Tag Archives: Russia

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.


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 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.

Trump’s bromance with Putin will split the West in Two

CNN, December 19, 2016


When the Financial Times and Time magazine both named President-elect Trump as their person of the year, the publications did so as less of a plaudit and more of a recognition that his election is a pivotal event for the West. Certainly, it represents a major challenge to the shared foreign and security policies of the broad community of nations known as the Western alliance. Only two years after Russia illegally occupied a sovereign nation’s territory in Crimea and then began a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, an American leader has come to power, promising to improve relations with Moscow. How will Trump’s “pivot to Russia” affect European security, and what impact will his increasingly hard line on China have on Washington’s Asian allies? Trump has revealed time and again on the campaign trail — and now, more disturbingly, over the hacking scandal — a willingness to give Moscow the benefit of the doubt.

However, despite his apparent soft spot for authoritarian leaders, Trump has not extended this friendliness to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In the wake of the Taiwan phone call and the President-elect’s ambiguity over the “One China policy,” the Chinese have responded by flying a bomber over the South China Sea. They have also held life-fire drills on the PLA Navy’s new aircraft carrier and revealed that they are arming their illegal island bases in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Then, on Friday, China seized a US underwater drone in the South China Sea. The country used its state media to declare “the drone that emerged from the South China Sea is just the tip of the iceberg in US military strategy on China.” President-elect Trump has responded in the manner to which we have become accustomed, tweeting: “China steals US Navy research drone in international waters — rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented (sic) act” and “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!”

Some commentators, like David Martin Jones in the Telegraph, have wondered if Trump is trying to execute a reverse Henry Kissinger by building ties with Moscow while freezing ties with China. While such a diplomatic move is technically feasible, is it probable? After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin is well positioned at the moment vis-a-vis Beijing. While China has clearly become the dominant partner, and its One Belt, One Road strategy unilaterally consolidates Beijing’s influence over central Asia at Russia’s expense, China has been careful to pay the Russians lip service and accord them the face that Moscow craves. Putin’s ties with China’s Xi Jinping are commonly described as a “bromance,” as the two have met 19 times in four years.

Trade between the countries mushroomed in the wake of Crimea-related Western sanctions against Russia, and the defense forces of the two nations are growing closer. Last September, Russian forces drilled alongside their Chinese counterparts, in apparent support of Beijing’s claims. As a consequence, any ideas Trump may have of splitting the two continental giants should be tempered by reality. We simply aren’t at the position in the Cold War where Beijing and Moscow were eyeball to eyeball and welcomed American balancing. So, if a Kissinger-style swap isn’t on the cards, what are the likely effects of Trump’s new foreign policy? Unfortunately, his policy is likely to exacerbate a tension already running through the Western alliance, in which the European allies — like the EU, NATO member states, and Sweden — balance against Russia while welcoming warm diplomatic and trade ties with China. This is the polar opposite in the Pacific, where Washington and its allies — concerned about Beijing’s intentions in the South China Sea — are attempting to balance against China while improving ties with Russia. While it may not look like much, this split is likely to divide the West in two, while doing little to worry China and Russia.

There are some very real dangers that might arise from this: Europeans might soften on the arms embargo to China, or dampen their criticism of Chinese moves in the Pacific even more than they have already done. Washington, for its part, might undo sanctions on Russia, effectively legitimizing the first territorial invasion of a state by another in post-War history. This would not bode well for the Baltic states.

So, what’s to be done? Well, first it’s a long way to January 20. Trump’s Cabinet is still being picked, and it is difficult to know how much his foreign policy tweets represent the actual future positions of his administration. Furthermore, his administration may yet be challenged– either by the hacking scandal or even by a rejection of Trump’s polices within the Washington policy establishment. US presidents are notoriously dependent on the other branches of government to implement their policies. Any number of things could collide, making Trump a sitting-duck president before he’s even hung his name up in the Oval Office. Regardless of all this uncertainty, neither Americans nor Europeans can afford to ignore the very real possibility outlined above that Trump’s attempt to split the two authoritarian states will actually split the West. Much diplomacy and intra-alliance dialogue will be necessary in the next four years. No less than the future of the liberal, rules-based global order is at stake.

Shinzo Abe’s Balancing Act with Russia

International Relations and Security Network, 30 October, 2014 inline_783234743982-415x260

Japan and Russia have been engaged in a diplomatic cat-and-mouse game for many years now. The latest round of events saw Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet briefly on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Milan, with the two agreeing to continue their discussions at the APEC Summit in November. For both men, however, the stakes of this game are rising. Japan needs to diversify its energy supplies following the post-Fukushima nuclear shut-down, and building an energy relationship with Moscow would offset growing Chinese dominance of the continent. For Russia, the stakes are equally high: Putin shares Abe’s desire to balance against growing Chinese continental strength and wants to carry out his own ‘pivot’ to East Asia and the Arctic. He aims to do this through a combination of smart diplomacy with powers like Vietnam and Japan, and by shifting Russia’s energy focus from the stagnant European market to the growing Asian one. He also plans to economically develop Russia’s East and gradually restore its military power in the region. But despite these high stakes and compatible interests, closer ties between the two countries remain hobbled by uncertainly over one issue in particular: the future of the disputed Kuril Islands. Tokyo would like to regain its lost “Northern Territories,” seized by Stalin immediately after the Second World War, but it is unclear whether Moscow is willing to make a deal.

Foreign policy matches

By any account, Putin’s foreign policy has been in shambles since last year’s successful chemical weapons deal protecting the Assad regime. Since then, Russia has become increasingly isolated and marginalized diplomatically, first over anti-homosexual legislation, and then over Ukraine. The unexpected fall of key ally Victor Yanukovych in the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution precipitated a conflict on his doorstep and provoked an impulsive decision to secure Russian naval interests in the Crimea by force. The decision to annex the Crimea, while popular at home, has come at a great price, wiping out decades of good-will in Europe and the United States. Putin, however, does not seem to mind Russia’s isolation, which puts him in good company with the Japanese Prime Minister. Under Abe’s leadership, Japan has become similarly isolated in Northeast Asia, where Abe’s nationalist leanings have offended the Koreas, China, and even the US. Despite long-standing institutional closeness within the US-Japan alliance, Abe’s nationalism has caused some frostiness between him and the White House, with his decision to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last year drawing a rare rebuke from Washington.

Until a few years ago, discussions between Moscow and Tokyo were dominated by the territorial issue and by a long-discussed proposal for a gas-pipeline or LNG deal to supply Japanese and South Korean energy needs. These two states are the two largest LNG importers, and would represent a sizable catch for Putin if he can land them. James Byrne, an energy consultant at the Tokyo-based Mathyos Energy states: “Faced with declining demand in Europe, Russia and Gazprom must break into new markets in China, Japan and South Korea. The recent pipeline deal with China forms the backbone of a much larger planned far-eastern supply network that includes an LNG plant that would supply Japan. Also under consideration is a large-diameter gas pipeline.” According to Interfax, as Putin was pushing through the agreement to annex the Crimea through the Russian parliament, Igor Sechin – a Rosneft official close to Putin – was simultaneously in Tokyo offering Japan sizable concessions at a Russia-Japan Investment Forum, saying that Russia was “prepared to offer the most extensive opportunities for cooperating in meeting potential demand” as well as offset opportunities in shipbuilding.

Despite the domestic debate in Japan over the energy deal and concerns about crossing Washington over Crimea, Abe sees the current situation as a potential opportunity to gain concessions. On the one hand, he has followed the West in imposing sanctions on Moscow and promised US$1.5 billion in aid to the new Ukraine government. But, on the other, he met with Putin five times in the 18 months prior to Ukraine and initiated a 2+2 meeting (featuring the defense and foreign ministers of both countries). If he can sweeten the pipeline negotiations with a deal on the islands, he will make his mark on Japanese politics as a historical leader: after all, the issue has become a perennial one for Japanese Prime Ministers, with Hatoyama, Kan, Aso and now Abe all pushing to be the man who brings the islands back into the fold.

The Great Game: Northeast Asian style

Close observers of Abe have noted that the Japanese Prime Minister is interested in more than just energy and the islands. Indeed, he has a far more complex foreign policy towards Moscow than previous Japanese leaders, which contains a personal element: his father Shintaro Abe was instrumental in improving Russo-Japanese ties in the early 1990s and had a close relationship with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. As his father’s secretary and aide, Abe’s formative political years were spent working on ties with Russia. Because of this relationship, Abe sees the bilateral with Moscow as crucial in the growing geopolitical contest for Northeast Asia. In April 2013, he met Putin in Moscow and signed a memorandum of cooperation on a number of different projects, including joint development of the Magadan oil and gas field under the Sea of Okhotsk, an agreement for Rosneft to sell 1 million metric tons of LNG annually to SODECO, 1.25 million metric tons to Marubeni, and to establish a joint LNG plant in Vladivostok.

Of course, all of this pales in comparison to the US$400 billion deal between Moscow and Beijing in May of this year, a deal that shook energy markets. Although the deal promises to bring down LNG prices across Asia, the formation of a Sino-Russian bloc would be a disaster for Japan, given its close proximity to the borders of both. It has territorial disputes with both states, and cannot risk having them coordinate their efforts.

What would you give for an island?

It is difficult to know whether Moscow would be willing to make a deal on the island. Putin has offered a compromise in which Russia would keep two of the larger islands and give two of the smaller ones to Japan, but no Japanese leader has favored such a deal. Instead, many inside Kasumigaseki – Japan’s equivalent of Whitehall – believe that Russia’s estrangement from the West bodes well for Japan’s chances of regaining all four islands. Despite Abe’s careful maneuvering, however, it is not clear what President Putin intends to do. On the one hand, Putin needs Japanese investment, technology and energy cooperation; on the other, he knows that Japan needs to buy his LNG as much as he needs to sell it. Talk of an American shale revolution exporting to the Asia market has yet to materialize, and Japan needs energy in the meantime. Putin is also keen to fight Washington’s efforts to isolate him. A deal with Japan, a close American ally, might drive a wedge between the two and serve his East Asian foreign policy push.

But while many argue that Putin is a pragmatist before he is a nationalist, he may still be unwilling to give up Russian territory for two reasons in particular: first, the mood of the country is against it, and second – in a real twist of fate – many of the 30,000 inhabitants of the islands emigrated from the Ukraine during the Cold War. Moving them forcibly would present him with grave domestic challenges, to say the least. As it stands, Russia has already carried out a US$630 million policy of investment into the islands, and expanded its military presence there. Russia, therefore, may continue to dangle the islands in front of Japan, and Japan will continue to play for them. Although neither country quite believes in a deal, neither is quite willing to give one up. It will be interesting to see how this odd game of cat and mouse plays out.

NATO and the ‘Pivot’ after Wales


David Cameron hosts the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales.International Relations and Security Network, 12 September, 2014


Now that the NATO Summit in Wales is over, analysts are working to understand its implications for the strategic landscape around Europe. One issue that lay behind many of the discussions was the impact of US global strategy on the force-posture of US military assets in and around Europe. Although Hillary Clinton famously quipped that the United States “can walk and chew gum at the same time”, European allies still wonder how the US ‘pivot to Asia’ will affect its ability to defend the European continent and manage instability in the Middle East.

Overall, the Summit was a success: 28 world leaders came together as a symbol of transatlantic solidarity and moved past much of the awkwardness that had characterized US-German and US-EU ties over the past year. Vladimir Putin’s revanchist policies had reminded them of the purpose of the alliance, as had the growing instability on Europe’s southern border. On the whole, there were no significant differences of principle among member-states, and the leaders of the United States, Germany, France, the UK, and others committed – on paper, at least – to keep Europe “ whole, free, and at peace.”

Some have called the crisis over Ukraine a ‘Munich moment’, referring to the Munich Conference of 1938, when Germany won control of Sudetenland, a Czechoslovakian territory. However, the comparison is a favorable one for this generation. Rather than accepting the dismemberment of Ukraine, NATO member-states pledged support to Kiev in the form of a planned military exercise in Western Ukraine to show the alliance’s commitment. Furthermore, NATO members agreed to invest in reinvigorating the Alliance’s capabilities in three ways: 1) through the development of a new 4,000-strong deployment force, 2) through increased defense spending, and 3) through strategy readjustments to cyber warfare and ‘ambiguous warfare’.

Losing focus?

At a joint NATO-Cardiff University Conference held prior to the official summit, policy-makers and academics struggled to understand how the pivot would affect America’s ability to defend Europe. More than once, the US commitment to allocate more military resources to the Asia-Pacific was questioned. Some even wondered if the pivot was still in place, given the amount of traction that the Ukraine crisis and rise of ISIL were getting in Washington. This was despite US efforts to allay such fears at a press conference held on the 14th of August, where Admiral John Kirby stated that, despite instability on Europe’s eastern and southern flanks, the US remained very committed to the pivot, as illustrated by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s recent trip to Asia (his sixth as Secretary).

At the August 14th press conference, Admiral Kirby pointed out that five out of seven US treaty allies were located in the Asia-Pacific region, in addition to 350,000 troops and 200 ships. He might also have pointed out that the region is home to some of the world’s largest militaries and now outspends Europe collectively on defense. In addition, as powers like China and India rise, fissures and tensions along their peripheries have begun to threaten the stability of a region that already dominates global trade and is predicted to represent 51% of global GDP by 2050. If the US continues to turn towards the Asia-Pacific, it is out of long-term strategic necessity. Its European allies must recognize this.

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NATO Wales and the Future of Western Grand Strategy

Mistral Projection and Command Vessel
Creative Commons - Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons - Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

International Relations Security Network, 7 August, 2014

By John Hemmings for ISN

By all accounts, the upcoming NATO Summit in Wales is likely to be one of the most important since the end of the Cold War. Originally cast as a post-Afghanistan ‘lessons-learned’ and maritime security summit, events in Ukraine and Crimea have dramatically shifted the agenda since February and highlighted the need to redevelop NATO’s core mission of collective defense and deterrence. The sudden massing of Russian armor and more than 150,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border in February at the height of the crisis, reminded Western leaders – particularly those in Poland and the Baltic states – of their vulnerability to old-fashioned conventional forces. However, it has already become clear that these threat-perceptions of Russia are not held equally by all 28 member states in the Alliance, as Germany and Italy balance their security concerns with dependence on Moscow’s energy imports.

These differences may emerge as a serious problem during the summit, stymying a collective path forward. Worse still, European policy elites continue to worry about shifts in US global strategy, particularly the US Pivot strategy and how the shift of US attention away from the European theatre to the Asian one will affect force posture in-region. These fears are likely to run into US frustration over NATO members’ under-spending, a common feature of every NATO summit since the 1990s, and one that will have real – rather than symbolic – meaning this year. Of course, despite all of these challenges, NATO remains the most powerful global defensive alliance, in terms of its combined GDP, military spending, and military technology. As with all collective efforts, its real weaknesses lie in coordination. With the US Pivot to Asia likely to become a permanent feature of its global strategy, the NATO Wales Summit must find a strategic posture for the West that accepts and complements that reality.

What does the Pivot mean to Europe?

The US Pivot to Asia is still poorly understood in Europe. Some believe that the policy is merely rhetorical in nature, while others see it as a misjudged containment attempt towards China, one that – as Australian academic Hugh White contends –fans the flames of great power rivalry. Primarily, European elites view the Pivot in terms of its effect on European security.

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Russo-Japanese Relations at Lowest Ebb since Cold War

RUSI Analysis, Feb 23rd, 2011

Recent political posturing about the fate of the Kuril Islands is the latest development in a serious redressing of the balance of power between Moscow and Tokyo. Should the animosity continue, it is the latter which stands to lose the most.

Russia Japan G8

Russo-Japanese bilateral relations appear to be at an all-time low. Terse and public diplomatic exchanges between Tokyo and Moscow have followed Russian promises to build up their military strength in the Russian Far East. The immediate cause of tension is the disputed Kuril Islands (or Northern Territories as they’re known in Japan), seized from Japan by Stalin in the fading days of the Second World War – preventing the two states from signing a formal peace treaty. The Soviet Union settled ethnic Russians on to the four islands off the coast of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, following the eviction of Japanese civilians in 1945, and the new inhabitants continue to fish the same waters as their Japanese predecessors. As the territorial dispute stretches back nearly sixty-six years, why has it recently taken on new life, and what is the true significance of the current Russo-Japanese falling-out?

Old Problem, New Dynamic

In many ways, the answers lie in the changes that have swept over the region during the twenty years since the fall of the Soviet Union, and in the shift in perceptions that has taken place between Russia and Japan over that time. In the 1990s, the cash-starved Russian Federation looked to Japan for investment, technology and partnership in its energy projects in the region. Its willingness to try to reach some compromise over the issue was pushed by those in Moscow who saw real dividends in trying to reach some compromise with Tokyo over the Islands. In 1998,Boris Yeltsin was promised a $1.5 billion aid package from Japan and the IMF, and while both sides dismissed any link with the territorial dispute, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi visited Moscow that same year to try to negotiate a deal with Yeltsin. On top of that, Japanese financing – totalling some $3.7billion – has flowed into Russian energy projects from the Japanese Bank of International Cooperation, Mitsui and the Mitsubishi Corporation.

Now, Moscow no longer sees dividends in trying to reach a compromise with Tokyo. Indeed, it reckons that it can gain more by taking a hard line on the issue: building up its military forces there[1] and sending a revolving-door of politicians from Moscow has been met with  approval amongst more right-wing members of the Russian electorate and the conservative elements of the military. With next year’s elections in mind, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s December visit to the islands – the first by a Russian leader – was also calibrated to appeal to nationalist sentiment and to reassure Russian security fears in the Far East. Sporting a bomber jacket (in Putin mode), Medvedev talked tough on Japanese claims, and promised aid and development money to local Russian leaders. Furthermore, a spat with Japan, coming so soon after China’s own territorial-driven fishing boat incident in September, puts Moscow in Beijing’s good books. Russia knows that it can play these games without paying a political price, safe in the knowledge that Tokyo has little recourse and can always be brought back to the table later.

Tokyo’s Woes

If Russia has grown stronger, then the corollary is equally true. Tokyo is in a far weaker position than it was two decades ago. Its economy has been in the doldrums for more than a decade, with the Chinese juggernaut brushing past earlier this year. While it remains one of the largest global creditors, huge deficit problems have lead to a loss in creditworthiness. Politically, it has endured a large number of leadership changes, churning through five Prime Ministers in five years, and impairing its ability to get a serious grasp on long-term policy issues like security and the economy. Last week, as Prime Minister Kan’s cabinet struggled to formulate answers to Japan’s economic woes, it also had to deal with a sideline leadership battle which saw sixteen lawmakers – affiliated with a rogue member of the Democratic Party of Japan, Ichiro Ozawa – challenge the Prime Minister’s leadership and threaten to impair his ability to pass legislation. Finally, Japan’s relationship with its security guarantor, the US, has been on less-than-sure footing since former Prime Minister Hatoyama threatened to scupper a base-relocation agreement in Okinawa. While his mishandling of the issue (among others) ultimately caused the Japanese electorate to lose confidence in his leadership, the Futenma Base issue strengthened the Russian perception of an isolated Japan.

Whether the diplomatic furore around the Kuril Island/Northern Territories continues past the Russian elections next year depends on whether Moscow is serious about building up its Far East military command, currently in serious disrepair. Promises to allocate S400 SAM systems, a Mistral assault vessel and a modern fighter wing have followed the resumption of Russian bomber patrols. As the Asian Pacific develops into one of the biggest drivers of the global economy, it is not surprising that Russia begins to re-orient itself to this source of economic growth. Its relationships with the US, NATO and the EU are fairly stable at present, meaning that it can afford to focus less on its western borders. If, however, Russia does continue to militarize the islands further, it could elicit a Japanese response two or three years down the line. Ultimately, Russia retains the strong cards in this particular game: Moscow knows that it can either demilitarize the islands or invite Chinese investment as a way of applying leverage on Tokyo. And, given Japan’s current malaise, Tokyo might just have to pay.


[1] Interfax-AVN news agency claimed that it had been told by a ‘high-ranking representative of the Russian General Staff’ that Russia would deploy its newest S-400 Air Defence SAMs to the Kurils.

World Watches Helplessly as North Korea Ratchets up the Pressure

RUSI Analysis, 15th April 2009


North Korea continues to play games with its regional neighbours, shielded in part by its Cold War allies in the United Nations Security Council, and emboldened by its tactics and growing military capabilities. The question is what can anyone do about it?

Despite dire warnings made by Japan, South Korea and the US, North Korea launched its Taepdong 2 missile on 5 April at 1130 local time. Because a previous launch in 2006 had merited UN sanctions, Pyongyang took pains to announce to the world that this was a communications satellite, going so far as to inform the International Maritime Organisation and the International Civil Aviation Organisation of the missile’s flight path. The advance warning did little to diminish the frenetic diplomatic manoeuvring against North Korea in the days running up to the launch. The United States and Japan began to talk up support for sanctions at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), of which Japan is currently a non-permanent member. Meanwhile Prime Minister Taro Aso met with South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak and China’s Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the London G20 Summit to coordinate a response. Yet, for all the talk of punishing North Korea, militarily if necessary, the international response that eventually materialised was less than impressive. As the missile streaked over the Japanese mainland, Japan’s threat to shoot it down never materialised, while US and ROK Aegis destroyers watched it passively fly by overhead, taking readings and collecting signal intelligence, but otherwise doing little else to interfere. France and the UK, both members of the Security Council promised their support for punitive measures against Pyongyang, but even as they made the necessary statements, it was clear that the Russians and the Chinese had other plans.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi conferred with each other shortly after the missile was launched. Whatever was said, some kind of understanding must have been reached, for their stances within the Security Council hardened shortly after. China made calming noises, counselling restraint and emphasising North Korea’s satellite story in response to the strong US and Japan positions. Russia stated that it was looking into the situation to see whether UN Security Council Resolution 1718 – which is supposed to prohibit the North from engaging in ballistic missile activities – had been broken by the launch, but it appeared doubtful that it would. While the US, Japan and South Korea continued to push for action inside the UNSC, it seemed unlikely that any severe resolution would be passed. After speaking to both Lavrov and Jiechi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasised that US resolve on the issue had not shaken, and that it would continue to press for action, although in a less severe form than originally proposed. The statement released on 13 April was as close to a compromise as could be reached and was a small victory for the US: condemning the rocket launch, demanding that the North desist from further tests, and promising to adjust sanctions by the end of April.

How serious was it?

Whatever the nature of the rocket launched, it is clear that a major violation of international law took place. Despite the protestation of Pyongyang that this was a civilian satellite – an argument propounded by Russia and China – it is apparent from the type of vehicle and trajectory deployed that this was a ballistic missile test. Even as the population of Pyongyang turned out in their Sunday finest to ’celebrate’ the new North Korean satellite, the world’s intelligence agenciesconfirmed the splash down of the missile into the Pacific Ocean and its singular failure to put anything in orbit at all.

Fortunately, the statement by the UNSC proved to be more than just lip-service to international law; fears that we were witnessing a return to the divided Security Council that typified the Cold War have proven premature. It is understandable that neither China nor Russia want to see a failed North Korea on their borders, with the resulting refugee flows and instability; this concern explains, partially at least, their willingness to give Pyongyang a free rein to pursue its weapons development. The status quo ante remains as North Korea hold both friend and foe hostage to its own strategic calculations. North Korea’s announcement on 14 April that it is henceforth quitting the Six Party Talks and will restart the reprocessing of spent fuel rods in an attempt to bolster its nuclear deterrent is nothing new; we have been here before, and likely will be here again. It is returning all players to their start positions. This time, North Korea seems to have isolated itself even further from its closest allies. And for what reason? According to Dr. Syung Je Park, analyst at the Asia Strategic Institute, much of North Korean policy at the moment is aimed at diverting attention from Kim Jong-il’s real priority: securing the Kim family’s hold on the levers of power in Pyongyang. Having suffered a stroke in August, Kim has decided that the best way to deal with the problem of succession without external inteference is to assume a bellicose posture. Unfortunately, while this explanation offers a causal rationale for Pyongyang’s behaviour, it does not readily suggest a method for dealing with the effects of that behaviour.

The international response

As was expected, there was little agreement on imposing new sanctions on the North within the UNSC, but there is a shared feeling that the Six Party Talks need to continue despite North Korea’s attempt to leave the talks unilaterally. Obama’s Czar on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, announced on the Friday before the launch that the long-term US priority was to revitalise the Six Party Talks and that this is likely to be the next step taken by the regional actors. Russia has signalled its support in a statement, and China looks likely to follow. But this assumes that the Talks are a useful and genuinely effective tool with which to deal with North Korea’s missile programme. Some critics ask, however, what real benefit the Six Party Talks have to offer, given that they have had few apparent results. Naturally, they remain a useful forum for regional dialogue, but it remains to be seen whether they can have any impact on a regime intent on survival and clinging to the weapons that give it some sort of leverage over its more powerful neighbours.

Much will depend on how President Obama builds North Korea into his new disarmament and non-proliferation strategy, particularly how he utilises the diplomatic and strategic tools and institutions left behind by his predecessors. Two existing instruments could be deployed to some effect. One of these is the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which South Korea has just announced an intention to join. Ship-to-ship search and seizure remains an impressive tool in the anti-proliferation armoury, but perhaps it is a step out of date given the ability of North Korea to proliferate in these technologies online or through its Iran-Syria network. Still, the PSI could be strengthened further, and made into a global watchdog, with broader capabilities, covering, air, sea and land, not to mention cyberspace.

A second step might be a focused strengthening of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and its attendant institutions, like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Whether or not Obama is able to develop a strong strategy for dealing with North Korea remains to be seen. To some extent, the answer to that question depends on one’s degree of optimism about the whole situation. There are some who believe that North Korea continues to play a merry tune to which others must dance, but that it will never give up its nuclear ambitions; hope is merely another form of leverage Pyongyang uses to buy itself time. Then there are others, determined to restart the Six Party Talks, who must believe that all of their efforts, all of their energy, time, and money are being spent on something more than an illusion. Let us hope the latter are closer to the truth.

Jeremy S. Maxie

Energy & Political Risk Consultant

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