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Monthly Archives: February 2017


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.

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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.

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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.

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Don’t Forget the Treatment of North Korean Defectors

The Diplomat, February 14, 2017

With all the outrage over Trump’s refugee ban, where is the anger over Russia and China’s treatment of North Koreans?

In London, thousands of people gathered in the freezing rain to protest the new American president’s ban on refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries.

If people around the globe are willing to protest against Trump’s decision to reject refugees, where is the outrage toward China or Russia, who regularly round up and arrest North Korean refugees inside their borders, and return them to the North? Repatriated defectors sent back to North Korea face harsh penalties. They can be imprisoned in forced labor camps, or face the death penalty by execution.

China

Of North Korea’s two northern neighbors, China has the strictest policy toward North Korean defectors and takes active measures to locate and repatriate any found within its borders. Chinese security services actively cooperate with the DPRK to find, arrest, and repatriate any North Korean refugees who seek to transit China to other neighboring states, and have made it clear to their citizens that assisting the refugees in any way is illegal. Naturally, under those conditions, those North Koreans who do make it to China are extremely vulnerable to trafficking and coerced prostitution.

In the past, if defectors were able to reach foreign embassies and consulates, China has been willing to let defectors leave the country. However, getting to an embassy is often difficult. In a recent undercover documentary filmed by Jake J. Smith entitled While They Watched, a North Korean refugee family was filmed trying to enter the U.S. embassy. Blocked, they then attempted to enter the Japanese embassy next door but were attacked, beaten, and pulled away from the embassy by the Chinese police. They were sent back to North Korea.

Russia

Russia has never been sympathetic to North Korean refugees, granting permanent asylum to only two between 2004 and 2014. However, their repatriation policy was entrenched in 2014, when both countries signed an agreement to forcibly repatriate nationals from either country found to be residing in the other illegally. There are only an estimated 40 defectors that have managed to successfully escape to Russia and remain unnoticed.

The issue of North Korean defectors in Russia gained media attention again after Choe Myong-bok, a defector who has been hiding in Russia for nearly two decades, was arrested last week. He will be forcibly repatriated back to North Korea, despite human rights organizations claiming he faces certain execution if he is returned. Choe is currently awaiting results of an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Choe is hoping to avoid sharing the fate of Ryu En-nam, who was forcibly repatriated from Russia back to North Korea in 2008. Once in North Korea, Ryu was dragged behind a train until death.

While some defectors manage to reach Russia from North Korea, often through the Siberian wastes, most North Koreans that become refugees in Russia defect while already working in the country as laborers. These workers are sent to timber and logging camps from Pyongyang with the promise of a better life, in order to earn money to send back to their families. There are an estimated 20,000 North Korean workers in Russia at any one time.

Russia, however, greets these defectors with little more than indifference. If anything, Moscow has strengthened ties to North Korea in recent years, signing an economic agreement only last spring to raise bilateral trade from $112 million to $1 billion by 2020 and laying down plans for a $340 million joint venture to build a new railway from the Russian border to the North Korean port of Rajin. Sadly, while Choe Myong-bok’s story may be the most recent tragic tale, it almost certainly will not be the last.

While one might argue that we hold the United States to higher standards than we do Russia or China, this is a meaningless argument to a North Korean citizen being taken back to be executed. And while Muslim refugees have a range of nearby countries – including Europe itself – where they might instead seek safety, North Koreans have pitifully few choices, with only three borders to choose from.

Our protests are hypocritical and prejudiced if we only seek to defend those who are the fashion of the week. The North Koreans have suffered for generations under one of history’s most brutal regimes and two countries regularly throw them to the wolves. Perhaps someone will light a candle outside the Chinese and Russian Embassies one day to remember these forgotten refugees.

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