Tag Archives: South Korea

The Asia scrum

Rather suddenly there is a welter of developments turning Asia’s dozen-odd countries into a cat’s cradle of conflicting interests – some new — that could lead to war.

Central, of course, is “a rising” China. The Chinese, themselves, have given up the phrase “a peaceful rising”. That was a promise that the new boy on the block would not repeat a united Germany’s late arrival as a strong player in Europe, setting off two world wars. Now almost daily aggressive rhetoric in official Chinese media is matched by extravagant territorial claims against its neighbors in northeast and southeast Asia coupled with a rapid naval buildup. Infringement of the cease fire lines in the Himalayas accompanies temporary military thrusts against Indian forces.

China’s only ally in the region, North Korea – dependent on Beijing aid for its very existence – has turned even more enigmatic. A highly publicized – unusual in such frequent eruptions – purging of its No. 2 leader is inexplicable even to the experts. Its tightly controlled media showed Jang Song Thaek being yanked off to prison. Then the uncle by marriage to the 31-year-old Kim Job-Un, third member of the Kim dynasty, was summarily executed.

One side effect has been both official media in China and North Korea accusing each other of perfidy; Jang was close to Chinese official and business interests. Yet there is no sign that they are not still wedded in their opposition to Japan and the U.S. These events have written a death notice for Washington’s continuing hope that Beijing could and would intervene to halt North Korea’s expanding weapons of mass destruction program. And the Obama Administration, like its predecessors has no answer to the conundrum of the continuing Pyongyang blackmail for additional aid as an incentive to halt its weapons program.

On the other side of the East [or Japan] Sea, most of which Beijing now claims as a restricted area, Japan’s extremely popular Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has defiantly defended Tokyo’s longstanding claim to sovereignty of disputed rocks between its Islands and the Mainland. His attempt to restore Japan’s economy, dawdling for a decade, has been accompanied by a campaign to regain a sense of national purpose. His strategy includes breaking through the virtual monopoly of the leftwing mainstream media not excluding the government radio and the Communist Nikyoso teachers union. Visiting Japan’s shrine to its fallen war dead was part and parcel of that cultural offensive. But because of the enshrinement there of World War II war criminals, it was looked on askance [and for propaganda] by Beijing and South Korea.

Obvious self-interest is being flaunted for political advantage: Beijing threatens to impose economic strictures on Tokyo. Seoul has refused needed Japanese ammunition for its UN Peacekeeping Force under attack in South Sudan. In a period of rapidly declining GDP and attempts at reform, Beijing can ill afford to abandon its heavy reliance on Japan for China assembly for third Japanese markets. Furthermore, Beijing has always looked to Tokyo not only for investment but for technological and management know-how, reflected in Japan being China’s No. 1 supplier in their $334 billion trade [2012]. Seoul’s collaboration with Japan, including such recent joint naval exercises, is essential for any effective counter to China’s power sponsored by the U.S. in Asia.

Abe, anticipating that Beijing despite all the talk of reform will not be able to boost its domestic consumption, long the holy grail of Japanese and Western business, is encouraging Japanese business to look elsewhere. Already Japanese direct investment into China plunged by nearly 37% in the first nine months of 2013, to only $6.5 billion, in part because of the outlook for Chinese markets. Alternatively Japanese investment in Southeast Asia’s four major economies ­— Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines —­ surged by over 120% to almost $7.9 billion.

Tokyo is moving quickly to exploit the new opening in Burma through its traditional special relationship there, Not least it cultivates opposition leader Suu Kyi, whose father, one of the martyred leaders of the independence struggle, was a Japanese protégé. Tokyo has written off more than $5 billion in debt for the reforming generals, and offered new infrastructure loans. Completing the circle, Tokyo has just announced $3 billion for Burma’s long-suffering minorities in off and revolt against the central government since independence.

Japan’s attempt to move away from China toward South Asia has its geopolitical aspects as well: a recent joint naval exercise with Indian forces off that country’s coast, a first, backs up its attempt to encourage an export led investment in the other Asian giant. It is part of a growing Japanese military, integration with its U.S. ally, and projection of its power and prestige overseas.

Radical shifts are taking place elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Thailand’s feud between an urban Sino-Thai Establishment – including avid supporters of the King and Queen – and rural voters is escalating. Rioting with upcoming elections – which the opposition threatens to boycott – have already dampened continued rapid expansion of tourism which accounts for over 7% of Thailand’s economy. And it could threaten foreign investment which has made region’s leading automobile industry a cog in the growing worldwide car assembly network.

Eighty-six-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is ill and apparently unable, especially given his closest followers’ involvement, to make his usual intervention to calm political waters. And the Thai military, which many hoped had been ruled out of a new democratic, booming society, now have hinted they will lapse back into their old coup habit as they did in 2008 if street violence continues. Meanwhile, no one is paying much attention to a growing insurgency in Thailand’s Malay provinces on its southern border. That augurs badly for the region with Malaysia’s own increasingly Islamicist Malays moving toward conflict with its Chinese and Indian minorities, and more radical politicians arising in the more isolated states on Thailand’s border.

Indonesia, largely ignored despite its fourth largest population in the world nearing 250 million – almost a third under 14 — has temporarily staved off a balance of payments crisis. But its meager 3.6% increase in gross national product in 2013 is not what is required for one of the world’s most resource endowed countries with a generally docile and hardworking population. Highly dependent on a few mineral and agricultural specialty exports, Indonesia has been hard hit by the downturn in the world commodity prices. Despite large oil and gas potential, one of the founders of the Organization of Petroleum Export Countries [OPEC] became a net importer in 2009. Corruption, protectionism and fluctuating economic and fiscal policies have discouraged foreign investment and technological transfer. Despite conventional wisdom that Islam in Indonesia is moderate and catholic, incorporating large elements of its pagan and Hindu past, the world’s largest Muslim nation has always had a virulent jihadist movement. Indonesian authorities have been less than prescient in cracking down on it. In a deteriorating economy, it could become a major factor in the worldwide Islamicist terrorist network.

It was into this rapidly moving miasma that Sec. of State Hillary Clinton just two years ago announced the Obama Administration’s “pivot”, a turn from concentration on the Middle East to focus on Asia. But to continue Clinton’s metaphor, a pivot is a “central point, pin, or shaft on which a mechanism turns or oscillates”. It could well be that in the world of diplomacy – and geopolitical strategy — one does not reveal the fulcrum. The U.S. has every reason to hope and even pretend that the growing aggressive rhetoric and behavior of Communist China is not the central issue in Asia for the foreseeable future. But to ignore that threat publicly is not to make it central to the strategy shift which was so loudly proclaimed.

Yet, particularly in its relations with Japan, since 1950 the keystone of American strategy in Asia, the Obama Administration appears not to have a China policy beyond associating itself rhetorically with China’s neighbors resisting Beijing’s encroachment. It may be just as well that U.S.-Japanese military integration under an expanded Mutual Defense Treaty is moving rapidly ahead on autopilot. For despite Tokyo’s continued public espousal of close relations, the coolness between Abe’s Tokyo and Obama’s Washington are an open secret. The strong – by the exotic standards of formal diplomatese – of Washington denunciation of Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine [“disappointing”] — was a shock in Tokyo despite an earlier warning. Washington’s refusal to take a direct hand in smoothing relations between its two most important bilateral allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea, has been …disappointing in Tokyo and elsewhere. That is particularly true since U.S.diplomats [and retired Foreign Service Officers] and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have publicly espoused mediation between Japan and China.

The Washington-sponsored Trans Pacific Partnership, an ambitious attempt to create a vast new common market including 40% of U.S. trade, all North America and some hangers-on, is stagnating, in part because of inattention from the Administration’s leaders. And it is no secret that excluding China from the TPP – even if there were not substantial justification given its unfair trading practices – is presumably a part of the pivot.

But shaking off the Middle East, even with repeated attempts at “leading from behind”, is certainly not conclusive. This weekend’s crisis in Iraq and Washington’s promise to intervene short of boots on the ground shows how hard it will be to disentangle the U.S. from primary concentration on the area. Sec. of State John Kerry’s persistent – if unrealistic – devotion of enormous time and energy toward a breakthrough in Israel-Palestinian relations, too, points in another direction

The U.S. President is scheduled for a swing through Asia in April. It remains to be seen whether the Administration will publicly try to tidy up its “pivot’ with new initiatives.

.Until then the “pivot” is flapping in the growing East winds of change.




Korea: the bomb ticks louder

Despite world attention focused on Iran’s emergence as a nuclear clad power, an equally if not more serious crisis swells on the Korean peninsular. There are hints North Korean, sheltered behind its Communist monarchy’s unprecedented secrecy, might implode.

For the moment, its neighbors and the U.S., have a vested interest in the status quo, however obnoxious the regime. South Korea and Japan both worry about a refugee tsunami if Kim Jong Il and his generals lose control. China fears the collapse of its principle ally, the eventual emergence of a powerful united Korea allied with the West. Even Russia, with its faltering grasp on its resource-rich but depopulating Asian expanses, would be weakened by a North Korean collapse.

But a confluence of trends inside North Korea is producing a crisis that may not be staved off. Granted such predictions have been made before – and proved wrong. And there is the history of Pyongyang’s survival in the mid-90s, when after calamitous drought, Kim’s father drove a population into famine killing at least two million people. Most of its 24 million still live below what the rest of the world considers subsistence.

The geopolitical skills of Pyongyang’s small ruling elite are not to be underestimated. Soviet, Nazi and Maoist tools of repression have been honed to brutalities unknown in the civilized world. Whole families, for example, are condemned to permanent imprisonment to snuff out dissidence. Pyongyang has largely defied the digital revolution, isolating its population from outside information.

One could argue the regime has had, albeit for humanitarian reasons, aid if not comfort from its opponents. For a decade, two South Korean presidents not only pursued accommodation with the North but discouraged criticism. The U.S. and Japan — and often corrupt UN agencies — in the service of charity and hope for change supplied a modicum of food and energy to keep the regime alive. China turned a blind eye to contraband with its own 2 million ethnic Koreans as well as extending massive food and energy aid.

The North Korea regime, in riposte, has devoted its manageable resources – including widespread overseas organized crime operations – to a two-pronged, at least partially successful, development of nuclear weapons and missiles.

The basic conundrum which U.S. negotiators face [the Bush Administration before now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] is that the regime’s very existence depends on its weapons sales to pariah regimes such as Iran. Israel’s demolition of a clandestine North Korean nuclear facility in the eastern Syrian desert in 2007 was a recent example of  how North Korean threatens worldwide peace and stability.

Washington’s proffered “bargain” – that Pyongyang halt this traffic in return for massive development aid — faces the unstated Pyongyang”logic” that such a “liberalization” would unseat the tyranny. Even earlier efforts by Beijing to try to persuade Pyongyang to turn to “the China model” were quickly cast aside.

North Korea’s unique problem is the South Korean model sitting on its doorstep. There modernization, first under a military dictatorship, and then a democratic regime, has produced the world’s 20th largest economy with the world’s 14th highest purchasing power. Adoption by Pyongyang of a copy-cat development would inevitably destroy the the current regime.

But a stagnant society cannot endure indefinitely. A crux of issues has formed: Kim Jong Il suffered a heart attack last year. His dysfunctional family may not have produced an adequate heir. An attempt to snuff out a growing black market with a “currency reform” has ended, reportedly, with the execution of its vaunted bureaucratic author.

Now Seoul is gingerly handling an as yet unexplained disaster: the sinking with great loss of life of a South Korean warship in disputed waters. Preliminary evidence suggests a possible attack from rogue North Korean elements. The tragedy came during one of Pyongyang’s unique threats of all manner of destruction to the South Koreans and their American allies.

South Korea’s conservative Pres. Lee Myung Bak, while reiterating offers of food and energy, has turned his back on former efforts to stifle criticism. [Seoul was reluctant even to permit American intelligence access to VIP defectors.] A few North Koreans are tapping foreign media through South Korean non-government organizations.

As Kim dithers on a trip to see his Chinese friends [the first in15 years], Beijing announced a $10 billion aid program and offers to set up export promotion enclaves. That was seen as part of the price to get Kim’s representatives back to six-party talks. But it vitiates American and Japanese efforts to use economic pressure to bring the regime to real negotiations.

The truth is that neither the talks nor Chinese aid is likely to go far in solving the  fundamental problem for the regime – and its interlocutors. Pyongyang sits on its starving people without recourse for its survival except to continue to blackmail the rest of the world with its weapons of mass destruction potential – if, and until, the cracks widen and it collapses.


Negotiations or surrender?

As that old saying goes, the French have a word for it: déformation  professionelle.  It means to make a judgmental mistake as a result of one’s occupation. Thus, as a first reaction to a problem/crisis a physician who is a surgeon might be more tempted to cut than he should, a lawyer to litigate, a teacher to instruct, etc. Obviously, a diplomat might quickly try to negotiate to solve a geopolitical crisis.

But thereby lies the rub. Negotiations for the sake of negotiations often result in disaster. That is particularly true with U.S. diplomats, steeped in that powerful American ethos to be successful, who see any negotiation as having to have a fruitful outcome, i.e.,  in all probability a compromise between the parties. In a grim scenario, to avoid violence and war of course, the goal is obviously laudatory.

Furthemore, negotiations, often take place in an exotic world — subject to the imitation military hierarchy of the U.S. Foreign Service, in primitive locales or in the world’s fleshpots, in foreign languages, all involving “the parameters” of special diplomatese. The jargon and the “modalities” often intimidate the outsider, especially other Americans whose preoccupation is with domestic affairs rather than the elite world of diplomats. It explains, in part, why so many politicians appointed to Secretary of State have become prisoners of the professional diplomats in Foggy Bottom, turning on their heel against earlier deeply held positions. Mrs. Hillary Clinton is only the latest; even a foreign policy expert like former Pres. George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice succumbed. The stereotypical American, on the other hand, attempts to employ Alexander’s solution of the Gordian Knot with problems – cut through “the BS” and reach a “gentleman’s agreement”. President Barack Obama calls this “a comprehensive solution”. But more often these are traditionally difficult, long term problems, infinitely complex and an overall solution requires too many concessions by too many interests.

Furthermore, if you are negotiating outside the norm of the circle of peaceful and friendly democratic nations, you have a problem. A stonewalling opponent may strengthen his position by stringing along his American counterpart. That simply means that in the end, the U.S. diplomat makes whatever concessions are necessary to get “a successful outcome”, what is perceived at least to be a “settlement”. The end result is not a negotiation but can well be surrender.

Our American diplomatic history, alas! is replete with examples of where we fell into this trap. And at the moment, the Obama Administration appears locked in two such enterprises which bear intense scrutiny for this very reason. This Administration did not create them, of course, nor, indeed, were they created in the eight Bush years. Rather their origins are buried in a long past.

  • The sinking of a South Korean warship by a North Korean submarine has raised the ante in the long-standing dispute on the Korean peninsular. Pyongyang represents a bankrupt regime – both morally and economically. Starvation and malnutrition for its 15 million people has been hallmark of yet another Communist state. Now a new crisis arises from the collapse of a dysfunctional family in the only Communist monarchy. The dilemma for the regime – and for Washington – is that North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Il seems to believe that to move toward proffered help for liberalization of his economy [even “the China model”] would begin a total disintegration much like that which overtook Nicolai Ceausescu’s Romania.
  • Coincidentally – although the two regimes have done as much as they can to reinforce one another – Washington is attempting to negotiate its way out of the threat of an aggressive regime in Tehran developing nuclear weapons. Although the mullahs, in one of the most corrupt regimes in the long history of Persian abuse of power, have managed to enrich themselves, their economy hangs by a thread. Huge exports of oil at prices the former Shah Reza Pavlevi only dreamed of, are not enough to fund an enormous weapons program, a worldwide terrorist and subversion network, a rapidly expanding population, and the dereliction of any real economic development. But the dream of rebuilding the ancient Persian Empire and dominating the Middle East [and its oil resources] are a goal the current rulers may not abandon – without their own demise.

Into this arena, the Obama Administration – led by its FSOs — has plunged. He has apologized for what he sees as past [moral and strategic] mistakes of American policy. And he has launched a wide-ranging effort to initiate negotiations with former and perceived present opponents.

The question is, of course, that old American philosophical one: will it work? Is this American pragmatism or is it an ideological approach to problems doomed to even greater disasters than the sinking of an ally’s ship in time of armistice.