Moon and Trump and North Korea–Divergent Path between Diplomacy and Confrontation


July 20, 2017

Moon and Trump and North Korea–Divergent Path between Diplomacy and Confrontation

Image result for South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump and North Korea

Moon and Trump in The White House Lawn

by Jeffrey Robertson @at Yonsei University

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

During a recent sit-down with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in at the Oval Office, a larger than normal media contingent surged forward, knocked over some furniture and invited rebuke from President Donald Trump. The media expected the perfect storm — a reserved and determined South Korean leader who wants dialogue with North Korea meets an impulsive and egoistical US leader who wants to sanction and pressure North Korea. Instead, the media received a lesson on how well-trained and skilful diplomats can avoid the perfect storm.

The incompatibility of Moon and Trump was recognised from an early stage. Commentators noted during the South Korean election that in ideological convictions, policy objectives and personalities, Moon and Trump appeared to be irrevocably incompatible.

Image result for South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and North Korea

 

And signals the beginning of diplomatic engagement with North Korea for Peace and Stability

Moon’s election position was to ultimately engage North Korea through increased interaction by civic organisations, re-opening tours to the South Korean-constructed and managed Mount Geumgang resort, re-opening the Kaesong Industrial Complex and even potentially holding an inter-Korean summit. Of particular concern to the US was Moon’s inconsistent position on the deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system — Moon positioned himself between his core supporters and the swinging voters concerned about China’s retaliatory economic pressure.

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Tough Talking President Donald Trump prefers isolating and sanctioning North Korea

Trump’s position on North Korea could not be more different. Officially, it appears Trump has little interest in Korean Peninsula affairs. He lacks a strong East Asia advisory team and is yet to appoint an Ambassador to Seoul (although rumours suggest it will be Victor Cha) or an Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs to the State Department. There have been no formal processes to elaborate a clear strategy. But from his first Tweet to his last, Trump has consistently called for isolating, sanctioning and pressuring North Korea.

The media sensed the potential for a clash of wills. Harold Nicolson, the renowned British diplomat and scholar, long ago warned against the risks of politicians playing diplomatic roles. Diplomats, he argued,  are not prone to emotional outbursts, zealotry or partisan short-term goals. By contrast, politicians are prone to ‘impulsive settlement’, ‘imprecision’ and the pursuit of ‘short-term victories’. Moon and Trump seemed destined to clash.

But seven hours after the two leaders completed their talks, the two sides released a Joint Statement. The significance of the statement lies not just in the fact that one was released, but also in the timing. In meetings with Japan and India joint statements were issued immediately, and with Vietnam and Saudi Arabia after several days. The seven hour delay was reportedly caused by either poor administration or (more likely) wrangling over wording.

Regardless of the delay, the media in both the United States and South Korea applauded the meeting. There was something to placate all sides. The South Korean media emphasised Trump’s acquiescence to Moon’s desire for a dialogue-first approach to North Korea and his openness to direct dialogue under the ‘right conditions’. The US media emphasised the renegotiation of the Korea–US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) and the renegotiation of burden sharing for the support of United States Forces in Korea. Through skilful diplomacy, the diplomats of South Korea and the United States established a difficult modus vivendi between two presidents with two very different positions.

But the diplomats of South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Department cannot rest on their laurels. On the issue of North Korea, Moon and Trump are on inherently divergent paths. As Moon settles in and consolidates his administration, these divergent paths will become clearer. In particular, if Moon is able to secure a stronger position after the April 2020 National Assembly elections, he will have the legislative capacity to push through a more progressive agenda.

For Trump, North Korea has been a welcome distraction, and South Korea represents an ideal target to make good on election promises to renegotiate trade deals and push allies to pay more for US support. But the sustainability of his approach is rapidly disintegrating, and the Korean Peninsula will soon require substantially more attention — not in sporadic Tweets but in the form of considered and responsible strategic policy.

The diplomatic modus vivendi is a cautious first step. On 4 July, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile — reported as a game-changing test that transforms the strategic calculus. President Trump pledged to react ‘very strongly’. On 6 July, South Korea’s President Moon delivered a key policy speech in Berlin, expressing his aim to engage North Korea, and a willingness to meet Kim Jong-Un ‘at any time, at any place’. There will be no slowdown for the diplomats smoothing over the Moon–Trump relationship.

  • Jeffrey Robertson is Visiting Fellow at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, The Australian National University and Assistant Professor at Yonsei University.

 

Trump and China: Implications for Southeast Asia


July 15, 2017

Trump and China: Implications for Southeast Asia

by Robert Sutter@www.eastasiaforum.org

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Before his inauguration, Chinese specialists judged that Trump, as a pragmatic businessman, could be ‘shaped’ to align with Chinese interests and would ultimately be easier to deal with than Clinton. President-elect Trump soon upended these sanguine expectations with a few gestures, comments and tweets. After accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, Trump went on to question why the United States needed to support a ‘one China’ position and avoid improving contacts with Taiwan.

 

President Trump eventually was persuaded to endorse — at least in general terms — the traditional US view of the ‘one China’ policy. Though his informal summit meeting with President Xi Jinping in early April went well, Trump has put his Chinese counterpart on the defensive. He made clear how quickly he could take a wide range of surprise actions with serious negative consequences for China. Beijing was compelled to prepare for contingencies from a US president who values unpredictability and tension in achieving goals.

After the summit, the Trump government kept strong political pressure on China to use its economic leverage to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. While stoking widespread fears of conflict on the peninsula, President Trump stressed his personal respect for President Xi. He promised Beijing easier treatment in pending negotiations on the two countries’ massive trade imbalance and other economic issues.

China’s new uncertainty over the US President added to reasons for Beijing to avoid — at least for now — controversial expansions in the disputed South China Sea. How long this will last is a guessing game.

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Trump is preoccupied with North Korea

Further, the Trump administration’s preoccupation with North Korea and China reinforced a prevailing drift in US policy in Southeast Asia. Trump and his officials have announced the end of the Obama government’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy and repudiated its economic centerpiece — the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

What exists of Trump’s Southeast Asia policy at best reflects belated and episodic attention based on a poorly staffed administration with no coherent strategic view. Only very recently have they begun to take steps to show interest in positive engagement with Southeast Asia.

On the South China Sea disputes, the Trump government has followed a cautious approach. It avoided for some time the periodic freedom of navigation exercises by US Navy ships targeted against Chinese claimed land features deemed illegal by an international tribunal in 2016. In Indonesia, Vice President Pence repeated the administration’s insistence on ‘fair trade’ with Indonesia, one of many Asian countries whose trade surplus with the United States has placed them under review by the new administration.

Human rights issues in Southeast Asia — ranging from authoritarian strongman rule in Cambodia and Communist dominance in Vietnam to the newly democratic Myanmar government’s controversial crackdown on the oppressed Rohingya community — have received much less attention from the Trump government than from previous administrations. Recent presidential invitations to Philippine and Thai leaders underline this new US pragmatism on human rights issues.

Southeast Asian officials are correct in complaining that they have few counterparts in the Trump government, particularly in the State and Defense departments, due to the administration’s remarkable slowness in nominating appointees. As they wait, those seeking a coherent and well-integrated US strategy toward Southeast Asia are likely to be disappointed. Barring an unanticipated crisis, the preoccupations of the Trump administration with other priorities seem likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

On key issues in Southeast Asia, there appears to be broad agreement within the Trump government — shared by congressional leaders — on the need to strengthen the US security position in Southeast Asia along with the rest of the Asia Pacific. President Trump’s proposed increase in defence spending will presumably support recent congressional legislation such as the Asia Pacific Stability Initiative and the Asian Reassurance Initiative Act.

But achieving a unified and sustained position on US economic and trade issues — with Southeast Asia or elsewhere — promises to be more difficult than consistency on security and foreign policy values. Key appointees have records very much at odds with one another. Some strongly identify with the president’s campaign rhetoric pledging to deal harshly with states that ‘treat the United States unfairly’ and ‘take jobs’ from US workers. Others stick to conservative Republican orthodoxy in supporting free trade. Policy is said to move back and forth between these two camps, and where Trump himself will come down in this debate is very unclear.

How much influence the United States will lose or gain in these uncertain surroundings remains to be seen. Much will depend on how well or how poorly China ‘fills the gap’ caused by drifting US policy. For now, it seems that US–China competition in Southeast Asia is more likely than not to remain a muddle for some time to come.

Robert Sutter is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at he Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University.

An extended version of this article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Strategic diplomacy in Asia’. 

 

Foreign Policy: ASEAN, North Korea and United States in the Quest for Stability


June 13, 2017

Foreign Policy: ASEAN, North Korea and United States in the Quest for Stability

by David Han@RSIS (Rajaratnam School–NTU)

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

In recent months, North Korea has raised tensions and aroused anxiety throughout the Asia Pacific, including Southeast Asia. Although ASEAN should be concerned about this threat given the grave security implications for the wider Asia Pacific region, it needs to be mindful of why it exists in order to avoid distorting its credentials and relevance to the Korean Peninsula crisis.

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In a letter to the ASEAN Secretary General dated 23 March 2017, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho indicated his ‘expectations that ASEAN, which attaches great importance to the regional peace and stability, will make an issue of the US–South Korean joint military exercises at ASEAN conferences’. He added that ASEAN should take a ‘fair position and play an active role in safeguarding the peace and safety of Korean Peninsula’.

In April 2017, during the 30th ASEAN Summit in the Philippines, ASEAN instead expressed ‘grave concern’ and urged North Korea to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions on its nuclear program. ASEAN’s firm yet measured response to North Korea reflects the international consensus against North Korea’s actions. It is also a neutral posture that avoids siding with any party involved in the crisis, including China or the United States. ASEAN’s position neither overestimates the organisation’s ability to contribute to the resolution of the crisis nor misconstrues its existing purpose as a platform for shaping regional security.

RSIS researchers Shawn Ho and Sarah Teo wrote that ‘ASEAN could strengthen its regional security credentials by paying more attention to the challenge on the Korean Peninsula’. The rationale is that given the ‘current salience of the Korean Peninsula’s security to Beijing and Washington, if ASEAN is to do more to deal with the challenge on the Korean Peninsula, ASEAN’s relevance and importance to both major powers could be enhanced’.

This argument raises the importance for ASEAN to urge the United States to continue engaging with Southeast Asia. The United States could do this through existing regional arrangements that have been shaped by ASEAN multilateralism, rather than circumventing such established structures when dealing with security and geopolitical issues.

Yet the Korean Peninsula may not be the appropriate conduit for ASEAN–US ties so this argument could be problematic for two reasons.

First, it is unclear how ASEAN would demonstrate its relevance to the United States by dealing with the North Korean threat, when ASEAN is already challenged by existing geopolitical issues within the region. As ASEAN has been unable to reach consensus over major geopolitical contentions, such as the South China Sea dispute, it is not clear how ASEAN would be relevant to the United States tackling the Korean Peninsula crisis without first demonstrating its capacity to resolve Southeast Asia’s maritime spats.

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The second problem is that it risks ASEAN becoming divided between China and the United States. During the recent meeting on 4 May 2017 in Washington DC, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson conveyed to ASEAN foreign ministers that Washington intends to stay engaged in Southeast Asia when he commended ASEAN as an ‘essential partner’ to the United States. Tillerson also urged ASEAN to pressure North Korea by reviewing Pyongyang’s relations with ASEAN and curbing the country’s revenue flows from Southeast Asia.

But were ASEAN to comply with the United States’ request to condemn North Korea’s actions, China could perceive this as an attempt by Washington to complicate the dynamics of the Korean Peninsula crisis in which ASEAN is not directly involved.

ASEAN’s internal unity could also be affected negatively if it were to get involved in the Peninsula crisis. There are already indications that some member states are more inclined towards China while others gravitate towards the United States. If ASEAN chooses sides regarding the North Korean threat, this could widen the intra-ASEAN divide.

So if ASEAN intends to show its relevance regarding the North Korean threat, it should be realistic about its own ability to offer viable solutions to the crisis and avoid pandering to either China or the United States.

During the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meetings, ASEAN could signal to North Korea that it should back down from its provocative behaviour, but beyond this there is not much that ASEAN can do to pressure North Korea to change its course. In the past, ASEAN has issued similar statements on North Korea’s brinksmanship and North Korea has disregarded them, continuing with its nuclearisation drive unabated.

This is not to downplay ASEAN’s importance as a regional organisation. Indeed, over the past few decades, ASEAN has played a key role in reducing the risk of conflict in the region through dialogue, consultation and consensus. It was even envisioned that ASEAN norms could have a wider influence on the security trajectory of the Asia Pacific. The ARF was formed in 1994 for ASEAN and external stakeholders to discuss security issues and promote cooperative measures to enhance peace and stability in the region.

But the ARF is not meant to provide and enforce solutions to conflicts, so ASEAN is limited in offering viable recommendations to both the United States and China on the Korean Peninsula crisis. In the long term, ASEAN should focus its efforts on developing the ASEAN community to advance norm formulation, measures to promote peaceful consultation on security issues and collective solutions for conflict prevention and resolution.

In the meantime, ASEAN should continue in its unequivocal insistence that North Korea step down from its aggressive actions and that all parties involved are to avoid any further provocation.

David Han is a Research Analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

This article was first published here on RSIS.

Bilahari Kausikan: 4 Hard Truths about North Korea


May 27, 2017

Bilahari Kausikan: 4 Hard Truths about North Korea

There are no good options, only least bad ones. Unilateral US action will harm US allies in the region and permanently damage trust.

http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/hard-truths-from-hard-nosed-diplomat-bilahari-kausikan-on-us-north-korea-policy

Veteran Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan has a habit of speaking truth to power, no matter how hard the truth, or how big the power.

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Singapore’s Ambassador at Large Bilahari Kausikan at The University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

In a speech reprinted in The Straits Times titled US Military Action Against Pyongyang Could Undermine Trust, he says there are no good options on North Korea, only least bad ones.

Here’s the gist of his argument in four hard truths.

1. Pyongyang is hell-bent determined to develop a long-range missile that can hit the US and no one is going to be able to stop it.

Mr Kausikan writes: “North Korea does not yet have nuclear-armed missiles capable of reaching the continental US; it has probably not yet weaponised its nuclear devices to make them deliverable by missiles. But Pyongyang is determined to acquire survivable, nuclear-armed ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles)… Pyongyang will persist and it will eventually succeed – unless the US and its North-east Asian allies are willing to fight a full-scale war to stop it. I do not think they are prepared to pay the price.”

China doesn’t want war. The United States would like to stop North Korea, but its own options are limited. (See hard truth No. 2) So it’s leaning on China to do so – but China won’t lean on Pyongyang enough to make it stop. It wants Pyongyang to behave better, but won’t want to destroy the Pyongyang regime, fearing that doing so will destabilise its own society.

2. Any US military action against North Korea will come at a heavy price – Asian allies will suffer the brunt of Pyongyang’s retaliation, and trust in the US will be permanently eroded.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) and US President Donald Trump spoke by phone on April 5, 2017 – a day after Pyongyang fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan. PHOTO: AFP

He explains: “Seoul is within range of conventional artillery, and South Korea and Japan are within range of North Korea’s existing missiles. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has warned that North Korean missiles could be armed with sarin, a nerve agent.

“Unilateral military action by Washington would thus impose serious direct risks on its allies at a time when the US itself does not yet face a direct threat. If the US acts unilaterally, it will, in effect, force its allies to immediately bear the very heavy costs of mitigating threats to itself that are still theoretical or putative as far as the US is concerned. This would cause grievous political damage and could permanently undermine trust in America well beyond North-east Asia.”

3.  The US will not sacrifice American cities to save Asian capitals, when North Korea eventually develops a missile that can hit America.

Mr Kausikan writes: “When North Korea has nuclear-capable ICBMs able to threaten the US, the question is bound to be asked – will San Francisco be sacrificed to save Tokyo? Since the answer is obviously ‘no’, Tokyo will have to seriously consider its own nuclear options.

“Japan has the capability to develop an independent nuclear deterrent very quickly and has, in fact, been quietly developing this capability – with American aid and acquiescence – for 30 years or so… The decision will be politically very difficult. But Japanese public opinion has changed very abruptly several times in modern Japanese history, and since the alternative is to accept subordination to China, I believe it is only a question of when and not whether Japan will become a nuclear-weapon state. I do not think the US is eager to see Japan become a nuclear-weapon state. Neither do I think that Japan is keen to become a nuclear-weapon state. But, for both, this will eventually be the least bad option.

“Where Japan goes, South Korea must follow since Seoul is bound to wonder whether it will be sacrificed to save Tokyo.”

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Trump’s America  threatens to go Alone on North Korea–Not possible since its arrogance of power will destabilize North East Asia and undermine regional stability..

The likely result: Japan and South Korea will move out from under the US nuclear umbrella protection and want to develop their own nuclear capabilities. A nuclear arms race may result in the region.

4. Denuclearisation is not an option. Nuclear escalation is more likely. But luckily, mutually assured destruction is not as mad as it sounds.

If regional countries become nuclear powers, will the situation become more volatile? Mr Kausikan says not necessarily.

 “A balance of mutually assured destruction in North-east Asia will not be a satisfactory situation for anyone. But it will not necessarily be unstable – in fact, it may well be more stable than the current situation – and it may be of some small consolation to Washington, Tokyo and Seoul that the implications for Beijing are somewhat worse. A balance of mutually assured destruction will freeze the status quo and is an absolute obstacle to Beijing’s goal – which is implicit in the essentially revanchist narrative of the ‘Great Rejuvenation’ of China by which the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) legitimates its rule – of recreating an East Asian order with China at its apex.”

For the full article, go to http://str.sg/46xe

The Real Crisis in North Korea–A Perspective


May 21, 2017

The Real Crisis in North Korea–A Perspective

by Gianluca Spezza

PhD candidate at the International Institute of Korean Studies, University of Central Lancashire, and founding contributor at NK News

https://www.irinnews.org/opinion/2017/05/18/real-crisis-north-korea-not-one-you%E2%80%99ve-been-hearing-about

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The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been in the news a lot lately, with the DPRK testing new missiles and the United States moving a naval strike group off the Korean peninsula. The commentary almost always revolves around strategic issues, especially North Korea’s nuclear programme.

In focusing so narrowly on the country’s military and its leader, Kim Jong-un, however, the debate largely overlooks the North Korean people.

This has two major implications. First, it perpetuates an image of the country that is not in line with reality. In fact, the younger Kim does not enjoy the kind of monolithic influence held by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, or his father, Kim Jong-il. Power structures in North Korea began to disintegrate under Kim Jong-il and are now widely ramified. Security apparatuses are no longer under one single point of command; neither are military corps. This is something that the administration of US President Donald Trump seems to be oblivious to, but it should take into account when formulating policy.

Second, and most important, the world’s myopic attention to Kim Jong-un precludes recognition of the nearly 26 million people that live in the country. They represent the true issue at stake, once the current regime – which is living on borrowed time – is gone.

What do we know about DPRK and its people?

Oddly enough, since the early 1990s the international community has accumulated a larger knowledge base on North Korean society than intelligence agencies have ever had on its military. Yet, most media insist on reporting obsessively on the latter. This is shortsighted.

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The Hermit Nation–Kim and his Military Men

The questions we ought to ask instead, if we are to understand where the country is headed, are: What is the current state of North Korea? What do we know about its society and economy? What kind of country will emerge once the regime is gone?

These questions matter, because with each crisis, the possibility of regime change or collapse becomes more real. With that, the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe increases, and neither South Korea nor China are well prepared to respond.

North Korea represents an anomaly, for both aid organisations and experts of international politics. But things are changing.

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For a long time, the country may have deserved its moniker of the hermit kingdom. But today, after 22 years of humanitarian assistance and development, the DPRK is an aid-dependent country, stuck in a paradoxical situation. Its economy crashed in the mid-1990s and never recovered, while its social indicators went from good, to terrible, to decent over the last two decades.

The North Korean development indicators for children’s welfare, as well as immunisation and education, are well above countries with a much higher GDP, but the economy does not reflect this relatively healthy development status. The DPRK produces very little of value, and its people find survival in the black market rather than state-provided jobs.

North Korea, in other words, has the economy of an underdeveloped country, with levels of social development of a middle-to-high income country. It is time to take a look at the country beyond military parades.

How did North Korea get so poor?

Upon the demise of its first leader, Kim Il-sung, in 1994, the DPRK faced a combination of domestic and international factors that negatively affected all sectors of society and state institutions. External circumstances included the loss between 1991 and 1993 of its main allies and economic partners, the Soviet Union and China. In addition, in 1993, China started to demand payments at regular market rates for oil and fuel, which had until then been provided at very low prices and constituted the main source of energy for the DPRK.

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In this rapidly changing international scenario, the DPRK, which had become heavily dependent on subsided trade with its former communist partners during the Cold War, found itself with no economic safety net. At the same time, the country was hit by a series of droughts and floods, along with a sudden shortage of energy sources. This devastated an agriculture system almost entirely dependent on chemical fertilisers and mechanised irrigation.

With diminishing amounts of food, the effectiveness of the Public Distribution System that regulated the allocation of basic goods decreased gradually, forcing the population to seek alternative means of subsistence. Housewives, factory workers, doctors, nurses, teachers and students alike had to fend for themselves in order to secure food and heating material during winter.

The crisis caught many North Koreans by surprise, and it was aggravated by economic mismanagement. It should be noted that the Public Distribution System did not collapse altogether, but the degree of functioning of the system varied between different provincesBetween 1994 and 1998, GDP declined by almost half. This, in combination with the progressive dysfunction of the PDS, severely reduced access to food, medications, and primary goods, leading to a famine and to the general deterioration of the population’s ability to withstand further calamities.

The economy: China dominates

Today, it is safe to say that, in effect, China runs North Korea’s economy. Chinese currency is widely used in the unofficial markets that have mushroomed around the country since the crisis of the mid-1990s.

China gets the lion’s share of trade with North Korea and provides the bulk of its food and energy. Luxury items, if and when they manage to come into the DPRK, do so from across the border region of Yanbian or Chinese ports.

To be sure, North Korea does have a few economic niches, but these too are largely influenced by China’s presence. The DPRK’s significant mineral resources are almost exclusively exploited by Chinese companies, and Chinese visitors make for the majority of customers in North Korea’s trade fairs and Special Economic Zones.

In other words, simply by looking at the economy of North Korea, one could surmise that as long as China is there to support it, the country could muddle along with no substantial changes for a very long time. A look at North Korean social indicators, however, offers a different perspective.

Demography is destiny

The key indicators of a country’s state of health and future prospects are its social statistics, particularly those on demographics. According to combined data from the Central Bureau of Statistics in Pyongyang, the World Bank Institute, and the UN gathered in 2008, and data by UNICEF gathered in 2014, the DPRK’s average population growth rate for 1990-2004 was 0.9 percent, or equivalent to that of upper middle-income countries. The same data provide trends for 2004-2020 that place growth at 0.4 percent, or equivalent to that of high-income countries.

At the same time, North Korea’s birth rate dropped to 16 per 1,000 people in the late 2000s – the level of middle-income countries – whilst the fertility rate is slowly approaching the levels of most Western countries. It sits between parity – two children, which is the minimum requirement for a population to continue replacing itself over time – and one child or none per couple, which is deemed not enough to avoid extinction in the long run. The latter is where Germany, Italy, and most EU countries are at present.

What does this mean for the future of North Korea?

If we read population increase as an indication of economic and social stability, the DPRK looks further removed from the so-called “failed states” it is often compared to – like Somalia, Yemen, or South Sudan – which are all on the verge of famine (or, in the case of parts of South Sudan, already experiencing it). North Korea is in fact undergoing the same “cradle crisis” that characterises advanced countries, from Japan to Germany.

However, the same statistics, viewed from the standpoint of overall death rates and infant mortality rates suggest the DPRK is right there with low-income countries. Its average death rate is as high as 11 per 1,000 people, and rates of infant mortality that have not yet fully recovered from the 1990s crisis.

This has a number of implications: North Korea doesn’t have the problems that South Korea has at the moment, with an increasingly aging population placing stress on the social welfare system. As a matter of fact, the DPRK welfare system has been simply downsized and slowed to a minimum since the 1990s. Today, North Koreans live on average six to eight years less than South Koreans and about nine years less than the Japanese.

In Malthusian terms, this means that the government has less to worry about in the short-term. Considering the chronic economic stagnation, most North Koreans alive today could well get old before they even have a chance to elevate their economic status.

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At the same time, with a slow but steady recovery from the famine and the crisis of the mid-1990s, the DPRK seems to have reached a level of relative social comfort at which most middle-to-high income countries stop having enough children for the maintenance of native population. At this stage, they will slowly begin to fade out unless they adopt open immigration policies – an option that is unpopular in South Korea and Japan, and next to impossible in the DPRK.

If the trend continues – and the figures from 2008 and 2014 suggest it will – North Korea may one day run out of people to maintain its workforce. That would be one more reason for the regime to push towards reunification. While its rival state south of the demilitarised zone is also growing older, it is still twice as populous, and immensely richer by comparison. Still, if nothing changes at the economic level, any effort of reunification will require the equivalent of a mini-Marshall Plan for the entire peninsula.

This is the real North Korean conundrum: The country has faced challenges it is hard to imagine any other regime surviving: famine, floods, droughts, economic collapse, energy shortages, sanctions, and leadership changes. This has left a North Korea that is a mass of contradictions.

Few consider that the country making headlines for its nuclear technology has a basket case economy, but also one of the highest literacy rates in the world. There is no other country with such low economic indicators that can at the same time build and at test nuclear devices and achieve universal literacy, while still being aid-dependent.

Is aid the answer?

To explain the North Korean anomaly, we have to look at the nature of aid itself with three key questions: What is aid? Why is aid provided? Is it accomplishing what it is supposed to?

From an economic perspective, we can think of aid as a measure of socioeconomic welfare, like the one used for families and individuals, but on a much bigger scale. Welfare policies are supposed to work as a safety net in times of emergency – fostering growth and preventing recession when families and individuals go through hardships. At any rate, welfare is conceived to be a temporary measure and aid doesn’t come for free.

Aid represents an extension of foreign policy from donor states to recipient nations. Donors and international organisations expect recipients to correct their course and adopt policies that move them towards a free market economy, and adherence to international treaties on human rights, environmental protection and sustainability.

North Korea has become chronically dependent on aid since the mid 1990s. Yet, it has remained impervious to outside pressure for change. When it shows any degree of compliance with international norms, it does so only in fields where its interests converge with those of international organisations. Education and environmental protection are two examples.

On the other hand, North Korea has no relationship with global economic bodies like the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. It makes no concessions on the issues of nuclear proliferation and allows no inspections from human rights organisations. But its population does require foreign assistance in order to survive.

The socioeconomic emergency that swept the country between 1995 and 1999 was rooted in a combination of political, climatic, structural, and geopolitical factors. By 2005, the government declared the food emergency to be over and asked a number of NGOs – but not UN agencies – to leave. Nevertheless, the country has continued to rely on foreign assistance, just as the UN agencies at work in the DPRK kept monitoring a situation that requires periodical emergency assistance, year in-year out, in combination with development programmes.

If North Korea were a family, or an individual who has been in need of aid for 22 consecutive years, would this be considered normal? It’s unlikely. Yet, aid needs to reach the people of the DPRK on a yearly basis or a new humanitarian emergency may break out, according to the UN.

There is a consensus among humanitarians that as the North Korean people have no say on their government policies, they should not be the ones suffering the consequences. Therefore, the international community has responded with aid. However, a look at what North Korea has become since 1995 reveals that aid has not made North Korea strong enough to stand on its own.

This is the most pressing problem with North Korea, aside from its periodically aggressive military posture. The country needs aid because what once was a functioning infrastructure for a command economy, in which the state plays the primary role, has ceased to exist. More than this, it needs important economic and political reforms. Currently however, North Korean politics withhold economic restructuring and growth. At the same time, aid agencies and donors tend to look at technical issues and do not tackle the lack of political decisions that could steer the country away from perpetually looming humanitarian disasters.

 A new approach?

Aid has been invaluable in pulling the country out of the humanitarian catastrophe of the mid-1990s, and it has helped North Korea maintain decent levels in development indicators such as health and education since then on. But aid cannot help the country provide a decent standard of living on its own for its people. That can only be done through political reform.

The real political story about North Korea today is that the “Stalinist fortress” – the impenetrable polity devoted to hardline communism – is no longer Stalinist, nor a fortress. North Korea scholars and South Korean government experts concur in saying that Kim Jong-un holds a fraction of the power that his father and grandfather wielded.

The elites that have emerged from two decades of black market activity are aware that there are only a few obstacles to a reunification that could see them prosper, while lifting millions of North Koreans out of poverty. These factors are their “political guilt” (for they contributed to keeping the country in a state of repression over decades), and the risk of losing whatever wealth they have accumulated.

If the United States and South Korea could agree to leave some of these families in power, providing them amnesty, they could ask in return for a soft removal of the Kim family, and open the door for a gradual economic rebuilding of the country. Financial incentive, or the lack thereof, in North Korea is the key issue. The average annual income in North Korea is a little below $1,000. In the South, it is over $30,000. No amount of foreign aid can ever bridge this difference.

Politics of the ASEAN Summit–Pay Attention to the Details


May 11, 2017

North Korea and South China Sea and the Politics of the ASEAN Summit–Pay Attention to the Details

by Dr. Munir Majid@www.thestar.com.my

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ASEAN leaders should begin to give stronger leadership and get into some details. They cannot be making platitudinous statements again and again. They cannot continue to spend time over prepared drafts which are becoming like an old record. They cannot be rushing from one meeting to another on a tight schedule prepared by the officials which gives them little time for true contemplation. They cannot be rushing home as soon as the ceremonies are over – and only start dealing with the regional issues at the next summit. ASEAN leaders must give ASEAN quality time.–Munir Majid

THE Chairman’s statement at the end of the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila was at its clearest on concern over rising tension in the Korean Peninsula. With respect to other parts of the long statement, the world was treated to the usual prevarication on the South China Sea issue and sanguine satisfaction with progress in the ASEAN community pillars as well as its other integration projects.

ASEAN leaders, without qualification, identified North Korea’s belligerence and roguish behaviour as having caused the threat to peace, even if they called for restraint to preserve it.

The fact that China has a 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with North Korea, which technically obliges Beijing to come to Pyongyang’s defence in the event of an attack on North Korean territory, did not deter ASEAN from insinuating Kim Jong-Un has been asking for it with his comic and infantile antics.

Of course, China is nowadays not as close to North Korea as “lip and teeth”, which was how Mao Zedong put it in 1961, but still…

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Thus it was that the Chair of ASEAN for this year, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte had this telephone conversation with United States President Donald Trump when he expressed the regional grouping’s concern as well as hope for restraint in the Korean Peninsula, and got invited to meet his opposite number – some would say his political double – in Washington.

The fact that Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha also was invited in a separate call to come to Washington gives the impression that these invitations are for ASEAN countries with whom the US has formal defence arrangements.

According to the Philippines media, Duterte will not be going. But if he does, it is to be hoped he will carry the ASEAN card with him as well.

And if Duterte brought his common law wife along, there is no doubt it would sit well with Trump. Both revel in the unconventional.

Certainly Duterte has had no cause to call Trump the “son of a whore” just as Trump does not find particular offence in Duterte’s anti-drug warfare in the Philippines.

If they came to discuss the South China Sea issue, however, it would be interesting to see who would outdo the other in double-talk.

For ASEAN there would be great interest in whether the South China Sea would be discussed and what kind of representation Duterte would make. He could only make a representation on behalf of the Philippines, if he could make clear what exactly is Manila’s position.

Duterte’s South China Sea opacity – or more accurately obfuscation – might actually endear him to Trump who is a master of the art. So it could be expected there would be some good coming out of a meeting between the two Presidents, particularly for Duterte and the Philippines.

While Trump has been sitting in Washington like some kind of emperor of a Middle Kingdom with all these foreign leaders coming to pay homage, the solution to the South China Sea disputes and China’s claims, however, lies in Beijing.

So in the Chairman’s statement after the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila, there was a safe distance between paragraph 7, where there was reference to full respect for legal and diplomatic processes in the settlement of disputes, and the section on the South China Sea (paragraphs 120 to 121) where there was absolutely no such reference, of course.

There was not a squeak on the ruling devastating to China by the Law of the Sea Arbitration Tribunal last July.

Instead, the leaders trotted out the usual asinine hope for a Code of Conduct by the middle of the year which has been long overdue since the Declaration of Conduct of 2002. And even tried to celebrate the imminence of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) which has been in existence in many places.

It is as if, right on cue, they have no idea how to move forward. ASEAN leaders must stop this charade. If they do not want to cross China – a perfectly understandable predisposition – they should at least come up with ideas on how to found a long-term cooperative solution. Why has ASEAN always got to wait on China?

There are many ideas out there on how to convert the South China Sea from an area of contention to a zone of cooperation. One involves turning the Spratlys into an International Marine Peace Park.

More than the undoubted oil reserves, the South China Sea is a huge source of fish for the entire region. About two billion people depend on it for their protein, and a not inconsiderable number for their livelihood. Over 12% of total world annual fish catch comes from the South China Sea (valued at US$21.8bil).

With all their talk about a people-centric ASEAN, should not the leaders get their officials and experts to look into making a proposal which would turn the South China Sea into a zone of cooperation to sustain the harvest of fish? Even Israel and Jordan could do so – under the 1994 peace agreement which created the Red Sea Marine Peace Park in the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea.

In a new e-book, Justice Antonio T. Carpio of the Philippines notes: “The eggs and larvae that spawn in the Spratlys are carried by currents to the coasts of China, Vietnam, Luzon, Palawan, Malaysia, Brunei, Natuna Islands as well as the Sulu Sea. The Spratlys are the breeding ground for fish in the South China Sea.”

ASEAN leaders should begin to give stronger leadership and get into some details. They cannot be making platitudinous statements again and again. They cannot continue to spend time over prepared drafts which are becoming like an old record. They cannot be rushing from one meeting to another on a tight schedule prepared by the officials which gives them little time for true contemplation. They cannot be rushing home as soon as the ceremonies are over – and only start dealing with the regional issues at the next summit. ASEAN leaders must give ASEAN quality time.

Apart from clear concern over the tension in the Korean Peninsula, there was again too much self-satisfaction in the chairman’s statement of the 30th ASEAN Summit. On strengthening the secretariat and ASEAN organs, for instance, the leaders were happy with the progress made by the High Level Task Force. But exactly what progress and in which direction? They did not say.

On the study to update the ASEAN Charter, they agreeably noted the direction from Ministers “for a precise and cautious approach taking into account the views and positions of all Member States.” Does this mean no change in the ASEAN Charter for the next five years? Ten years?

Even on the tension in the Korean Peninsula, they did not make any specific suggestion on what could be done. Another attempt to revive the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear programme that first started in 2003? Play tough and kick North Korea out of the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum which North Korea had joined in 2000?

With so many matters covered in such general terms, the Chairman’s statement at the end of ASEAN Summits is becoming more and more superficial. ASEAN leaders must give clear leads with some details on one or more of the issues to show they are on top of them and wish to see a meaningful end result.