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Should you be worried about a nuclear war with North Korea?

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The Telegraph, 10 August, 2017

Thursday’s news that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) has announced that it is preparing an attack plan on Guam, a US territory with forces has heightened fears across Asia and the West of a catastrophic conflict.

The past few days contain all the elements of a crisis moving inexorably toward a tragic end. For many, that end seems to be hastened by a US president intent on matching DPRK’s emotive threats.

How close are the United States and North Korea to actual warfare though? Should we be looking to “doomsday prepper” property websites or making another cup of tea and changing channel, safe in the knowledge this crisis, like all before it with North Korea, will die down when both sides really consider their options (and the terrifying outcomes).

As always, with these kinds of black-and-white choices, the truth is probably somewhere near the middle. Looking past the “fire and brimstone” rhetoric, something very real did happen this week and that was the unanimous decision by the United Nations Security Council to impose the most severe set of sanctions yet on the North. They will cut the DPRK’s GDP of $3bn by a third.

This is an astonishing diplomatic victory, if one considers that Nikki Halley, the US Ambassador to the UN not only managed to persuade China to vote “yes”, but that she also persuaded Russia to vote “yes”, only a week after Congress strengthened sanctions against it. This is an incredible diplomatic coup and hints at the long-term strategy of the Trump administration all along.

Trump has predicted that despite their rhetoric, North Korea still needs growth
Like many previous presidents, Trump has used carrots and sticks on North Korea, but this time with Beijing. This is because he believes – correctly, as it happens – that the DPRK’s economic survival depends on China’s benevolence.

Since the regime is ideologically extreme, it seems resistant to low-bar pressures – on reputation, for example – that sometimes drive other middle-sized states. So, Trump – ever the businessman – has predicted that despite their rhetoric, North Korea still needs growth. After all, it has been the regimes secondary policy since Kim Jong-in came into office, after the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Trump’s gambit has been to say, “you can have one or the other, but not both.”

Traditionally, getting China to actually put pressure on the regime (and actually enforce previous sanctions regimes on the North) has always been problematic, and nearly no other president has been willing to risk the trade relationship or good relations. So confident did China become, that it began actively undermining sanctions, in 2011 and 2012.

In his heavy-handed way, Trump has brushed all of the diplomatic considerations aside to apply staunch pressure on Beijing. He has threatened a conflict on China’s doorstep by deploying naval forces to the seas around Korea, while also threatening sanctions on Chinese banks doing business with the DPRK. While China has criticised Trump’s approach and protested its innocent, it has quietly begun shifting its behaviour.

We are where we are because of China’s historical support for the North Korean regime. The first – given the importance of sanctions in Trump’s strategy – is whether China adheres to them at the border. Its past behaviour has been to sign on to sanctions when the pressure is high, and then to undermine them later when Washington was no longer focused on Korea.

If this is Beijing’s intention now, then a DPRK crisis will continue for the next two years, every time Pyongyang develops a technological piece of the puzzle to being able to strike the US mainland. If, however, Beijing decides that it will have to really live up to its sanctions commitments, then all eyes will turn to the DPRK.

While Kim Jong-un’s regime sees much of its own population as “wavering” and “hostile”, it deeply values and depends upon the “loyal” class of Pyongyang-based elites who populate the military, the bureaucracy, and other branches of government. If those elites see that even Beijing has turned against them, and that they begin to suffer real economic hardship, it is likely that they would turn on the Kim family.

While this might sound unlikely, it is precisely the strategy (Operation Matrix) that helped bring down the Milosovich government in Serbia behind the scenes of the 1999 air war over Kosovo. It is also the strategy that took down the de Klerk Apartheid-era government of South Africa. A leadership that is separated from the masses can survive if it keeps the loyalty of the ruling elite and the military – see Assad – but one who is separated from the military cannot last long.

 

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The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 July, 2017

This is not “just another North Korean missile launch”. The “successful” testing of what North Korea’s state news agency KCNA called an “inter-continental ballistic missile” takes the Korean Peninsula one step closer to a conflict that could drag in the world’s great powers and cost millions of lives.

This time is different, and potentially much worse than those that have gone before, because it threatens to bring a reaction from the United States. The US closely monitors North Korea’s ability to strike cities on the West Coast, and significant progress towards that goal is unlikely to go unanswered.

According to Chad O’Carroll, Managing Director at Korea Risk Group, a North Korean nuclear missile that can reach the West Coast – though similar to Russian and Chinese capabilities – is deeply problematic for any sitting US president, “the extremely acrimonious nature of relations between…

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A Taiwanese Arms Package Could Be Used as Leverage in the Korean Crisis

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The National Interest, 29 May, 2017

Taiwan has long been a dormant problem for the U.S.-China relationship, successfully shelved by the Three Joint Communiqués of 1972, 1979 and 1982, with the last serious incident being the 1995 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. Nonetheless, Donald Trump’s actions in the Asia-Pacific region could signal an end to the modus vivendi that has existed for almost fifty years. While President Trump’s decision to accept a congratulatory call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen did not herald a new understanding of the “One China” policy, as many immediately thought, it is not clear yet what the new administration’s China policy will be. Under Obama, many strategists worried that the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait was moving in China’s favor, as arms deals to the island were delayed and China grew in strength. Trump’s administration appears to be seeking to redress this issue. A new arms package to Taiwan is on the drawing board and among the names being considered for undersecretary of state for policy is Randy Schriver. An Asia expert, Schriver served in the State Department as an aide to Richard Armitage and is currently the president of the Project 2049 Institute, an Asian security think tank based in Washington. Schriver would be a strong pick for any president intent on bolstering its ties with Taipei. However, critics are already pointing out holes in the president’s plan to strengthen relations. There are recent reports that Trump is actually continuing to perpetuate the United States’ lackluster support for Taiwan as the new deal has stalled, seemingly in an effort to appease China.

The U.S.-Taiwan-China Triangle

Beijing’s enduring hostility towards Taiwan has meant that Washington and Taipei have mutual-defense agreements to safeguard its “independence.” In 1979, the United States switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing as the legal representatives of China and acknowledged Taiwan as a part of One China. However, that same year Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which had the aim of enabling “Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability,” and the United States is mandated to provide that capability. Both Republican and Democrat presidents have been committed to the relationship and provided Taiwan with a variety of advanced military assets. For instance, in 1992, H. W. Bush sold Taiwan 150 F-16 jets at $6 billion, and the Clinton administration supplied missiles and radar systems to greatly improve Taiwan’s air-defense capabilities.

China always objected to the sale but was never in a position to offer any real opposition until recently. As a result of growing Chinese economic and military strength, U.S. deals have become smaller and met with stiffer backlash. In 2005, Beijing passed the Anti-Secession Law which formalized into policy China’s long-standing rule to use “non-peaceful means” to ensure its territorial integrity should the Taiwanese government declare independence. Signaling that Beijing was no longer afraid to voice its intentions openly and become more assertive in reducing U.S. influence with Taiwan. In 2010, Beijing did not only condemn a $6 billion package, but also sanctioned some participating U.S. companies. It would take until 2015 before Obama authorized another package and it would be a markedly smaller at $1.83 billion. Announced with little fanfare, it still attracted Beijing’s ire. Upon hearing of the deal, the Chinese vice foreign minister said the move “severely damaged China’s sovereignty and security interests.” A year later Obama would even block a smaller $1 billion sale, an obstruction that was reported by the Washington Free Beacon to have considerably damaged Taiwan’s defensive capabilities as it contained spare fighter-jet parts and additional missiles. The move coincided with Trump’s phone call with Tsai, giving the impression that the Obama administration prioritized good relations with China over U.S. obligations of the Taiwan Act.

Randy Schriver and Trump’s China Policy

Trump’s China rhetoric has signaled a significant break with Obama’s Asia-Pacific strategy. A new arms deal on the table could be one such indication that Trump has no intention of going soft on China, as some critics allege. According to sources, the administration may be considering providing to Taiwan rocket systems and anti-ship missiles, with companies such a Lockheed Martin being linked to the deal. Lockheed is the manufacturer of the THAAD missiles system currently being deployed to South Korea, this raises the possibility that the system could also be sold to Taiwan. Even discussions of THAAD could prove troublesome as Beijing has already raised considerable objections to the missiles system in South Korea, even going so far as to apply economic pressure on South Korean companies.

If the rumor mill is to be believed, then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is considering Randy Schriver, a prominent Taiwanese supporter, to fill the position of undersecretary of defense for policy. With a strong network among U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific, Schriver would be a reassuring figure for America’s friends in the region. He is also closely linked to Richard Armitage, having worked as his chief of staff and senior policy advisor when Armitage was deputy secretary of state. Schriver is known to be a vocal proponent of strong U.S. engagement with Taiwan and maintains a tough stance against Chinese expansionism. In a piece he co-authored in The National Interest, after the infamous Trump-Taiwan phone call, Schriver wrote that “higher-level engagement with Taiwan serves U.S. national interests and values,” arguing that the phone call was, in fact, “a good first step” towards rebalancing the trilateral China-Taiwan-U.S. relationship.

Schriver himself has called for the United States to provide submarine technology and vertical, short takeoff and landing fighter jets. If rumors about the new arms package are true, then Schriver could be well placed to carry this particular agreement through, as he is already familiar with the weapon systems and their capabilities. He has long been a proponent of balance as a means of deterrence.

Objectives and Issues

The United States must ensure that deals are no longer deferred and it delivers equipment that fits Taiwan’s defense policy of stopping an invasion force before it reaches the island. Schriver’s appeal for the jets to be supplied to Taiwan could be a bad call. In 2010, Cross-Strait military analyst Mark Stokes told a U.S. congressional commission that “every citizen on Taiwan lives within seven minutes of destruction” and in 2015 Beijing bought from Russia several S-400 Triumf, an antiaircraft missile system. Expected to be fully operational by 2020, the missile launchers, which have a range of 400 kilometers, will allow China to strike aircraft over Taiwan, essentially giving China air supremacy in the territory. The Chinese ballistic-missile buildup was examined in a Taiwanese defense report, which stated that by 2020 China would be in a position to invade the island and successfully repel a U.S. counterattack. With the sheer amount of Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan, it would be unwise for them to buy large amounts of expensive aircraft, which could be destroyed before getting the chance to take off. It is, however, encouraging that Schriver has also called for the sale of submarine technology to Taipei, something the country has been seeking for some time. Advanced submarine technology alongside the defensive missile systems, alleged to already be part of the arms package, would make a suitable combination for an over-the-horizon defense package. In a way, imitating China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) might be Taiwan’s strongest approach to defense. What’s good enough for the gander should be good enough for the goose.

The administration is struggling at the domestic level. At the moment, while Trump’s foreign-policy focus is concentrated in the Pacific, he has gone over one hundred days and has failed to appoint key Asia policy positions across the U.S. government, hampering strategy and slowing relationship-building in an increasingly heated region. It might well be that the arms package never gets off the table, with figures inside the White House stalling the deal to appease Beijing. On the other hand, for an administration that negotiates across the board, the arms package delay might well be connected to the administration’s Korea strategy. As the situation in the Korean Peninsula is ongoing Trump could be using the prospect of a large Taiwanese arms package as leverage in the crisis. For instance, he could offer to remove items from the package or continue to defer it in exchange for tougher Chinese sanctions on the Hermit Kingdom. After the Syrian strike, Trump has developed U.S. foreign policy with Chinese characteristics, keeping Beijing guessing. China frequently caught America off guard in the past, Trump could be playing the Chinese at their own game.


Donald Trump has set the ball rolling on North Korea, but China has the next move

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The Telegraph, 27 April, 2017

The ongoing crisis in Northeast Asia continues to creep toward a possible flashpoint this week, as North Korea holds one of the largest military drills of conventional war fighting. China and Russia have both mobilized troops on North Korea’s border, though in support of the North, or in anticipation of refugee outflows, is uncertain. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has continued pushing forward its China strategy of solving this 4th North Korean Crisis.

First, it has continued to hint at the possibility of military action by testing a Minuteman III ICBM – a pressure point, one dearly hopes, for its diplomacy. Second, it has sought support for its strategy domestically, by undertaking an unprecedented briefing for the entire Senate at the White House. Third, and finally, it has opened up space for a possible resolution in the United Nations Security Council, where the United States currently holds the presidency.

As many experts have already said, the fact is that Korea is the land of bad options. We have all read how terrible a conflict on the Peninsula would be, both because of the large size and relative sophistication of the forces arrayed against each other.

North Korea’s apparent indifference to civilian casualties – clearly shown in its recent use of VR toxin in a crowded Malaysian airport – mean that it is likely to use its 13,000 artillery pieces against South Korea’s nearby capital city, Seoul.

The fact that the last conflict on the Peninsula also saw American and Chinese troops fighting for the only time during the Cold War reveals how quickly things could jump to conflict between great powers. On the other hand, it is not clear this is a crisis of Trump’s choosing.

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Nuclear war or the status quo: How Chinese-American confrontation over North Korea might play out

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The Telegraph, 19 April 2017

The situation on the Korean Peninsula has now escalated to a level of crisis last seen during the Korean War. As I have written here, President Trump has decided to approach North Korea as a Chinese problem, demanding the Chinese provide the solution.

In this judgement, he is partly correct in that Beijing has long been the sponsor, ally, and diplomatic friend to the world’s last Stalinist regime. Unlike the United States which stopped a South Korean nuclear programme in 1975, Beijing has shirked its duty regarding its odd ally.

Then, in the Six Party Talks – during the noughties – China behaved like an impartial chairman, assuming that Pyongyang’s growing nuclear strike capability was America’s problem. Finally, under the Obama administration, when Washington was frustrated and exhausted by the North’s bait-and-switch diplomacy and provocations, Beijing fell back on well-worn phrases to “resume talks” and “avoid conflict”.

Subsequently, it has either watered down sanctions in the United Nations, or watered them down at the border, where a large black market economy keeps the isolated regime awash in products, including military hardware.

Trump’s threat of a unilateral strike then is for Beijing as much as it is for Pyongyang. His goal? To make China realise that not stopping North’ Korea’s nuclear programme will have negative consequences for Beijing too.

Interestingly, his gambit also reveals that the only non-military options left on the table are in China’s hands now. As the largest provider of aid and trade with the North, it holds the stongest cards. So, what will the Chinese do? There are really three scenarios…

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 North Korea in for some Trump-style shock and awe

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The Interpreter, 14th April, 2017,

President Trump knew exactly what he was doing when he announced news of a US military strike on Syria to a stunned Xi Jinping on the final evening of the US-China Summit at Mar-e-Lago last weekend. Trump significantly raised the stakes for China on North Korea, and along with the news that the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group (CSG) had been rerouted from a planned trip to Australia to the Korean Peninsula, it told Beijing that the Administration means business.

It is already apparent that Trump’s North Korea approach is different from any of his predecessors. For one thing, he has eschewed the delicate issue of Chinese support for the rogue regime and essentially asserted that a Chinese problem demands a Chinese solution. Echoing Hwang Jang Yop, one of the most senior defectors from North Korea, Jim Schoff, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace states, ‘Trump needs a lot of help from China to make it (a deal) even potentially viable’.

By ordering the Carl Vinson to the Korean Peninsula in the wake of the Syria strikes, Trump puts his strongest card on the table: the possibility of unilateral military action, a nightmare scenario for China. With wide-ranging capacity to deliver deadly strikes with cruise missiles and air-to-ground munitions, the Carl Vinson and her strike group give Trump leverage that no other American president has applied to the Korean Peninsula. And while a conflict on the Peninsula is a horror scenario, it’s not clear that doing nothing is better. Sitting tight will eventually put the American heartland within range of North Korean nuclear missiles, raising the prospect that Pyongyang will see US nuclear deterrence as checked. This could in turn lead to North Korean adventurism against the South.

Moving the USS Carl Vinson is designed to intensify pressure on China to break out of the current impasse. The fundamental question is how Beijing will react to Trump’s gambit. Will China use its considerable means to stop the North Korea nuclear program – as once the US did with its allies in South Korea and Taiwan – or will it continue to insist that North Korea is somebody else’s problem?

Repeating a well-worn formula, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called for caution, with spokesman Hua Chunying asking all parties to ‘exercise restraint and avoid activities that may escalate tensions’. Such phrases, trotted out after every North Korean provocation or missile test, have been shorn of meaning and indicate China is still playing on the idea that North Korea is someone else’s problem. China has long held that it is unable to put sufficient pressure on Pyongyang because it is fearful that a strong international response towards North Korea’s nuclear program could trigger the regime’s collapse. But while a collapse of North Korea would be a disaster for the Chinese, it is unclear that full sanctions and a unified approach wouldn’t push North Korean leaders to back down long before a collapse occurred.

By holding up the worst-case scenario as the only scenario, China avoids having to deal more stringently with its ally. Yet when the US pressured Seoul to give up its nuclear program in 1975, South Korea did not immediately collapse like a house of cards. So the idea that Kim Jong-un would persist with nuclear weapons in the face of a unified sanctions regime by every major power in Asia is uncertain, to say the least. And Beijing could sweeten the deal by offering Pyongyang an alternative, like the nuclear umbrella that the US offers its allies.

Perhaps Trump’s instinctive approach toward policy will pay dividends. On Monday, a top Chinese envoy on North Korea, Wu Dawei, met with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Hong-kyun, agreeing that both countries would take stronger action if North Korea tested more nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles. Given China’s tendency for vacuous statements, this is a step in the right direction. President Xi urged Trump to pursue a ‘peaceful resolution to the tensions’ during a phone call the two leaders made on Wednesday. Such rhetoric can only be due to China taking Trump’s moves on North Korea seriously, at least in part. Trump after all tweeted less than a fortnight ago that he was prepared to act unilaterally against North Korea if it does not come to heel. Whatever China’s doubts, the missile strike against Assad displayed in dramatic fashion that Trump is willing to intervene suddenly in situations that others believe to be frozen and immune to intervention.

Trump may have little time to act. The coming election in South Korea is widely predicted to bring to power a government soft on North Korea. Moon Jae-in, the likely election winner, has said no military action can be conducted without South Korean consent and that ‘South Korea should be the owner of North Korean issues’. This is meant to signal that Moon does not want either the US or China to take control of the North Korean problem, an understandable position given Seoul’s fate if military conflict does take place. Trump’s policy pushes the ball into Beijing’s court, not Seoul’s, and this will rankle with the left-of-centre Moon.

North Korea has reacted with predicable outrage both to America’s Syria strike and the deployment of the carrier group. It has called the attack on Assad ‘absolutely unpardonable’ and claims it is ready for war with the US if provoked. A spokesman from the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the ‘sudden’ dispatch of the carrier task group to the peninsula is evidence that Washington’s ‘reckless moves of invading the DPRK have reached a serious phase of its scenario’. There is no doubt that the presence of the carrier group will make North Korea feel extremely vulnerable in coming days. The danger is, of course, that it acts pre-emptively, as befitting a military and negotiating culture that has been honed under immense pressure.

All eyes are on Beijing, and the coming weeks will be critical to the course of the Korean confrontation. This month, North Korea marks several major anniversaries, the most important of which, the ‘Day of the Sun’ on 15 April, is the birthday of the state’s founder Kim Il-Sung. Significant anniversaries are usually celebrated with demonstrations of military might and weapons tests. As the carrier group moves closer to North Korea, one wonders how this day will be commemorated in the last Stalinist state.


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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