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Time to Rethink the US-ROK Alliance

North Korea has blown up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong. It is threatening an all-out pamphlet war in response to defectors sending anti-regime propaganda to the north. South Korea’s unification minister has stepped down after failing to meet with his North Korean counterparts during his 14-month tenure.

Pyongyang is not happy about the balloons launched by defectors carrying leaflets and dollar bills. But the real problem is that North Korea remains heavily sanctioned and South Korea has been unable or unwilling to alleviate that situation.

Meanwhile, South Korea is being pressured from the other side. The Trump administration has pushed hard for Seoul to pay more for the maintenance of U.S. bases and troops in the country: a preposterous increase from $900 million to $5 billion. South Korea countered with a 13 percent increase that Washington rejected. Only 4 percent of South Koreans believe that their country should accept the U.S. demand.

On top of that, the United States has refused to provide much if any wiggle room for South Korea to pursue economic projects with North Korea. Even as Trump attempted to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the United States maintained strict sanctions on the country.

It is very frustrating to be the object of geopolitics rather than the subject. South Korea is a weak geopolitical actor because other countries, primarily the United States and North Korea, are determining the conditions within which Seoul is operating.

President Moon Jae-in has tried to turn lemons into lemonade by presenting himself as the great conciliator. He pulled off three meetings with Kim Jong Un in 2018, two at the DMZ and one in Pyongyang, and breathed new life into inter-Korean relations. He managed to preserve a working relationship with Donald Trump, largely through flattery. Early on, he mended fences with China over the THAAD dispute. Moon did a brilliant job given the circumstances.

Much of that strategy now lies in tatters, blown up like the liaison office in Kaesong.

Some in Seoul are no doubt advising Moon to adopt a posture of “strategic patience” toward the United States. In November, American voters may well remove Trump from office, and then South Korea can negotiate with the more pragmatic and predictable Joe Biden.

But Biden’s predictability will pose an equally frustrating challenge. A Biden administration will probably accept Seoul’s offer of a modest increase in host nation support. But Biden will not likely offer a new approach to North Korea. Expect yet another strategic review of U.S. policy, followed by a continuation of the status quo: maximum pressure on Pyongyang, short of war, until it adopts a more conciliatory negotiating position. South Korea’s role as a passive actor in this drama will not change.

Perhaps it’s time for South Korea, then, to assert more independence and become a master of its own fate. Above all, that will require a reconsideration of the military alliance with the United States.

From a military point of view, South Korea doesn’t need the presence of U.S. troops on the peninsula. They serve a largely symbolic function as a concrete sign of U.S. commitment. At some point, after the resolution of ongoing negotiations, South Korea will assume full operational control of military forces. After years of arms imports, South Korea’s hardware advantage gives it a vast military superiority over the North.

The United States has been an obstacle in the way of improving inter-Korean relations. And it has forced a partnership with Tokyo that Seoul finds uncomfortable. On top of that, South Korea periodically worries that it will be drawn into the conflict between Washington and Beijing.

A cost-benefit analysis of the U.S.-South Korean alliance suggests that it no longer serves Seoul’s interests as it once might have.

Meanwhile, the United States is engaged in its own assessment of the benefits of that relationship. Under Trump, the United States has called into question virtually all of its military alliances. The burden-sharing that Trump is attempting to force on NATO, on Japan, and on South Korea is only an extreme version of what the foreign policy elite in Washington has demanded for years.

Biden is expected to take a more supportive position toward these military alliances. But the economic challenges posed by the coronavirus as well as the longer-term erosion of U.S. geopolitical influence mean that the United States will likely continue Trump’s cost-cutting approach but in more polite terms and according to a different timeline.

Instead of passively watching this process unfold, South Korea should get ahead of the curve. It should begin asserting its independence from the United States. It should prepare for the time when the two countries have a normal relationship rather than a “special” relationship.

It has been 70 years since the Korean War and the division of the peninsula. Overcoming that division, ultimately, will require altering South Korea’s relationship with the United States. The question that remains: will it be South Korea or the United States that takes the lead in changing the relationship?

By respectfully taking the initiative, South Korea can become a full-fledged actor in geopolitics. It can thank the United States for all of the help provided over the years (and hold its tongue about the unsavory aspects of the alliance like the prostitution around military bases). It can hold a party for the departing U.S. troops. And it can then set about re-imagining the North East Asian region with a unified peninsula at its heart.

Hankyoreh, June 29, 2020

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A Progressive Victory over the Coronavirus

The current pandemic has led to the postponement of elections around the world.

Over 75 countries have declared some kind of state of emergency. Several illiberal leaders, like Viktor Orban, have used the crisis to seize virtually unlimited powers. The Chinese model of full-spectrum clampdown has elicited praise across the political spectrum for its apparent effectiveness in combating the virus.

But one country has taken a very different approach.

South Korea held elections last week. Even amid a worldwide pandemic, more South Koreans went to the polls than in any parliamentary election since 1992. They weren’t turning out in protest. Rather, they gave the ruling party — and the president, Moon Jae-in — the largest parliamentary majority of any party since the country became a democracy.

The surge in support for the left-of-center ruling party has been because of the coronavirus, not despite it. The government’s handling of the crisis has received top marks both domestically and internationally.

Moon Jae-in has not been content to promote a return to the status quo that existed prior to the outbreak. He campaigned on a platform of transformation, one that has not been fully appreciated outside of Korea.

The South Korean example, because it holds many lessons for progressives around the world, offers a vivid refutation of the notion that the world, after the pandemic subsides, will necessarily shift further to the right.

Dealing with Pandemic

In late February, South Korea had the most coronavirus cases outside of China.

A cult-like church was responsible for a large outbreak in the southern city of Daegu, and the hospitals there were being overwhelmed. The government was scrambling to contain the crisis. A petition to impeach the president for his failure to address the pandemic garnered 1.4 million signatures. The country was getting bad press, like Suki Kim’s hack job in The New Yorker.

This week, less than two months later, the number of new cases of the coronavirus has dropped to a mere dozen or so a day. South Korea has had a little over 10,000 cases but only 236 deaths, for a mortality rate of a little over 2 percent. There have been more deaths in Springfield, Massachusetts (246) than in all of South Korea. That’s a metro area of about 700,000 people, compared to a country of about 50 million.

The United States and South Korea both registered their first coronavirus infections at the same time.

South Korea has achieved this success without closing down the economy. It shuttered schools and museums, and churches have held services online. But many restaurants and even movie theaters remained open. The unquarantined continued to travel with few restrictions around the country.

This ability to avoid full lockdown has relied on a robust and widespread system of testing, contact tracing, and quarantining. South Korea was one of the first countries in the world to manufacture kits in large enough quantities to test a significant portion of the population. It has gathered information on the movement of infected persons via cell phone data, credit card records, and closed-circuit television, and it shared some of that information publicly. It requisitioned the membership list of the cult-like religion in Daegu to shut down that infected cluster.

This system required some loss of privacy, which many Koreans seemed willing to give up. Oh Jeong Hyeon is a scholar at the Wilson Center. “In my opinion, COVID-19 is spreading quickly, and the disclosure of patient information is indispensable. The information not only lets people avoid the area of the outbreak, but also encourages people who were there to be examined quickly,” he told journalist Jean Lee, also at the Wilson Center. “That’s why the government needs patients’ information, and to me this is worth sacrificing privacy.”

The technological sophistication of the population — with an Internet penetration rate of 96 percent and mobile Internet usage of 90 percent — has enabled citizens to jump into the fight against the coronavirus. Programmers came up with interactive maps that provide information about where new infections have emerged. One popular app warns you if you come within 100 meters of the last tracked location of an infected person.

It’s not just coders that have gotten in on the effort. Musicians in the Seoul Philharmonic have put on virtual concerts to help get people through these difficult times. Violinist Won Hyung-Joon has gone even further by visiting hospitals and playing directly for coronavirus patients.

South Korea, contrary to popular belief, is not a high-trust society. People do not march in lock-step out of fealty to Confucianism or some collective ideology. But they do have a stronger sense of the common good than, say, teenagers partying in Florida or right-wing demonstrators in various states fed up with stay-at-home restrictions. South Koreans maintained physical distancing, complied with testing and quarantine protocols, and worked together despite some profound political, economic, and social divisions in the country.

At the international level, Moon Jae-in has reached out to help North Korea weather the pandemic. He has given advice to the Trump administration. After a tiff with Tokyo early on around travel restrictions, he directed his foreign minister to meet by video call with counterparts from Japan and China to discuss coronavirus cooperation.

When Maryland Governor Larry Hogan needed testing kits recently, he gave up on the Trump administration. The Republican governor pragmatically turned to South Korea and, courtesy of his Korean-speaking wife, negotiated a deal for 5,000 kits capable of administering 500,000 tests.

Early on, the U.S. news media was astonished by the statistics that showed Korea testing as many people per day as the United States was testing in 14 days. Even more astonishing is that, this late in the game, the governor of a state right next to Washington, DC has to get test kits from 7,000 miles away.

Moon’s Quantum Leap

During the election campaign, Moon Jae-in emphasized that it was no time for complacency with the economic status quo during the coronavirus crisis. Rather, it was an “opportunity for South Korea to restructure its economy — capitalizing on industries like AI and biopharma,” observes Minseon Ku, a scholar at Ohio State University. Moon said prior to the election that South Korea “can be the country that overcomes the crisis the fastest through solidarity and cooperation.”

What that means in practice is pushing forward with an agenda that had been largely blocked by the opposition in parliament. Now, halfway through his five-year tenure as president, Moon no longer has to worry about that opposition. Writes Doug Bandow in The National Interest about last week’s election, “The right had its worst legislative result since 1960. A former prime minister and parliamentary floor leader were ousted from the National Assembly. Party leaders are likely to take responsibility by resigning, leading to further disarray in the once‐​powerful right.”

The bottom line is that Moon’s party has a parliamentary super-majority that can push through its economic agenda. That means addressing rising income inequality, though probably more through job creation than wage increases. It also means finally reducing the power of the big corporations, or chaebols, which have been at the center of economic corruption for decades.

But the challenge for South Korea is two-fold. The economy is export-driven, and global trade is taking a big hit during this crisis. Also, despite some grand words about the dangers of climate change, the Korean economy remains carbon-intensive. The capital, Seoul, has a reputation for having the largest carbon footprint of any city in the world.

So, tweaking the Korean economy isn’t going to work. It needs a quantum leap into a fundamentally different economic system.

Strangely, the mainstream press has missed Moon’s larger economic goal. He’s not just looking at AI, job creation, and boosting small and medium-sized enterprises.

Last month, his Democratic Party pledged to implement a Green New Deal that will make South Korea carbon-neutral by 2050, the first country in Asia to make such a pledge. Writes Chloé Farand in Climate Change News: “The plan includes large-scale investments in renewable energy, the introduction of a carbon tax, the phase out of domestic and overseas coal financing by public institutions, and the creation of a Regional Energy Transition Centre to support workers transition to green jobs.”

The coronavirus crisis has given this political opportunity to Moon. You know what they say: a crisis equals danger plus opportunity.

Actually, let’s walk back that statement…

Crisis ≠ Danger Plus Opportunity 

It is often said that, in Chinese, the character for crisis translates into danger plus opportunity. The reality is a bit more complex. Rather than opportunity, explains Sinologist Victor Mair, the second element of the crisis character really translates into either “incipient moment” or “resourcefulness” or “machine.”

“Any would-be guru who advocates opportunism in the face of crisis should be run out of town on a rail, for his/her advice will only compound the danger of the crisis,” Mair adds.

The Korean words for “crisis” (wi gi) and “opportunity” (gi hwae) derive from the same Chinese characters. The current coronavirus crisis thus presents not an obvious danger plus an opportunity to be seized. Rather, following Mair’s analysis of the critical phoneme gi, it is a time of danger and a moment for technological resourcefulness. In other words, digging into the word “resourcefulness,” it’s a time to use scientific know-how to put available resources to more efficient or ingenious use.

I can’t think of a better definition of the Green New Deal. That’s what this double crisis of pandemic and climate change demands: using science to make better use of existing resources. South Korea, having beaten back the coronavirus and demonstrated that democracy can flourish even in an emergency, is now poised to show the world how to move forward to save lives and the planet.

Foreign Policy In Focus, April 22, 2020

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The Next US-North Korean Summit

The second meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un is scheduled for next month. The most likely location will be Vietnam. The agenda is much the same as before: how to get North Korea to denuclearize and the United States to dismantle its sanctions regime. The question remains: which side will make the first substantial move?

The summit comes at a particular difficult time for Trump. The partial shutdown of the federal government is nearing the end of its third week, and most Americans blame the president. Pentagon chief James Mattis resigned over Trump’s insistence on withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, a policy that other administration officials have attempted to reverse. The president faces fresh criticism of his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the House of Representatives, now in the hands of the opposition Democratic Party, is getting ready to launch a slew of investigations into Trump’s affairs and policies.

Kim Jong Un, on the other hand, has been busy consolidating his position. He visited China for the fourth time this month and began making arrangements for Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s first visit to North Korea this spring. Relations with the South are proceeding more-or-less smoothly, with the groundbreaking ceremony for a new inter-Korean railroad taking place late last year.

In his annual New Year’s speech, Kim confidently spoke of his country’s ability to defend against any military attacks but spent the bulk of his speech identifying the economic advances the country has made and the challenges that remain. He did not project the image of a man in a corner. Rather, he appeared to be a man with options. He could keep his nukes or dismantle them. He could negotiate with the United State or not. He could fall back on China’s support if necessary.

A politically weak Trump and more confident Kim could be the best possible combination for a successful summit. Trump is desperate to demonstrate that he can successfully negotiate with someone, anyone. He is acutely aware of the criticism, particularly at home, generated by the first summit in Singapore. He wants to silence his critics with a grand foreign policy gesture.

Kim, meanwhile, has the backing of Beijing and the prospects of moving forward quickly on the economic front with South Korea. He may well be in the mood to compromise.

Trump has already been hit with preemptive criticism for his plan to meet Kim again in a second summit. “Trump has a history of making one-sided foreign policy moves without getting anything in return,” USA Today’s editorial board, for instance, complained. “What would Trump give Kim to preserve the appearance of diplomatic progress? Kim’s long-sought dream of a formal end to the Korean War, granting him legitimacy as leader of the north? Withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea?”

In The Washington Post, meanwhile, former Pentagon official Van Jackson argues that diplomacy has so far made no headway in addressing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. He worries about four possible negative outcomes from a second summit. There might be no diplomatic progress. North Korea could be stalling as a tactic to advance its missile program, Trump might suffer a global embarrassment if the summit flops. Or Kim might maneuver Trump into making a unilateral concession like withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea.

It’s easy to criticize diplomacy. When it does succeed, it’s only after months or years of minimal if any progress.

It’s also easy to criticize summits. They are often just for show.

Finally, it’s very easy to criticize Donald Trump. He shows little knowledge of or interest in foreign affairs. He believes that he alone can solve complex problems. And he is, above all, capricious in his behavior. He will change his positions from one hour to the next.

So, in the lead-up to the second Kim-Trump summit, expect even more negative press and critical commentary. It’s not just pundits. The Democratic Party savaged Trump after the Singapore summit. It’s a good bet that the opposition, now that it’s in charge of the House, will be tempted to use a meeting between the president and yet another autocrat to score some political points.

Here’s why I’m not so pessimistic about a second summit.

First of all, it would keep Trump engaged on the issue of Korea and focused on negotiations rather than war. As long as the U.S. president believes that he has a good friend in Pyongyang, he’s not as likely to make rash threats against North Korea or act on them.

Also, even though negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear program have not advanced, they are still in play. The situation right now is better than the “strategic patience” that the Obama administration adopted for most of its two terms – which amounted to ignoring North Korea and hoping that it would unilaterally change its policies. A summit may only sustain the illusion that negotiations are creeping forward. But even such an illusion is beneficial in light of the alternatives: a hostile standoff or an actual war.

A summit provides cover for inter-Korean rapprochement to continue. That’s why South Korean President Moon Jae-in is enthusiastic about such spectacles. When Trump shakes Kim’s hand, it sends a strong message that it’s perfectly okay for Seoul and Pyongyang to work together as well.

Finally, a summit offers an occasion for Trump to do something radically different. Most American pundits fear that the president will do something rash, as he has done by announcing a U.S. military withdrawal from Syria. I, for one, would welcome something similarly rash from Trump on Korea.

So far, U.S.-North Korean negotiations have stalled because North Korea has a single bargaining chip that it is reluctant to give up and the United States refuses to embrace the approach of step-by-step concessions. Somebody has to break this deadlock. As the much stronger party in the negotiations, the United States should be the one to shift its position and offer the first concession.

In other words, I support a second summit for the very same reason that the prospective meeting worries so many U.S. pundits. I welcome the possibility that Donald Trump will do something rash.

Donald Trump is a president who makes a great many stupid, aggressive, and destabilizing policy moves at home and abroad. Let’s hope that next month he does something rash for peace instead.

Hankyoreh, January 20, 2019

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Is Korea’s Cold War About to End?

Remarkable changes are taking place on the Korean peninsula.

The two Koreas are actually starting to demilitarize the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Just in the last couple weeks, they have taken down 22 guard posts, demined the Joint Security Area, and established a no-fly-zone about the peninsula’s dividing line. They’ve pulled back from confrontation along their maritime boundary. North Korea has shut down its coastal artillery units and the two sides have discussed a plan to reduce the large number of artillery positions near the border.

One key indicator of the seriousness of these changes: speculators are driving up the price of land near the border on the South Korean side. Even in a slow-motion reunification scenario, this farmland will become increasingly valuable.

The two Koreas have also revived plans to reunify economically, step by step. At the third inter-Korean summit, the leaders of the two countries agreed to relink, finally, the railroad as well as roads and to restart the shuttered Kaesong industrial complex, which married North Korean labor with South Korean capital and managerial skills. Also on tap is the resumption of tourism projects that have brought large numbers of South Koreans to select locations in the north.

All of this has been met with deafening silence in the United States. Worse, the big Korea news this week is, once again, about what the perfidious North Koreans are doing to reinforce the Cold War, not dismantle it.

But maybe this silence is a good thing.

Much Ado about Missiles

A new study by Beyond Parallel, a project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, has made headlines with its revelations of a network of hidden missile bases in North Korea. The report identifies 13 out of 20 undeclared ballistic missile operating bases and, in the first of a projected series, provides considerable detail about one of these at Sakkanmol.

The report confirms what many skeptics have long maintained: North Korea is not serious about dismantling its nuclear complex. NBC’s article on the report includes this ominous quote from retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey:

It looks as if it is a political charade, and it’s a dangerous one. In the short term, North Korea is the most consequential threat to U.S. national security we’re facing….They have nuclear weapons, they have delivery systems, they are not going to denuclearize. So I think the outcome of all of this is we’re loosening the economic constraints on these people and we’re kidding ourselves.

That all sounds convincing. Except that all of this news coverage neglects to point out the obvious.

North Korea never promised to eliminate its missile program.

The negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have focused on the nuclear complex – just as the negotiations did between Iran and the United States that culminated in the 2015 nuclear deal. Missiles are not nukes. Even if an ultimate deal addresses Pyongyang’s missile program, the two sides are nowhere near signing an agreement. So, North Korea is not violating anything, not going back on its word, not engaging in any kind of charade. It’s not as if the United States has altered its security posture in the region, outside of cancelling a couple military exercises.

Moreover, this missile complex is nothing new. According to the Beyond Parallel report, the base at Sakkanmol hasn’t had any serious upgrade since 2011. True, it’s a secret base. But North Korea hasn’t provided an inventory of its nuclear or missile complex. Secrecy, as anyone in the CIA or NSA can tell you, is an indispensable part of military strategy. For a country that is so clearly outgunned like North Korea, secrecy is one of its asymmetric advantages. Indeed, no one knows if the country can deliver whatever nuclear weapons it might have.

The base at Sakkanmol, meanwhile, is for short-range missiles. So, the major target would be South Korea. But the South Korean government is not up in arms over the report. “There is nothing new,” said a government spokesman, since North Korea “has never signed any agreement, any negotiation that makes shutting down missile bases mandatory.”

The Beyond Parallel report contains much useful research. It’s the media coverage of the report that’s problematic. Journalists are missing the real news of the two Koreas dismantling Cold War structures on the peninsula in favor of information that reinforces the narrative that North Korea is ultimately untrustworthy.

How to Help Korea

Donald Trump is focused on getting a Nobel Peace Prize for nearly consummating his love affair with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The foreign policy community in Washington, DC — along with the U.S. media and punditry class — is focused on proving itself right that the current peace efforts are a chimera. Members of Trump’s administration, like National Security Adviser John Bolton, have adopted a wait-and-see attitude: They believe that Trump will eventually realize the folly of his overtures, which will create a policy vacuum that they will rush in to fill with their regime-change strategies.

Don’t expect much of a difference now that the Democrats control the House. The party has roundly criticized Trump’s summitry and has consistently pushed for more sanctions, not fewer.

In this dismal context, watching the two Koreas inch incrementally closer together is like sitting in the audience of a performance of Romeo and Juliet. You know the ending, and it’s far from happy.

So, is there any way of altering the current script to avoid a tragedy?

Here’s the good news: It wouldn’t take very much to push the U.S.-North Korean negotiations forward. All the Trump administration has to do is offer to reduce some economic sanctions in exchange for a specific ask, for instance an inventory of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and complex.

This might seem like Arms Control 101. Unfortunately, the U.S. position has been all-or-nothing, not give-and-take. That’s the subtle shift that has to take place before any further, substantial dismantlement of the Cold War on the Korean peninsula can take place. And given the pushback from the foreign policy community, Congress, and even members of Trump’s own administration, this shift will likely have to come from the president himself.

It’s a terrible thing to have to depend on Donald Trump for anything. But if the White House can reduce one of the principle barriers to inter-Korean reconciliation, then Koreans themselves can continue to change the facts on the ground — step by step, without international fanfare — in such a way that outsiders will have to follow the Korean lead rather than the other way around.

By the time journalists have figured everything out what’s going on, perhaps the two Koreas will have managed to end the Cold War, not just rhetorically but physically — and without getting permission from their patrons.

Instead of a preemptive attack, it will be preemptive peace. In this chaotic and increasingly frightening world, that will surely be something to celebrate.

Foreign Policy In Focus, November 14, 2018

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North Korea: Nukes vs. War?

Nuclear weapons have held the world hostage for more than 70 years. Although they possess terrifying power and the world has come close to nuclear war on several occasions, these weapons have only been used twice, in 1945, by the United States against Japan.

Advocates of deterrence believe that nuclear weapons actually kept the peace during the Cold War. The United States and Soviet Union, according to this theory, did not attack each other directly because of the fear that one side or the other would launch an ICBM, the conflict would quickly escalate, and the world would go up in smoke.

Over the course of the nuclear era, there have been plenty of conventional wars. Those conflicts have left millions dead, injured many more, and created today’s unprecedented refugee crisis.

Nuclear weapons possess great potential evil. Conventional wars represent persistent, everyday evil.

The United States has expended a great deal of energy to prevent other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. It hasn’t eliminated its own arsenal, nor has it of late vigorously pursued arms control agreements with Russia that would achieve global disarmament any time soon. Meanwhile, the United States has initiated or supported a disproportionate number of wars around the world, including ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

In general, the United States has prioritized nuclear non-proliferation over the prevention of war.

That helps to explain the muted U.S. reactions to the recent Pyongyang summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. But it doesn’t make those reactions any less frustrating.

As a result of the third inter-Korean summit, the two countries have agreed to a remarkable set of security measures. The two Koreas will cease military exercises along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), establish a no-fly zone above the MDL, and establish a maritime peace zone around the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea. Even more dramatically, they announced a plan to turn the most visible symbol of inter-Korean division and hostility – the border area at the 38th parallel – into a peace zone, beginning with the withdrawal of 11 guard posts from the DMZ, the demilitarization of the Joint Security Area, and the creation of a joint team to recover remains within the zone.

And what was the predominant U.S. reaction to these momentous changes? Even though Kim Jon Un did make several proposals to move forward on nuclear disarmament, U.S. politicians and pundits focused on what was missing, namely unilateral moves before the United States reciprocates. These skeptics somehow expect North Korea to provide an inventory of the country’s nuclear capabilities, relinquish its existing weapons, or shut down its plutonium and highly enriched uranium processing facilities simply to show good faith and in the hopes that Washington will remove economic sanctions. In other words, the U.S. skeptics are not interested in the give-and-take of negotiations. They want some sign that North Korea is bending to pressure.

For instance, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) tweeted: “”Surprise, surprise: North Korea wants concessions from the U.S. for steps far short of denuclearization. Glad the admin has made no commitments. Maximum pressure campaign should proceed.”

His Republican colleague in the Senate, Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tweeted much the same thing: “While North Korea has stopped testing missiles and nuclear devices, they have NOT moved toward denuclearization.”

“Talk is cheap,” said Bruce Bennett of Rand Corporation. “What Washington has been looking for is action.”

The Trump administration has praised the results of the recent inter-Korean summit. But here, too, U.S. officials have talked about the need to advance the denuclearization agenda.

Obviously, the U.S. preoccupation with nuclear non-proliferation has blinded the foreign policy elite to what is ultimately a more profound development. The two Koreas are not waiting for a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953. They’re not relying on a U.S. declaration that hostilities have ended. They are actively dismantling the very mechanisms of war on the Korean peninsula.

I don’t necessarily believe that nuclear deterrence kept the peace during the Cold War. First of all, the nuclear powers were exceptionally lucky not to have blown each other up. Second, there were plenty of hot wars during that period, including the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and several of these wars could have escalated to the use of nuclear weapons.

For these and other reasons, I think it’s important to push for nuclear disarmament. Nuclear weapons, even if they haven’t been used in more than 70 years, are extraordinarily dangerous.

But ultimately, the most important task is to prevent war – to prevent the circumstances that would give rise to the potential use of nuclear weapons. In this way, the two Koreas have gotten the order correct. They are focusing on dismantling war structures before the talks on nuclear weapons have really started.

This is a profound lesson for Americans. Instead of seeing the inter-Korean talks as a prelude to the “more important” discussions on nuclear weapons, the United States should see the denuclearization negotiations as supporting Korean efforts to end war on the peninsula.

As long as Washington’s preoccupation with nukes goes hand in hand with conflict reduction between the two Koreas, the non-proliferation agenda is part of the solution. But if denuclearization gets in the way of peace – if squabbling over the particulars of North Korea’s nuclear program disrupts the progress North and South have made on reducing tensions – then it’s part of the problem.

Hankyoreh, October 1, 2018

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Korea and the Geopolitics of Impossible

In geopolitics, everything is impossible — until, suddenly, it isn‘t.

Wars that no one ever believed could happen flare into existence, and stable societies descend into chaos. On the other side of spectrum, peace agreements that only Pollyannas thought possible are suddenly on the table after months of secret talks, as wicked problems untangle themselves and bitter enemies clasp hands.

If politics is the art of the possible, geopolitics is the tectonics of the impossible. Huge plates of rock shift, with little if any warning. Leaders topple, borders move, and trade flows in different directions, sending journalists scrambling for seismic metaphors (earthquake, aftershock).

Take the case of Korea, which has been locked in a cold war for 75 years. Few observers expected anything to change with the elevation of Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang or the election of Donald Trump in the United States. Or, if there was going to be a change, it would be for the worse: a raining down of fire and fury on both sides.

And yet voila, the peninsula is now on the verge of the impossible.

North Korea announced on Friday that it would stop testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. It would also shut down its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. As an aside to a South Korean interlocutor, the North Koreans also declared that they wouldn’t demand the departure of U.S. troops from the peninsula as part of any peace settlement.

This week, the leaders of North and South Korea will be meeting just south of the Demilitarized Zone. On the agenda: putting an official end to the Korean War, planning new realms of cooperation, and committing to a denuclearized peninsula. Cue the soundtrack to Man of La Mancha: reunification no longer seems quite such an impossible dream.

Finally, in the least likely element of the trifecta, an unprecedented summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea is scheduled for some time within the next two months. The head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, has already slipped in and out of Pyongyang, under the radar, to start making preparations for the meeting.

The impossible hasn’t happened quite yet. Skeptics have dismissed North Korea’s announcements. The degree of cooperation between North and South is constrained by the current regime of economic sanctions. Donald Trump could decide to nix the summit or, if it goes forward, throw an unscripted tantrum that abruptly sends everything careening backwards.

And then there are the other stubborn realities that cling to the Korean peninsula: the importance of a nuclear deterrent for Pyongyang, the stark economic gap between North and South, and the decades of animosity that make détente between the United States and its longest standing adversary so difficult to achieve.

Still, for better or worse, the impossible happens practically every day in the world of geopolitics. The only rule that applies, particularly in this Trumpian era, is: expect the unexpected.

Getting to Yes

To prove your credibility as a North Korea expert, you must pooh-pooh everything that Pyongyang says. Generally this is a safe bet, since the North Korean government spouts all sorts of propaganda. But that doesn’t mean that everything it says is nonsense.

Take the recent announcement of the nuclear test suspension. As a number of skeptics point out, the North Korean government wasn’t really saying anything radically new. It had already declared in March its willingness to maintain a moratorium on testing in anticipation of a meeting with the U.S. president. As for the test site that it was shutting down at Punggye-ri, it had sustained considerable damage after the sixth nuclear test back in September.

All of that is true — with some caveats.

Let’s start with the test site. Yes, the last nuclear test set off several small earthquakes and a number of tunnels at the site collapsed. But as 38North points out, “there is no basis to conclude that the Punggye-ri nuclear test site is no longer viable for future nuclear testing. There remain two portal areas located in more pristine competent rock that can be used for future tests if Pyongyang were to give the order.” (By the way, North Korea hasn’t been using any other site for its nuclear tests.)

As for the moratorium on testing, “This is not a denuclearization statement,” observes former National Security Council member Victor Cha. “It is a statement that DPRK [North Korea] can be a responsible nuclear weapons state.”

That’s true, too. But what exactly did Korean experts expect? That North Korea would unilaterally disarm before a meeting with Donald Trump? And what exactly has the United States announced in the run-up to the meeting? Most Korea experts have argued that having a meeting with the North is itselfa concession (oh, how diplomacy’s reputation has fallen over the years).

Meanwhile, the announcement by the Worker’s Party in a resolution — “We will discontinue nuclear test and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire from April 21” — is not just a suspension in exchange for talks. It’s an institutional declaration without time limit. In other words, Pyongyang didn’t make its discontinuation of testing contingent on anything else. Granted, it can be reversed. But it’s still an important signal of willingness to negotiate.

Nuclear disarmament, naturally, is another matter entirely.

At this point, North Korea is holding on to its nuclear program as a “treasured sword.” Perhaps it will be willing to sign an agreement supporting eventual denuclearization. But, like St. Augustine who famously declared, “Give me chastity…but not yet,” North Korea will likely embrace the concept of nuclear disarmament before it accepts the reality of it.

After all, nuclear weapons are a strong deterrent against any possible attack (which North Korea fears). They confer enormous status at a global level (which North Korea craves). And they represent a considerable individual accomplishment for Kim Jong Un (in the absence of any other major achievements). That’s some powerful mojo.

So, I’m not expecting a major tectonic shift at the Trump-Kim summit. Maybe the two sides can move toward a peace agreement to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War. Maybe Kim will win an invitation to watch the North Korean-style military parade in Washington in the fall. Maybe Ivanka Trump will win permission to sell her baubles in Pyongyang.

But the most likely positive outcome of the summit would be an agreement to keep talking — and talking and talking until everyone runs out the clock on the Trump administration (and that ticking bomb of a national security advisor, John Bolton). Thus does the geopolitics of impossible fade into the more routine politics of the possible.

But like I said, the future could hold a surprise. Donald Trump, after all, is desperate to prove that he’s not the worst president of all time by negotiating precisely the agreement that eluded all of his recent predecessors. Trump doesn’t care about diplomacy or North Korea. He only wants to one-up Obama.

Meanwhile, let’s not fall into the trap of believing that whatever involves Donald Trump is the most important event of all.

The Two Koreas

Kim Jong Un started the ball rolling at the beginning of the year when he reached out to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to cooperate on the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. But the sea change really began last year with Moon’s election on a platform to reverse the previous decade of largely hostile relations between Seoul and Pyongyang.

One year into his five-year term, Moon maintains a nearly 70 percent popularity rating, outpolling all previous presidents at this juncture. He has also scheduled an inter-Korean summit early in his tenure — as opposed to past leaders Kim Dae Jung or Roh Moo-Hyun. That means he has plenty of time and political capital to translate summit declarations into concrete policies.

The two Koreas have flirted with the impossibility of reunification twice since the end of the Korean War.

In the 1970s, when the socio-economic gap between the two countries was slight, the dictator of the North, Kim Il Sung, and the dictator of the South, Park Chung Hee, attempted to work out a formula for political reunification that got bogged down over issues of representation (having to do with the two-to-one population advantage the South has over the North).

In the 2000s, the South Korean presidential tag-team of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun together attempted a slow-motion reunification designed to gradually overcome the growing economic disparity between the two countries. That program ran up against a domestic conservative backlash, considerable U.S. indifference, and some North Korean intransigence.

Three times lucky? For Moon Jae-in to succeed where his predecessors failed, he should pursue three principles:

1) Quid pro quo: the South can’t simply buy the North’s participation (as Kim Dae Jung initially tried). For this third attempt at a reunification policy to work, it must have something in it for the South as well. The Kaesong Industrial Complex serves as a model for this kind of equitable approach. The South Korean companies that set up in the industrial zone just north of the DMZ provided jobs and training to tens of thousands of North Korean workers as well as a cut of pie for the North Korean government. In exchange, South Korean companies took advantage of cheaper labor so that they could effectively compete against comparable companies in China.

2) Bipartisan support: The ostpolitik of West Germany succeeded in part because virtually all political parties embraced it, from the Social Democrats to the Christian Democrats to the Christian Social Union further to the right. In South Korea, engagement policies have become associated with the liberal-left. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Moon has already found a way to give his nordpolitikwider appeal through his Olympic overtures. But he must go further to bring conservative politicians into the consultation process so that this latest round of discussions with the North is a bipartisan affair. In this way, even if a conservative wins the next presidential election, the policy can continue.

3) Internationalize: Koreans should, of course, decide their own future, together. But as in Germany, reunification should be nested within concentric regional and international rings. A unifying Germany required both a 2 plus 4 arrangement (the two Germanies plus the post-World War II occupying powers) and the welcoming embrace of the European Union. A peace treaty to replace the armistice will serve as a Korean substitute for the 2 plus 4. Another useful model is the Iran nuclear agreement with its several international signatories.

But Korean steps toward peace, denuclearization, and reunification also should have substantial civil society buy-in from groups in South Korea, their counterparts in East Asia, and likeminded groups in Europe and North America. Such groups can put pressure on their respective governments to abide by commitments and also help ensure that Koreans don’t turn their gaze exclusively inward.

Of course, none of this might come to pass. Seismologists are not known for their precise predictions. But after so many years of waiting for a break, Koreans are palpably excited right now. Instead of throwing cold water on their hopes and dreams, let’s prepare to dance with them in the middle of the earthquake.

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Articles Asia Featured Korea

Walking Back War in Korea

In talks this week at the DMZ, South Korea welcomed the participation of North Korea in the upcoming Winter Olympics. The two countries also discussed restarting reunions of divided families and reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula. Earlier, both sides reestablished their hotline.

All of this adult conversation is a welcome change from the war of epithets between the “dotard” president of the United States and the “little rocket man” in Pyongyang.

Strange, then, that a politically diverse set of pundits in the United States has been worried only about how North Korea could use these talks to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States.

Scott Snyder, from the Council on Foreign Relations, speculates that Kim Jong Un’s overture is a ploy to trap South Korean President Moon Jae-in “into concessions that might weaken South Korea’s alliance with the United States.” According to Danny Russel, the top Asia policy person in the Obama administration, “This is a classic united we stand, divided we fall situation. It’s always easier to maintain five party solidarity when North Korea is behaving badly.”

And from the American Enterprise Institute on the right, Nicholas Eberstadt warns that “Pyongyang regards South Korea as the weakest link in the gathering global campaign to pressure North Korea to denuclearize” and urges Seoul not to “get played.”

Then there’s the Wilson Center’s Robert Litwak, writing a piece in The New York Times entitled “A United Front Against North Korea.” Here’s the core of his argument:

We should be wary of Mr. Kim’s intentions. His gambit may be a ploy to buy time for the additional testing needed to acquire the capability to strike the continental United States. He may simply be trying to extract economic relief. Or his overture may be purely strategic, an attempt to drive a wedge between South Korea and its superpower patron, the United States.

Everything revolves around the pronoun “we.” Is Litwak speaking about himself and his family? He and the Trump administration? All Americans? All Americans and South Koreans? Or perhaps he means the entire world except for North Korea?

Well, we should be wary of all such arguments. And by “we,” let me very specific: all people who want, above all, to avoid war on the Korean peninsula.

I, for one, would be delighted if North and South Korea made an agreement that cut out the United States. That’s because the current administration in charge in Washington is absolutely, without doubt, bat-poop crazy. And I don’t have to read Michael Wolff’s latest book to make this assertion. Even if only half of Fire and Fury is accurate, it merely confirms what was previously part of the public record.

Yes, North Korea is currently ruled by a ruthless leader who maintains one of the worst human rights-abusing systems in the world. Yes, Kim Jong Un is pushing ahead with the country’s nuclear weapons program.

But on the apocalypse scale from zero (no problem) to ten (fire and fury), I’m more worried about the “button” on the desk in the Oval Office and the capacity of the Trump administration to wreak havoc in Northeast Asia.

Despite all the enormous potential costs of war in and around the Korean peninsula, the administration is still debating whether it can get away with a limited military strike inside North Korea. Outside the administration, pundits like the Cold War dinosaur Edward Luttwak continue to urge the administration to throw caution to the wind and start bombing.

Given this gung-ho militarism in Washington, I’d much rather see the two Koreas taking the lead in walking the peninsula back from the edge of war.

North Korean Strategies

Every time North and South Korea begin to talk, American pundits say pretty much the same thing: “Hey, hey, South Koreans! Don’t forget about us! Don’t let Korean nationalism cloud your perspective! Don’t be lured into appeasing your abusive partner up north!”

It’s all rather patronizing — as if South Korean leaders are incapable of developing policies without the assistance of their wiser elder brother in Washington. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is in fact quite capable of negotiating with Pyongyang and reassuring the Trump administration that it’s still controlling the overall dynamic. Indeed, Moon even went the extra mile by thanking Trump for making the inter-Korean talks possible (a shrewd, if inaccurate, assertion).

Let’s be honest: Of course North Korea is trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. That’s known as geopolitics, people! The United States does it all the time. What was the détente with China in the 1970s but a huge wedge that Washington attempted to drive between Beijing and Moscow?

North Korea is all about the geopolitics of the wedge. After all, it’s a weak country with not a lot of levers at its disposal. Economic pressure? Not with a GDP on the same level as Mozambique. Military intervention? Not for a really long time.

During the Cold War, Pyongyang used its relatively unusual position as an unorthodox member of the Communist world to play China off the Soviet Union and vice versa. After 1989, it tried to make separate arrangements with Japan, the United States, and South Korea, all to bolster its disadvantageous bargaining position. And now it’s using its nuclear weapons program as a way to both protect itself from attack and to lure the United States back to the negotiating table to get what it really wants.

So, yes, North Korea is using its overture to the South as a way to improve its bargaining position vis-a-vis the United States. The question is not if but why.

The abovementioned pundits imagine that North Korea needs breathing room to further develop its nuclear and missile capacities. Well, frankly, it already secured that breathing room — precisely because the United States failed, on several occasions, to negotiate more seriously to provide Pyongyang with something tangible in exchange for said nuclear and missile capacities.

What else might North Korea want? To take over South Korea? In theory, perhaps, the Kim regime believes in unifying the peninsula under the country’s putative ideology of juche. In practice, however, the regime knows that it’s completely outclassed militarily, economically, and technologically by the South. It’s like imagining Taiwan taking over mainland China.

So, what does that leave?

Number one, North Korea doesn’t want to be bombed by the United States.

Number two, it wants to be recognized as a legitimate country. That would in turn confer legitimacy on the ruling elite.

Number three, it wants access to the global economy and the capital that any serious reconstruction of industry and agriculture requires.

In a very limited way, North Korea can achieve its third goal with economic agreements with South Korea. The Kaesong Industrial Complex, which combined South Korean managerial expertise and capital with North Korean labor, was one such effort.

But in truth, to achieve these goals, North Korea needs an agreement with the United States.

So, yes, Kim’s overture to South Korea is a wedge-making effort. But more importantly it’s a way to create a dynamic that will eventually get the United States to the negotiating table.

The end game, in other words, isn’t a nuclear weapons program full stop. You can’t eat nuclear weapons. The end game is a place at the table, regionally and internationally, and for that North Korea needs to deal with the number one gatekeeper: the United States.

The Olympics, Security, and Human Rights

The Trump administration has already moderated its tone about North Korea thanks to the efforts of South Korea. In a conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump agreed to “deconflict” the Olympics by postponing U.S.-South Korean military exercises until after the event.

The postponement is supposed to be contingent on North Korea not conducting any further nuclear or missile tests. There have been conflicting reports that North Korea is indeed preparing another long-range missile test. Perhaps it’s only considering a rocket engine test to signal that it wants its talks but enhanced deterrence as well.

But not everyone is enthusiastic at the prospect of North Korea participating in the upcoming Olympics.

Over at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, Bruce Klingner asks why North Korea should be welcomed at the Winter Olympics if much of the world supported a boycott of apartheid South Africa. “In response to North Korea’s far more egregious human rights violations — which the United Nations has ruled to be ‘crimes against humanity’ — the world allows and even encourages Pyongyang to participate,” he writes.

But these are not parallel situations. South Africa, during the apartheid years, was a regionally destabilizing influence, but there was no DMZ, no troops on hair-trigger alert, no nuclear arsenals in play. Also, a strong movement inside South Africa supported an Olympic boycott as part of an international anti-apartheid movement.

At the time, the Heritage Foundation was not particularly enamored of the strategies proposed by this movement, preferring instead a policy of “constructive engagement” in which trade and investment in South Africa would eventually erode the apartheid system. Fortunately, the anti-apartheid movement didn’t listen to Heritage.

On the Korean peninsula, meanwhile, the risk of catastrophic war is high — whether by design or by accident. Yes, North Korea’s human rights violations are egregious. But as with the Soviet Union during the arms control era or Iran and the nuclear agreement, the nuclear risk justifies an exclusive focus on averting war. So, if inviting North Korea to the Winter Olympics can help create an environment of greater trust and engagement that can then lead all parties back to the negotiating table, it’s a worthwhile effort.

Given the lack of a movement within North Korea demanding a boycott — indeed, given the lack of virtually any non-governmental organizations inside the country — the “constructive engagement” arguments are more applicable to the Kim Jong Un regime than they ever were for apartheid South Africa.

In The Atlantic, Robert Carlin and Joel Wit offer three important examples of such engagement that the Trump administration could follow in order to build on the new inter-Korean momentum: make it easier for humanitarian organizations to operate inside North Korea, lift travel restrictions on North Korean diplomats in New York, and ask Pyongyang to grant access for Swedish diplomats (who represent American interests there) to visit the three Americans still held in North Korea.

So, let’s recap. North Korea offers to talk with South Korea and participate in the Winter Olympics. Sure, its trying to create some distance between Washington and Seoul. But that’s normal geopolitics — as opposed to the exchange of threats to launch a nuclear war. Instead of worrying about “wedges,” pundits should be overjoyed that North Korea is using its words not its weapons.

Let the Games and the next round of talks begin!

Foreign Policy In Focus, January 11, 2018

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Articles Asia China Featured Korea

Building On The Good News From Asia

There’s been precious little good news from Asia these days. Washington and Pyongyang continue to trade threats of war. Right-wing nationalist Shinzo Abe won reelection as prime minister in Japan last month. Major storms have hammered several countries in the region, most recently Typhoon Damrey in Vietnam.

And now, in the wake of those typhoons comes a mighty wind from the United States. Donald Trump, in the longest foreign trip of his presidency, is currently visiting South Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The silver lining on this Ugly American Tour: Trump probably won’t start a war in a region where he’s currently traveling.

Lost among all this bad news has been some very good news out of Asia. It hasn’t received much media attention here, probably because it only peripherally involves the United States.

Last week, South Korea and China ended a yearlong spat over the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). China, believing the system to be designed to eliminate its nuclear deterrent, punished South Korea economically for welcoming THAAD. Now a new government in Seoul, led by liberal president Moon Jae-in, has announced that it would not add to the existing THAAD system or participate in the proposed regional missile defense that Washington wants to set up. That was enough for China to reengage economically.

It’s a delicate balance for South Korea — to maintain its alliance with the United States and yet repair relations with China. The Trump administration is much happier with the passive-aggressive attitude of Tokyo — passively accepting U.S. hegemony while aggressively pursuing an offensive military posture — than with Seoul’s somewhat more independent position. Witness the time Trump lavished on Abe on this current trip including a round of golf. South Korea, meanwhile, had to make due with a brief stopover and a strident lecture by the president before the National Assembly.

Here’s a radical idea for China and South Korea: Forget Donald Trump, forget the United States, and forget the Cold War divide in Northeast Asia.

The two countries ought to build on their newly repaired relationship. They can make like Germany and France after World War II. But instead of a new regional order based on coal and steel, Beijing and Seoul should establish something completely new: an Asian Environmental Community that promotes renewable energy and sustainable growth.

A New Geopolitical Moment

Much has been made of Trump’s reeling in of American influence around the world, at least on the soft-power side of things, and China’s eager efforts to capitalize on the new global opportunities. Perhaps future historians will look back at this moment as the time when China began to replace the United States as the anchor of the international community. Or perhaps they will identify this era as the moment when everything began to unravel, from the EU to the UN.

But let’s imagine a different scenario in which the threat of climate change plays the same integrative function as alien invaders in Hollywood films. The planet is at risk: let’s all fight the common enemy together!

True, the world so far hasn’t gotten the message. This week the latest round of meetings began in Germany to discuss the commitments made in the Paris climate agreement of two years ago. The Trump administration, aside from a few token representatives, has been conspicuously absent. Also absent was any real hope that the agreement would achieve its goal of keeping the rise in global temperature from hitting a 2 degree Celsius increase above pre-industrial levels.

Reports The New York Times: “No major industrialized country is currently on track to fulfill its pledge, according to new data from the Climate Action Tracker. Not the European Union. Not Canada. Not Japan.” Even if they do meet their commitments, it still won’t be enough. According to a recent Nature study, even if humans stopped all use of fossil fuels immediately, the planet would still register a 2 degree Celsius increase by 2100.

Not even the announcements that both Syria and Nicaragua will join the Paris agreement, leaving Trump’s America as the only outlier, can alleviate this grim news. The Maldives, Mumbai, and Miami are sinking: It’s time to make plans to move to Mongolia.

Room for Improvement

Enter South Korea and Japan. Here are two economic powerhouses — in the most economically dynamic region of the world — with great PR on climate change.

“Tackling climate change is a shared mission for mankind,” Chinese Premier Xi Jinping said at the launch of the Paris agreement. “Let us join hands to contribute to the establishment of an equitable and effective global mechanism on climate change, work for global sustainable development at a high level, and bring about new international relations featuring win-win cooperation.”

Sounds good. And China has pushed forward with impressive investments into renewable energy — $360 billion by the end of the decade — along with stopping the construction of over 100 new coal-fired power plants. Although China is set to reach peak emissions a decade or more before its 2030 goal, the country remains the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, having surpassed the United States in 2007. In 2015, it released nearly twice as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as did the United States, and coal still supplies two-thirds of its energy needs. In other words, China has a long way to go before it can claim substantive leadership in stopping global warming.

South Korea has also talked a good game. Former president Lee Myung Bak created the Global Green Growth Initiative, now a multilateral body based in Seoul, to promote sustainability. In 2009, Lee told the UN, “To proactively respond to climate change, Korea adopted ‘Low Carbon Green Growth’ as a guiding vision for our nation and a strategy for further development. We are currently working to enact a

Framework Law on Green Growth and establish a Five-Year Plan for Green Growth. Thereby, we will not only transform our economic and industrial structures, but also change our very lifestyles to become more future-oriented.”

In reality, however, South Korea backtracked from the pledges made during the Lee era. Under his successor Park Geun Hye, now detained on charges of corruption, Korea made a U-turn on greenhouse gas emissions and decided to rely even more heavily on coal for energy generation. As a result of this change of policy, the Institute for Climate Change Action declared South Korea one of four global “climate villains” at the end of 2016.

In other words, both China and South Korea have made impressive commitments to lower the global thermometer even as they continue to be a big part of the problem. But let’s focus on the future. There’s a new government in Seoul. And China has a chance to replace the United States as the global leader on this issue.

So, let’s take it to the next level.

Asian Environmental Community

When France and Germany formed a new partnership in 1950, the architects had much grander ambitions than simply coordinating the production of coal and steel. They wanted to ensure a peaceful Europe.

In his famous declaration that year, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman made the case for cooperation with former enemy Germany:

Five years, almost to the day, after the unconditional surrender of Germany, France is accomplishing the first decisive act for European construction and is associating Germany with this. Conditions in Europe are going to be entirely changed because of it. This transformation will facilitate other action which has been impossible until this day.

Europe will be born from this, a Europe which is solidly united and constructed around a strong framework. It will be a Europe where the standard of living will rise by grouping together production and expanding markets, thus encouraging the lowering of prices.

Up to now, East Asia has been divided ideologically, by territorial disputes, and by different economic visions. The Korean peninsula is a potent representation of all these conflicts. With its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) program, China has offered one way of uniting the region through massive infrastructure development. For many countries in the region, it’s a deal they can’t refuse. The aforementioned GGGI is working to “green” OBOR and even draw China, South Korea, and Japan into trilateral coordination.

There are good arguments for including Japan in a new Asian Environmental Community from the very beginning. Particularly at the municipal level, Japan has made great strides in reducing its carbon footprint. However, there’s considerable resistance in Korea to greater foreign policy coordination with Japan. Japan has outstanding territorial disputes with both China and South Korea. And the Abe administration is focused on breaking out of its constitutional restraints on fielding an offensive military. For all those reasons, it would be best to focus first on achieving consensus between Seoul and Beijing.

So, what would this new Asian Environmental Community do?

Both South Korea and China set rather unambitious targets under the Paris agreement. Their first task would be to establish a more ambitious agenda for cuts in carbon emissions. There’s no reason why both countries can’t follow the example of Uruguay, which has managed to wean itself almost entirely from oil imports over the last two decades. The economic benefitsshould be attractive to both Seoul and Beijing: The cost of electricity has dropped considerably in Uruguay, the sustainable energy sector generates more jobs than the oil sector, and the country now exports its (clean) energy to its neighbors. Both China and South Korea have traditionally relied on imported oil and gas: This kind of import substitution should appeal to both liberals and conservatives.

Next, the two countries could partner on a much more thoroughgoing greening of OBOR, not just incorporating some sustainable elements but ensuring that the new transportation lines, ports, and power plants are carbon neutral. Yes, the massive undertaking has already started, with nearly 1,700 projects over the last three years. But it’s still at the beginning stages, with plenty of future investment to green.

But a new Asian Environmental Community could be more ambitious still.

Just as Robert Schuman imagined that the coal and steel agreement between France and Germany would bring a broken Europe back together, at least the western half of it, the partnership of China and South Korea could offer a way for Asia to sidestep its myriad disagreements and come together around the one thing that all countries can support. As with early European cooperation, the environmental partnership would be mutually beneficial. Coordinated production of renewable energy — solar panels, wind turbines — could take advantage of economies of scale to bring down prices even more. Generation of clean energy for export could help energy-poor countries go beyond their Paris commitments.

And all this cooperation might just spill over into other realms, making resolution of territorial disputes, economic disagreements, and even North Korea’s nuclear program that much more likely. Never has Northeast Asia been more in need of a virtuous circle of engagement.

Asia set the standard for electronics, for Internet connectivity, and for mind-blowingly telescoped economic development. Now it’s time for China and South Korea to establish a new global green benchmark. The world is desperate for mind-blowingly telescoped environmental development. Let Asia lead the way again.

Foreign Policy In Focus, November 8, 2017

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Articles Featured Korea

Trump and the Geopolitics of Crazy

The United States has beaten its head against the wall of North Korea for more than 70 years, and that wall has changed little indeed as a result. The United States, meanwhile, has suffered one headache after another.

Over the last several weeks, the head banging has intensified. North Korea has tested a couple of possible intercontinental ballistic missiles. In response, Donald Trump has threatened that country with “fire and fury,” one-upping the rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang. And North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is debating whether to fire a missile or two into the waters around the American island of Guam as a warning of what his country is capable of doing.

Ignore, for the moment, Trump’s off-the-cuff belligerence. Despite all their promises to overhaul North Korea policy, his top officials have closely followed the same headache-inducing pattern as their predecessors.

Threaten that all options are on the table? Check.

Apply more sanctions, even tighter ones, fiercer international ones? Check.

Try to twist China’s arm to rein in its erstwhile ally? Check.

As Trump flirts with the same default position of “strategic patience” adopted by the Obama administration, two other options beckon: talk or attack.

So far, the prospects for negotiations have been rather dim. True, Trump has directed some backhanded compliments at Kim Jong-un (a “smart cookie”) and broached the possibility of talking person-to-person with the North Korean leader. Backchannel discussions with that country’s U.N. mission in New York have made modest headway over the last several months on issues like the detention of American citizens. But President Trump is, by nature, erratic, and a purposefully understaffed State Department and distinctly under-informed National Security Council are not exactly firing on all diplomatic cylinders.

Then, of course, there’s the other alternative (an option also considered by previous administrations): launching a more concerted effort at regime change.  That approach clearly has some traction both with the impetuous man in the Oval Office and within his administration. CIA chief Mike Pompeo has, for instance, spoken of an imperative to “separate” the regime from its nuclear weapons (and he didn’t mean through negotiations). National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster has openly discussed a “preventive war” option against North Korea that sounds ominously like what the United States had in place for Iraq back in 2003. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley even declared at one point that “the time for talk is over.” (Presumably she meant the time for talk with, not at, since Donald Trump continues to excel at the latter.)

The fever dream of regime change has persisted in Washington for decades like a bad case of political malaria that repeated doses of realism have never quite eradicated. The irony is that North Korea is indeed changing, just not in response to what the United States is doing. As with China in the 1970s, Washington could encourage those changes by giving up its aggressive ambitions, stepping away from the lukewarm option of “strategic patience,” and actually sitting down to talk seriously with Pyongyang without preconditions.

Lest you think it’s too late for negotiations, remember that the U.S. was on the verge of bombing Pyongyang in 1994 just before Jimmy Carter went to North Korea and negotiated what would eventually become an agreement to freeze the country’s nuclear program. (Yes, once upon a time at least, the Kim family was willing to put that program on hold.) Maybe it’s the moment for the purported “adults” in the Trump administration to persuade the president to refocus on his golf game, while some quiet diplomacy gets under way.

Only then will Americans get what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson assures us is our birthright: a good night’s sleep.

The Dangers of Regime Change

Cuba had a disgruntled former elite. Iraq had its rebellious Shiites and Kurds. Libya had the unsettling tailwind of the Arab Spring, not to mention a whole lot of people who deeply hated its ruling autocrat Muammar Gaddafi.

North Korea has nothing.

Unlike those other targets of regime change, North Korea lacks any significant domestic opposition that could — at least in Washington’s version of a dream world — rush into a newly created vacuum of authority and set up a more America-friendly government. Indeed, North Korea is a veritable desert of civil society. Forget opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations. It doesn’t even have a few courageous figures like Russian nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov or Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, who openly dissented from their government’s policies during the Cold War.

The only conceivable alternative to Kim Jong-un at the moment might be the North Korean military, the sole institution with sufficient authority to nudge aside the ruling Workers Party. But it’s not clear that there’s any genuine daylight between the Kim family and that military. Moreover, were the generals to take over, they might prove more hostile toward outside powers and even more determined in their opposition to domestic reform than the current leadership.

In Cuba, Iraq, and Libya, the United States imagined that regime change would flow from the barrel of a gun — from, to be exact, the guns of the U.S. military and its paramilitary allies on the ground. However, with North Korea, even the most die-hard regime-change enthusiasts, like conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, are aware of the potentially disastrous consequences of a U.S. strike.

Pyongyang has a dispersed nuclear complex, as well as mobile missile launchers and submarines.  Its deeply entrenched artillery and rocket positions near the Demilitarized Zone, long prepared, could devastate the South Korean capital, Seoul, only 35 miles from the border, and the 25 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area. If Washington struck preemptively, the Chinese have been very clear that they would support the North Koreans, which could raise a grim and potentially devastating regional war to the level of a superpower conflict.

No matter how it played out, this would be no “cakewalk” (to use a word once associated with the 2003 invasion of Iraq).  Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people — North Koreans, South Koreans, Japanese, even U.S. soldiers and civilians — would be at risk. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who considered the option of a preemptive strike during the Clinton administration, now insists that, “whether or not this was a good idea in those days, I am persuaded, I am convinced it’s not a good idea today.”

For all these reasons, the top officials in the Pentagon have been risk-averse in discussing military scenarios, with Secretary of Defense James Mattis portraying the consequences of war in the region as “catastrophic” and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford acknowledgingthat a military solution would be “horrific.” In fact, the Trump administration’s strategic review of North Korea policy explicitly advised against any military option, preferring instead to go with “maximum pressure and engagement.”

In the back of any regime-changer’s mind has to be a single obvious scenario: a replay of Germany’s 1990 reunification in which South Korea swallows the North in a single gulp. As it happens, however, South Korea has shown little interest in copying the German example, certainly not under the leadership of its new progressive president, Moon Jae-In. The current government has, in fact, explicitly rejected any war on the Korean peninsula. Moon instead favors the sort of increased economic and social engagement with the North that might someday lead to some kind of slow-motion reunification rather than an overnight absorption of that country (which would also horrify the Chinese).

Such regime-change scenarios always overlook the deeply felt nationalism of most North Koreans. They may not like Kim Jong-un or have much faith in the government, but decades of nationalist education and propaganda have turned that country’s citizens into true believers in the North’s right to independence and self-determination. Virtually everyone there has served in the military, and there can be little doubt that the population is ready to fight to defend their homeland against outside aggressors. As in Cuba circa 1961, regime-change efforts in North Korea already have the stink of failure to them.

And even were such efforts to succeed, with a catastrophic regional war somehow being averted, the results would undoubtedly rival the cataclysms that engulfed Baghdad in 2003 and Tripoli in 2011. Millions of North Koreans would potentially stream across the borders of both China and South Korea, creating a massive refugee crisis. The economies of northeast Asia would take a major hit, which might send global markets into a tailspin. And don’t forget North Korea’s nuclear weapons and material, which could elude the search-and-secure efforts of U.S. and South Korean Special Forces and fall into the hands of who knows whom.

You’d think that the examples of Cuba, Iraq, and Libya — not to mention Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen — would have cured Washington’s regime-change enthusiasts of their recurring illusions. But no such luck, especially since those hawks deeply believe that any negotiations with North Korea will prove utterly futile, merely allowing that country to further strengthen its nuclear program.

History, however, does not bear out that particular prejudice.

Negotiating with Crazy

If you think North Korea is too crazy to negotiate with the United States — or that the Trump administration is too crazy to talk with Pyongyang — think again.

Back in the 1970s, China was a much crazier place than North Korea, so crazy in fact that thousands of Chinese escaped the madness by fleeing… to North Korea! During the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 and lasted for roughly a decade, China’s leader, Mao Zedong, lost control of his country as teenage Revolutionary Guards unseated seasoned Communist Party officials. Up to two million people died in the nationwide upheaval. The turmoil in that country was matched by turmoil within Mao himself.  In the 1970s, he was overtaken by delusions of grandeur as he began a descent into senility. And yet despite such inauspicious circumstances, the China of that era negotiated quite reasonably with the United States to get the international recognition it so dearly wanted.

In 1970, when President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, decided to orchestrate a diplomatic opening to that country, it wasn’t because China had shown any eagerness for negotiations. The White House was instead attempting to put pressure on Moscow by playing nice with Beijing. In this period, Nixon cultivated a “madman theory” in which his aides were to claim that he was acting in a deranged fashion, leading his adversaries, fearing being nuked, to think twice about challenging him. Even so, Nixon has gone down in history as America’s great dealmaker thanks to his successful “opening” to China.

In 1972, crazy negotiated with crazy and détente was born.

In contrast to China in those years, North Korea is not in a state of chaos. Whatever else you might think about Kim Jong-un, he’s not senile. The country’s foreign policy has been relatively consistent over the decades. The development of a nuclear program has, in its own fashion, been a rational response both to the North’s loss of an edge in conventional military power to South Korea and to U.S. regime-change threats. (Remember, for instance, the way President George W. Bush tossed the North Koreans into the “axis of evil” with soon-to-be-invaded Iraq and perennially threatened Iran in his 2002 State of the Union address.) In fact, building a nuclear deterrent may be one of the least crazy things that Pyongyang has done over the years.

And don’t forget that the United States has successfully negotiated with North Korea on a range of issues from finding and repatriating the remains of American soldiers who died during the Korean War to agreements on nuclear weapons. The 1994 Agreed Framework lasted nearly a decade and effectively froze the North’s plutonium-processing capabilities. In an agreement negotiated during the Bush years, that country actually began to destroyelements of its nuclear program. The nuclear deals eventually fell apart because of violations and bad faith on both sides, but they demonstrate that talking with Pyongyang is feasible and can produce concrete results.

Beginning in 1979, aided in part by détente with the United States, China embarked on a series of major domestic reforms. If American officials paid more attention to what’s actually going on inside North Korea (aside from its nuclear program), they would see that the country is changing — in spite of, not thanks to, U.S. policy.

The Change That Matters

I visited North Korea three times in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  There were very few cars on the streets and highways. Cell phones were practically nonexistent. A few semi-private restaurants had just opened in its capital, Pyongyang. Private markets had finally appeared in cities nationwide in response to the breakdown of the government’s food distribution system, but they seemed more like stopgap measures the state tolerated than a permanent feature of the economy.

Today, North Korea’s political system remains virtually intact (minus a couple hundred officials purged by Kim Jong-un). Its widespread surveillance system is still in place. There’s neither freedom of speech nor assembly and tens of thousands of its citizens continue to suffer grim fates in its widespread penal camp system.

But North Korea is changing. Private markets have become a permanent feature of the landscape, and a rising nouveau riche and an expanding middle class are transforming the DNA of the country. Out of a population of 25 million, as many as three million people now own cell phones and there are enough cars in Pyongyang these days to generate the occasional traffic jam. Those who have become wealthy from market activities are buying and installing solar panels to power upscale appliances like wall-mounted televisions.

Capitalism, in other words, has begun to bubble up from below, even though the United States has gone to great lengths to prevent the country from having any interaction with the global economy. It’s a delicate balance for the North Korean state. The markets relieve the authorities of the responsibility for meeting certain citizens’ needs and taxing the new entrepreneurs brings money into government coffers. But the markets also are a venue for channeling more information from the outside world, as North Korean traders interact with their Chinese counterparts and movies and music from South Korea make their way in via USB drives.

This ongoing transformation of North Korean society has been noted by a few figures in Washington as an opportunity to pursue a kinder, gentler version of regime change. “We worry about the miniaturization of North Korean nukes; what threatens the Kim regime is the miniaturization of information technology,” writes former Clinton administration official Tom Malinowski in Politico. “By sharing media with family, friends, and broader networks, and by learning to avoid detection, North Koreans are also gaining skills and connections essential to independent political organization.”

It’s not clear that the market and greater access to information will, in fact, push North Koreans to organize against the state or embrace American-style democracy. But supporting such changes makes sense anyway. The experience of China suggests that such reforms, even when implemented within a non-democratic system, can reduce the threat of war and conflict. “It has worked before in other countries,” economist Rudiger Frank wrote in Global Asia after a recent visit to North Korea. “It will work again.”

In 1960, a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate warned that China’s “arrogant self-confidence, revolutionary fervor, and distorted view of the world may lead [Beijing] to miscalculate risks. This danger would be heightened if Communist China achieved a nuclear weapons capability.” Four years later, China tested its first nuclear weapon.

More than half a century has passed since that moment and China is still no paragon of democracy or human rights. Tensions persist across the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea, and Beijing possesses a small but significant arsenal of deliverable nuclear weapons. Few people in the United States, however, worry that China will launch an attack against Guam, Alaska, Hawaii, or the White House. China has too much of a stake in the international system to risk losing everything by acting with the “revolutionary fervor” that so worried U.S. officials in 1960. A combination of internal reforms and successful negotiations with Washington transformed that country into a more or less responsible global player.

Embedding North Korea in a similar way in the international system of economic and geopolitical negotiations, not to mention human rights conventions, will reduce the threat it currently poses to its southern brethren, its Asian neighbors, and more distantly the United States. Economic sanctions, military pressure, and intemperate threats, on other hand, will ultimately prove counterproductive, doing little but to intensify the nothing-to-lose mentality of the regime, while failing to encourage the changes already ongoing. By continuing to isolate an already isolated land, the United States is only strengthening the very wall against which it’s been banging its head for so many years.

It’s way past time for the Trump administration to take a few aspirin and a few deep breaths, and seize this opportunity to talk with the North Koreans before both head and wall sustain irreparable damage.

TomDispatch, August 22, 2017

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Honoring Otto Warmbier

North Korea is not a tourist destination that I generally recommend for Americans.

South Koreans have special reasons to visit the country – to see members of their divided families, to visit legendary places like Mt. Paektu, to experience an alternative Korean reality. Chinese tourists visit North Korea to get a taste of their own more austere Communist past. Humanitarian workers from a variety of countries go back and forth to North Korea to help people who would otherwise fall through the frayed safety net of the country.

American tourists, on the other hand, are usually looking for a good time. Although Pyongyang has a casino and a bowling alley and numerous restaurants, North Korea is not a fun destination. Still, some Americans go there as part of their quest to visit every country in the world or because they can claim bragging rights for having participated in adventure tourism. I’ve also met American tourists who were genuinely curious about North Korea. Some tour companies go the extra length by incorporating briefings by experts in North Korean society.

Otto Warmbier, a third-year student at the University of Virginia, took a trip to China at the end of 2015. On an impulse, he decided to take a side trip to North Korea on a tour sponsored by Young Pioneer Tours, which offers “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.” He chose the New Year’s Party tour, which promises a good amount of drinking.

Warmbier was described as an intellectually curious kid. He was double majoring in commerce and economics with a minor in global sustainability. A sports fan and fraternity member, he also liked to have a good time. From the photos and videos taken by other members of his tour group, Warmbier looks like he’s enjoying himself sightseeing and engaging in a snowball fight.

Before he could board the plane and leave North Korea with the rest of his group, however, North Korean authorities pulled him aside. They wouldn’t let him leave. He had one last phone call with one of the tour guides in which he reported having a headache so severe that he wanted to go to the hospital. Twenty days later, the North Korean authorities announced that they were detaining Warmbier for committing a “hostile act.”

Eventually they put him on trial for stealing a propaganda poster. They sentenced him to 15 years hard labor. Warmbier gave a tearful confession and then he was led out of the courtroom. Later, North Korea released a grainy video that purportedly showed Warmbier stealing the poster.

After 17 months in captivity, Warmbier was released in a vegetative state. Transported back to the United States, he died shortly thereafter. He’d suffered severe brain damage. University of Cincinnati doctors reported that they couldn’t determine the cause of the brain damage but that the young man showed no obvious signs of trauma such as fractures. Unfortunately, Warmbier’s parents did not allow an autopsy, so it will be impossible to figure out his ultimate cause of death.

Otto Warmbier’s death is a tragedy. He was obviously a gifted young man. His offense, if in fact he did commit one, should have occasioned a slap on the wrist, not a sentence of 15 years hard labor.

But North Korea is notoriously sensitive about what it considers offenses to the state and its leadership. Before I made my first trip to North Korea, I was well briefed on protocol. Don’t throw out a copy of the newspaper – if it contains a picture of Kim Jong Il, then you are inadvertently insulting the leadership. Don’t fold a North Korean banknote in half – if it features a picture of Kim Il Sung, then you are inadvertently insulting the leadership.

In other words, you have to be especially careful when you’re visiting North Korea. Drinking a lot and engaging in high-spirited camaraderie is natural for college students abroad. But it’s not such a good idea in North Korea. I did the same when I studied Russian in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s – and I threw up in Red Square after one especially rowdy party. I shudder to think what might have happened to me if I’d been in Pyongyang instead.

We don’t know what happened to Otto Warmbier during his period of detention. It’s tempting to conclude that he was beaten, perhaps even tortured. But the North Korean authorities have been generally quite careful with American detainees. They seize Americans for what they consider serious offenses – religious proselytizing, trying to sneak into the country – not just as bargaining chips (they rarely get anything in exchange for releasing such detainees). If they arrested Warmbier for no reason other than to send a message to the United States and if they then mistreated him in custody, that would mark a significant shift in policy.

Even if North Korea has changed its policies under Kim Jong Un, it would be unwise to militarize this tragedy. “We would be morally justified in launching a military attack,” writes former diplomat Chris Hill in The New York Times. This is an odd argument, particularly coming from a former American official. After all, the United States seized hundreds of foreign nationals, imprisoned them in Guantanamo, and denied them due process. Three prisoners died in custody in 2006, possibly after torture.

Hill goes on to recommend that the United States demand a full accounting of what happened to Warmbier and pursue more sanctions rather than a military attack. Certainly an accounting is necessary. But perhaps the punitive action should come after the accounting, rather than before.

U.S.-North Korean relations are at a nadir. The Trump administration has expressed anger at Beijing for not disciplining Pyongyang. And the United States may not look favorably at South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s proposals to restart north-south economic relations.

It’s hard to know how Otto Warmbier himself might have come down on this issue. Before he was detained, he had generally positive interactions with North Koreans. As a commerce and business double major, he probably believed that economic engagement could make a difference.

I’d like to believe that the best way of honoring his legacy would be to avoid war on the Korean peninsula, work to release other foreign detainees, and encourage citizen-to-citizen exchanges with North Korea. By improving the economic and social conditions of the North Korean population, we can best ensure that nobody has to face whatever Otto Warmbier endured while he was imprisoned in the country.

Hankyoreh, July 2, 2017