Tag Archives: South 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?

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The Safety of Diplomatic Personnel

The US Ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was attacked by a knife-wielding assailant yesterday, suffering severe but non-life-threatening wounds and being rushed to hospital. The attacker was detained after the attack. He proclaimed his opposition to US military cooperation with South Korea and his desire for a unified Korean state.

The attack highlights the vulnerability of diplomatic personnel around the world, and the difficulty of protecting them as they undertake their day-to-day business.

What do you think? Should additional steps be taken to protect diplomatic personnel aboard? Would such steps undermine their ability to work effectively to achieve their goals? Why?

Promoting Free Trade

 

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L, back) and Swiss President Ueli Maurer (R, back) attend a signing ceremony after their talks in Bern, Switzerland, May 24, 2013. (Xinhua/Ma Zhancheng)

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L, back) and Swiss President Ueli Maurer (R, back) attend a signing ceremony after their talks in Bern, Switzerland, May 24, 2013. (Xinhua/Ma Zhancheng)

China and Switzerland signed a bilateral free trade agreement on Friday, marking the first such agreement between China and a Western country. Trade flows between the two countries currently account for about $26 billion a year, mostly in watches, medicines, textiles, and dairy products.

Although the agreement must still be ratified by the Swiss parliament, the official signing ceremony took place during Chinese Preimier Li Keqiant’s visit to Switzerland last week. Li said that, “This free-trade deal is the first between China and a continental European economy, and the first with one of the 20 leading economies of the globe…This has huge meaning for global free-trade.”

The new agreement adds fuel to the discussion about the relative importance of multilateral versus bilateral trade agreements. When the World Trade Organization came into being in 1995, there was much celebration of its role in reducing global trade barriers. Now, almost 20 years later, the organization seems stuck in the past. It’s been unable to make progress on key issues like agricultural subsidies, and has not successfully concluded a round to talks since it was established…this despite promises to do so in Seattle (1999), Doha (2001), Cancún (2003), Geneva (2004), Paris (2005), Potsdam (2007), and so on. In the wake of its failure, countries seem more inclined to pursue regional and bilateral trade agreements instead.

The advantage of multilateral agreements is that they encourage the establishment of a more equal playing field and generally achieve a wider scope of liberalization. But they are difficult to successfully conclude, as the track record of the WTO suggests. Bilateral agreements, by contrast, permit countries to reach agreements and make progress on liberalizing international trade. But they are not without their critics.

In a 2011 speech celebrating the conclusion of the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton observed that, http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/07/169012.htm

“there is now a danger of creating a hodgepodge of inconsistent and partial bilateral agreements which may lower tariffs, but which also create new inefficiencies and dizzying complexities. A small electronics shop, for example, in the Philippines might import alarm clocks from China under one free trade agreement, calculators from Malaysia under another, and so on—each with its own obscure rules and mountains of paperwork—until it no longer even makes sense to take advantage of the trade agreements at all.”

Interestingly, Clinton called in the speech not for a return to the World Trade Organization or global negotiations, but to regional agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

More radical critiques of bilateral trade deals focus on the potential inequality between negotiating partners. According to its critics, the US Trade and Development Act (previously known as the African Growth and Opportunities Act, AGOA) was essentially a series of bilateral agreements between the United States and a number of developing countries across Africa that forced African countries to agree to develop stricter intellectual property systems than would otherwise have been required under the WTO agreement—and to refrain from criticizing US foreign policy—in exchange for lower tariffs on textile exports to the United States. By wielding its bilateral muscle, the United States was able to garner greater concessions from its trading partners than it might have been able to in a multilateral negotiation.

But as a result of the (ongoing) failure of the WTO, it seems likely that such bilateral and regional agreements are the wave of the future.

What do you think? Are multilateral trade agreements preferable to bilateral agreements? 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.

Paging Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove, I Presume?

Blogging at Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt offers a timely analysis of South Korea’s proposal to reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods.

First, the background: South Korea—a steadfast U.S. ally—has proposed to begin reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods. South Korea depends on nuclear power for up to 40 percent of its electricity generation. But it is running out of room to store the spent rods. One solution is to reprocess the materials, which would both provide fuel for next generation reactors and reduce the total volume of the waste produced. The problem for South Korea is that a 1974 treaty with the United States prohibits the country from reprocessing its nuclear waste because the process generates plutonium that can be used in the production of nuclear weapons. The 1974 treaty expires in 2014, and South Korea’s proposal comes ahead of talks intended to extend the agreement. At least so far, the United States remains opposed to South Korea’s proposal.

As Walt notes, there are three policy challenges presented by the South Korean proposal to reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods. First, the precedent set by the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal permitted India to reprocess spent rods. From the South Korean perspective, this represents a hypocritical double standard. India—already a nuclear power outside the NPT—is granted permission that is denied South Korea—a non-nuclear power inside the NPT.

Second, there are intra-alliance bargaining challenges presented by the recent developments. South Korea’s pledge not to develop a nuclear weapons program is predicated on its close ties to Washington. If that alliance begins to deteriorate, perhaps as U.S. forces are relocated away from the Korean peninsula to pursue national security objectives elsewhere, South Korea may feel increased pressure to develop its own defensive capacity, particularly in light of the potential threat posed by North Korea and the declining relations between the two countries following the Cheonan incident in March.

Finally, as Walt notes, there is a degree of hypocrisy in the U.S. position more generally, where Washington pressures countries not to develop their own nuclear civilian or military nuclear programs while maintaining the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons as a central component of its national defense strategy.

Walt concludes that, “In my view, there’s nothing reprehensible or even surprising about this situation; it merely reminds us that no two states have the same interests and that hypocritical (or more politely, ‘inconsistent’) behavior is common-place in international politics. But the U.S. ability to persuade others not to flirt with their own nuclear capabilities might be a lot stronger if we didn’t place so much value on them ourselves.”

A broader question might also be asked about the role nuclear weapons in national defense. While the United States in April announced a review of its nuclear strategy, which was launched to much fanfare but probably resulted in little real change. Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union both maintained extensive nuclear arsenals intended to deter attacks from the other. But while mutually assured destruction maintained an uneasy stability between the two superpowers, would nuclear deterrence [glossary] function effectively on the Korean peninsula or in South Asia? Just as was the case during the Cold War, the effectiveness of deterrence depends on the rationality of the actors and the credibility of the threat. When actors become locked into standard operating procedures (the Cuban Missile Crisis) or when they behave in irrational ways (Kim Il-Jong, anyone?), the effectiveness of deterrence breaks down and the threat of nuclear war increases. Is it time for a refresher viewing of Dr. Strangelove?

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.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

With the Congress in recess, the U.S. political scene has been dominated by coverage of town hall debates over health care reform. In the debate, the British National Health System (NHS) has been trotted out as representative of the dangers of government-run health care, charges to which the British government has responded. The Financial Times on Friday offered a balanced comparison of the U.S. and British health care systems, which debunks the selective use of statistics in the current debate.

In news from outside the U.S. health care debate last week:

1. The Taliban has stepped up attacks in Afghanistan ahead of nation-wide elections scheduled for Thursday. On Saturday, the Taliban launched a suicide bomb attack against NATO’s heavily fortified Afghanistan headquarters in Kabul, killing eight and wounding nearly 100 people. With observers already worried about the ability of the Afghan government and international elections monitors to conduct a nation-wide poll in the country, observers fear that the Taliban may attempt to disrupt the elections. The relative period of peace which had preceded Saturday’s attack had led some to believe that the Taliban would allow the elections to take place.

Thursday’s poll will pit incumbent President Hamid Karzai against former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Although many observers believed Karzai’s campaign enjoyed an insurmountable advantage, Abdullah’s campaign has managed to close the gap, and some are now forecasting the need for a run-off election in October. A runoff would be necessary if neither candidate manages to secure an absolute majority of the vote.
 
2. Palestinian authorities in Gaza engaged in a series of small battles against Jund Ansar Allah, on Friday. The shootouts resulted in at least 13 deaths and dozens wounded. The battles represented the latest—and perhaps most serious—challenge to the Hamas-led government in Gaza. Jund Ansar Allah is one of several small extremist groups pushing for the introduction of strict Sharia law in Gaza. Jund Ansar Allah, which claims ties to al-Qaeda, had labeled Gaza an Islamic emirate subject to theocratic law, a claim which Hamas rejects. For its part, the Hamas government has dismissed challenges to its leadership as “Zionist propaganda” sponsored by the Israeli government.

3. The French Minister for Urban Regeneration, Fadela Amara, sparked a national debate last week when she called for a nation-wide ban on wearing the burka in France. Amara, a French national of Algerian decent, said that the burka represents “the oppression of women, their enslavement, their humiliation.” Banning the burka, she said, must be part of a broader effort to welcome moderate Islam while fighting the “gangrene, the cancer of radical Islam which completely distorts the message of Islam.” Amara’s comments are part of a broader debate in France. The national parliament in July established a committee to determine whether the wearing of the burka is “compatible with France’s republican tradition of equality between men and women,” and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in June said the burka “will not be welcome on the territory of the republic.” An estimated 5-10 percent of the French population is Muslim, though only a few thousand wear the burka.

4. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak last week attempted to re-open talks with North Korea, offering to negotiate troop reductions along the border between the two countries. The border between North and South Korea is among the most militarized in the world, with more than one million troops, including 30,000 U.S. troops, based in the area. However, in his offer, Lee reiterated the South Korean position that a comprehensive peace deal between the two countries would be predicated on North Korea abandoning its nuclear efforts, a proposition with the North has consistently rejected in the past.

5. Continuing her Africa tour with visits to Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out on several of the continent’s hot spots. Last week, she urged political reconciliation in Kenya and offered support for Somali efforts to fight piracy and Islamic extremism, During her tour, she has not shied away from provoking controversy. In Nigeria, she criticized “the lack of transparency and accountability [which] has eroded the legitimacy of the government.” She also called for African governments to toughen their stance on Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe.