Tense times for South Korea, the shrimp surrounded by whales

Protest against President Park Geun-hye in South Korea

The Interpreter, 11 March, 2017

The decision by South Korea’s Constitutional Court to uphold the National Assembly’s impeachment of beleaguered President Park Geun-hye is the starting gun in a 60-day race to the Blue House.

The Constitution requires that an election be held within that time period, which means a new leader will be elected by 9 May at the latest. According to most polls, the next leader of South Korea is expected to be Moon Jae-in, the leader of the Minjoo Party, who came a close second to Park in the 2012 presidential election. While much can happen in two months in Korean politics, if Moon does become the next President, it will likely complicate South Korean politics and security policy even further in what has already become an incredibly tense period.

In recent weeks tensions on the Korean peninsula have been ratcheted up to their highest level in some years, following a North Korean assassination in Malaysia and a series of missile tests into the Sea of Japan, that were supposedly in response to this year’s Foul Eagle US-ROK exercise. As if that were not enough, China-ROK relations have also plummeted over the decision of the Park government to deploy the American Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) ballistic missile defence system in South Korea. As the system was deployed in Seoul, Beijing vented its fury by cancelling tour groups to South Korea and by sanctioning certain South Korean businesses in China. Adding a new South Korean leader to the mix could go in a number of ways.

First of all, what is Moon’s policy platform? Many of his views that first emerged during the 2012 election have come into sharper focus in the past few months. Like many Korean politicians from the left, he has an antagonistic relationship with South Korea’s security agencies. Like his mentor, Roh Moo-hyun, president from 2003-2008, Moon has been arrested for his views. Consequently, he has pledged to reform government organisations, saying earlier this week: ‘The authorities, such as Cheong Wa Dae, the prosecution, and the Intelligence Service, have been the main culprits undermining democracy’. Faced with a slowing economy and high unemployment – particularly among the young – Moon has promised ‘a revolution to create more and better jobs’. With a slogan of ‘people first’, he has also stated that he intends to reform the chaebol system, in which large conglomerates dominate the Korean economy and are said to have contributed to a widening between haves and have-nots.

In terms of the relationship with the United States, Moon has a mixed record. On the one hand, has called the US the ‘most important country’ for Seoul, while at the same time stated that he’s against the deployment of the THAAD system inside the country. The system was hastily deployed earlier this month, perhaps in anticipation of Friday’s ruling. Moon asserted, ‘Reconsidering THAAD would have to be proceeded with diplomatic efforts, including diplomatic efforts with the US. I don’t think…[it] would harm the South Korea-US alliance. Given the transactional nature of the Trump administration, removing a system which gives early warning of a North Korean missile launch to US forces in Japan or the continental United States, this assertion is dubious. The fact that Moon Jae-in is also known to favour an engagement-heavy approach toward North Korea may also push the relationship into crisis, since the Trump administration has signalled that it favours a hard line on the regime.

On the other hand, Moon’s approach will please Pyongyang and Beijing, which have have both resented the Park government’s close ties with Washington. Beijing will be particularly pleased if Moon withdraws the American radar system from the peninsula, since it worries about the system’s ability to gather data on its nuclear deterrent. Warning both about ‘consequences’, China has already begun sanctioning South Korean companies and blocking Chinese tour groups from visiting the country. With regards to Moon’s approach toward Pyongyang, Chad O’Carroll from NK Watch states, ‘Moon Jae-in’s election could result in the largest ever shift from one administration to another of North Korea policy in South Korea’s history. As this will likely cause issues between Seoul and its allies, O’Carroll asserts that ‘the North will exploit any policy confusion as soon as it begins to arise’.

Former-President Park Geun-hye has spent her last night in the Blue House presidential palace. Her isolation now is in many ways a striking metaphor for South Korea’s own position. Historically, Koreans have referred to their state as a ‘shrimp surrounded by whales’. The pressures, internal and external, on the Korean polity from Beijing and Washington, from Tokyo and Pyongyang, reveal a kernel of truth in this odd saying. Whoever becomes the next President of South Korea will have many issues to navigate, and many choices to make. Let’s hope they bring calm and some security.


China’s fear of the US prevents any defusing of the North Korean Threat

The Telegraph, 6 March, 2017

Isometric Corean crisis

In the wake of widespread criticism of its assassination of Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur last month, North Korea has defiantly fired four intermediate ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. Tracked by US, Korean, and Japanese forces, the four missiles were fired 730 on a Monday morning, from Tongchang-ri province, with three landing in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The timing was of course carefully chosen. Coinciding with the annual military exercise Foal Eagle, in which US and South Korean forces train for a future North Korean invasion, the missile test was a threatening reminder to Washington that Pyongyang’s nuclear reach is growing and may soon be able to hit the continental United States. This threat, North Korea’s leaders may reason, might deter the United States from defending South Korea in any future contingency.

The launch was not, however, good timing from Beijing’s perspective. It has been opposed to Seoul’s decision in 2016 to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an anti-ballistic missile defence system within its territory.

Citing China’s “national security concerns” in February 2016, Foreign Minister Wang Yi worried that the X-band radar could peer far beyond North Korea’s territory, deep into Chinese territory. Its concern was that the system could be used offensively and also to gain strategic early-warning in any US-related contingency.

The deployment has revealed a number of security dilemmas on the peninsula that diplomats are struggling to de-conflict. In the first instance, South Korea remains a favourite target of North Korea and has suffered a number of minor attacks and provocations over the years. In 2010, the North even sank one of its corvettes, the ROKS Cheonan in the Yellow Sea, killing 46 Korean sailors.

 It also bombarded a South Korean island later that year with artillery, killing two civilians and wounding 19. Seoul’s search for security is thus only reasonable. However, by deploying the American THAAD system, its search for security is thought to undermined Chinese security.

The past year has seen a strong Chinese campaign to pressure Seoul into stopping the deployment, with the government banning Chinese tour groups to the country, and boycotting a retail company after it agreed to supply land for the THAAD deployment. In many ways, Beijing is the victim of its own ally in all this.

Unable or unwilling to pressure North Korea where it might truly hurt – on energy and food supplies – Beijing focuses its ire on South Korea alone, using economic and political pressure, and offering only platitudes about restarting peace talks.

In a sense, this pattern of prioritizing its own security preferences – at the expense of its regional neighbours – is becoming a hallmark of Chinese security policy in the region.

It is quite ironic, given the fact that its trade relationship with Seoul far outstrips that with Pyongyang. Dr. Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a senior lecturer in international relations at King’s College London says, “China is focusing on the wrong potential threat. If there were going to be a conflict in Northeast Asia, it would be the result of North Korea’s actions, rather than South Korea’s or anything related to THAAD.”

In reaction to Chinese displeasure, both Washington and Seoul have sought to remind Beijing ultimately, whether or not THAAD is deployed rests on China’s own actions. Before her downfall in a corruption scandal, South Korea’s strong-minded President Park Geun-hye stated that the South would not need THAAD if China dealt with the North Korean missile threat.

Admiral Harry Harris, the current Commander of the Pacific Command (PACOM), in charge of US forces in Asia Pacific, reiterated that, saying, “If China wanted to exert a lot of influence on somebody to prevent THAAD from being considered going into Korea, then they should exert that influence on North Korea.”

Naturally, American statements have little effect in China right now, as Sino-US relations dip to their lowest point in decades. Furthermore, as Jim Schoff, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, asserts, “the US-China relationship has essentially become the fulcrum for the regional security environment, and a misalignment of that point risks serious instability and possible conflict.”

While many warn of the “Thucydides Trap” that China’s rise might provoke, both have made serious efforts to accommodate each other and avoid conflict. America’s support for China’s inclusion into the World Trade Organization in 2000, its support for a Chinese-hosted Six Party Talks, and its promotion of a US-China bilateral Strategic and Economic Dialogue in 2009, reveal the sincerity with which both states have sought to institutionalize the relationship. The Trump administration has seemed to question whether those efforts were in America’s best interests.

While Beijing has argued – often correctly – that it has little leverage over the regime in Pyongyang, the truth is that China holds the keys to resolving the issue. Every day, hundreds of trucks, carrying fuel and coal enter into North Korea from the Chinese border. If China were to stop these, North Korea’s economy would cease to function in short order.

China continues to supply the North partly because it does not really want a unified Korea on its doorstep. This is especially true of any future state based on the South Korean model, with its strong security alliance with Washington. Talking with Chinese diplomats and scholars on the issue, one is struck by the fear of containment that runs through Chinese policy circles; the possibility of American troops on the Yalu River exerts a stronger grip on them than North Koreans weapon systems – systems that are after all, aimed at Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington, rather than Beijing.

In all this, few have asked what Seoul wants. This is where the second security dilemma becomes evident, the intra-alliance security dilemma between Washington and Seoul. Critics in Seoul have argued that the system does not really protect South Korea from many of the North’s deployable missile systems, and that it merely serves to protect US forces in the Pacific and on the US continental mainland.

These criticisms miss the point of how South Korea’s military views the system. First, it does provide early-warning on North Korean launches, second, and perhaps more importantly, it further binds the US to South Korea.

In an age of Trump, when US defence guarantees to allies have been re-examined for their utility, the institutional defence system, worked by both militaries, has helped bind the two allies closer together. By agreeing to host the system, Seoul offers the US a form of security – that of early warning for any US-bound missile launches. Furthermore, as the relationship between Washington and Beijing becomes increasingly marked by competitive elements – perhaps even trade war – the US will welcome anything that brings its regional allies closer in line with its regional objectives.

Today’s four missile tests will have annoyed Beijing to no end, since they effectively justify Seoul’s decision to deploy the American system. To some extent, China’s criticism of THAAD focuses on the radar system and ignores the cause: that of North Korean missiles.

Arguably, Beijing has forced Seoul into this position by pursuing its narrow security preferences over those of Seoul. It might want to reconsider its support of Pyongyang and further cut its dealings with the disagreeable regime.


Is North Korea’s use of chemical weapons in Malaysia a step too far?

The Telegraph, 24 February, 2017

The murder of Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur International Airport looked like it might be no more than an odd-ball story, destined for the various crank stories that typify reporting about North Korea.

True, the regime had orchestrated an assassination in another country (and at an airport, no less!) but he was a North Korean after all, and a member of the ruling family.

It swiftly became clear, after the heavy-handed bullying of Malaysia’s legal authorities by North Korea’s ambassador Kang Chol, that this was not going to blow over.

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The regime insisted on treating Malaysia – previously, one of its few diplomatic allies – as it treats everyone, lying, bullying, and making bizarre and insulting accusations, causing the relationship to nosedive.

The revelation that the nerve agent VX was used in a crowded international airport now threatens to tip the event into a regional crisis. It also raises the question of why Malaysia allowed itself to get so close to the pariah regime?

After all, North Korea is the only state that actively employs concentration camps to deal with its political prisoners. And yet, states like Malaysia continue to try and do business with the regime.

They even accept North Korean labourers – contracted out by the regime – to carry out difficult and dangerous mining operations.

In 2014, after a North Korean labourer was killed in a Malaysian mine, authorities defended the practice, with Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi, saying: “When it comes to industries such as coal mines, the jobs are very dangerous and tough. No local or Sarawakian will dare take up such jobs.”

He neglected to mention that North Koreans did the job because they had no choice. They are, in effect, slave labour.

Malaysia has already withdrawn its envoy to Pyongyang, but now with the news that North Korea used a chemical considered a weapon of mass destruction in their national airport, pressure is growing on the government to cut ties with the Stalinist regime.


Is America Still the Anchor of European Defense?

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The National Interest, 23 February 2017

The recent Munich Security Conference once again highlighted the difference between Americans and Europeans on security matters. Unfortunately for the West, many European leaders—and even some American ones—took the opportunity to grandstand about the new American president. While it is true that the U.S. leader presents internal challenges to Western cohesion, this grandstanding ignored the very real external structural threats to the Western alliance. Those threats are really threefold: first, there is the inability of western Europe to safeguard its own border; second, there is Europe’s inability to defend its easternmost member states; and third, there is China’s ongoing effort to take control of a main artery of Europe-Asia trade in the South China Sea.

If Donald Trump and his parochial America First vision for the world present one internal threat to the cohesion of the West, then certainly the second internal threat—by no means unrelated—is that of European passivity in global affairs and a propensity to see the global order as an American construct. This is simply wrong, and ignores western Europe’s long history in creating and defending the rules-based system—including its crucial role in creating international law, the UN and NATO itself. Despite this, more and more European elites speak of China’s challenge to the American order, which neatly obviates their responsibility for its defense. While it’s true that European passivity has not precluded much diplomatic activity, over Iran, over Syria and even over Ukraine, it should be noted that power is a mixture of hard and soft power. One cannot forfeit one without forfeiting the other.

The origins and nature of European passivity are, to some, a matter of academic debate. However, whatever their feelings for the current president, the fact is that he has the ability to defend the Baltics and Poland from Russia, and they do not. This single fact says everything that is wrong with Europe at the moment. Quibbling over the NATO 2 percent rule, one forgets that the real argument is about capability. Is German able to retain troops or take care of its equipment adequately? Can France airlift its troops abroad when it wishes? Can any of the big three drop munitions on an enemy for more than one or two weeks? Can Luxembourg—a wealthy banking state paying a shoddy 0.44 percent—patrol its own airspace? Do any of the European states have the C4ISR to even carry out a modern air war? European protestations about how much they spend on development aid, institutions and refugees are merely “what about” arguments, and do not answer the core criticism about capability.

The simple fact of the matter is that if Russia decided to retake the Baltic states—states it has historic claims to and has indeed invaded in the past—Western Europe’s great powers would be unable to do anything about it. Equipped with three-quarters of a million troops, more tanks than any other nation and the world’s third-largest air force, Russia has one of the largest militaries on the planet. But it has also spent large amounts modernizing that military, so that it outnumbers Europe not only in quantity, but also in quality. In this context, aid and institutions are meaningless. Even diplomacy, with a determined enough opponent, would be meaningless without being backed by military might. Peace comes through strength, so the adage goes, not through passivity.

Europeans who are shocked by the Trump’s administration’s transactional approach toward NATO should take note that the trend began under the Obama administration, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates castigating Europe in a final speech in 2011. In an address to a think tank in Brussels, he stated, “The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress—and in the American body politic writ large—to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources . . . to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.” Given those sentiments, Gates could have predicted a Trump-like figure coming to power in the American polity. This makes German leader Angela Merkel’s reaction all the more mystifying. Rejecting James Mattis’s pressure to increase spending, she insisted that NATO is equally valuable to the United States as it is to its other members. It was as if a roommate who never did the washing up insisted that you should keep doing it, as clearly everyone benefited from a clutter-free sink.

In an age that has seen U.S. allies in Asia—like Japan and South Korea—bring more to the table in terms of men and materiel, this European passivity is troubling. Displaying a penchant for misdirection that only clouded the issues, European elites persuaded themselves that the Trump administration is the primary “cause for concern” on the global stage. Simultaneously, they ignored the fact that since the Kosovo air war, western Europe has become unable to stop a conflict on its doorstep. In an age of rapidly growing global challenges and threats, European passivity and free riding are having a terrible impact on Western cohesion. Europeans should note that, due to demographic changes in the United States and economic and political changes in Asia, many in Washington are starting to see Asia as the future global center of gravity. They will no longer be able to take for granted the cultural links that saw Washington place Europe at the center of its global alliance system. In the future, Europeans will have to decide whether it is indeed a Western system or just an American system—and, if the former, one that they should seek to uphold.


North Korea is a terrifying rogue state – but it is its own citizens who suffer the worst 

The Telegraph, 16 February, 2017

The apparent assassination of a North Korean exile, Kim Jong-nam, most likely on the orders of North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong-un, is the stuff of Cold War-era spy thrillers, an exotic tale that some treat almost as entertainment, not news. Sadly, it is far from fictional, and deadly serious.

It is also part of a pattern: the North goes to extraordinary lengths to murder “traitors”, who have managed to escape the country. One South Korean politician, Ha Tae-keung says that he has reliable intelligence that at least two North Korean assassins are currently in the South seeking to eliminate high-level defectors.

To many in the West, North Korea is all about global security. Missiles and nuclear weapons shape how we think about this hardest of hard authoritarian regimes.

Watch | North Korea ‘successfully’ fires ballistic missile

But what about the North Korean people themselves? In an age of mass demonstrations against the recent US refugee ban, it curious how few in the West demonstrate on behalf of North Korean refugees.

Every year, North Koreans attempt to escape into China, eluding border patrols on both sides. If they survive that ordeal, they face another as they attempt to cross through China to a third country that will grant them passage to South Korea. Lee Hyeon-seo, a defector and author of The Girl with Seven Names, escaped China’s secret police by passing herself off as Korean-Chinese.

She was lucky. Many are caught and forcibly returned and according to a 2014 UN report, face “torture, starvation, forced labour and other gross human rights violations” by North Korean security services.

According to Shin Dong-hyuk, a former labour camp inmate interviewed by the UN Inquiry on Human Rights, attempted escapers are treated like “ploughing animals”. Many “are so weakened from malnourishment and disease that they are literally worked to death”.

A North Korean Woman working in a dimly lit and very old-fashioned silk factory. She is wearing a pink overall with a scarf over her head.  A beam of sunlight just catches her face and forearms
North Korea’s citizens suffer greatly at the hands of the regime Credit: Associated Press

North Koreans are increasingly being sent abroad as a modern form of slave labour. According to Marzuki Darusman, the special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, some 50,000 North Koreans work abroad. Most are in China and Russia, some others are sent to Algeria, Angola, Cambodia, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, Qatar, and the UAE. Earlier this month, one such labourer, Choe Myong-bok, was caught hiding in Russia after two decades on the run, and now faces repatriation. He will most likely face the same fate as Ryu En-nam, another defector caught in Russia and sent home in 2008. He was tied to the back of a train and dragged to death.

Under the current leader, many in North Korea – even among Pyonyang’s elites – have begun to despair of things ever improving in the country.

Kim Jong-un’s assumption of power in 2011 was initially greeted with hope by many North Koreans. Under his father, the “public distribution system” of rationing had collapsed during the 1990s famine, leading to the growth of illegal food markets. Many hoped that Kim Jong-un would restore country’s prosperity, but unfortunately such optimism has gradually been dispelled by repeated crackdowns on the illegal markets and the funnelling of state money into crack-pot tourism schemes.

Consequently, a growing number of “privileged” North Koreans have begun to defect. Some allege that this was behind the defection of twelve waitresses from a North Korean state-owned restaurant in Ningbo, China in April last year.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un takes a weapon from a ramrod-upright soldier as he inspects a sub-unit under KPA Unit 233, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang January 19, 2017
Kim Jong-Ung inspects his army Credit: KCNA/Reuters

The North Korean regime is a relic, the last of vestige of Stalinism in the modern world. Perhaps its leaders are aware of that; aware that as more of its citizens slip away, the closer the regime’s collapse comes. It is said that North Korea’s leaders watched the lynching of Romania’s last communist leader Nicholae Ceausescu on CNN in a country palace in 1989. Doubtless, that fate is what drives Kim Jong-un’s obstinate refusal to countenance economic reform, his drive for nuclear parity with the US, and his atrocities against his own people.

The geopolitics matter, but we should not overlook those crimes against humanity, or forget the North Korean who people continue to suffer as they strive for a better life


Putting Security into Prime Minister May’s New Industrial Strategy

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The RUSI Newsbrief, 15 February, 2017

Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed post-Brexit industrial strategy is commendable. However, the UK must avoid the pitfalls of an overly mercantilist policy, especially when it comes to dealing with China.

The UK prime minister’s Green Paper on a new industrial strategy was written ‘to provoke debate’ and ‘start a consultation’ as part of Theresa May’s commitment to make the UK a global leader in free trade. This is a commendable drive to build both post-Brexit prosperity and a post-EU identity for Britain. However, the dangers of developing overly mercantilist policies are ever present and a laissez-faire approach to inbound foreign investment should be avoided, particularly when it comes to foreign ownership of critical national infrastructure (CNI). 

A growing number of autocratic states have become global trading partners, and while this is to be warmly welcomed, it is not without risks. China is of particular note in this regard. China is predicted to surpass the US as the largest cross-border investor by 2020 and has a reputation for large-scale projects and visionary economic planning. Furthermore, the prime minister declared in a recent BBC interview that the ‘golden era’ of UK–China relations is still in place.

Much of China’s economic miracle has been built on leap-frogging technologies, achieved through a mixture of cyber espionage and pushing foreign firms with desirable intellectual property into disadvantageous joint ventures with Chinese rivals. As far back as 2007, MI5 was alerting executives in Britain to the dangers of commercial espionage from Chinese state actors. The 2016 US-China Economic and Security Review Commission asserts that ‘reports of Chinese espionage against the United States have risen significantly over the past 15 years’, noting that while the emphasis has been on ‘defence industrial companies, national security decision makers, and critical national infrastructure entities’. This article reviews three types of Chinese investment into foreign firms.

To continue reading, please click here.


North Korea’s ruler routinely assassinates his enemies. But it’s their nukes we should really worry about

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The Telegraph, 14 February, 2017

The scene plays exactly like a Cold War thriller. Kuala Lumpur International Airport is quiet at 8am on a Monday. Two women step behind a middle-aged Korean man pushing a luggage cart, and while one distracts him with a cloth over his face, the other presses a needle into his arm. Then, as he is reeling, they dart off. They have flagged a taxi – likely an accomplice – and are off into traffic before anyone can react to what has just occurred.

Kim Jong Nam, the son of feared ruler Kim Jong-il, and one-time heir apparent, has just been assassinated. The likely culprit is, of course, Kim Jong-un, his step-brother and the current ruler of hardest of hard authoritarian regimes. But why now? Why after years of letting his brother live has he decided to have him killed? And does it have anything to do with last week’s missile test, carried out while Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting President Donald Trump?

The scene plays exactly like a Cold War thriller. Kuala Lumpur International Airport is quiet at 8am on a Monday. Two women step behind a middle-aged Korean man pushing a luggage cart, and while one distracts him with a cloth over his face, the other presses a needle into his arm. Then, as he is reeling, they dart off. They have flagged a taxi – likely an accomplice – and are off into traffic before anyone can react to what has just occurred.

According to one anonymous South Korean diplomat, close to North Korean issues, his death was probably long in the works. After all, in 2012 he had called North Korea’s dynastic succession “a joke to the rest of the world” and had predicted the end of the regime under Kim Jung-un in comments to a Japanese journalist, Yoji Gomi. The source said, “it was probably just his time,” and when asked if the timing related to the missile test, responded: “Maybe Trump is a factor, however North Korea is always driven by its need for internal security.”

This hyper-intense need for security and regime survival has prompted North Korean rulers to use political assassination on quite a few occasions in the past. Often these acts have taken place at home and reveal Byzantine struggles for power between Kim Jong-un and various senior officials who rose to power under his father. Many senior officials have died in “accidents” while driving on North Korea’s empty roads. Kim Yang-gon, a Secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party, died in 2015; Ri Je-gang, first vice department director of the Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, died in 2010; and Ri Chol-bong, Chief Secretary of the Worker’s Party’s Kangwon Provincial committee, died this way in 2009.

The last assassination of a North Korean abroad may have been that of Hwang Jang-yop, the most senior North Korean government official to defect to the South. Found drowned in his bath in Seoul on the 10th of October, 2010 – incidentally, the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party – his death is still classified an accident by the South Korean police. However, the auspicious timing and fact that various attempts on his life had been made before casts some doubt on this.

North Korea has already been in the news this month after firing a Pukguksong-2 (or Polaris 2) medium- to long-range ballistic missile from a mobile delivery system into the Sea of Japan, an event which coincided with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States. That gave Abe and President Trump an opportunity to demonstrate unity, with Abe calling the launch “intolerable” and Trump asserting US support of Japan “100 percent”. However, behind such theatrics, the new administration is desperately carrying out a review of the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy, a much-maligned approach that was originally meant to allow North Korea’s internal economic contradictions catch up with it.

Pyongyang’s success in developing a long-range nuclear delivery system, capable of hitting the continental US is putting pressure on the process. In a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing in late January, Korea expert Scott Snyder declared: “Kim Jong-un has decided, based on lessons from Iran, Iraq, and Libya, that North Korea must be too nuclear to fail. Moreover, he intends to threaten the United States with a direct nuclear strike capability.” One could also see this in the tone of US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley in a UN session on February 13th. She fired off a veiled criticism of China in her remarks in the consultations room, calling on North Korea’s “enablers” to ensure that sanctions were fully implemented.

While it is too soon to know if the new policy will focus on China’s relationship with North Korea, the stakes are high. In early January, the Washington Post speculated that Victor Cha, a former North Korea expert in George Bush’s administration. would be appointed to Trump’s. In his 2012 book, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future, he asserts: “The next US President will have to deal with a major crisis in North Korea, and potentially unification, before he or she leaves office.” 

Whether or not this occurs – North Korea remains, after all, unpredictable – the world will have to put the country at the top of its list of “things to worry about”.

Jeremy S. Maxie

Energy & Political Risk Consultant

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