations like the artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island.

This is sober analysis. Joshua Stanton, an expert on the peninsula and former editor of the Military Law Review, agrees and disagrees:

If anything, I think Cha understates the gravity of the situation. North Korea — by the way, it was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008 — has already sunk a South Korean warship, shelled a South Korean island, killed and maimed Marines and civilians, and turned the survivors of the impact zone into South Korea’s first population of war refugees since 1953. How is that not already war — even if it’s still unilateral and limited? Yet with each provocation, another limit is crossed. Cha is also right that South Korea has an urgent need for a way to deter the next escalation, which might be as unthinkable as the last ones still seem.

And yet:

Which brings us to where Cha gets it wrong. Notwithstanding this persuasive deconstruction of conventional deterrence, he still argues that we can only restore it by flooding South Korea with American targets soldiers (long ago, I was one of them). Then, almost as an afterthought, Cha argues that we seek the permission of the spineless Ban Ki Moon and the duplicitous Hu Jintao to do what Article 51 of the U.N. Charter clearly authorizes anyway. But this is a fool’s errand. I think Victor Cha is an honest, decent, and intelligent man, but here, he seems to personify a foreign policy establishment that wasted so many precious years leaning on the only two policies it ever seems to have thought of — conventional military deterrence, which North Korea has clearly circumvented; and diplomatic appeasement, which North Korea has so profitably exploited.

Stanton described at length several other deterrence strategies for the United States in a recent podcast he recorded for Coffee & Markets, the daily podcast I co-host along with Brad Jackson. You can listen to the interview with Stanton here, and read more at his indispensable website on Korea.

December 1, 2010

Americans Expect War in Korea


According to a new poll from Angus Reid:

More than two thirds of Americans expect armed conflict to break out in the Korean Peninsula over the next year and more than half are in favor of allowing U.S. soldiers to provide assistance to South Korea, a new Angus Reid Public Opinion poll has found....

More than half of Americans (53%, +6 since August) would support American soldiers providing assistance to South Korea in the event of a war against North Korea, while three-in-ten (31%) disagree with this course of action. Republicans (71%) are more likely than Independents (54%) and Democrats (46%) to endorse this notion.

Respondents are almost evenly divided on whether the U.S. Government should authorize a military invasion of North Korea with the aim of removing the North Korean Government, if a war breaks out in the Korean Peninsula. While 38 per cent of respondents are in favor of an invasion, 41 per cent are opposed. More than half of Republicans (53%) are ready to endorse an incursion in this particular scenario, but only 37 per cent of Independents and 34 per cent of Democrats concur.

An earlier survey from Rasmussen found that 46 percent of Americans would support South Korea militarily in the event of a war, and 33 percent supported sending additional American troops to the peninsula in the event South Korea was attacked.

(AP Photo)

November 29, 2010

WikiLeaks: China and North Korea


There's been a good deal of "nothing to see here" world weariness among commentators assessing the WikiLeaks document dump. But this seems rather significant to me:

Senior Chinese officials have said the Korean peninsula should be reunified under Seoul's control, according to leaked classified US diplomatic cables.

They are said to have told an ex-South Korean minister China placed little value on the North as a buffer state....

Mr Chun said the Chinese officials "were ready to 'face the new reality' that the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] now had little value to China as a buffer state - a view that since North Korea's 2006 nuclear test had reportedly gained traction among senior PRC [People's Republic of China] leaders."

"Chun argued that in the event of a North Korean collapse, China would clearly 'not welcome' any US military presence north of the DMZ [Demilitarised Zone]," the ambassador's message said.

"The PRC would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a 'benign alliance' - as long as Korea was not hostile towards China," it added.

If true, that seems to be an important shift and holds open the possibility of U.S.-China cooperation toward reunification, something I didn't think was all that probable, especially if it entailed a U.S. military presence remaining on the peninsula. Obviously we don't yet know the full story, nor is it clear whether enough of the Chinese leadership feels strongly enough about dumping North Korea as a buffer to actually effect change in North Korea. But still, it holds out an encouraging hope that South Korea, the U.S. and China can reach a modus-vivendi in the event the North collapses.

This is also a pretty interesting case for the utility of secrecy: is it better, or worse, from a U.S. standpoint, that the North Koreans hear about this?

Update: Drezner says not so fast:

I don't doubt that Chinese officials said everything reported in the documents. I do doubt that those statements mean that China is willing to walk away from North Korea. It means that Chinese diplomats are... er.... diplomatic. They will tell U.S. and South Korean officials some of what they want to hear. I'm sure that they will say somewhat different things to their North Korean counterparts.

The key is to determine whether China's actions reflect their words. And over the past six months, China has not acted in a manner consistent with Tisdall's claims.

Fair point, although I do think that China's tipping of the hat that they would be OK with a reunified peninsula still bound to the U.S. military is a significant move - although it's obviously unclear how widely that view is shared within China.

November 24, 2010

U.S. Views on Aiding South Korea


Rasmussen Reports has a new survey out on U.S. attitudes toward assisting South Korea:

Forty-six percent (46%) of voters believe the United States should provide military assistance to South Korea if it is attacked by North Korea. Twenty-nine percent (29%) disagree and say military assistance should not be provided, while another 25% are not sure....

The United States still has roughly 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea, but just 33% of voters think additional troops should be deployed there if South Korea is attacked by its neighbor to the north. Thirty-nine percent (39%) oppose the deployment of additional American soldiers to assist South Korea if it is attacked. Twenty-eight percent (28%) are undecided.

(AP Photo)

Brzezinski on Korea


Writing in the Financial Times Zbigniew Brzezinski offers some advice to President Obama:

The president has to take the initiative. Provocation of this kind cannot be dismissed lightly or left in the hands of diplomats. He should call President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea to reassure him personally and directly of US support. Then he should call President Hu Jintao of China and express serious concern. He should call Prime Minister Naoto Kan of Japan, as America’s prime ally in the Pacific and given its proximity to the Korean conundrum. He should also call President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia. Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, should then follow up on these calls and set in motion convening the United Nations Security Council.

Reaching out to China and the relevant players here is a good idea, but there's a danger in taking "presidential ownership" of a problem of this kind. Like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which the president is currently struggling with, it is unsolvable.

(AP Photo)

November 23, 2010

Ignoring the Uranium in the Room


The exchange of artillery has understandably over-shadowed the other major development on the Korean peninsula - the revelation that the North Koreans had a far more sophisticated Uranium enrichment capability than previously believed. The revelation has sparked criticism inside Korea:

“Since 1998, working-level South Korean officials have been aware that North Korea got its hands on uranium enrichment equipment, but denied this knowledge in 2002 because of the political judgment of higher authorities,” a senior government source said yesterday.

The George W. Bush administration accused Pyongyang in 2002 of operating a clandestine enriched uranium program in violation of its international commitments. But the accusation was challenged in the past by liberal South Korean officials.

“When the United States accused the North of pursuing a highly enriched uranium (HEU) program in 2002, officials of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations argued that it was a fabrication by the neoconservatives in Washington,” Chung Jin-suk, President Lee’s senior political affairs secretary, said yesterday.

“Those who sided with North Korea must come clean and apologize,” he said.

There were several U.S. analysts who also were skeptical of the Bush administration's Uranium allegations.

(AP Photo)

China's Influence on North Korea

Not so much:

China’s influence is rising steadily around the world. But the problem of how to manage its Communist neighbor and one-time ally appears to befuddle China’s leaders, who stumble from indulging the North to sending occasional signals of pique, all without making the country adopt a path toward greater openness or stability.

“At the moment China has limited influence,” Cai Jian, a professor of Korean studies at Fudan University, said in a telephone interview. “On one hand it’s unhappy with North Korean actions and its provocative behavior, but on the other hand it still has to support North Korea.”

It's possible for China to really pressure the North by cutting off aid, but, as Jian notes, fears of a refugee flood and the prospect of an American military presence directly on their border has thus far stayed China's hand.

Israel's Preemptive Strike?


I think the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg may need to revise his prediction that there's a 50 percent chance that Israel will bomb Iran in the next twelve months:

Iran's nuclear program has suffered a recent setback, with major technical problems forcing the temporary shutdown of thousands of centrifuges enriching uranium, diplomats told The Associated Press on Monday.

The diplomats said they had no specifics on the nature of the problem that in recent months led Iranian experts to briefly power down the machines they use for enrichment — a nuclear technology that has both civilian and military uses.

But suspicions focused on the Stuxnet worm, the computer virus thought to be aimed at Iran's nuclear program, which experts last week identified as being calibrated to destroy centrifuges by sending them spinning out of control.

North Korea might want to remove the USB ports from any computers inside their uranium enrichment facility.

(AP Photo)

Easier Said than Done

The last thing Washington should do now is resurrect the failed six-party talks or start bilateral negotiations with the North. Instead, serious efforts need to be made with China on reunifying the Korean peninsula, a goal made ever more urgent by the clear transition of power now underway in Pyongyang as Kim Jong Il faces the actuarial tables. North Korea's threat will only end when it does, and that day cannot come soon enough. - John Bolton, Los Angeles Times

This was written before the exchange of artillery fire, so it's possible that Mr. Bolton may revise this view in light of recent events. That said, it's not clear how - or why - China would want to work with the U.S. to reunify the peninsula. If the North's artillery barrage presages some kind of broader military attack, there may well be the opportunity for China and the U.S. (and South Korea) to plan for a post-Kim North Korea, but barring that it's hard to see how the U.S. can push China to advance our goals.

November 22, 2010

Engage North Korea?


Daryl Kimball says that the recent revelations that North Korea has a more sophisticated uranium enrichment capacity than was previously thought means the Obama administration should get back to the negotiating table:

Since there is no viable or prudent pre-emptive strike option and punitive sanctions alone cannot stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile buildup, the latest crisis requires a renewed diplomatic push, led by Washington, combined with the implementation of more effective economic, military, and political sanctions that have the full support of North Korea’s main trading partner, China.

Containing combined North Korean plutonium AND uranium enrichment programs will likely be even more difficult this time around. North Korea’s leadership is difficult to deal with for sure. But it is imperative that U.S. leads talks aimed at freezing and then verifiably dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program without further delay.

There's nothing wrong with re-engaging North Korea per-se, but is it really possible, in 2010, to believe that said talks would lead to the freezing, much less dismantling of the North's nuclear program? During arguably the most fruitful years of diplomatic engagement - President Clinton's Agreed Framework - the U.S. was able to slow, but not stop, North Korea's nuclear pursuits. Now, slowing down North Korea is a very good idea vs. a policy of doing nothing (or relying solely on sanctions and "strategic patience") and watching them gallop along toward a larger and more sophisticated nuclear arsenal. But all too often proponents of engagement tend to fall prey to the same temptations that more hawkish commentators do in overselling the virtues of their preferred solution.

As for China, they have not been all that enthusiastic about putting the screws to North Korea. And that was before President Obama's containment tour Asian tour.

(AP Photo)

October 11, 2010

North Korean Military Parade: Deadly Weapons

Apparently the recent North Korean military parade marked the public emergence of the "Musudan" intermediate range ballistic missile and a even fiercer weapon: the Kim Jong-il Comb-Over.

October 6, 2010

Ethan Epstein on North Korea

Ethan Epstein, a talented young writer, has a series of pieces this week at Slate concerning how the Chinese look at North Korea, in an odd sort of voyeurism:

North Korea fascinates even Chinese people living under nominally Communist rule. All the tourists on the boat clutching binoculars and pointing out sights on the North Korean side of the river are Chinese. The tourists at the Dandong International Hotel peering out into Sinuiju over breakfast were also Chinese.

Chenyin Jin, a Chinese academic, speculates that "Chinese people like to see North Korea because it reminds them of what life was like under Mao. There's an almost nostalgic appeal." Given how much China has changed in the last 30 years, looking at North Korea is like looking back in time for a lot of Chinese people. It is hardly surprising that the great majority of the 16,000 or so tourists who visit North Korea annually on stage-managed propaganda tours are Chinese. (Only a little more than 1,000 hail from Western countries.)

But there's something ghoulish about all this. Like "ghetto bus tours" of Compton or Harlem church tours, it can be argued that all this staring at North Korea amounts to little more than rubbernecking on a grand scale. Sure, North Korea is a country closed to the outside world, so it's easy to understand why people would be curious about how life is lived there. Yet as our boat slows down and we look through our binoculars at the skinny and woefully abused people on the riverbanks, I can't help but feel that this whole "industry" is a little disgusting.

I'll be curious to read his entries, and hope you will too.

September 30, 2010

North Korea's Next Leader

The Center for Arms Control and Proliferation has a detailed examination of the face of Kim Jong-un. See the full graphic here.


September 29, 2010

China Cultivating North Korea


China has long been recognized as the key player in the effort to isolate and pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear program. But it appears that Beijing is more interested in "investing" in the Hermit Kingdom than denuclearizing it:

China has launched a major push to boost economic engagement with North Korea and persuade Pyongyang to adopt reforms, experts say.

Analysts suggest Beijing believes development will improve regional stability by encouraging its impoverished neighbour to act more cautiously.

China also hopes to benefit from port access, mineral rights and increased trade.

But some believe the economic drive undercuts the impact of sanctions imposed in the hope of forcing North Korea to denuclearise.

From China's perspective, stability at the border and a buffer between it and U.S.-aligned South Korea matter more than whether the country has a few crude nuclear weapons or periodically engages in bouts of international blackmail. Until Washington can devise a way to change that calculus, we're going to be stuck with the Kim clan for a while longer.

(AP Photo)

June 17, 2010

Working with China on North Korea


William Tobey writes about engaging China on North Korea:

Beijing fears instability, and rightly so. Military confrontations, refugee flows, and political turmoil are all to be avoided. But it is time China made a choice between a failed and cruel regime, and a modern, peaceful, and prosperous Korean Peninsula. The United States can stipulate that democratic reunification of Korea would diminish the need for U.S. ground forces -- and certainly not motivate any movement of U.S. troops toward China's border with Korea. It would also lessen imperatives for regional missile defenses and closer U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan -- providing strategic reassurance to Beijing. Advance planning and coordination on refugee flows, economic dislocations, nuclear proliferation, and security issues would mitigate the dangers of instability.

On the other hand, if China continues abet North Korea, if it refuses to use its influence in productive ways, it should expect no further help in the form of international ransom payments to Pyongyang. If Beijing seeks to block effective action by other nations -- as it can do by wielding its veto as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council -- responding to North Korea's demands should become Beijing's problem exclusively.

It would certainly make sense - though it would enrage the North - to coordinate planning for the collapse of the Kim Jong-Il (or Jong-un) regime between China, South Korea and the United States. It would have to be done quietly, of course, but the lack of such planning constitutes a clear and serious risk to all three countries.

(AP Photo)

June 4, 2010

Americans Believe War Likely in Korea

Some cheerful poll data to start your Friday:

In the online survey of a representative national sample of 1,004 American adults, 16 per cent of respondents say it is “very likely” that a war will break out between the two Koreas in the next year, and 43 per cent think this possibility is “moderately likely”.

About 28,000 American troops are currently stationed in South Korea. In the event of a war, almost half of respondents (47%) would approve of the American soldiers helping the South Korean military. Conversely, 37 per cent of Americans would oppose such involvement.

Almost half of respondents (47%) are opposed to the U.S. government authorizing a military invasion of North Korea with the aim of removing the North Korean government. One third (35%) would approve of such a mission.

Full results here. (pdf)

May 29, 2010

Realism on the Korean Peninsula


Richard Haass offers some advice to the Obama administration:

American and South Korean officials need to do more than just point out the risk to their Chinese counterparts of China’s current course. They also need to discuss the character of a unified Korea and how one would get there, addressing legitimate Chinese strategic concerns including the questions of non-Korean troop presence and the full denuclearization of the peninsula. …

South Korea’s president may have signaled an interest in just this on Monday, saying “It is now time for the North Korean regime to change.” President Obama should follow suit. There would be no better way to mark this June’s 60th anniversary of the Korean war. [Emphasis mine.]

Jennifer Rubin thinks this is a sign that "realists are becoming neocons" as they embrace regime change and reject the Obama administration's foreign policy. Richard Haass can obviously speak for himself, but reading the sentiment above I somehow rather doubt he's endorsing a policy that the folks at Contentions would rally around. Negotiating with China and, importantly, addressing their legitimate concerns about the nature of a U.S. troop presence in a unified Korea? Sounds like appeasement to me!

So here's a question: would neoconservatives prefer a unified Korea (i.e. "regime change") if the consequence of reunification was the removal of all U.S. forces from the peninsula?

I don't know how adamant the Chinese leadership is about the issue, but I suspect that it would rank rather high as a national security issue. If the price of winning over China on Korea is a pledge to withdraw U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula after Korea was made whole, would neoconservatives embrace the trade-off, or damn the administration that made such a deal as selling out America's interests in Asia and allowing China to expand her sphere of influence?

(AP Photo)

May 27, 2010

How China Feels About North Korea


It's widely acknowledged that if any country has the leverage to talk North Korea off the ledge, it's China. The Wall Street Journal spoke to U.S. officials recently back from meetings with the Chinese to give us a flavor of what the Chinese really think of their unruly neighbor:

China's official views on North Korea have appeared divided, say the U.S. officials, who said they spent "hours" during their visit trying to gain China's insights into North Korea's recent actions and the mindset of its ailing leader, Kim Jong Il. "The Chinese seem frustrated" with Mr. Kim, said a senior U.S. official who took part in the talks.

Many Chinese analysts say they believe leaders in Beijing have grown exasperated with Mr. Kim, who embarrasses them with his nuclear theatrics and has shown little inclination to copy Chinese market-led overhauls, though Beijing has tried to dazzle him with tours of showcase cities and development zones.

Beijing's differing views on the North appear to be based both upon the age of Chinese officials and their place in government. One U.S. official said older Chinese officials who dealt with Mr. Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, remember him as largely predictable and responsive to Chinese influence. "He was more pliant," the official said they were told. Kim Jong Il, in contrast, appears to the Chinese as unpredictable and elusive.

Two great qualities to have in a leader of a nuclear-armed garrison state.

(AP Photo)

May 26, 2010

Poll: U.S. Views on Korean Crisis


Via Rasmussen:

As the saber-rattling increases on the Korean Peninsula, 47% of U.S. voters think the United States should provide military assistance to South Korea if it is attacked by its Communist neighbor to the north.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that only 25% oppose U.S. military assistance to South Korea if it is attacked by North Korea, but another 28% are undecided.

Fifty-six percent (56%) say it is at least somewhat likely there will be a war between the two Koreas in the near future, but only 14% say it’s Very Likely. Twenty-nine percent (29%) say war between North Korea and South Korea is not very or not at all likely any time soon.

I doubt that the current standoff will escalate into an outright shooting war, but with some kind of leadership transition in North Korea, there's certainly ample room for miscalculation. Still, as this FT analysis makes pretty clear, a war is clearly not in North Korea's interest:

For North Korea, the fundamental risk of any conflict is that it would almost certainly lose, given its conventional military weakness. For South Korea, the risk is that while it might ultimately win, it would suffer immense casualties.

“Back in 1993, when the Clinton administration was contemplating surgical military strikes against North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, most experts estimated that a conflict between North and South would see at least 500,000 fatalities,” says John Swenson-Wright, a fellow of Chatham House, a London-based think-tank. “War is a course of action that neither side can rationally contemplate.”

North Korea has about 1m armed men, but the technical capability of its military has long been open to question. Experts doubt North Korea has the fuel needed to mount an extensive military incursion into the South. Many believe the North’s army may well be unwilling to fight.

“Anybody looking at the balance of forces in the peninsula would see this as unwinnable from Pyongyang’s perspective,” says Mr Swenson-Wright. “South Korea has a significant standing army based on national conscription. There are also around 30,000 US troops in the country with clear capability to reach into the North.”

Of course, people can do stupid things.

(AP Photo)

Obama Sells Out Allies

They'll throw anyone under the bus, won't they:

"This was an unacceptable provocation by North Korea and the international community has a responsibility and a duty to respond,” Mrs. Clinton said.

She spent only a few hours in Seoul, but speaking at the news conference alongside Mr. Yu, she said, “We will stand with you in this difficult hour, and we will stand with you always.

May 24, 2010

War, What Is it Good For?


Arthur Herman isn't impressed with President Obama's multilateralism:

The one object of Obama’s disapprobation in his speech was not Iran or North Korea but George W. Bush. Obama never mentioned Bush by name, but he took a stab at his predecessor, saying that that under his administration the war against al-Qaeda has been “going better in recent months than in recent years.” (If it’s going so well, then why is Dennis Blair being forced out as director of national intelligence?) Another implicit criticism of Bush was Obama’s claim that “America has not succeeded by stepping outside the currents of international cooperation.” Yet it was precisely Bush’s willingness to move away from that current that has offered the nation one key foreign-policy success that Obama is eager to seize: Iraq. We owe what Obama called “the emergence of a democratic Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant” to George W. Bush’s willingness to defy conventional world opinion on Iraq. Bush was willing to apply America’s military might, and to persist — despite savage attacks from Senator Obama and others who would have preferred to cut and run — because he saw a different future. And that future was made possible because Bush took actions that were at odds with what is called the international community. He unleashed our soldiers to fight the enemy, and fight they did.

In that sense, Saturday’s speech was a sad but revealing episode — and an ill-timed one, coming one week before Memorial Day. The alternative to Obama’s vision was, literally, staring him in the face. Without ready military power and the will to use it, even the most exquisite diplomacy is useless.

This is rather surreal. Before the graf above, Herman is denouncing the Obama administration's failure with respect to North Korea and Iran. Fair enough. But President Bush had eight long years to "solve" these problems - and didn't. Now, unlike Herman, I didn't think it was possible for President Bush to solve those problems (at least in a manner that would satisfy Herman) but then I'm not the one castigating President Obama for not stopping North Korea or Iran's nuclear program.

And what of Herman's solution? Invoking Iraq in this context, President Bush's "willingness to defy international opinion," and the paean to "military power" leads me to believe that Herman thinks only wars against North Korea and Iran will suffice to manage the threat. With Iran, at least, this is a debatable proposition and reasonable people can disagree. With respect to North Korea there is much less debate: absent North Korean troops pouring over the DMZ, no one with a modicum of good sense would advocate attacking North Korea. To even casually float the idea is deeply unserious.

So yes, mulitlateral institutions don't always work well and they can't "solve" every foreign policy problem under the sun. But what Herman is arguing here is that the Obama administration should abandon its engagement strategy in favor of a war against both Iran and North Korea. The result of such a policy would put the U.S. in a manifestly worse place than it is now.

May 18, 2010

Tensions in Korea


The South Koreans will formally announce that North Korea was behind the sinking of the Cheonan.

The Washington Post reports:

South Korea will request that the U.N. Security Council take up the issue and is looking to tighten sanctions on North Korea, the officials said. The United States has indicated it would support such an action, U.S. officials said. Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada told his South Korean counterpart on Monday that Japan would do the same, the Japanese press reported Tuesday.

Another consequence of the report, experts predicted, is that Lee will request that the United States delay for several years a plan to pass operational control of all forces in South Korea from the United States to the South Korean military. Approximately 28,500 U.S. forces are stationed in South Korea.

South Korea's conclusion that North Korea was responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan also means it is unlikely that talks will resume anytime soon over North Korea's nuclear weapons program. North Korea has twice tested what is believed to be a nuclear weapon. China has pushed for an early resumption of those talks, but South Korean officials said they will return to the table only after there is a full accounting for the attack against the Cheonan and a policy response.

Scott Snyder analyzes South Korea's response:

Finally, the Lee administration made an early bet that internationalizing the Cheonan response would be the most effective South Korean course of action. Involving international investigators shields the South from accusations that the investigation is biased, but thus far it appears to have yielded little political influence with China, who has applauded South Korea’s decision to undertake a “scientific and objective investigation.” Furthermore, China’s decision to host Kim Jong Il less than a week following Lee Myung-bak’s visit was taken very poorly in Seoul, potentially revealing the limits of South Korea’s internationalization strategy. China is unlikely to accept condemnation of North Korea at the UN Security Council without a “smoking gun” that directly links North Korea to the Cheonan incident.

South Korea’s international approach casts China as the enabler of North Korean provocations. South Korea’s approach attempts to impose potential costs on China as a proxy for South Korean inability to impose costs directly on North Korea. In this approach, China’s failure to rein in North Korea will have costs to China’s interests on the Korean peninsula (as enumerated in my recent CSIS report with Bonnie Glaser on the need for Sino-U.S.-ROK dialogue to plan for instability in North Korea) in the form of increased South Korean public hostility toward China, increased regional tensions on China’s periphery, and by making China North Korea’s guardian at the UN. It remains to be seen whether South Korea’s post-Cheonan diplomacy will influence China’s approach to the peninsula.

Much has been made of China's "soft power" push in Asia, but alienating Japan and South Korea to curry favor with North Korea doesn't seem like a sustainable strategy to me.

(AP Photo)

April 28, 2010

Obama and North Korea


Danielle Pletka, writing - as usual - about freedomy stuff, bemoans the president's failure to take North Korea seriously . . . or something:

This is North Korea Freedom Week (being commemorated in Seoul, Republic of Korea), though it would be hard to tell in the capital of the freedom-loving world. North Korea appears to have slipped entirely off the radar of the Obama administration; neither the plight of its downtrodden citizens nor the proliferation of its nuclear weapons technology and missiles has stirred the interest of an administration purportedly obsessed with nonproliferation.
North Korea has long had its own people, as well as our allies in Japan and South Korea, in its gun sights. With Iran’s help, our allies in the Middle East and, with time, Europe and the United States, will join that unlucky group.

I really don't want to devote too much time to this, as we already know to take Ms. Pletka's web musings with a grain of salt. So I'll simply ask: What more should President Obama be doing about North Korean oppression and proliferation?

Last year, Pyongyang threatened to test a long-range missile in the direction of Hawaii and the administration quickly moved to fortify Hawaii. Of course, North Korea's track record for testing long-range missiles has been mixed at best, so just how serious these temper tantrums should be taken is debatable.

The ability to use these weapons of course matters, but, like in the case of Iran, such details are a tangential nuisance to Pletka and other neoconservative think tankers. Obama made the necessary maneuverings to defend the country, while quietly deferring to South Korean leadership on nuclear proliferation on the peninsula. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has taken a hard line with the North, one President Obama agrees with. This policy makes sense, as it's in South Korea's more immediate interest - as well as the entire region's - to engage and, if necessary, contain the North.

Pyongyang uses America's presence in the region as justification for its nuclear adventurism; the louder and larger the role played in the region by the U.S., the smaller and less relevant the other actors become. The Obama administration, opting to break this pattern, has stepped back and handed the leadership reins to regional actors in an effort to change the Washington-Pyongyang dynamic. (Dear Leader has apparently taken notice of this shift, and may be rattling the saber a bit louder in order to draw Washington back in.)

So I ask again: With security measures in place, nuclear know-how controls underway and South Korea in the lead, what then should the Obama administration do about North Korea?


Bruce Klinger of the Heritage Foundation makes a good point, and explains why South Korean leadership - and American compliance - is even more important now in light of the Cheonan sinking:

South Korea will contemplate both unilateral actions, including punitive economic and diplomatic measures, as well as taking the issue to the UN Security Council for multilateral response. In the latter case, Seoul would face stiff opposition from China and Russia, which have obstructed previous attempts to punish Pyongyang for violating UN resolutions.

If South Korea is reluctant to attack, it would be impossible for the US to be “more Korean than the Koreans” by advocating stronger measures. But the Obama administration should consult closely with the South Koreans and support whatever action they are comfortable taking. This should include pressing the Chinese and Russians to relent in favor of tougher international sanctions, and taking unilateral punitive action that complements the South Korean approach.

(AP Photo)

April 14, 2010

Understanding Limitations


Assessing President Obama's recent Nuclear Posture Review, Tom Barnett writes:

Does this new doctrine make non-state actors any less likely to attack America with weapons of mass destruction? No. The NPR reiterates America's intense desire to hold accountable anybody who aids non-state actors in their acquisition of WMD, but it basically avoids any clear statement of how it will strategically respond to the successful use of WMD by terrorists against the United States. All that non-state actors can infer is that any non-nuclear WMD attack verifiably launched from an NPT-compliant state would not automatically trigger a U.S. nuclear retaliatory strike. Since al-Qaida and other extremists would probably welcome such a reflexive nuclear retaliation, they might judge this new doctrine a mild disappointment, but hardly a strengthened deterrent.

So we're left with this underwhelming effect: States not currently seeking nuclear weapons are assured that America won't mindlessly "go nuclear" on them if non-nuclear, but still-strategic attacks are launched from their soil. If such states actually harbored a huge and growing fear about this kind of scenario -- a fear so great that it was keeping them from cooperating with the West on stemming nuclear proliferation -- then I would say that Obama had accomplished something real with this change. But as no such dynamic is at work, I instead spot the latest example of Obama's occasional penchant for exquisite rhetoric masquerading as "change you can believe in."

I think what's really in conflict here is the politics of the presidency and the actual levers at the American president's disposal. We've become accustomed to expecting anything and everything from the executive, especially since the September 11 attacks. This, as I have argued, has resulted in a rather frenetic and, at times, reckless foreign policy.

The Iraq War, in many ways, represented the nadir of American unilateralism. It exhausted much of the capital gained by the 9/11 attacks and, to paraphrase Colin Powell, sucked all of the oxygen from the room. This, coupled with an increasingly multi-polar world order, has brought the foreign policy and domestic politics contradiction to to the forefront. Thus, President Obama must talk in grandiose, game-changing proses, while in truth applying a policy of what we might call a sane status quo at best. This creates the bizarre political environment we see today, where being the domestic political opposition is in truth the better place to be because it permits a kind of hyperbolic insincerity that may never be tested in any real policy realm. (Democrats certainly aren't exempt from this behavior; remember partitioning Iraq?)

The United States is still by far the most powerful and influential country in the world, but none of that will matter if Washington fails to ever reconcile actual ability with the unrealistic expectations of the presidency. Being the Leader of the Free World matters far less than being a reliable and honest partner in the multi-or-non-polar one.

(AP Photo)

April 2, 2010

A Better Deal


Michael Lind had an interesting article in Salon earlier in the week arguing that America's Cold War strategy of "markets for bases" has hollowed out the U.S. economy:

During and after the Korean War, the U.S. rebuilt its military and stationed troops along "tripwires" from Central Europe to East Asia. The U.S. encouraged the formation of the European Common Market (now the European Union) in part to provide the West Germans with markets. In Asia, Mao Zedong's victory in China cut off Japan's China market, so the U.S. offered the American market to Japanese exporters, which initially were not considered a threat to American businesses.

Thus began the Grand Bargain at the heart of U.S. Cold War strategy toward West Germany and Japan, the "markets-for-bases" swap. In return for giving up an independent foreign policy to their protector, the United States, the West Germans and Japanese would be granted access to American markets (and, in the case of the Germans, access to Western European markets)....

A version of the markets-for-bases deal was extended to China, which, it was hoped, would acquiesce in U.S. military hegemony in its own neighborhood, in return for unlimited access to American consumers.

George W. Bush made the deal explicit in his 2002 West Point address: "America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge -- thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless and limiting rivalries to trade other pursuits of peace." U.S. to other great powers: We make wars, you make cars.

I don't think we should short-change the success in turning Japan and Germany into very prosperous, friendly nations. The U.S. not only helped them rev up their shattered economic engines, but directed their economic output toward peaceful goods. In contrast to the first World War, the U.S. and allied strategy was a lot more far-sighted, even if it has now run aground.

The current Washington consensus is that a similar gambit will work with China - they grow rich from American consumers and thus become "stake holders" in a system of our design, subordinate to our geopolitical priorities. Lind doesn't think it will work. I'm on the fence.

I think it's obvious that the military aspect of this strategy - we build a huge conventional force and you spend your money on consumer goods - is not applicable to China. But where are the other incentives to keep China more or less in harmony with American objectives?

Fundamentally the gambit with Germany and Japan worked because we had to keep them "on side" during the Cold War. There's no such dynamic at work today. China has every incentive (for now) to keep taking advantage of U.S. markets without playing ball when it comes to U.S. strategic priorities. It remains to be seen whether the reported "thaw" in U.S.-China relations is significant or not. Gideon Rachman, for one, thinks its all for show - a way for China to escape the charge of currency manipulation.

Either way, is the U.S. - deeply in debt (to China!), overseeing two wars, groping around the world for a handful of jihadists, trying to stave off a nuclear Iran and bring peace to the Holy Land (and Kashmir) - well poised to throw them a brush back pitch?

(AP Photo)

February 1, 2010

Why America Can't Defeat Rogue States


Nader Mousavizadeh's must-read piece on rogue states in Newsweek touches on what I think is the key issue confronting the U.S. - how it deals with the emergence of other powerful states that it can't control:

What Washington has failed to fully recognize is that the world that created "rogue states" is gone. The term became popular in the 1980s, mainly in the United States, to describe minor dictatorships threatening to the Cold War order. Then, after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the main challenge to American dominance came from those states unwilling to accommodate themselves to the "end of history" and conform to U.S. values. The idea of "the rogue state" assumed the existence of an international community, united behind supposedly universal Western values and interests, that could agree on who the renegades are and how to deal with them. By the late 1990s this community was already dissolving, with the rise of China, the revival of Russia, and the emergence of India, Brazil, and Turkey as real powers, all with their own interests and values. Today it's clear that the "international community" defined by Western values is a fiction, and that for many states the term "rogue" might just as well apply to the United States as to the renegades it seeks to isolate.

He goes on to state that isolating and sanctioning these rogue regimes does not work. In Burma, all Western sanctions have accomplished is to strengthen the military junta and weaken the people. Such was the outcome in Iraq and North Korea during the 1990s and will likely be the outcome in Iran this decade. There are enough states to do business with a "rogue" to undermine most sanctions regimes.

So what to do? Mousavizadeh, echoed by Daniel Larison, argue for engagement. Here's Larison:

There is an idea at the core of every sanctions regime that “rogue states” are morally tainted, impure and not to be touched. Furthermore, there is an idea that these states can somehow pass this contagion on to states that enter into normal relations with them. This idea endures despite considerable evidence that it is through diplomatic contact, normal relations and trade that “rogue states” begin to be influenced by other nations and new ideas, which can ultimately lead to regime collapse or at least some beneficial internal changes.

I do wonder to what extent regimes like North Korea and Iran actually would want relaxed restrictions on their commerce and greater interactions with the rest of the world. I tend to think that North Korea's leadership rather likes its isolation and would respond to a serious engagement overture with a nutty act of violence to push relations back into their standoffish status quo.

I also think we need to distinguish between sanctions aimed at punishing the regime for its behavior, and sanctions aimed at weakening a state's capacity to make war or build weapons. The former rarely seem to work, while the later do seem to at least slow a state's progress toward their military goals.

(AP Photo)

January 23, 2010

Iran's Not-So-Foreign Policy


Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy writes:

In Iran, discontent over the economic situation, restrictions on social and cultural life, and corruption and favoritism are much more on the minds of ordinary Iranians than the nuclear issue. Indeed, there is little reason to think that ordinary Iranians care very much at all about the nuclear issue. As for Iran’s leaders, they have a long record of caring first and foremost about holding on to power. Faced with an opposition that they perceive—correctly or not—is a mortal threat to their grip on power, they base their decisions on all issues, foreign and domestic, on what they think will best reduce that threat. One analyst even claims that Iran has no foreign policy; instead, its domestic political disputes periodically affect how it acts toward the rest of the world.

This shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as foreign policy is often a reflection of the domestic priorities or environment in a given country. This is especially true however in Iran, where the use of conflict abroad has been used as a purging mechanism at home on several occasions.

This brings me back to an exchange I had with Daniel Larison and Andrew Sullivan over the linkage between the Green Movement and the nuclear weapons program. These issues are not mutually exclusive in Iran, and the more radical and militant elements within the regime want nuclear weapons, as Clawson goes on to explain, in order to fend off any kind of western invasion or alleged meddling in Iran's domestic matters.

This is why North Korea can kill and suppress its own dissidents with hardly a word form the international community, and it's also why any form of condemnation is considered a big deal when a relevant actor actually does says something. It's the same reason the Burmese junta would logically pursue such weapons in defiance of international dictates. Nuclear armed nations are simply treated differently on the global stage. Their possession of nuclear know-how alone makes them an automatic proliferation threat, and so it becomes imperative to contain their activity abroad and worry about their domestic wrongs later. But later rarely seems to come in the case of North Korea, and it may never come for Iran's reformists should the regime acquire nuclear arms.

(AP Photo)

January 15, 2010

North Korea - What Next?


Oh, North Korea, so predictably unpredictable:

North Korea, denouncing the South for drawing up a contingency plan to deal with the potential collapse of the North’s government, said on Friday that it would cut off all dialogue with South Korea and exclude it from all negotiations concerning the security of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea will also wage a “pan-national holy war of retaliation to blow away” the South Korean government, said a statement from the North’s highest ruling agency, the National Defense Commission, which is headed by the national leader, Kim Jong-il.

The threat was surprising less for its stridency, which is not unusual in diatribes against the South and the United States, than for its timing. Only Thursday, North Korea had proposed holding talks with the South on reviving joint tour programs, which have been stalled for more than a year over the shooting death of a southern tourist and the North’s anger over Seoul’s policies.

The American Interest has a good round table on North Korean policy. The upshot seems to be that most analysts think that regime change is not only the optimal outcome but essentially an inevitable one - Kim Jong Il won't live forever and what comes next could be quite chaotic if it's not handled correctly by all the parties involved.

Unfortunately, as the news today demonstrates, any efforts to think about this problem publicly tend to provoke tirades from the North. But let's hope that privately, contingency planning among China, the U.S. and South Korea is ongoing...

(AP Photos)

January 13, 2010

Disarming Iran, North Korea

Christian Whiton is alarmed at President Obama's "profound weakness" with respect to the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran. He then advises:

We need a defense posture based on strategic deterrence, conventional military counterforce, economic pressure, information warfare and political subversion. This should include fielding a countervailing nuclear force adjacent to Iran and North Korea, reversing Mr. Obama’s cuts to missile defense, running intelligence operations that are not paralyzed by risk-aversion, and realizing we will need ample conventional forces based in East Asia and the Middle East indefinitely.

I'm not sure how stationing nuclear weapons adjacent North Korea and Iran is going to constitute a disincentive for them to abandon their own deterrent. If anything, it will reinforce the rationale for acquiring one. (Although to be fair, they're going ahead whether we put nuclear weapons on their doorstep or not.) Nor is it all clear that the current administration has abandoned deterrence with respect to either country. As for "political subversion," that's a non-starter in North Korea as it would require both the cooperation of South Korea and China, and obviously unnecessary in Iran (as they're subverting themselves just fine).

But the last bit of advice is the most troubling. Is it really wise to station military forces in the Middle East indefinitely?

December 31, 2009

The Luxury of Nuclear Weapons

Andrew Sullivan writes:

The obvious aim, it seems to me, of the Revolutionary Guards is not to nuke al-Aqsa, but to use a nuclear capacity to immunize their terrorism in the region, to balance Israel's nuclear monopoly, to scare the crap out of the Saudis and Egyptians, and to shore up their control at home. I see this as an inevitable coming-of-age of Iran as a regional power, and although there is an obvious and acute danger that nuclearization could entrench some of the worst elements of the regime (and they don't get much worse than Ahmadinejad), the brutal truth is: we do not have the tools to stop it. One day, a nuclear Iran, if led by men and women legitimately elected by the people of Iran, could be our friend, not enemy - and a much more reliable and stable friend than the Sunni Arab autocracies we are currently shoring up. I believe, in short, that in my lifetime we will see a democratic Iran, led by the generation that took to the streets this year. And I believe vigilant containment is the only realistic way at this point to get there.

Why is it that no one talks extensively about human rights in North Korea, or China or Russia? Why does it make sense that Burma's military junta would pursue a nuclear weapons program?

The answer is rather simple: security. As Andrew points out, the likelihood of Iran actually using one of these weapons should they even attain the capability is slim. The problem is that the very possession of these weapons allows Iran into an unspoken club of hush, hush humanitarianism. Sure, we all know bad things go on in the aforementioned countries, but what can we actually do about it?

If Iran acquires a nuclear weapon the regional dynamic, as Sullivan concedes, would immediately change. In order to offset a regional arms race, the United States would essentially need to cover the entire Middle East in its so-called nuclear umbrella. Strategy would shift from engagement to containment. And this is the important point: when you seek to simply contain, you are accepting losses within already compromised boundaries. In this instance, that lost territory is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I hope--and pray--to see a free and democratic Iran in my lifetime, just as Andrew does. But the chances of that happening should this awful and rotten regime get a nuclear weapon would be rather slim. If the casual observer thinks this government is oppressive now, just wait until it is intoxicated with the impunity of the nuclear womb.

Moreover, any hopes of resurrecting nuclear nonproliferation can get kissed goodbye. As I wrote earlier this month, what Obama is trying to do here is admirable--that being, restore some semblance of international order and process for dealing with rogue states that seek nuclear weapons. If the policy toward nuclear Iran is mere containment, then Iran has already won.

What then will be the strategy for the next nuclear aspirant? Containment? War? Something else? The fact that there's no viable answer to those questions is the problem, and it will only get worse if Tehran gets the bomb.

November 14, 2009

A Visit to North Korea (Part 6)


By Patrick Chovanec

(For previous installments, see here)

Even though Kim Il-Sung died in 1994, officially he is still the “Eternal President” of North Korea. So when official visitors call, they are expected to present not one but two gifts, one to Kim Il-Sung and the other to his son, the country’s current ruler, Kim Jong-Il. All of these gifts are reverently collected and displayed in two extensive underground galleries burrowed deep into Mount Myohyang, several hours north of the capital. As tourists, we weren’t expected to offer any gifts, but we were taken to visit this exhibit as part of our one and only overnight trip outside Pyongyang. When I first saw this item on our itinerary, I thought it sounded kind of boring, and maybe you’re thinking the same. Quite the contrary, it turned out to be one of the most bizarre and memorable places I’ve ever visited.

Continue reading "A Visit to North Korea (Part 6)" »

October 16, 2009

A Visit to North Korea, Part 5

By Patrick Chovanec

(See earlier installments here.)

The most tantalizing mystery about North Korea is its people. How do they live their lives, and what do they really think? Their belief system seems so alien, so isolated from all we know about the rest of the world, we wonder whether they have any sense of the disconnect or not – and if so, what they make of it.

Ever since I returned from my trip to the DPRK last year, one of the first questions friends always ask me is whether we ever had the chance to talk or interact with regular people there. The short answer is no. North Korea is not the kind of place where any foreigner – even the ones stationed there for months or years on diplomatic assignment – can just walk up and chat with a typical person on the street, or swing by a local pub for a round with the locals. To even attempt to do so would be courting real trouble – for the unwelcome foreigner, perhaps, but far more seriously for the hapless Korean counterpart who would fall under immediate suspicion of being a spy or worse.

It’s a strange isolating feeling, visiting a country where nobody can talk to you, except your guides — and even they tend to be pretty cagey. As our bus passed through the streets of Pyongyang, taking us from one officially sanctioned tourist site to the next, we craned our necks to catch glimpses of what might or might not be typical daily life outside the window. Pyongyang, we knew, is hardly typical. The country’s capital is a showcase, filled with grand statues of godlike leaders and fearless patriots, imposing monuments – such as the oversized replica of the Arc de Triomphe that greets you on the way in from the airport — and vast open plazas devoted to celebrating the State. There is no such thing as a Pyongyang “native.” Its population, carefully controlled at 2 million, is selected from the most politically loyal and useful citizens all across the country, and is subject to regular turnover. After the army, of course, residents receive the best food and housing in the country, and priority access to fuel and electricity.

Continue reading "A Visit to North Korea, Part 5" »

September 8, 2009

My Visit To North Korea, Part 4

By Patric Chovanec

(This is part 4 in a series. See part 1, 2, & 3)

The only reason North Korea grants visas to Americans — with the exception of diplomats and exceptional guests like the New York Philharmonic — is to witness the Mass Games. The problem is, nobody knows exactly how long the Mass Games will run. They might be cancelled or extended at the last minute, and if they’re cancelled, the entire trip is cancelled too.

If you haven’t heard of North Korea’s Mass Games, or are sketchy on the details, let me explain. There are no “games,” as in competition. It’s a kind of huge political demonstration that takes place in a sports stadium and features over 100,000 schoolchildren, soldiers, and gymnasts performing synchronized dancing, marching, and acrobatics in mind-bogglingly large mass formations. The spectacle is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest event of its kind.

Because the Mass Games are sometimes compared to the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and take place on so grand a scale, you might get the impression they are a rare or one-off event. They used to be held only for special anniversaries, but now they run all summer long and well into the Fall, with full-blown performances taking place several times each week. In fact, there are actually two Mass Games these days, the original “Arirang Festival” in the evening and the newer “Prosper, the Motherland” performance during the daytime. We attended both. The experiences are very similar and the description that follows is a composite of the two.

Continue reading "My Visit To North Korea, Part 4" »

August 29, 2009

My Visit to North Korea, Part 3

(Continued from Part 1 & 2)

By Patrick Chovanec

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) may seem like an odd name for one of the most militarized places on the face of the earth. Just 30 miles north of Seoul, and 80 miles south of Pyongyang, it was the armistice line at the end of the Korean War: its winding contours stretching across the peninsula, 155 miles from east to west, mark the positions held by the opposing armies when that conflict ground to a halt in 1953. Officially the war never ended. Both sides merely observe a long and occasionally precarious cease-fire. Today the DMZ — which effectively serves as the highly fortified boundary between North and South Korea — is one of the last Cold War frontiers in existence, a place of watchtowers, land mines, and soldiers staring each other down across barbed wire fences. And this morning our group was heading there — from the “enemy side” of the border.

I climbed aboard the bus at our hotel and headed towards the back, where our minders sat, handing them each a packet of cigarettes. I don’t smoke myself, and for all I know neither do they, but Marlboros are valuable currency in North Korea, just as they were when I visited the Soviet Union back in the 1980s. Sitting next to our minders, and establishing a friendly rapport with them, made it easier to ask their permission to snap photos along our route. And while being under their constant surveillance may sound intimidating, they actually turned out to be quite pleasant and friendly in return.

One of the minders for another group, of Europeans, got a big kick out of learning new American slang. He jokingly warned his group that if they stepped out of line, he would “open a can of whoop-ass on them.” When his group ran late and we accidently ate the lunch he had scheduled for them, I taught him the expression ”you snooze, you lose” – quite handy for a tour guide. He loved it. I’m sure none of these guys would have hesitated to lower the boom if we caused any trouble, but we knew the rules and were careful not to give offense. Maybe there was a little bit of Stockholm Syndrome at work, but our interactions with our minders ended up being one of the highlights of our trip.

Our group had two minders, who I will call Mr. Nervous and Mr. Smooth. I’d like to introduce them, because I’ll be referring to them — with appropriate discretion — in upcoming posts. Both of them were young guys, in their late 20’s. Mr. Nervous had decent English, but had difficulty following some of our conversations. Because he wasn’t always certain exactly what was being said, he tended to become anxious that maybe we might be up to no good. He was kindly, though, and a little bashful, except when he got up in front of the bus and serenaded us with Korean folk songs like a star contestant on North Korean Idol. Mr. Smooth, unlike his companion, didn’t sweat the small stuff. His English was more fluent, which made it easier for him to relax and engage us in more meaningful conversation. He was thoughtful and eager to know our impressions of his country. He struck me as the kind of person who, if things were to ever change, would go very far.

Continue reading "My Visit to North Korea, Part 3" »

August 25, 2009

My Visit to North Korea, Part 2

(Continued from Part 1)

By Patrick Chovanec

When you arrive in North Korea, there’s a sense of unreality about it. I suspect even Bill Clinton, when he climbed out his private jet onto the tarmac at Pyongyang, must have wondered to himself, “Is this really happening? Am I actually here?” For most of us, North Korea seems to occupy the same imaginary plane of existence as Mordor. I live in Beijing, and the concrete realization that the DPRK is a real place just a short hour and a half flight away — even though I’d known it all along in theory — came as quite a shock. Showing up at the Beijing airport and checking into my flight felt like that scene in Harry Potter where the plain brick walls of King’s Cross station give way to reveal a hidden platform with a magic train to whisk him off to Hogwarts.

In response to Part 1 of my story, many readers where curious to know what the North Koreans we encountered were really thinking behind their fearful and fearsome stares. From the few glimpses we were able to gather, what is life really like there, and what do people think of the outside world? I’m going explore these questions in future posts, and try to offer a few possible insights. But for the moment, let’s take a while to revel in the surreal “down the rabbit hole” quality of those first few hours in Pyongyang. And the best place to do that is at the hotel where we stayed.

Foreign tourists to North Korea pose a problem. The government wants their money, and needs them to show off at the Mass Games, but it certainly doesn’t want foreigners walking the streets and talking to random citizens. If only it could stick them somewhere, like on an island — which is exactly what they’ve done. The Yanggakdo International Hotel is a 47-story tower (one of the tallest in Pyongyang) located on an island in the middle of the Taedong River which bisects the city. The only links to the city are a single, heavily guarded steel bridge on either side, which guests are not permitted to cross. Even on the grounds surrounding the hotel itself, you must have an escort.


The hotel and its rooms are basic but fairly comfortable. You can even, believe it or not, watch BBC on your TV. (The local guides and minders also stay at the hotel, but on separate floors that do not have BBC. We asked one of our minders, who seemed relatively well-informed about world events, whether he had ever watched CNN or BBC, and he said — quite ingenuously — that he had never done so). As for the bed, I came away with a cluster of three angry red flea bites that itched horrendously for weeks afterwards.

Continue reading "My Visit to North Korea, Part 2" »

August 23, 2009

My Visit to North Korea, Part 1

(Photo: Patrick Chovanec)

By Patrick Chovanec

In October 2008, I traveled to North Korea. Before our departure, our group was informed that we marked roughly the 1,000th U.S. citizen to visit North Korea since the Korean War, over 58 years ago. In the wake of former President Clinton’s surprise visit to Pyongyang, to retrieve two imprisoned U.S. journalists, many people have asked me about my trip. Over the next several weeks, in a series of posts, I will relate some of my experiences and impressions from this journey.

Many Americans are under the incorrect impression that it is illegal for them to travel to North Korea, much like Cuba. While the U.S. does place a strict cap ($100) on how many souvenirs you can buy and bring home, as part of its commercial sanctions, the main obstacle to travel stems from the North Korean side, which grants only a handful of visas to U.S. citizens each year to view the Mass Games. Regardless, I realize that many people still have strong moral objections to traveling to North Korea (also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK). I understand and actually share many of those objections. There were some aspects of the trip that I found upsetting or uncomfortable, as I will explain. But I felt that these objections and discomforts were outweighed by the unique opportunity to gather first-hand knowledge and insight into a country few Americans have ever seen. Keep in mind, as you read, that I have sometimes muted opinions or omitted details that might put others, particularly any North Koreans we interacted with, at risk. The intelligent reader will be able to read between the lines.

When you visit North Korea, they tell you all the things you’re going to see, but they don’t let you know until the very last minute — usually when you get on the bus — exactly when you’re going to go see them. The idea, I imagine, is to prevent you from arranging to meet up with someone at a pre-determined time and place — which would be a pretty astonishing feat even with a fixed itinerary. The tour group is always together, under the supervision of one guide and two friendly but alert minders. No laptops or cell phones are allowed into the country. You must ask permission before taking any photograph. You must not stray more than a few yards from the group at any moment, and when the sightseeing schedule for the day is over, you are essentially confined to the hotel.

The centerpiece of all tours, which I’ll focus on today, is the mandatory visit to the mausoleum of Kim Il-Sung, who founded the DPRK with Stalin’s backing, launched the Korean War, and eventually bequeathed his reign to his son Kim Jong-Il, the country’s current ruler. They tell you about it the night before, because you have to wear a collared shirt and tie, along with nice shoes and pants. The visit is a very big deal as far as the North Koreans are concerned, and the guides are all riding on pins and needles to make sure the proper courtesies are observed. Kim Il-Sung, the “Great Leader,” is regarded as a virtual god among men, the pinnacle of human perfection in all respects, and his mausoleum is actually a vast Versailles-like palace complex on the outskirts of Pyongyang. It makes Mao’s tomb in Beijing, or Lenin’s in Moscow, seem like mere hovels by comparison.

Continue reading "My Visit to North Korea, Part 1" »

August 19, 2009

When Bill Met Kim


There aren't too many details from this New York Times piece on the Bill Clinton visit to North Korea, other than it appears that Kim Jong-Il may be a bit healthier than initially presumed. But this bit jumped out at me:

During his one-hour meeting, officials said, Mr. Clinton advised the North Korean that he could win favor with South Korea and Japan by resolving cases of their citizens who had been abducted by North Korea. The dinner, which lasted over two hours, was “chitchat,” the official said. “It was not substantive.”

I wonder what you could "chitchat" with Kim Jong-Il about?

(AP Photos)

July 21, 2009

Foreign Policy as Empty Moralizing


Jonah Goldberg takes note of the awful barbarity of the North Korean gulag-state and then concludes that "we have a lot to be ashamed of." Goldberg writes:

Our collective, bipartisan failure to deal with the human suffering in North Korea is chalked up to the fact that Kim Jong Il's nuclear program is a far more pressing concern than is the brutalization and murder of North Korean citizens.

This is simply not correct. The U.S. has not dealt with the human suffering in North Korea because any efforts to deal with it forcefully (i.e. removing the regime that perpetrates these awful barbarities) would quite likely entail a war - a war that would have devastating consequences for South Korea, Japan and U.S. forces in Korea. If there was a way that the U.S. - or international community - could alleviate North Korea's suffering without courting a massive military action in the heart of Asia, I suspect they would have done it.

And indeed, nowhere in Goldberg's article is there any hint of just how the U.S. is supposed to reverse North Korea's heinous human rights abuses. It's easy to scold us for "failing to bear witness" to North Korea's atrocities, it's quite another to actually grapple with the difficulties and costs that such a policy would entail.

Goldberg thinks realism is the "worst thing" about the Republican party. It's fair to ask how much worse realism is than an ideology which values empty moral posturing over any serious consideration of the difficult choices policymakers face.

Photo Credit: AP Photos

Did North Korea Fake its Nuclear Test?


Via Robert Farley, Geoffrey Forden sounds a skeptical note about North Korea's most recent nuclear test:

Let us suppose, for the moment, that the DPRK actually did explode 2,500 tons of TNT instead of a nuclear device. How could they load a tunnel with so much conventional explosive and not be detected by the West’s satellites? This was the real reason I was so sure it had been a nuclear explosion. I was convinced, unfortunately before doing a very simple calculation, that the trucks filled with high explosive (HE) would be detected.

However, it is not all that much HE. If TNT was used, as opposed to a higher density explosive like RDX, North Korea would only have to excavate a cavity 12 meters on a side and fill it with high explosives.

If four 10-ton trucks delivered their load each night (with a fifth truck coming every 10th day) they could drop off all the HE within two months. Using RDX, or some other higher density explosive, could significantly decrease this time. That seems quite doable and to be potentially undetectable by the West.

From one standpoint, it would make sense for the North Koreans to try to fool the world: they could potentially extract more generous concessions and, in light of the ongoing question of succession, it could keep potential external aggressors at bay. Still, as Forden notes, to really get clarity you'd have to get soil samples from the North's underground testing facility. Somehow, I don't see that happening any time soon.

Photo credit: AP Photos

June 1, 2009

Should We Bomb North Korea?

What is it about North Korea that brings out the best in our pundit class:

The most immediate thing to be said about this is that barring a serious provocation (i.e. mobilizing units to cross the DMZ, firing at U.S. or allied vessels, etc.) no U.S. administration - Republican or Democrat - is going to risk the deaths of thousands of South Koreans by bombing North Korea. It's just extraordinarily unlikely to happen barring some very sudden, dangerous change in North Korean behavior.

You have to wonder why Kristol and Hume, who surely understand this, would nonetheless just casually throw this option on the table. Will people come away thinking Obama is feckless for not risking the destruction of Seoul or that conservatives are unable to offer any serious alternatives to the Obama approach?

[Hat tip: Matthew Yglesias]

UPDATE: The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb goes to bat for his boss:

But rather than military action, new sanctions, or the elimination of food aid and fuel oil shipments that keep the regime in power, the Obama administration has opted to unleash the "the strongest possible adjectives" in response to North Korea's provocations.
That's interesting, because there's this story dated April 30, 2009:
The United States says it will not give North Korea further economic aid until Pyongyang returns to nuclear talks. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told lawmakers Thursday that the Obama administration has "no interest and no willingness" to give North Korea further economic aid.

Moreover, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea also supply the North with food and fuel. Even if the U.S. were to totally cut off its own shipments, it's likely that, at a minimum, China would continue to sustain the regime. And finally, as discussed above, military action is (at this point) not a serious suggestion.

I appreciate the fact that some commentators need to leverage the North's nuclear antics into some kind of indictment of the Obama administration. But it helps when that criticism is grounded in a serious alternative. Throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks isn't particularly useful.

As I said earlier, I think this Joshua Stanton piece from the New Ledger lays out some ways to put the screws to the North without any of the absurd talk of "limited air strikes."

May 28, 2009

Don't Just Do Something, Stand There

It seems that the Obama administration is trying to ratchet down the rhetoric regarding North Korea. National Security Advisor General Jones, speaking at the Atlantic Council, downplayed the North's nuclear antics, saying the missile launches and nuclear detonation "are not an imminent threat."

Secretary Gates followed this up today by noting that we're not experiencing a "crisis."

This seems perfectly sensible. As Cato's Doug Bandow and Havard's Stephen Walt have both argued, there is nothing fundamentally new here except the slow, steady march of technology. Of course, we're all shocked, shocked! that North Korea flouts international law, but that too shall pass.

More broadly, we're operating in an environment where we have very little information. Even the experts on North Korea don't know exactly what's going on inside the country. Presumably our intelligence services are only moderately more clued in. In such an environment, acting rashly - by, say, dumping the Six Party talks or trying to coerce China to take a harder line - doesn't seem wise.

Photo credit: AP Photo

What's a Reputation Worth?

Given all the talk of North Korea "testing" Obama and a potential "loss of face" for the U.S. as Kim Jong Il flagrantly flouts international law, Daniel Drezner rounds up the literature on how (and whether) reputation matters in international relations.

North Korea & the Relevance of Missile Defense


One of the cries that has gone up alongside the underground mushroom cloud in North Korea is that the U.S. should be expanding its missile defense, particularly to Japan and South Korea. Former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who served under President Clinton, just decried President Obama's proposed cuts to the system.

While such a system might be useful for the continental U.S. and Japan, it wouldn't be much use for our ally South Korea. The North has thousands of artillery pieces dug into the mountains, giving it the capability to shell Seoul, the densely populated capital of South Korea. Missile defense, such as it is, wouldn't prevent an artillery fusillade which would kill thousands of South Koreans.

More broadly, what would it do? If the North Koreans want to fire a single missile at Japan or South Korea, why not ten? Why not 50? (The North doesn't exactly want for missiles.) What has stopped the North from embarking on such a path - and what will prevent them in the future - is deterrence. If the North is determined to fire away, any missile defense system would likely be overwhelmed.

Photo credit: AP Photo

May 25, 2009

Obama Statement on North Korea Nuke Test

President Obama's statement on North Korea's Nuclear test:

Today, North Korea said that it has conducted a nuclear test in violation of international law. It appears to also have attempted a short range missile launch. These actions, while not a surprise given its statements and actions to date, are a matter of grave concern to all nations. North Korea's attempts to develop nuclear weapons, as well as its ballistic missile program, constitute a threat to international peace and security.

By acting in blatant defiance of the United Nations Security Council, North Korea is directly and recklessly challenging the international community. North Korea's behavior increases tensions and undermines stability in Northeast Asia. Such provocations will only serve to deepen North Korea's isolation. It will not find international acceptance unless it abandons its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.

The danger posed by North Korea's threatening activities warrants action by the international community. We have been and will continue working with our allies and partners in the Six-Party Talks as well as other members of the U.N. Security Council in the days ahead.

April 17, 2009

Getting Real on North Korea

Joshua Stanton has an interesting piece in the New Ledger that touches on North Korea and the failures of diplomacy. He writes:

Disbelieve Democrats who claim to have done better. The best they can say is that Bill Clinton’s Agreed Framework I was a partial and temporary success at containing the plutonium portion of North Korea’s nuclear program, even as North Korea cheated by pursuing a parallel, undeclared uranium enrichment program.

Admittedly, redirecting the North's efforts from plutonium to uranium isn't the ideal outcome, but it's not bad either. As Brookings' Michael O'Hanlon has noted, this diversion to a "basement bomb program" slowed the North's nuclear program considerably. In the eight years that the Bush administration had the North Korean portfolio, they ramped up weapons production and succeeded in detonating a nuclear device. So the proof is in the pudding.

The problem with the debate over North Korea is that it's frequently conducted as if there are a host of realistic options and that it's only political cowardice that prevents the U.S. from "solving" the problem. That strikes me as implausible.

The U.S. holds little leverage over North Korea. We're not going to bomb them or blockade them and put the civilian populations of South Korea and Japan at risk. As stringent as sanctions get, the Chinese and South Koreans will continue to prop up the North because they fear instability and refugee flows more than a nuclear armed Kim Jong-Il. No amount of UN Resolution waving, suave diplomacy or militaristic bravado seems to alter the perceived interests of the Chinese and South Koreans.

Which leaves us with two unpleasant options. The first is to walk away altogether and watch as the North ramps up their weapons programs and proliferation activities in an effort to frighten us back to the table. The second is to consent to their extortion and hope that diplomacy can slow down their weapons programs and proliferation activities.

April 8, 2009

How To Win Friends and Influence Foreign Policy

Thinking a little bit more about Newt Gingrich's appearance on Fox News, it strikes me as almost sad, in a way. Perhaps President Obama mishandled the North Korean missile launch. Here are Gingrich's alternatives:

1. "bribe someone to blow it up"
2. "send a small team in"
3. "use lasers or another kind of device" to blow it up

The unifying theme here is that these are not serious answers. They're simply meant to make President Obama look feckless.

Ultimately, though, I wonder if people come away from the interview thinking that Gingrich is fundamentally not a serious person when it comes to foreign policy, or do they come away thinking that Obama is weak for not sending in a "small team" to infiltrate North Korea and blow up the missile on the launch pad?

UPDATE: For an example of a serious objection and counter proposal, see this piece by Joshua Stanton in the New Ledger.

April 6, 2009

Dept. of Helpful Suggestions: North Korean Edition

Newt Gingrich offers some:

I leave it to you to decide whether Gingrich was really being serious.

April 5, 2009

Surprising Poll Result of the Day: Bombing North Korea


Apropos today's launch, Rasmussen Reports says the American public is ready to go to blows with Kim Jong-Il:

If North Korea launches a long-range missile, should the United States take military action to eliminate North Korea’s ability to launch missiles?

57% Yes
15% No
28% Not sure

Now, perhaps people interpreted this question as North Korea launching a long-range missile at us vs. just launching it up into space. Still, that number is much higher than I would have guessed.

Photo via jurveston under a CC License.