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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


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”.


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.


The Girl with Seven Names

hyeonseo-lee_cover400x0Hyeonseo Lee as the dinner speaker

Tuesday, 21 October at 19:00 – 22:00

Naval and Military Club

The Policy Dinner Club is proud to announce that it’s next speaker is Ms. Hyeonseo Lee. Ms Lee, a defector from North Korea, who will draw from her new book, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defectors Story, to discuss technological change in North Korea, and the impact it is having on North Korean society and government, among other aspects of life inside North Korea.
Hyeonseo spends much of her time speaking about North Korean human rights and North Korean refugee issues, including speeches at the Stanford University Global Speaker Series, Princeton University, New York University Law School, and at various venues throughout Europe. She has personally met public officials like UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the South Korean Minister of Unification, Yu Woo-ik, to discuss these issues.
When:    19:00-22:00, October 20th, 2015
Who:      Ms. Hyeonseo Lee
Where:   Naval and Military Club* (map)
Speaker’s Biography

Hyeonseo Lee is a North Korean defector living in Seoul, South Korea. She has recently completed writing her memoir, The Girl With Seven Names, which will be published in July 2015 in more than 20 countries. Over 5 million people have viewed her TED Talk about her life in North Korea, her escape to China and struggle to bring her family to freedom. Hyeonseo has given testimony about North Korean human rights in front of a special panel of the UN Security Council, and has discussed the issues with important leaders such as UN Ambassador Samantha Powers.

She recently completed her undergraduate studies in English and Chinese at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, and has been a Young Leader at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Hyeonseo has written articles for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal Korea Real-Time, the London School of Economics Big Ideas blog, and worked as a student journalist for the South Korean Ministry of Unification. She has also been interviewed by the BBC, CNN, CBS News and numerous other television, newspaper and radio outlets throughout the world.

She is currently writing another book with other female North Koreans living in South Korea, and is planning to start an organization to help promising North Korean refugees interact with the international community.


No Deal: Why North Korea won’t be the next Iran

The National Interest, August 25, 2015

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As the sounds of artillery faded across the North-South Korean border recently, the possibilty for a new diplomatic breakthrough between the United States and North Korea had been dashed. Hopes had been raised in Washington, in Beijing and even in Seoul, for a revival of the Six Party Talks in the wake of the successful U.S.-Iran Nuclear Deal. Speculation was rife in the run up of visits to Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing by the American special envoy to these talks, Sydney Seiler, in late July. However, the recent announcement of Vice-Premier Choe Yong-gon’s execution in North Korea swiftly dampened optimism. For North Korea-watchers, the recent spate of purges of elites by Kim Jong-un suggests that the regime is going through a consolidation of power, and it is unlikely to accept or even to deal with diplomatic overtures from the United States or its allies for some time. In many ways, the reason for this latest cross-border flare-up has its origins in North Korea’s domestic politics rather than in what happened on the border.

Events in North Korea this summer have revealed a country undergoing continued instability as leader Kim Jong-un carries out purge after purge of the top brass. Vice Premier Choe Yong-gon was apparently executed in May, but news of his execution only surfaced on August 12. The news follows earlier purges of Armed Forces Vice-Minister So Hong-chan, Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol and Director of the Designing Department of the National Defense Commission Ma Won-chun. While purges in North Korea are nothing new, North Korea analyst Aidan Foster-Carter points out that top-level bureaucrats and military elites usually just disappear. It would appear that these arrests and executions have been staged for internal consumption. As with all things domestic, these purges are a form of internal signaling from the regime to the elites.

While all of this seems of peripheral interest to U.S. policy makers, the question of the stability and staying power of the regime is important both for planned diplomacy and for anticipating future provocations. Though feeling the economic pressure of sanctions, an internally robust Pyongyang might be coaxed back to the diplomatic table. Presumably, a regime at peace with itself would be able to agree internally what its negotiating terms are, in line with some sort of national strategy. An internally weak or divided regime, on the other hand, will eschew any form of compromise with the regime’s perceived enemies, as any compromise might be construed as weakness or treason, and used internally by one faction against another. In North Korea, roughly speaking, there are three main factions: the Kim family (and its supporters), the Korean People’s Army and the Korean Worker’s Party. As with pre-Revolutionary France, these three factions subtly vie with each other for the power and resources of the state: their roles might be said to equate to France’s monarchy, aristocracy and clergy. Historically, the relationship has been marked by cycles of competing and cycles of converging interests.

While verification of events inside the hermetic kingdom is famously difficult, it is possible that these purges have arisen from a competition taking place between the three factions initiated by the young leader. To put this competition in perspective, one must look back to the evolution of this power triangle between 1996 and 2010. If one looks back to Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, one can see that only two years after taking power he implemented a new constitution (called the 1998 Constitution). This consolidated his position within the military’s National Defence Commission and simultaneously elevated the military above the party in a policy that came to be know as Songun or “military first”. In essence, Songun was both a counterrevolutionary strategy and a strategy for governing, complementing the official state ideology of Juche and the cult of leadership built around the Kim family (Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism). While there is no clear evidence that Kim Jong-un has officially reversed that and elevated the party above the Korean People’s Army, his pursuit of economic growth may have been at the expense of the army’s interests, leading him to co-opt the party.

Finally, there is the possibility that Kim Jong-un’s age is a factor in driving this new iteration of inter-elite competition; the neo-Confucian society of Korea traditionally elevates age above youth and is heavily reliant on social networks to enable influence and power. Elevated well above his peer group, Kim Jong-un may have found it difficult to compete with the clannish military leaders, with their decades of friendship and loyalty to the military. Carrying out initial purges may have allowed him both to signal the continued strength of the Kim family and to undertake some practical internal reordering. Purges open up seats and give Kim the power to fill them, allowing him to displace the old with the new. In essence, purges strengthen Kim’s coercive power, his interpersonal power and his patronage power all at once. His promotion of a trusted family member, sister Kim Yo-jong, to vice-director of the KWP’s Propaganda and Agitation Department also suggests that Kim Jung-un will continue to burnish the family’s cult of personality. While Songun and Juche are shared out among the military and party respectively, the sacred place of the Kim family in Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism makes it uniquely unassailable with respect to the other two factions. As with the concepts of divine monarch and heavenly mandate, the cult of leadership built around Kim Jong-un will liken treason to heresy.

In terms of deciding future U.S. policy, it is clear that North Korea is not ready to come back to the table. Internally, it is undergoing too much upheaval. Nor is it clear that coming to the table would be much use, given its policy of maintaining its nuclear-power-state status. The United States and its allies face a choice: they can sit back and allow the Kim regime to consolidate power between the military and the party, hoping to be rewarded for their forbearance, or they can make minute shifts in policy that have ever-larger effect. Realistically a policy of forbearance is unlikely to be recognized much less rewarded by Pyongyang. One can see this from how the regime simply pocketed previous diplomatic gains—such as under the Sunshine policy. Rather than waiting to buy the same horse again, the United States should seek to modify the policy of strategic patience with a growing information campaign inside the regime. This should be enough to keep the regime off balance, rather than seek to bring it down, though the long-term effects of this should be anticipated. The watchword should be subtlety; revealing the truth is likely to be far more successful than propaganda loudspeakers on the border. It is surprising how lenient the United States and its allies have been in this regard, given the success of such campaigns vis-a-vis the Eastern Bloc during the late stages of the Cold War. This should be replicated. Information control is the Achilles heel of all totalitarian regimes: revealing the true state of the outside world and the perks of the regime’s ruling class would suffice, through the use of DVDs, USB drives, and increased radio traffic. Not to do so, is to allow a nuclear-proliferator regime to continue its existence through the lifespan of another Kim, allowing the regime to blackmail China and others for aid and sustenance for another sixty years or so. Worse still, it is to support the current plight of the long-suffering North Korean population.


Obama’s Pivot to Asia: 2014 and Beyond

4 June, 2014

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Leaving on a Jet Plane

It was late at night as Air Force One taxied to a halt at Narita Airport in Tokyo to kick off an extended Presidential visit to the region. Emerging from the aircraft, President Obama seemed determined to impress upon the region and Japan his personal commitment to the Asia Pacific. Deemed a ‘reassurance tour’, the President’s trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines was meant to ‘underscore a continued focus on the Asia Pacific region and commitment to his vision of rebalancing to the world’s largest emerging region,’ in the somewhat wooden phrasing of the White House.

Despite the President’s many statements to the contrary, over the next few days, it was clear to many analysts and journalists that the trip was meant to reassure US allies over growing Chinese assertiveness. Chinese media like the Xinhua railed against the trip and the wider policy of ‘containment’. The US “rebalancing strategy”, the Xinhua wrote hours after Obama’s plane touched down at Narita, “smacks of a carefully calculated scheme to cage the rapidly developing Asian giant by rallying US allies”.  The Global Times quoted the Chinese Ambassador to Washington as saying the “rebalancing to Asia policy may need some ‘rebalancing’ so that the United States can maintain a good relationship to every nation in the region,” a not-so-subtle warning.

Missing the Point

Unfortunately, Chinese pundits missed the greater point in their haste to see rebalancing as simple containment and only a small number of analysts reported on the US rebalancing as a response to Chinese behavior. One such pundit, Yang Hengjun, a former diplomat and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council posed the question, ‘why are China’s neighbor’s so afraid of her’ in a regional forum, and though his efforts are laudable, he fails to connect Beijing’s problems with its policies, and instead blames the China’s media for hubristic statements that offend and scare neighbors. This neatly moves responsibility away from the military, CNOOC, and the Chinese leadership who have been promoting expansionism in the East and South China Sea maritime disputes. This attempt to forge a ‘CNN effect with Chinese characteristics’ rather reveals the constraints under which political analysts must be written in Beijing.

Japan and ROK

Despite the claims of the Global Times and others to the contrary, the trip was a success. And it was a success for one simple reason. It did what it said on the label. The president had gone to personify and symbolize US commitment to its allies in their various disputes with China and this was done. The United States’ reiterated its political and military support for the current status quo, and stated firmly that changes could only come peacefully and through diplomacy. Obama’s visit to Japan gave Prime Minister what he had long wanted, a presidential assurance that the Senkaku Islands (disputed with China) fell within the remit of the US-Japan security alliance. In return, Obama emphasized that Japan’s role as a regional force for stability would be enhanced by ‘collective self-defense’, a point that shows that the defence commitments of the alliance now cut both ways.

While some pundits have argued that Abe had done little more than take the President to a great sushi bar, giving little on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) front, this overlooks the primary reason for the trip and overstates the need for the TPP to be negotiated within its present time-table. Others – such as Kent Calder, a noted scholar on Japan – have argued that behind the diplomatic niceties between Obama and Abe, the chasm between Washington and Tokyo has become incredibly wide, particularly on history and nationalism issues. Whatever the case, it is clear that Abe and Obama shared a single agenda for this trip: to consolidate the alliance in the face of regional insecurity, and avoid open bickering. This they managed to do, though it is a small victory.

Obama’s pressure on Abe to deal with the ‘comfort women’ issue was rewarded in Seoul as President Park Guen-Hye presented a warm welcome to the President. Days before his visit, the reputable Asan Institute published a survey saying that 93% of South Koreans saw the alliance with the US in a positive light. High strung North Korean media attempts to brand the visit as one by a ‘pimp’ to his ‘crafty prostitute’,[6] only seemed to reaffirm Pyongyang’s isolation and inability to be taken seriously. Despite or perhaps because of warnings from Obama and Park, the awaited 4th nuclear test failed to materialize in the days up to and after the summit. Truly, the visit was marred by the Sewol ferry disaster, which was then boiling over into a cabinet reshuffle; events around the Russian annexation of the Crimea also took precedence. As expected, the latter event caused ripples of disquiet among US allies, concerned about Washington’s military commitments. If anything, however, Russian behavior only served to reinforce the need for the US alliance system.

Malaysia: Symbolically Substantive

Arguably, Obama’s trip to Malaysia was the smoothest as the US rebalance was openly welcomed by Malaysia’s leadership. In a press conference hosted by Prime Minister Najib, the two men agreed to elevate the bilateral relationship to a Comprehensive Partnership, agreeing on the interdiction principles of the PSI, and continuing to work on increased military interoperability. As with Japan, Malaysia has begun to edge closer to the US as Beijing’s claims have hardened in the maritime sphere. On the other hand, as with Japan, this has yet to bring home the TPP bacon and the President was again disappointed on the TPP front. However, his mood must have been lifted during the ‘town hall meeting’ with a number of Malaysia’s young people as he was greeted with screams of “We love you, Obama”, a reminder of his potent charisma and links to the region. In an East West paper, Elina Noor at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) argues that this was where the real power of Obama’s visit to Malaysia lay – his ability to connect with people. For those who remember the criticism endured by the Bush administration in the region, his ability to connect has been a welcome one.

Last but not least

The final visit of the reassurance tour was to the Philippines, perhaps the place most in need of reassuring. Long-suffering at the hands of Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea, Manila was relieved that Obama’s statement that “…nations and peoples have the right to live in security and peace, to have their sovereignty and territorial integrity respected”, was supported by a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. The new defence pact gave US forces greater access to patrol Philippine waters, and though US forces have eschewed basing rights, it is likely that both Japan and the United States will work to increase coast guard and naval Philippine capabilities.

The real question of course, is how did Obama’s reassurance trip affect China? What has the balance does to deter China from seeking to forcefully change the status quo? The answer to that is unfortunately ‘not much’, as can be seen by Beijing’s establishment of an oil rig in Vietnamese waters in the days following Obama’s return to Washington. There is very little self-awareness amongst the Chinese leadership and that in itself is most worrying. Relying on ‘the century of humiliation’ narrative, China’s media continues to defend expansionism from US ‘bullying’. If rebalancing to Asia does not deter China, what policy should replace rebalancing? “How do we deal toughly with our banker”, as Hilary Clinton once asked. What policies should the US adapt after a future Sino-Vietnamese naval conflict. The US and other regional states have oft told themselves that China cannot be contained, and that is probably true, but it can be restrained. It is really a question of making Beijing pay an economic and political price for its aggressive actions towards US allies. What comes after ‘rebalancing’? What indeed.


Deciphering the DPRK

International Politics Reviews, 12 December 2013 In-this-October-1945-photo-from-North-Koreas-official-Korean-Central-News-Agency-communist-leader-Kim-Il-Sung-chats-with-a-farmer-from-Qingshanli-Kangso-County-South-Pyongyang-in-North-Korea.-Korean-Central-News-AgencyKore-960x528

Over the years, North Korea has probably received more crisis news coverage in the global media than any other country. This due partly to the nature of the situation on the Korean Peninsula – a frozen conflict – and the incremental development of the North of nuclear weapons. Counted as one crisis, it has lasted nearly 20 years, since North Korea threatened to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993. This past year, 2013, has been no exception with a large amount of international media coverage of the most recent crisis, which began with the North’s satellite launch in December 2012 and was followed by a UNSC Resolution in January. This in turn was followed by the North’s third nuclear test in February, US-ROK military exercises and the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Zone. Despite the alarmist tone of the coverage, the escalating levels of Northern rhetoric, and the use of B52 bombers in Foal Eagle 2013 by the United States, there seemed little new to those habituated to North Korean crises. Indeed, 2013 iteration seemed to play itself out in a familiar and formulaic manner, repeating a cycle that was evident in the 2010 crisis, the 2009, the 2006 crisis, as well as the 2002-3 crisis. The only difference – thus far – between this time and previous iterations has been the response by the People’s Republic of China, which has appeared to take a harder line over the third test by supporting UNSC sanctions and stopped a number of Chinese banks from dealing with the North.

Often as not, much of media coverage of North Korea seems to obscure rather than reveal the nature of the regime. The dominance of the security narrative prompted by the annual cycle of missile launches, nuclear tests, and other provocations shoulders aside narratives on human rights, economic reform, and North Korean societal issues. Certainly those issues get a mention by popular media, but this is usually merely as reference points to the larger security narrative. This monopoly that the security narrative has on the popular media shapes the view and work of various Western agencies of government, think tanks, and, of course, academia. The introverted and isolated nature of North Korean society and its inability to mobilize Western media to its own narratives mean that the country has long been reduced to generalization and caricature of the regime. As Lankov states, “for the vast majority of Americans and Europeans, North Korea is a nuclear device.” (Lankov, 2013, p.146)

This tendency to characterize North Korea as monolithic is justified by its totalitarian nature. It appears difficult if not impossible to treat social and political issues separately from, say, military issues in the North Korean context, largely because of the huge role the military has in the country, both as mobilizer of human capital and as shaper of security-nationalist narratives. Furthermore, there is the bias that the outside world has towards such a regime. With the world’s worst record of human rights, it is difficult for Western scholars and experts to study the country without some emotive response. How can one be impartial about a state that continues to run gulags and death camps? The totalitarian completeness of the state and the ‘insidious’ coercive and ideational tools for coercion also make it difficult to know whether acceptance (by the public) is the same thing as support for the regime. While understandable, this response adds to the muddle that characterizes analysis of the regime and distorts policy choices.

Fortunately for those who wish for a deeper analysis of North Korea, there is a strong canon of scholarly work that sheds light on the nature of the regime, some of which is reviewed in this study. Nearly all authors represented in this review agree that North Korea is indeed a riddle, but that it can be explained by examination of its internal logic. Furthermore, they all agree with the thesis that its economic failures are not an accident of its political system, but the direct result of the system. Cha, Lankov and Eberstadt are clear that in Pyongyang, politics trumps economics, with dire consequences. The regime alternates between bouts of reform, why has it not followed the example of its communist benefactors in Moscow and Beijing by either collapsing or truly accepting economic reform? Gause, Lankov and Cha agree that reforms have always been halfhearted because of the fear that they will engender loss of political control. (Cha, 2013, p.213), while Zumwalt, suggests that hunger may even be a means of control for the regime (Zumwalt, 2012, P.233). This use of hunger as a tool of social manipulation resonates with the permanent state of war used in 1984 for social control.

This article will examine three facets of North Korea examined by the literature, which correspond roughly to politics, economics and security.

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Jeremy S. Maxie

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