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The North’s nuclear brinkmanship is all too rational

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The Telegraph, 16 April, 2017

There are two questions which at some point occur to every Western observer of the North Korean government. The first is: are they serious? The second is: are they utterly mad?

Donald Trump’s threat this weekend of a pre-emptive strike if North Korea carries out any new nuclear tests has raised tensions on the peninsula to a level unseen since the Korean War. Many have sought to blame him for it. But in truth, the so-called Democratic People’s Republic has made such a confrontation inevitable with its persistently outrageous behaviour.

For this rogue state it is not enough to threaten the world with nuclear war. Nor is it enough to bombard us with hyperbolic language, such as the promise last year to turn South Korea into a “sea of fire”. No, North Korea also seems to lack the moral compass of even the most hardened criminal states. It has, to list only a few transgressions, mass-produced and smuggled illegal narcotics through its diplomatic carrier bags; counterfeited international currencies on an industrial scale; abducted non-Korean citizens to help train its spies; been implicated in the black market arms trade; and carried out high-profile assassinations in other countries.

For most Europeans the concept of the concentration camp seems a dark relic of history, but according to a UN report there are 80,000 to 120,000 inmates still languishing in North Korean camps as you read these words.

It is tempting to attribute North Korea’s behaviour to crazed ideology. It is the last hold-out of 1930s Stalinism, and some say it out-Stalins Stalin himself. But despite all the trappings of a Soviet state – the “people’s army”, the party bureaucracy, the secret police – it is also a neo-Confucian feudal kingdom, with a leadership in its third generation. It uses a Kantian concept of “willpower” as a mobiliser of the people, pushing its citizens to any sacrifice or hardship and ensuring their compliance with a cradle-to-grave secret police state.

Yet there is method to the madness. The regime’s rhetoric and posturing derives from its origins as a small partisan group, trained by the KGB to fight larger, better equipped foes such as the Japanese army, which brutally occupied Korea from 1910 until 1945.

Donald Trump’s threat therefore fits perfectly in the regime’s narrative. And that narrative leads it to respond to said threats with the most aggressive rhetoric possible. It routinely escalates things to a level no other state would dare. It previously threatened nuclear war in 2013 when the UN Security Council approved new sanctions.

The rest of the world has become used to this behaviour and has adjusted its expectations accordingly. So the answer to the question “are they serious?” is no, not entirely. While we should not dismiss the danger, this is ultimately brinkmanship in the inimitable DPRK style.

Such is the regime’s paranoia, however, that no amount of American diplomacy has persuaded it to let go of its fears. Bill Clinton’s effort in 1994 was said to have been undermined by a secret parallel DPRK uranium enrichment programme. The 2003 Six Party Talks failed because the North Koreans would not allow independent observers to verify the deconstruction of their weapons.

Barack Obama attempted a moratorium on long-range missile tests, but the North Korean diplomats stormed out of the room after learning that their “innocent” satellite launches would also be prohibited. Each time a new US administration has approached the issue, the same regime has been looking back.

Then there is China. Beijing has subtly undermined every Western attempt at diplomacy or sanctions so far, either watering down sanctions at the UN or watering them down at the border where trucks and ships regularly cross as part of a black market which helps sustain the North Korean economy. China has intervened to prevent sanctioning of the companies involved, and recent demonstrations of stopping coal shipments were merely cosmetic. The most egregious example was in 2012, when Chinese-built mobile missile launchers took part in a military parade in downtown Pyongyang in full view of international journalists.

Contrast this behaviour to that of the USA during the Cold War, when it stopped South Korea and Taiwan from obtaining nuclear weapons. For the Americans, China’s reluctance to rein in the DPRK has put regional security in jeopardy. So Mr Trump’s game is clearly to approach this mess as China’s problem, and make it put pressure on its treaty ally – perhaps to halt its nuclear programme.

But would North Korea accept such a deal, even if China were to offer it? Probably not. Seeing the fate of Libya as instructive, North Korean officials point out the dangers in believing in Western assurances. After all, their human rights abuses outshine those of the Gaddafi regime by some measure. Nor is it clear that Kim Jong-un can persuade the military to disarm. While the Kim family is at the top of the pile in North Korea, they buy the military’s support through the Songun ideology, which means “military first” when it comes to allocation of resources. Without it, the Kims cannot govern.

This is the ultimate block to any agreement. Hwang Jang-yop, the most senior North Korea official to defect, once alleged that the military’s primary raison d’être was to unify Korea, by force if necessary. Its generals are true believers in this cause. From that perspective, nukes change everything. With them in play the USA might not risk using its own nuclear weapons if the North invaded the South. So nuclear weapons are essential to maintaining even the ghost of a credible invasion threat – and if Kim Jong-un backed down on that, how long would he last in power?

This is a question we may soon see answered. But it helps explain why the North Korean leadership are at least not completely mad. When it comes to the power of the atom, they are tragically, dangerously sane.

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America has a THAAD Missile Problem in Korea– It Must Move Quickly and Carefully to Resolve It

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With Jake Ramsamugh, Researcher, Henry Jackson Society

IAPS Dialogue, 6 April, 2017

As President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping sit down together in Florida, it is clear that the White House’s priority is the Korean peninsula. North Korea’s nuclear missile program is putting the American mainland increasingly in range, changing the strategic calculus in Washington.

The Pentagon stresses that its THAAD missile defence system is intended to protect South Korea and Japan from a North Korean nuclear missile strike, but China worries that it will compromise its position in the Pacific region. The deployment was arranged during the final months of the Obama administration with the now deposed South Korean President, Park Geun-hye. Unsettlingly for the new US administration, the next presumptive President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, favours a much more cooperative approach toward North Korea and may order the removal of the missile system. China’s anger and Moon’s coolness to THAAD contrast starkly with President Trump’s brash attitude towards diplomacy and his determination to “solve North Korea”.

Whether or not THAAD is maintained in South Korea, things are headed toward crisis-level on the Peninsula.

THAAD, a US operated anti-ballistic missile system, is expected to be fully operational in South Korea by the summer. In many ways, it is difficult to understand why the Chinese resent the system so much. With an effective range of over 200 kilometres, it is designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles at speeds of over Mach 8 and is a defensive, rather than offensive system. The missiles do not even carry warheads, relying solely on the kinetic energy of impact to destroy incoming missiles. Despite this, China’s Ambassador to South Korea, Qiu Guohong, has gone so far as to say that the deployment of the system could destroy the Beijing-Seoul relationship “in an instant”. It appears that the main sticking point for the Chinese is the powerful X-band radar that is part of the missile systems compliment. It has a far-reaching detection range, capable of penetrating Chinese territory. Here in lies China’s fears, as theoretically speaking, using the long range radar the US could spy on Chinese air force activities.

The recently ousted President Park took a firm policy line against North Korea, advocating a stronger South Korean military contribution to the US-Korean alliance, and vowed not to be threatened by North Korean provocations. However, her fall from power, after a corruption scandal now put the agreement at risk. Fresh presidential elections are due in May and the front-runner, Moon Jae-in, has a very different policy stance towards the North. A former aide to former President Roh Moo-hyun, Moon’s policies are often referred to as “Sunshine Policy 2.0”. If he wins the election on May 9th – as polls currently predict – he will likely soften his country’s policy towards North Korea and consider removing THAAD from South Korea.

In a major policy speech last month Moon stated, “We have no choice but to recognize Kim Jong Un as a counterpart” signalling his intent to pursue a more cooperative partnership with rogue state to the north. This poses a serious break with US policy which has become even more determined to tackle the “big, big problem” that Trump sees with North Korea. Worse still – from Trump’s point of view – Moon may also see getting rid of THAAD as a way of buying Chinese favour and of calming the growing crisis in Sino-Korean relations.

So what are Trump’s options? The President, a former businessman, is well known for his “never back down” negotiation attitude. Nevertheless, he may want to tread lightly if he wants to balance coming down hard on North Korea, maintaining South Korea as a close partner and calming Chinese concerns over THAAD’s deployment. In response to North Korean escalation of its nuclear programme China has banned coal imports from the country but, as North Korea imports most of its energy and food supplies from China, analysts say that it’s not enough. A possible route for Trump is to craft a deal that would involve China drastically increasing its economic sanctions against the rouge state in return for a drawdown of THAAD. This option could have the potential to please everyone. It will ensure that a South Korea under Moon would not drift away from the US towards China, as it would meet his desire to have the missiles removed from the country. China would be also be comforted by the removal of THAAD. North Korea may be squeezed so tightly that it may have to draw back on its nuclear ambitions and Donal Trump get to play the deal-maker.

If Trump still wants to play hard ball with North Korea he is going to need to face down these two major problems sooner rather than later, he could try the diplomatic route, but his foreign relations so far have been defined by trade and military capabilities. He may not even consider the removal of THAAD as in his mind it would be a symbol of America on the retreat rather than compromising. If he does not resolve this crisis quickly, with China’s anger and Moon’s preference for cooperation over confrontation, Trump could find a North Korea still as dangerous and unstable as before but with few partners in the region to work with to bring about a solution to the North Korean problem


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

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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.

To continue reading, click here.


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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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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