Category: Asia (Page 1 of 5)

Otto Warmbier Story: Don’t make North Korean policy off the news

Making good policy requires sober analysis. Emotionally-charged words devoid of any real meaning do a disservice to the pursuit of sound policy.

North Korea represses 25 million people. Its government has killed hundreds of thousands of the people who live there by policy-induced starvation, assassinations, and death camps. It is building nuclear weapons, and just a few months ago it brazenly assassinated the exiled brother of the dear dictator on foreign soil. But now it is the death of an American tourist that has caused National Review to call for kicking North Korea out of the United Nations.

Calling the death of Otto Warmbier an “act of war,” National Review calls for ratcheting up pressure on the rouge regime to punishing levels. That’s all well and good–North Korean tyranny deserves to be resisted–but why did it take the death of an American to inspire such passion?

To be sure, National Review mentions the horrible crimes North Korea commits against Koreans and others in its article. But it is only now that they said the U.S. should emphatically step up its game: “North Korea’s brazen murder of an American citizen is reason to reevaluate.”

North Korea’s ongoing campaign of torturing refugees wasn’t reason to reevalutate? Its sinking of the Cheonam wasn’t reason to reevaluate? Its continued threats to turn Seoul into a sea of fire?

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Otto Warmbier and North Korea: The larger meaning

Otto Warmbier was released from North Korea in a coma and died.

The story of the American arrested in Pyongyang and sentenced to 15 years for allegedly trying to take a propaganda poster back home captivated the American media and was the source of a fair share of hot takes. As usual, it was quickly turned into a pointless political football to be tossed around by the cultural right and the social justice left. Some idiots on the left (a Huffington Post unpaid blogger, Salon, Larry Wilmore — no one of too much influence) took a sick kind of schadenfreudic pleasure in seeing a white man arrested and sentenced to a harsh prison term. Conservatives took these silly statements by a few liberal bloggers and thus used them as examples of the “moral perversion” of the “social justice left” (Noah Rothman of Commentary, Nick Gillespie of Reason).

It’s a distraction from the issue here. North Korea arrested someone for a minor offense and sentence him for one and a half decades–and possibly mistreated him (we can’t speculate too much without facts). For race-obsessed morons who have no sympathy for white people, consider this: The vast majority of North Koreans are Korean people. The same government that uses Americans–of all races and genders (including journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling and professor Kim Sang-duk) as bargaining chips tortures and kills Koreans. An estimated 200,000 Koreans are in concentration camps as a result of political “crimes.”

The same government that will throw an American in jail for 15 years for stealing a propaganda sign forces local people to have portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on every wall. In the same place that an American may have contracted botulism, hundreds of thousands, maybe over a million, have starved to death over the years.

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Modi’s newfound pragmatism towards China

A month back, Indian hyper sensationalized news media was jingoistically pointing out how much Indian government is correct in not taking part in the OBOR initiative, while every serious political commentator with half a brain was saying, how terrible a mistake that was. From boycotting a summit on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in May, to being hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) summit it looks like a total 180 turn for Indian foreign policy.

This is not baffling. Here’s what is happening.

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Optimism in Korean peninsula

After months of political drama liberal Moon Jae-in decisively won in South Korea, a victory that ended over a decade-long conservative rule, which was by the end tarnished by extreme corruption and scandal, and ended in the impeachment and arrest of Park Geun-hye which triggered a snap election. The liberal victory was expected, given the current mood of South Korea, and a high turnout almost guaranteed the defeat of the incumbent conservatives. A simple plurality was needed for the liberals to win. Speaking at a makeshift podium, Moon was quoted to say “I will make a just, united country. I will be a president who also serves all the people who did not support me.”

In an interesting development, Moon said that he would be willing to go to North Korea to meet its leader Kim Jong-un, in a notable change of track from the previous conservative governments. Signaling that he is flexible and expressing willingness to negotiate immediately, the left-liberal-leaning Moon said that he is willing to do anything that might help bring peace to the continent. “I am willing to go anywhere for the peace of the Korean peninsula if needed. I will fly immediately to Washington. I will go to Beijing and I will go to Tokyo. If the conditions are right, I will go to Pyongyang,” he was quoted by Guardian.

Perhaps in a further indication that the new administration would be different than the old one, Moon even considers reviewing THAAD system placed in South Korea. The system has been a bone of contention between China and United States and was installed just a week before the elections. China has consistently opposed and urged the new president to scrap the system.

There has been talks reported by Reuters, where US officials have anonymously raised their concerns, about the new volatility in ties between South Korea and US. Moon and US President Trump are very different characters. There are chances of confrontation. Trump recently also demanded payment for THAAD placed in South Korea. That, added to the fact that Trump is positioning himself as a North Korea hawk, means that there are chances of difference of interest.

The US, of course, as per diplomatic rituals congratulated Moon, just as China and Japan did. The White House press secretary spoke of a continuing a strong alliance and enduring partnership.

That said, I would suggest a few cautions for both South Korea, and US. First of all South Korea needs to realise that any diplomatic maneuver, especially in such a volatile situation will inevitably bring up risks of cheesing off partners and adversaries. Any individual single effort to solve the Korean crisis would anger hardliners in both Washington and Tokyo. It is unlikely that Seoul, despite its good intentions is willing or able to take that risk or go that far. The idea in Washington is simple, that America is unwilling to coexist with a nuclear North Korea and that North Korea is a danger to American interests in the Pacific. Given that situation, if any country, especially South Korea intends to bypass American intentions to hand olive branch to the North, they will risk a collision course with Washington.

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First thoughts on election of Moon Jae-in as president of Korea

The election turned out just as expected. Moon Jae-in won with just over 40 percent, right around where the final polls predicted. The moderate and conservative split the hard-on-North-Korea vote. In fact, the next three candidates combined, conservative Hong Jun-pyo (KLP), moderate reformer Ahn Cheol-su (People’s Party), and reformist conservative Yoo Seoung-min (Baerun), combined for over 50 percent.

While Moon has expressed the desire to visit North Korea “if the time is right” and talk, he might be constrained by the political and security situation, I write in a forthcoming column I will link to.

UPDATE: My article is now published: A new president and new opportunities in Korea

To continue growth, keep out of conflict

When the Soviet Union was there, a field called Kremlinology was prevalent in the West. It was the study of the secretive Kremlin to understand and fathom what was happening behind the iron curtain. Things such as chair placement, who sits next to whom, etc was supposed to give an idea on how Soviet economy is supposed to perform. It was pseudoscientic, and most of it was of course threat inflated guesswork. Obviously sitting arrangements might give a hint of who within the Kremlin walls are falling out of fashion or not, but in no way can it give any hint about the overall direction of the country. Naturally the Kremlinologists couldn’t for the love of God, predict anything about Soviet economy, and couldn’t foresee the primary reason behind Soviet collapse.

In recent days, something similar is back in vogue. There is a steady stream of prediction about Chinese economy. As recently as in Davos forum last year it was predicted that Chinese economy was in for a hard landing. It wasn’t. China’s economy actually grew 6.9 percent in the first quarter from a year, which was slightly better than expected, as well as predicted. 

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Quick early take on the Xi-Trump meeting

Compromises and grand bargain time ahead

 

The State Department briefing on North Korea was a diplomatic equivalent of a mic drop, the thing when hip hop artists do when they drop their microphone after a particularly pithy innuendo laden verbiage. That’s what I am told, I am obviously too old for hip hop. Anyway, after North Korea launched another missile, the state department said in a statement by Secretary Rex Tillerson, that they don’t have anything more to say. “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.” Short, pithy, ominous. Nothing like this have been seen in a diplomatic communique before, which are mostly long drawn, and vague. This means that the time for talk is up.

Almost within hours, President Donald Trump in an exclusive interview with Financial Times stated the often-pronounced charge, that it’s time push comes to the proverbial shove with regards to North Korea. “China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t. If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be good for anyone.” Trump said in the interview. But this is clear, Trump is readying himself, and US for a grand bargain with China. And in politics, every offer of bargain, implicitly comes with a threat of noncompliance. “Well if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.” This time, the threat is real. The time for talks is over, at least from the US side.

This is a huge change. Forget everything that one can read in op-eds in newspapers, about how the upcoming meeting is a clash of differing values, ideologies etc, about how everything will be hinged on the personal chemistry of the leaders. Nothing like that will matter in the long run. The visit of President Xi to US is considered to be a power politics, as old as the 18th century. This is international relations at its earliest form, this is the language of realpolitik, at its peak and prime, at its most raw.

Let’s simplify the situation then.

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Liberal interventionists and Trump blinded by Syrian chemical weapons attack

Donald Trump is effectively continuing Barack Obama’s policy on Syria, but you wouldn’t know that from the New York Times‘s breathless coverage of a chemical weapons attack apparently committed by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Trump’s administration affirmed one week ago, via UN ambassador Nikki Haley, that they weren’t interested in focusing on overthrowing Assad. Then a few days later, the Syrian government reportedly used chemical weapons.

Trump’s initial response was to attack Obama, for not having acted after Assad used chemical weapons in 2013–the same strategy (not overthrowing Assad), incidentally, that Trump often supported on the campaign trail. For while Obama did pay lip service to putting pressure on Assad and did sent scant weapons to anti-Assad rebels, for the most part the U.S. stayed out of Syria. For that, the U.S. was criticized by the likes of the Economist and other elite liberal publications.

Nikki Haley just formalized existing policy and stopped pretending it was anything different. There are many terrorist groups among the Assad opposition, so why should America support a policy that would likely lead to an unstable state in the mold of Libya?

The NY Times ran a news analysis by Peter Baker that begins by asserting “the world recoiled at the televised images of lifeless children in the latest atrocity in Syria’s savage civil war.” For the Times, “the world” consists of American White House correspondents cloistered in the press club in Washington, DC, and Syria is the center of the world.

Anyway: “Where other presidents might have used the moment to call for the departure of Syria’s authoritarian leader, Bashar al-Assad, President Trump’s spokesman dismissed the notion as impractical because it would not happen.”

And why shouldn’t he? It is official U.S. policy not to aggressively push for the overthrow of Assad. As there are terrorists on the ground, and no policy in place to replace Assad, it would be highly dangerous to overthrow him.

Yet, Trump, rhetorically, at least, seems persuaded by media outrage.

In less than 24 hours from his first statement, the president with no spine claimed to have changed his mind about Assad:

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Moon Jae-in wins Korean Democratic Party nomination, Becomes favorite for presidency

Moon Jae-in, who lost Korea’s 2012 presidential to the now arrested former president Park Geun-hye and served as an aide to president Roh Moo-hyun, has officially won the Minjoo (Democratic) Party’s nomination and is the favorite to win Korea’s presidential election on May 9.

B+D editor Mitchell Blatt presents some links to explain what to look for in the election:
As the Korea Herald‘s Jo He-rim points out, Moon is considered by his supporters as a liberal defender of civil rights:

A native of Geoje, South Gyeongsang Province, Moon was a human rights lawyer-turned-chief of staff to liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, before entering the National Assembly in 2012. … As a former member of Lawyers for a Democratic Society, or Minbyeon, Moon has built an image as a champion of human rights and democracy as well as an advocate of a fair and just society.

His core support base is made up of liberal-minded voters who idolize the late former President Roh. A large proportion of supporters of the Democratic Party regard him as the successor to continue the legacy of the late president, who championed making politics work for ordinary citizens, not for those with vested rights.

Full article: Moon seals Democratic primary victory

But Moon’s connections to Minbyeon (also called Minbyun) and to Roh are viewed with suspicion by conservatives who consider the group and the former president to be radical leftists. Minbyun has even taken court actions aimed at forcing 12 North Korean defectors to testify in circumstances that could expose them or their families to harm.

About two months after fleeing their oppressive homeland, 12 former workers of a North Korean restaurant in China on Tuesday faced a legal debate over the legitimacy of their stay here under state protection.

Pyongyang also claims that the new arrivals were “lured and kidnapped” by South Korean agents and demands their repatriation.

The spy agency has declined the association’s appeal to meet with them at their shelter, saying the restaurant servers had volunteered to come.

Yet controversy is simmering as the court issued a summons to the 12 people, fueling concerns over their safety and that of their family members left behind in the North.

Joshua Stanton, an American who writes the conservative blog FreeKorea.us, wrote on the subject:
Minbyun’s frivolous lawfare terrorizes 12 young N. Korean refugees & endangers lives.
S. Korea’s quisling left goes all-out to bully N. Koreans out of defecting, and it just might work

Roh Moo-hyun is also criticized for having continued the Sunshine Policy towards North Korea and held “anti-American” views. As John Lee, a conservative Korea columnist, told Bombs + Dollars, Roh even asked on national TV, “What is wrong with being anti-American?”

A memoir by Song Min-soon, who served as foreign minister during Roh’s presidency, even claims that Moon advised Roh to solicit advice from North Korea before voting on a UN referendum on North Korean human rights abuses.

Kim Hyo-jin explained in the Korea Times:

According to Song’s memoir, amid a sharp dispute between top officials over whether South Korea should vote in favor of or against the U.N. resolution in November 2007, then-intelligence chief Kim Man-bok floated the idea of asking North Korea’s opinion directly, which Presidential Chief of Staff Moon accepted, saying “let’s check through an inter-Korean channel.”

A few days later, Song was informed that North Korea said it would closely keep an eye on the South’s vote, warning of the possibility of dangerous circumstances in inter-Korean relations. Baek Jong-chun, then chief secretary on foreign and security policy, delivered a note describing the response to Song in person while accompanying the President at his residence.

At that time, President Roh told Song “Let’s go for abstention now that we’ve already asked. We shouldn’t have asked,” Song wrote in his memoir.

Full article: Memoir puts Moon Jae-in in hot water

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Mitch Blatt in The National Interest on North Korea

Bombs + Dollars editor Mitchell Blatt was published in The National Interest‘s website on U.S.-China relations with regard to North Korea.

Although he put Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments in context, noting that they don’t necessarily mean a vast change in policy, he did say that certain actions the U.S. has already taken, like the deployment of THAAD, and any possible change in policy to be more aggressive, are not acts of provocation but rather responses to growing North Korean provocations.

“But if the Trump administration does up the ante, it will be because proposals to engage in toothless talks with North Korea—like that made this week by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi—have utterly failed, and China hasn’t done its part to try to reign in its rogue frenemy,” he wrote. “Juxtaposed against its vitriolic response to the South Korean deployment of Terminal High Area Altitude Defense, China’s impassive response to multiple North Korean nuclear tests, always predicated on the same “firm opposition” talking point, which makes it look like China hasn’t been taking the threat of a nuclear North seriously.”

He pointed out that China hasn’t been faithfully enforcing some of the sanctions they agreed to against North Korea.

In summary, “As long as North Korea is an out-of-control threat, South Korea will need to take tough actions. China is reaping what it sowed from years of complacency.”

The whole article can be read here: Why China Must Confront North Korea.

The UK’s MoneyWeek also quoted Blatt’s article:

On the contrary, “China has largely itself to blame” if the US now pursues a more militaristic agenda towards North Korea, says Mitchell Blatt in the American magazine The National Interest. Beijing has spent years “turning a blind eye to sanctions violators and keeping the dangerous North Korean regime alive and its leaders well fed”, so it is not surprising that Washington now thinks “enough is enough”. China has also reneged on promises to limit imports of North Korean coal. Overall, “if China wants to avoid instability, then China must take an active role and take responsibility”.

Blatt also has an article about South Korea-China relations coming out in The Korea Times on Tuesday.

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