Tag Archives: North Korea

Addressing Tensions on the Korean Peninsula

High-ranking security representatives from the governments of North and South Korea met yesterday, attempting to walk-back a two week period of escalating tensions. The meetings came at the request of the North Korean government, just a day after it threatened “total war” with South Korea. Observers suggest that the North Korean regime may be becoming increasingly unstable, and some fear that war remains a strong possibility between the two states.

What do you think? Is war between North Korea and South Korea likely? What, if anything, might be done to prevent direct military conflict between the two countries? And given historical US support for South Korea and Chinese support for North Korea, what global implications might increasing tensions on the Korean peninsula have?

Basketball Diplomacy

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and former NBA player Dennis Rodman watch a basketball game in February.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and former NBA player Dennis Rodman watch a basketball game in February.

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman made headlines during a news conference ahead of an exhibition match between several former NBA players and the North Korean national team in Pyongyang yesterday. After being asked questions about the American Kenneth Bae—who has been held by North Korean authorities for almost a year after being sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor for “hostile acts to bring down the government”—Rodman responded with a sharp defense of the North Korean regime. Rodman suggested that Bae was guilty of the charges against him. He later serenaded North Korean President Kim Jong Un with a round of “Happy Birthday,” and described Kim as his “best friend.” Rodman also defended his “basketball diplomacy” stating that, “One day, one day, [North Korea’s] door is going to open because these 10 [basketball players] here, all of us, Christie, Vin, Dennis, Charles … I mean everybody here, if we could open the door just a little bit for people to come here and do one thing.”

But Rodman’s efforts have been widely criticized. The National Basketball Association has distanced itself from Rodman’s trip, with NBA Commissioner David Stern stating that “Sports diplomacy is a wonderful thing.  But they should be done in a far more dignified fashion than this particular trip is being carried out.”

Bill Richardson, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, was more direct, nothing that he has “disappointed”  in Rodman’s outburst and stating that “I think Dennis Rodman crossed a line this morning by implying that Kenneth Bae might be guilty, by suggesting that there was a crime.”

Do you think that Rodman’s “basketball diplomacy” will make a difference in US-North Korean relations? Why? In what way? What factors make “sports diplomacy” more or less effective? Might sports be used in other contexts to facilitate diplomatic initiatives? How?

Expanding Japan’s Defense Forces

The Japanese helicopter destroyer JS Hyuga conducts training operations in 2009.

The Japanese helicopter destroyer JS Hyuga conducts training operations.

A study by the Japanese government concluded that the country should bolster its marine forces and introduce surveillance drones in an effort to expand its naval forces to address emerging regional threats. The report, ordered by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, also proposes improving the country’s defenses against ballistic missile attack and expanding its offensive potential to strike against enemy bases. Because Abe’s party controls both houses of parliament, it is in good position to implement the report’s recommendations after the report is finalized in December.

The report is the latest in a series of moves intended to expand the Japanese military. Earlier this year, Japan announced it would increase military spending by some $2.1 billion, largely to finance the acquisition of new missile interceptors and fighter jets.

The latest report clearly represents a growing concern in the Japanese government about two threats: North Korean ballistic missile technology and the ongoing standoff between Japan and China over the status of the disputed Senkaky/Diaoyu Islands. At the same time, Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution limits the ability of Japan to maintain an armed military force, restricting the country to a self-defense capacity only. The Article was included at the insistence of the United States at the end of World War II. Specifically, Article 9 reads,

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

In reality, Japan maintains a small military force known as the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). But the composition of those forces remains a politically sensitive subject both inside and outside Japan, with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan both asserting that Article 9 permits the maintenance of a military force for self-defense and advocating revision of Article 9 to make that point clearer. Leftist parties, though, argue that the JSDF is unconstitutional and propose dramatic reforms, such as transforming the standing military forces into something more akin to a national militia.

The question of increased military spending raises the specter of an arms race in the region. The challenge—as the security dilemma model suggests—is that increased military spending by one country is often met by increased military spending by others. As a result, the efforts of one country—in this case, Japan—to improve its security position by increasing military spending and capacity may actually be undermined as other countries—in this case, China and North Korea—respond in a similar manner. Security is actually decreased rather than improved as a result.

What do you think? Should Japan expand its military capacity in response to growing tensions in the region? Or does Japanese military growth merely exacerbate existing tensions? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

The Global Politics of Smuggling

Han Solo: Now that's my kind of smuggler!

Han Solo: Now that’s my kind of smuggler!

Alright, I’ll admit it. When I think of smugglers, the first thing that comes to my mind is Han Solo. In reality, though, smuggling has a long history. Smuggling refers to the illegal transport of goods or persons, usually across international boundaries, in violation of domestic or international law. Smuggling is most often motivated by a desire to avoid paying taxes, but can also involve illegal immigration or emigration (e.g., human trafficking) or the trafficking of illegal substances (e.g., drugs,  weapons, or counterfeit goods).

Over the weekend, Panamanian prosecutors announced they would file charges against 35 crew members of the Chong Chon Gang, a North Korean ship passing through the Panama Canal. The ship’s manifest indicated it was carrying 10,000 tonnes of sugar bound from Cuba to North Korea. But inspection of the ship’s cargo found 240 tonnes of weapons,  including two Volga and Pechora anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles “in parts and spares,” two Mig-21 Bis and 15 engines for those airplanes. The weapons were found inside containers hidden within the sugar shipment.

Cuba described the weapons as “obsolete defensive weapons” and contended they were headed to North Korea for repair. The Panamanian government described the same weapons as “sophisticated.” The MiG-21 is a fighter jet with a limited range that first entered service in 1959. The missile systems in question are similarly dated and easily evaded by current US aircraft technology. Given this, the description of the weapons as “sophisticated” might be a bit of a stretch.

Regardless of the quality of the weapons themselves, it seems clear that the shipment was undertaken in violation on a United Nations Security Council embargo on weapons shipments to North Korea. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718 (2006) requires that all United Nations Member States “shall prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to the DPRK, through their territories or by their nationals, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in their territories, of…battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems.” More expansive sanctions are imposed by Resolution 1874 (2009).

North Korea has a long history of flaunting United Nations resolutions and has often sought to exacerbate tensions with the broader international community. North Korea might also be seeking to reduce their reliance on Chinese support by expanding the number of trading partners it has.

The real question, though, is why would Cuba undertake such an exchange? The Cuban government had been moving to normalize relations with the United States, and had been making effective progress in this endeavor. Cuba has very little to gain from such a minor transaction, but it stands to lose a great deal now that the shipment has become public. Even assuming every element of the Cuban government’s story is true, that they were transporting the weapons systems to North Korea for repair, and that the sugar was payment, Cuba has little to gain. Philip Peters, President of the Cuba Research Center, noted that “This appears to be a violation of the U.N. resolution. But in military terms it has almost no significance at all. What this incident says about Cuba is that there aren’t a lot of places where you can go to get these old airplanes and antiaircraft systems fixed.”

And writing for The New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson observes that, “It is difficult to know, as yet, just why Cuba would have wished to secretly load [weapons] of Soviet vintage onto a North Korean cargo ship, the Chong Chon Gang, which then concealed that cargo underneath ten thousand tons of Cuban brown sugar. But the explanation that Cuba’s foreign ministry quickly offered on Tuesday, a day after the ship’s dramatic seizure by suspicious Panamanian authorities at the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal, was somewhere between decidedly strange and scarcely believable.”

What do you think? Will the discovery of Cuban weapons bound for North Korea undermine negotiations to normalize relations between Cuba and the United States? Or will Cuba’s explanation mitigate any negative diplomatic effects? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

North Korean Propaganda and the Korean Conflict

The North Korean government released a new propaganda video this week. The video, complete with amateurish graphics, threatens the United States with devastation, noting that “The White House has been captured in the view of our long-range missile, and the capital of war is within the range of our atomic bomb.”

The video echoes the trailer for the 2012 remake of the Cold War classic Red Dawn. The 2012 remake positions North Korea as the invading force occupying the Pacific Northwest. (In an interesting aside, the studio spent more than a million dollars in post-production to change the enemy forces after the film had been shot. Originally, the invading army was supposed to be Chinese, but they were recast as North Koreans in an effort to expand box office earnings in China).

But while the parallels between the two are humorous, the increasing bellicosity from the North Korean regime is causing concern among Korea-watchers. The North Korean government last week announced it was invalidating the armistice that ended direct hostilities in the Korean War in 1953. It has also stepped up nuclear testing  and long range missile testing in recent months. Meanwhile, the United States is expanding operations on the Korean peninsula, engaging in joint training operations with the South Korean military this week.

North Korean belligerence seems to come in regular cycles. But the current cycle appears to be more intense that others, leading some spectators to question whether the current leader, Kim Jong Un, is more dangerous and less predictable than his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung, both of whom led the country previously. Interestingly, North Korea’s closest ally, china, appears to be growing increasingly frustrated with the regime, and has supported expanding sanctions on North Korea in recent months.

What do you think? Does North Korea pose a threat to the United States and South Korea? If so, what measures should be taken to address the North Korean threat. Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

North Korea’s Nuclear Test

South Korean Television covers the North Korean Nuclear Test

South Korean Television covers the North Korean Nuclear Test

On Monday North Korea tested a nuclear device, prompting sharp criticism from the Obama administration and provoking renewed discussions of expanded sanctions in the United Nations Security Council. The Central Intelligence Agency reported that Monday’s test was more powerful than previous nuclear tests conducted by the North Korean government in 2006 and 2009.

The test, conducted in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions, led North Korea’s closest ally, the People’s Republic of China, to summon the North Korean ambassador in protest. The North Korean government defended its action as an act of self-defense necessitated by “U.S. hostility,” and promised to continue its efforts if necessary. According to the United States and its allies, North Korea is operating in violation of its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT.

What does the NPT actually do? The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty spells out the obligations of signatory states under three separate areas. First, non-nuclear weapons states agree not to pursue the development or deployment of nuclear weapons. Second, recognized nuclear weapons states (under the NPT, these are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, who coincidently are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) agree to undertake efforts towards total nuclear disarmament. Finally, the right of all states to the peaceful use of nuclear power is guaranteed.  However, there are several nuclear weapons states which are not party to the treaty. India, Israel, and Pakistan—all of which are believed to possess nuclear weapons—are non-signatories and thus fall outside the obligations of the treaty. North Korea was a signatory but formally withdrew from the agreement in 2003. Iran remains a signatory to the treaty but is believed to be developing nuclear weapons in violation of its treaty obligations. South Africa developed nuclear weapons in the 1980s but decommissioned its nuclear stockpiles in the early 1990s, making it the only state ever to voluntarily decommission an existing nuclear weapons capability.

So is North Korea in violation of its obligations? The answer depends on who you ask. The United States’ position (generally supported by the international community) is that North Korea’s nuclear program violations its international obligations. North Korea, however, regularly asserts that it withdrew from the NPT and can therefore pursue a nuclear program in its self-defense.

This, of course, raises the broader question about the effectiveness of nuclear weapons as a deterrence. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction, popularized during the Cold War, suggests that the threat of total destruction associated with the use of nuclear weapons by two nuclear weapons powers renders the use of those weapons unfeasible, as no winning strategy could result. The use of nuclear weapons is essentially self-defeating. But the threat posed by possessing nuclear weapons—indeed, the prestige of nuclear weapons—is a powerful motivator for states to pursue such weapons, often even in the face of high social and political costs, as the cases of Iran and North Korea attest.

What do you think? Does North Korea’s nuclear program present a threat to the United States? Is North Korean nuclear policy best explained as a rational pursuit of the national interest? And how does international law help us understand the debate surrounding the North Korean nuclear program? Take the poll or leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Domestic Politics, Misperception, and North Korea’s Missile Launch

North Korea's missile launch produced fear, anger, and condemnation from many in the international community. But was it really all about domestic politics?

North Korea’s provocative missile launch last week evoked a feeling of deja vu.  On its surface, it seemed to be just another instance of “saber rattling” aimed at foreign targets–the latest act in a long series of missile launches, nuclear tests, verbal threats, and other provocations calculated to signal strength, to deter, or perhaps even to coerce or blackmail the foreign opponents of the insular Communist regime.  But there is reason to believe that this high profile launch–and many other provocative actions in world politics–are driven less by foreign policy goals than by the requirements of domestic politics.

Many analysts believe that North Korea’s missile launch was part of an effort by 28-year-old leader Kim Jong Un (who only succeeded his father Kim Jong Il last December) to consolidate power through a demonstration of strength.  In a late December blog post we detailed the challenges the young leader faced in consolidating his power, emphasizing the centrality of the military as the most powerful domestic actor and the most important part of the selectorate that would determine the next leader.  Richard Haass, the president of  the Council on Foreign Relations, writes that “…the test’s failure constitutes a humiliating setback for the country’s new leader, Kim Jong-un. It is likely that a principal reason for the launch was to signal his emergence and consolidate his authority. There is thus a real risk that he will turn to a tried and true path to accomplish the same ends.  If history is any guide, this suggests that a test of a nuclear warhead or some sort of aggressive military action — for example, an artillery strike — against South Korea could be in the offing.”

Other examples of this pattern abound.  In the Cuban Missile Crisis, analysts have linked President Kennedy’s tough response to the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba to a need to show resolve to combat domestic charges of his being “soft on Communism” after the Bay of Pigs debacle.  Similarly, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev’s intransigence and demands for concessions such as the withdrawal of U.S. missiles in Turkey can be traced to his need to placate hardliners in the Communist party.

After the U.S.-led invasion failed to uncover evidence of Iraq’s alleged weapons of the mass destruction (WMD), Western analysts were puzzled at Saddam’s willingness to endure painful sanctions, isolation, and even war rather than simply prove to UN weapons inspectors that he had dismantled his WMD.  But after his capture, Saddam admitted that he had been bluffing in order to deter Iran–and likely to maintain his own power in the cut-throat domestic scene.  Had he admitted to disarming, it is likely that the military would have attempted a coup against him (as it reportedly had on several occasions from 1988-1990, which had encouraged him to demonstrate his toughness by invading Kuwait in August 1990).

In short, many provocative acts in world politics can be traced–at least in part, and sometimes entirely–to the requirements of domestic politics.  But foreign actors often misperceive the underlying sources of this behavior, and assume these actions are driven by aggressive designs on the world stage.  Robert Jervis, in his book Perception and Misperception in International Politics, notes that a common psychological bias is to assume other countries’ behavior is the product of a rational, unitary actor who is intentionally targeting you.  In reality, your country may just “be in the way” of the other state’s domestic political struggle.

What do you think?   How much of countries’ hostile rhetoric and behavior on the world stage can be traced to domestic politics rather than real international ambitions?  Is this less of a problem in democracies, or does the nature of democratic politics actually promote more conflict with foreign opponents?

Autocracy, Legitimacy, and the North Korean Succession

Kim Jong Un is the appointed heir to his father, Kim Jong Il. But can he navigate North Korea's internal politics and stay in power?

The news media and the blogosphere are buzzing with speculation about the fate of North Korea in the wake of Kim Jong Il’s death. At first glance, this might appear surprising: in a regime the New York Times calls an “odd mixing of…ancient Confucian monarchy with a 20th-century Stalinist cult of personality” where dynastic succession is the rule, shouldn’t Kim Jong Il’s designated heir, his son Kim Jong Un, be able to smoothly take the reins of power? The fact that many observers expect a difficult and uncertain transition reveals some often overlooked insights about autocratic regimes.

A popular stereotype pictures autocratic leaders as omnipotent: they can do whatever they want without having to worry about domestic political constraints from pesky actors like a parliament or the general public.  But political scientists have pointed out that even autocratic leaders must worry about domestic politics and must gain support from key domestic actors (often the military, the intelligence services, or powerful business leaders) in order to retain power and accomplish their policy goals.  When it comes to leadership succession, autocracies may not give power to a broad-based electorate, but they do have a more narrow “selectorate” made up of those actors who are ultimately responsible for selecting a leader.

In the case of North Korea, the army is clearly the most important domestic actor that any prospective leader must contend with.  Kim Jong Il’s widow, sister, and brother in law are also regarded as key elites who, along with the generals, will play a role in the leadership succession.

At this point, experts disagree about whether Kim Jong Un will be able to consolidate power and how long this might take.  But a constant in their analysis is the centrality of domestic politics in determining his fate.   For example, Georgetown’s Victor Cha believes Kim Jong Un will not survive, due to the weakness of his supporters and the enmity of the military: “The ‘great successor,’ as he has been dubbed by the state media, is surrounded by elders who are no less sick than his father and a military that chafed at his promotion to four-star general last year without having served a day in the army. Such a system simply cannot hold.”

Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt is more optimistic about Kim Jong Un’s chances, but he also emphasizes the centrality of elite politics: “If North Korea’s ruling elite understands their own fragility and recognizes the dangers that a serious power struggle might pose, then Kim Jong Un can survive by default.  Why? Because he’s the one leader that all the potential contenders can agree on, if only to avoid the dangerous uncertainties that an open contest for power would entail.”

What do you think?  Will Kim Jong Un be able to take the reins of power from hsi father, or will a nasty succession battle occur?  Will the regime survive?  How is North Korea’s current situation different from cases in which autocracies have experienced smooth power transitions?

Are Economic Sanctions Effective?

The UN Security Council has recently imposed sanctions on countries including Iran and North Korea, and is considering sanctions against Syria.

Yesterday the European Union banned all imports of Syrian oil in an effort to halt the Syrian government’s bloody crackdown on anti-regime demonstrators. In the past week or so the EU has also issued sanctions against Iran’s Al Quds military force due to its “technical and material support” for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s rule and the UN has moved closer to sanctions against Syria’s leaders.  Over the past few years, the United States, the UN, and other actors have sought to curtail Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs through economic sanctions. 

The prominence of economic sanctions as a tool of statecraft, together with the apparent intransigence of these sanctions’ targets such as North Korea, Iran, and Syria, raises serious questions.  Are sanctions actually effective in pressuring governments to change their policies?  Do they only harm the general population, or can they squeeze elites as well?  How can sanctions be made more effective?

Political scientists have addressed these questions and have arrived at some conclusions.  While differences in data and methods have produced somewhat different findings, the basic empirical results are as follows.  Economic sanctions are only successful in about a third of the cases in which they are used.  The work of Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliot, as reviewed here, shows that sanctions are most effective if the goal is simply destabilization of a target state (a 52% success rate) but are less effective if the objective is modest policy change  (33%) or major policy change (25%) by the target government.  Some scholars are even more pessimistic, suggesting that Hufbauer, Schott and Elliot overestimate the success of sanctions; Robert Pape argues that only 5 of their 40 claimed successes actually stand up to scrutiny.

There is also evidence that economic sanctions worsen target governments’ respect for basic human rights.  Dursun Peksen explains these findings as follows: “sanctions fail to attenuate the coercive capacity of the target elites and create more economic difficulties and political violence among ordinary citizens, [encouraging governments to] commit more human rights violations.”  Similarly Reed Wood finds that “…sanctions threaten the stability of target incumbents, leading them to augment their level of repression in an effort to stabilize the regime, protect core supporters, minimize the threat posed by potential challengers, and suppress popular dissent.”

Studies have also shown that multilateral sanctions are more effective than unilateral sanctions, and that factors including the initial stability of the target state, the length of time sanctions are in place, and the extent of trade linkages between target and sender affect the success of sanctions.  Sanctions may also be more effective when initiated by, and targeted against, democratic states.

Given this somewhat discouraging empirical evidence, should sanctions be utilized as frequently as they are today?  What are the moral and practical  implications of imposing broad-based economic sanctions as opposed to targeted “smart sanctions” against regime leaders?  In the cases of Syria, Iran, and North Korea, what other policy instruments should be the fallback if sanctions prove ineffective?

The Next Korean War

The South Korean corvette Cheonan, sank in March 2010.

The South Korean corvette Cheonan

The South Korean government issued its final findings from its analysis of the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel last March. The report concludes that the South Korean ship was sunk by a torpedo launched by a North Korean submarine. The conclusion which provoked an immediate and sharp response from the North Korean government, which dismissed the findings as a “conspiratorial farce” and promised “all-out war” and a “nuclear fire shower” if punitive actions are taken against the Pyongyang regime.

The report (and equally importantly North Korea’s reaction to the report) raise some important questions. As Julian Borger argues, South Korea is now caught in a diplomatic (and political) black hole. There is clearly political pressure from within South Korea to respond to the sinking, which claimed the lives of some 46 South Korean sailors. But what sort of response is likely to be productive. The South Korean president is scheduled to address the United Nations Security council this week, and there will likely be discussion of sanctions. But the North Korean regime has been subject to UN sanctions for several years as a result of its ongoing nuclear program. It seems unlikely that further sanctions will fundamentally alter the regime’s policies, particularly if the Chinese government, which has historically been suspicious of sanctions against North Korea, remains hesitant to actively support them. In short, a political/diplomatic response is unlikely to be effective, while a military response is undesirable.

Further, as Ruediger Frank points out in his blog, 38 North, some of the fundamental questions surrounding the attack have not been asked. Most importantly, Frank argues,

Sinking a corvette is very different from shooting a tourist or firing a few pistol shots across the 38th parallel. It is even unlike killing an enemy with an axe in the neutral zone around Panmunjom. It is hard not to regard the deliberate sinking of a warship and the killing of 46 crewmen as an act of war. And it is hard to expect the other side not to share this view.

So who made this fatal and risky decision? Those in the West who insist on calling Kim Jong Il the Dear Leader (although this title has not been in use in North Korea for one and a half decades), who believe that he is the personification of evil and the only person with power in his country, will argue that only he could have given the order. But this assumption collides with a truism that my students learn in their first semester: the top priority of the DPRK leadership is regime survival. An open war against the South would be suicidal.”

Frank concludes that the attack may not have been launched by the North Korean government, but rather reflects the deteriorating chain of command within North Korea itself. Such a situation could be far scarier for the stability of the Korean peninsula.