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Former Russian president Dmitri Medvedev and his then-South Korean counterpart Lee Myung-bak in 2010. Nearly a decade after the ROK-Russia strategic partnership launched under these two presidents, Moscow and Seoul have made mixed progress in advancing their ties. | Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the decade since Russia and South Korea designated their relationship a “strategic partnership” in 2008, Moscow and Seoul have made several practical attempts to strengthen ties, particularly in the field of economics. Politically speaking, there is little within the bilateral relationship that is apt to frustrate efforts to get closer: there are no historic grievances or territorial disputes between the two, and ties between the Russian Federation and Republic of Korea have survived thorny security difficulties such as the THAAD controversy without undue difficulty.

At the outset of his tenure, President Moon Jae-in declared Seoul’s relationship with the Kremlin a priority. One of his first acts in office was to send Song Young-gil to on a brief visit to Russia as a special presidential envoy to the Kremlin in May 2017, before nominating veteran lawmaker Woo Yoon-keun to take up the position of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary in September of that year. Within four months of taking office, Moon unveiled his “New Northern Policy (신북방정책)” at the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. The ostensible purpose of the New Northern Policy is to connect the Republic of Korea economically to the Eurasian landmass. To do so, Seoul’s vision relies on the so-called “nine bridges” of cooperation between the ROK and the Russian Federation.

The “nine bridges” of cooperation entail bilateral cooperation in fields such as energy, logistics and infrastructure, and trade in sectors like agriculture and fishing. Moon declared that the “nine bridges” should start with short-term projects, but with the aim of promoting long-term trust between the two sides. In Seoul’s view, in order to fully realize the goal of the “nine bridges”, which center upon the Russian Far East, the North Korean nuclear question must be solved in a mutually-agreeable manner. In February 2019, ROK finance minister Hong Nam-ki and Russian presidential envoy for the Russian Far East Yury Trutnev signed an action plan for proposed cooperation.  

For Seoul to have a special program dedicated to solidifying economic ties with Russia is not unique. Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in 2017, had her “Eurasian Initiative”, which entailed integrating the ROK with energy and infrastructure networks across the wider Eurasian landmass, as well as the eventual elimination of trade barriers. Yet, just as the Eurasian Initiative” failed to take off, the New Northern Policy also faces barriers to success, albeit not necessarily because of shortcomings in bilateral relations. Rather, the main stumbling blocks to the New Northern Policy’s success, according to this new paper by Anthony Rinna, “Moscow’s ‘Turn to the East’ and Challenges to Russia-South Korea Economic Collaboration under the New Northern Policy,” are a combination of Northeast Asian sub-regional politics and issues concerning economic conditions in the Russian Far East.            

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POWs learning the Brazilian national anthem in New Delhi. | Image: Tribuna da Imprensa

Latin America is home to tens of thousands of “overseas Koreans”.1)This ethnocentric term (해외동포/재외동포) privileges bloodline and heritage. As such, the category incorporates multiple generations of Koreans, and includes naturalized citizens of receiving states. South Korean government statistics record that in 2017 there were 106,794 people of Korean heritage residing in countries of the region.2)South Korean government statistics also include temporary sojourners. A handful of these communities are sizeable. There are around 23,000 overseas Koreans in Argentina, where they occupy key nodes in the textiles industry.3)Jihye Kim, “Ethnicity, opportunity, and upward mobility: Korean entrepreneurship in the Argentine garment industry 1965–2015,” Asian Ethnicity (2018). A further 11,000 reside in Mexico, more than half in Mexico City. There are 5,000 each in Guatemala and Paraguay, and 2,500 live in Chile.

But almost half (51,531, or 48%) of the total reside in Brazil.4)The overwhelming majority (48,704) are in São Paulo, concentrated very heavily in the districts of Bom Retiro, Brás and Aclimação. The Coreano-brasileiro community dates back to the early 1960s, when legislative changes at home and the lure of economic growth 5)GDP growth exceeded 7% p.a. from 1950 to 1961, and though it declined to 4% p.a. thereafter, Brazil remained an attractive prospect. began to drive South Koreans away from Park Chung-hee’s impoverished military dictatorship and across the Pacific in significant numbers. Fascinatingly, though, a small group of 55 Chinese and North Korean POWs from the Korean War was resettled in the country more than five years earlier than that. Here, Leonardo Barbosa sheds light on this most peculiar of Korean War legacies. — Christopher Green, Senior Editor

Remnants of a Conflict: The 55 Korean War Prisoners Who Chose Brazil

by Leonardo Barbosa

On 6 February 1956, after his life had been completely shaken up by the advent of the Korean War, Liu Wei Yong6)Liu Wei Yong, identified in the NNRC report POW # 730792, Pvt. finally landed in his new homeland, Brazil.7)“Aí vêm os coreanos (prisioneiros),” Tribuna da Imprensa, February 6, 1956. Liu, like some other twenty thousand prisoners of war, after serving in the Chinese and North Korean armies and subsequently being imprisoned in brutal United Nations camps, decided that he no longer wanted to return to his communist motherland. Unlike the thousands of North Korean and Chinese ex-soldiers who became anti-communist in captivity and preferred to relocate to South Korea and Taiwan, Liu followed the path of another eighty-seven ex-soldiers who accepted an offer to start a completely new life in a neutral country yet to be determined.8)David C. Chang, “To return home or “Return to Taiwan”: conflicts and survival in the “Voluntary Repatriation” of Chinese POWs in the Korean War”, PhD diss., University of California, San Diego, 2011, 412.

This opportunity seized by Liu and so many others started to take shape in October 1951, when almost all the minutiae of the Korean War armistice had already been agreed by the belligerents. One last unresolved issue –the destinies of thousands of prisoners of war captured by the United Nations forces but who refused to be repatriated to their home countries of China and North Korea — emerged as the main reason why the conflict would not end for another eighteen months, starting the psychological axis within the Korean War.9)Monica Kim, “Humanity Interrogated: Empire, Nation, and the Political Subject in U.S. and UN-controlled POW Camps of the Korean War, 1942-1960”, PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2011, 70.

While the communist side promoted the need for an automatic and mandatory repatriation of its forces, Truman and the U.S. wanted to ensure that the United Nations’ intervention in the Korean War was to be seen only as an impartial and brave way of bringing “freedom for all mankind”, against the oppressive evil of communism. Based on this principle, the United States representatives in Panmunjom demanded that the repatriation of prisoners of war must occur only on a voluntary basis, since if the West allowed the forced return of the Chinese and North Korean soldiers back to their authoritarian home states, this could be considered a defeat of the democratic block.

On July 27, 1953, after many failed rounds of negotiation, the North Korean and Chinese governments agreed to the voluntary repatriation deal and put a practical end to the Korean War with the armistice agreement that is still in effect today. Part of the peace agreement called for the creation of the NNRC (Neutral Nations Repatriation Committee, composed of Switzerland, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Poland and led by India), which, under U.N. command, was able to conduct a thorough process of awareness-raising among the prisoners, giving them three options to be chosen between freely: to repatriate back to China or North Korea; to move to its capitalist counterparts Taiwan and South Korea; or the least obvious option, to move to a neutral country, uncertain and still undetermined.

While the majority of the self-styled anti-Communist POWs chose South Korea and Taiwan as their new homes, abandoning the ideology of their former states decisively, eighty-eight men opted for the “third way” and sacrificed most of their old lives in order to search for peace in another place, distant from their own cultures.

These 12 Chinese and 76 North Korean POWs were provisionally sent to India in February 1954, where they lived relatively quietly in army hospital barracks.10)Tad Szulc, “Brazil Receives Korea ex-P.O.W.’S,” The New York Times, February 15, 1956. Many had the opportunity to learn English, study vocational professions such as mechanics, smoke ‘Chesterfield’ cigarettes and some even started dating Indian women.11)“Veio da Coréia para ser padre no Brasil,” Tribuna da Imprensa, March 12, 1956. During the approximately two years they spent in New Delhi, four North Koreans and two Chinese ended up deciding to return to their previous nations, while India permitted seven to establish new lives permanently in the country.12)Aí vem os prisioneiros coreanos,” Tribuna da Imprensa, February 3, 1956; “57 Ex-Prisioneiros da Guerra da Coréia Para o Brasil,” Luta Democrática, February 4, 1956; “Prisioneiros da Guerra da Coréia para o Brasil,” Correio da Manhã, February 4, 1956; “Emigrantes coreanos para o Brasil,” O Estado de S. Paulo, February 4, 1956.

Koreans learning Portuguese. In this picture, two ask for assistance from their teacher, Idamur Gouveia | Image: Tribuna da Imprensa

75 with Nowhere to Go: To Ilha das Flores | For the 75 prisoners who still longed for the neutrality that had been promised to them, however, the situation did not look so good, and many of them started petitioning third governments — Brazilian, Mexican, Argentinian and Dominican — requesting exile.13)Monica Kim, 313. After a year and a half of much uncertainty, in September 1955 the Brazilian ambassador addressed to the UN that his country had decided to receive all the former POWs. The decision was condemned by the South Korean government as a Brazilian “intromission” in national affairs, as Seoul believed all Koreans should be repatriated to South Korea and not to neutral countries.14)“Rejeitada a oferta do Brasil de asilo a prisioneiros coreanos,” Folha da Manhã, September 24, 1955. Nonetheless, the Brazilian decision was accepted and praised by the 10th General Assembly in November 1955.

During a farewell dinner in New Delhi in early February 1956, the former prisoners of war who accepted Brazil as their destination made a speech to thank the government of India for their hospitality, as well as the Brazilian ambassador and government who had agreed to receive them.15)“Rejeitada a oferta do Brasil de asilo a prisioneiros coreanos,” Folha da Manhã, September 24, 1955. Although 57 men originally accepted the Brazilian invitation, two did not make the trip, one due to health problems and another for unknown reasons. As for the 22 ex-POWs who stayed in India, correspondences concerning the NNRC reported that 11 went to Argentina and 9 to Mexico — although there is no evidence that any of these men actually ended up in Mexico.16)UN, Document A/2641 (Reports of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission), p. 163.

Fifty-five soldiers that had fought on the communist side of the Korean War landed at Galeão Airport in Rio de Janeiro on February 6 at 8:30 AM. They had stopped over in London, travelled in an Air France plane, and had their expenses covered in equal parts by the United Nations and Sino-Korean Joint Command. At the airport, the men were received by the São Paulo honorary consul, Mr. Shjokin, and placed under the supervision and assistance of the National Institute of Colonization and Immigration (INIC) of Brazil.17)“Aí vêm os coreanos (prisioneiros)” Tribuna da Imprensa, February 6, 1956.

The 50 Koreans and 5 Chinese were immediately accommodated on Flores Island (Ilha das Flores), a former military prison that was being used to house World War II refugees who had sought exile to Brazil. When the migrants arrived, each one received cutlery, a cup and a bed. They were compelled to follow the night curfews and do all their own cleaning. On the other hand, they received full medical and psychological assistance, had daily Portuguese language classes, and received Christian religious instructions, all subsidized by the Brazilian government.18) “Coreano é quem manda no mundo cosmopolita da Ilha das Flores,” Tribuna da Imprensa, April 4, 1956.

One week after the arrival of the ex-POWs in Flores Island, the reporter Luís Glauco Tôrres, from the Tribuna da Imprensa newspaper, had the opportunity to meet them and write about their experiences. He reported that some of the Koreans performed an Arirang song for the crew, with some of the audience getting emotional and even crying. Some also demonstrated knowing the lyrics of the Brazilian National Anthem, which they had been taught back in New Delhi.19)“Veio da Coréia para ser padre no Brasil,” Tribuna da Imprensa, March 12, 1956.

One of the people interviewed by Tôrres was Jai Ryong Kun.20)Could be identified in the NNRC report as either Jeong Seong Kong (POW # 127959) or Kim Jeo Koon (POW # 144051). Regarded as smart, intelligent and well-spoken by the journalist, Kun said he had only been educated to middle school level and wanted to find a Brazilian girlfriend. In addition, Kun said:

“I do not want to go back to my country, partly because of the hard life difficulties, which after the war have gotten even worse. Also, because in North Korea there are no liberties nor guarantees for the rights of men. I want to learn Portuguese and follow a liberal career. Maybe (become) a lawyer, if I am lucky enough.”

“Veio da Coréia para ser padre no Brasil,” Tribuna da Imprensa, March 12, 1956.

The history of Liu Wey Yong is also reported. The young Chinese man was 24 years old at the time and was considered to be “remarkably small” (1.54m) by the journalist. Very popular on the island, he was born in Rongchang, a village near Chongqing. He started studying Agronomy at the so-called “Yong Kang University” but interrupted his studies when he was forcibly recruited to the People’s Volunteer Army and sent to fight in Korea. He reports that his father was murdered by Mao’s government, which became the reason why he allegedly hated communism and had a Nationalist Chiang Kai Shek army symbol tattooed in his arm – something that many prisoners were forced to do to show allegiance in the anti-communist dominated camps. Liu drew attention with a prominent forehead scar caused by a grenade explosion, his basketball skills and the girlfriend that he left waiting in New Delhi. He stated: “I definitely want to earn money in Brazil and then go back to India to marry my girlfriend, and if I do not finish my agronomy studies, I am going to become a shoemaker, for which I already have the practice.”21)“Veio da Coréia para ser padre no Brasil,” Tribuna da Imprensa, March 12, 1956.

Talking about religion, the journalist highlighted two Koreans who wanted to become evangelical preachers, and one, a Catholic priest. Kang Siok Keun 22)Hang Seo Keun, identified in the NNRC report as POW # 139387, 1 / Lt., ex-fighter in the Korean People’s Army, was reported as being a convert from Atheism to Catholicism under the new name of Longinus, and even intended to become a priest. Lim Chang Yong23)Lim Chong Heong, identified in the NNRC report as POW # 79554, Pvt., a mechanic, was one of the two who wanted to become a protestant preacher. He said that he still had in mind the image of his parents’ execution in North Korea, something that only happened because they followed the Presbyterian Christian faith. He expressed his gratitude towards Brazil, seeing it as a democratic and free country. The journalist points out that from the 55 POWs, 16 identified as Protestants, 12 as Catholics and 27 did not have any religion.24)“Veio da Coréia para ser padre no Brasil,” Tribuna da Imprensa, March 12, 1956.

The story of Kang Yong Bin also makes a brief appearance.25)Identified in NNRC report as POW # 73687, 2 / Lt. A former lieutenant from the Korean People’s Army, he was reportedly treated with much respect by the younger ones. Bin, like almost all the rest of the North Koreans, had been a student at university in Pyongyang before being drafted to fight in the war.26)“Veio da Coréia para ser padre no Brasil,” Tribuna da Imprensa, March 12, 1956.

Picture of Liao Wei Yong holding a basketball. | Image: Tribuna da Imprensa

Hopes Dashed: The POWs Scatter | Five months after arriving, however, the situation of the former POWs in Brazil was becoming critical. Although it is reported that only two of them were still living on Flores Island, some expressed an interest in going back to Korea, justifying the decision mainly with regard to the bad treatment that they said they had received in the country and in Flores Island.27)“Coreanos não pensam em voltar à Coréia,” Tribuna da Imprensa, May 21, 1956. In June 1956, Mr. Cho Chung Hwan, interim Minister of External Affairs of the Republic of Korea, confirmed that twenty of the Korean POWs that had moved to Brazil were now moving to South Korea. He added that the South Korean ambassador to the U.S, Mr. Yung Yu Chan, had persuaded them to take the decision. At the same time, however, many still chose to stay in Brazil: eighteen had moved to the city of Vassouras to work with a Presbyterian Mission, while the rest scattered independently to cities such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, to finally start their new lives as Brazilian citizens.28)“Rejeitada a oferta do Brasil de asilo a prisioneiros coreanos,” Folha da Manhã, June 24, 1956.

As for Liu Wei Yong, after being liberated from the Island, still in 1956, he started working as an electrician in Rio de Janeiro at Standard Elétrica and lived in a boarding house with two former prison camp colleagues, Yang Rongsheng and Pan Guirong until 1961, when he married a Brazilian woman and had (eventually) five children with her, two daughters and three sons. Wei Yong worked in his electric repair shop until the end of his life, passing away in 2007 at age 79, without ever having set his feet in his old motherland again.29)Information given through a conversation with Liu’s daughter, Liniana Liao, in São Paulo, Brazil, 2018.

The lives of Liu, Pan, Yang, Lim, Hang, Kang and many others who eventually ended up in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, the United States or even back in China, Taiwan and South Korea, serve to highlight how the conflict displaced an incredible number of men and women, destroying family ties and cultural and territorial bonds. Although some efforts were made in 2018 to reunite some of the Korean families disrupted by the war, none of the North Koreans that moved to Brazil in 1956 saw the region of their birth ever again. Choices made in 1954 left bruises that could never be fully healed.

   [ + ]

1. This ethnocentric term (해외동포/재외동포) privileges bloodline and heritage. As such, the category incorporates multiple generations of Koreans, and includes naturalized citizens of receiving states.
2. South Korean government statistics also include temporary sojourners.
3. Jihye Kim, “Ethnicity, opportunity, and upward mobility: Korean entrepreneurship in the Argentine garment industry 1965–2015,” Asian Ethnicity (2018).
4. The overwhelming majority (48,704) are in São Paulo, concentrated very heavily in the districts of Bom Retiro, Brás and Aclimação.
5. GDP growth exceeded 7% p.a. from 1950 to 1961, and though it declined to 4% p.a. thereafter, Brazil remained an attractive prospect.
6. Liu Wei Yong, identified in the NNRC report POW # 730792, Pvt.
7. “Aí vêm os coreanos (prisioneiros),” Tribuna da Imprensa, February 6, 1956.
8. David C. Chang, “To return home or “Return to Taiwan”: conflicts and survival in the “Voluntary Repatriation” of Chinese POWs in the Korean War”, PhD diss., University of California, San Diego, 2011, 412.
9. Monica Kim, “Humanity Interrogated: Empire, Nation, and the Political Subject in U.S. and UN-controlled POW Camps of the Korean War, 1942-1960”, PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2011, 70.
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New report explores native South Koreans’ attitudes towards North Korean defector-migrants and other prospective immigrants. Click the cover image to download the report.

The notion that Korean nationhood is defined by shared ancestry and culture is being relentlessly challenged in South Korea by demographic realities and a new discourse on multiculturalism. What are the implications for integration of North Korean defector-migrants?

From 1998-2017, the number of resettled North Korean migrants in South Korea rose from fewer than 1,000 to more than 30,000. Compared with the total number of immigrants in the country, currently 2.2 million, 30,000 represents a mere drop in the bucket. However, North Korean arrivals are a special case, a group that receives an unusual degree of attention and whose experiences are often assumed to offer a proxy measure for the ostensible willingness of today’s South Koreans to unify with their increasingly different ethnic brethren.

With research funding from the UniKorea Foundation and published in collaboration with Leiden Asia Centre, a new report by Steven Denney, Christopher Green, and Peter Ward explores this new social reality in South Korea.

The authors ask some searching questions. Are co-ethnic newcomers from North Korea warmly received or looked upon with suspicion? And how do South Koreans’ attitudes towards defector-migrants compare to attitudes toward immigrants of both Korean and non-Korean descent? Furthermore, how do North Korean defector-migrants, who hail from an authoritarian regime, adapt to their new host democracy? What are their attitudes towards politics and nationality and how do these compare with native-born South Koreans? The foreword is written by Darcie Draudt.

The executive summary from the report is reproduced below. A presentation of findings will take place at Leiden University’s campus at The Hague on Thursday, May 16. For more details about the event, refer to the Leiden Asia Center posting.

***

Executive Summary

Researchers from the University of Toronto, Leiden University, and the University of Vienna surveyed 1,008 South Koreans and 350 North Korean defector-migrants. The surveys were designed and implemented in cooperation with a Canadian survey firm, Delvinia, and the South Korean state-run Hana Foundation.

The South Koreans were asked about their attitudes towards and preferences regarding immigrants and diversity. A primary focus of attention was attitudes toward people of the same ethnicity, in particular North Korean defector-migrants and Korean-Chinese, vs. non-Korean groups. Innovative survey experiments were conducted to better understand “true” preferences towards defector-migrant resettlement, who South Koreans prefer coming to their country, and to whom they do and do not wish to confer public assistance.

The North Korean defector-migrants were asked about their attitudes towards national membership and belonging, as well as democracy and components of state and society in South Korea. In order to establish the nature of resettled North Korean identities, they were also asked about the factors of the North Korean lives they left behind. Their opinions were compared to native South Koreans on identical questions.

The key findings are as follows:

What do South Koreans Think About Immigration and Diversity Overall?

  • Most South Koreans support their new, multicultural national identity. While citizens show some uneasiness about immigration in general, there is no evidence that they are rejecting diversity.
  • Most South Koreans support their new, multicultural national identity. While citizens show some uneasiness about immigration in general, there is no evidence that they are rejecting diversity.
  • South Koreans express a preference for ethnic Korean immigrants, but not all ethnic Koreans. They are most at ease with the entry and resettlement of North Korean defector-migrants, whereas Korean-Chinese are among the least preferred immigrant groups.
  • Among prospective immigrant attributes, language capacity and employment plans trump other considerations.

What do South Koreans Think about North Korean Defector-Migrant Newcomers?

  • When provided with complete information about prospective immigrants, North Koreans are, all else considered, highly regarded as potential newcomers to South Korea. Among a selection of context-relevant nationalities, North Korea ranks second behind the United States.
  • South Koreans prefer to provide welfare distribution (in this case, public housing) to native-born Koreans over those born outside South Korea, and that includes defector-migrants. However, there is no evidence of targeted discrimination against newcomers from the North.
  • Multiculturalism is not at odds with the resettlement of North Korean defector-migrants.

What do North Korean Defector-Migrants Think?

  • National identities of resettled North Korean defector-migrants and native-born South Koreans largely converge.
  • Defector-migrants are somewhat less accepting of difference compared to native-born South Koreans, but not substantively so. Defector-migrants do not prefer a multicultural to an ethnically homogeneous country, but there is no opposition to the idea of a multicultural South Korea per se.
  • Defector-migrants are just as supportive of democracy as native South Koreans but diverge somewhat from native South Koreans regarding democratic alternatives.
  • North Korean defector-migrants are much more supportive of national reunification than are native-born South Koreans.
  • Defector-migrants show greater pride in the accomplishments of South Korea than do native-born South Koreans.
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An ethnic Korean performance. | Image: PRC Ethnic Affairs Commission (国家民委)

Do the ethnic Koreans in Yanbian anticipate uniting with the motherland after the stirring summit meetings of 2018? If new research into Korean-Chinese identity is any indication, the answer is probably not. And even if the prospects of peace on the Korean peninsula and thawing North-South relations were to stir feelings of ethnic longing among Chinese citizens of Korean descent, the Chinese state would leave zero room for debate on the matter. Beijing has always kept a close watch on its ethnic minorities and autonomous prefectures, but under Xi Jinping social control or regulation has intensified. Adam Cathcart arms himself with a handful of CCP speeches, biographies, and press releases to argue that Xi’s “new era” is harsher in the ethnic borderlands than prior. — Steven Denney, Senior Editor

Minority Affairs in the Xi Jinping Era: Hardened Cadre on the Periphery

by Adam Cathcart

It is an odd and fractious time to be studying Chinese peripheries and foreign policy. Xi Jinping is logically cast in a central role in most foreign assessments of China’s direction, whether it be the chairman’s activity in calculating (or miscalculating) trade war tactics with the US, or in his brandishing a high-tech chain-mailed glove not all that far from the Korean border. Far less often is his outlook on minzu zhengce (民族政策), or nationalities/ethnic minority policy, looked at in depth.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative offers analysts one potential shortcut for imposing coherence on what is in fact the messy and complex business of Chinese foreign policy (and foreign direct investment) through a thicket of bilateral relationships. While Belt and Road is also typically placed within the matrix of Xi Jinping’s growing personality cult, at times it can strain credulity to link the broad ribbons of his charismatic leadership with the very specific strains and challenges that arrive along the Belt and Road. Take, for instance, the problem of border security in Northeast Pakistan; what is the relationship between Xi Jinping’s power consolidation and this particular problem set?

Likewise, both the “Xi Jinping as prime mover” and the Belt and Road frameworks are of limited value in understanding China’s relationship with North Korea. Chris Green and I made an attempt at such an analysis in 2017. But ultimately the Belt and Road framework and the drive for local officials to carry out Xi’s will are no more or less important to the environment for sanctions enforcement on North Korea than, say, broader tensions in the US-China relationship.

A more productive line of inquiry would be to look at the impact of China’s increasing authoritarianism. In a state already oriented toward control, there has been a turn under Xi toward yet harder security and more, mainly digital, control. Individual liberties have obviously suffered. This broader trend impacts the implementation of the united front policy, of the anti-corruption campaign, of the penetration and disruption of foreign journalistic and analytical networks, and for cadre on the periphery.

The securitization move remains a prime concern in the Chinese northwest, or Xinjiang province, which has soaked up incredible amount of funds of late due in large measure to a crackdown on Uighur Muslims that has expanded into parameters which ought to be shocking to any observer. None of this could have been done without the enthusiastic work of Party officials at the provincial level.

"If one individual sums up the values gap between a rising China and the West, it may well be Chen Quanguo." A close look at Xinjiang's Party boss, who has directed the crackdown on and imprisonment of Uyghurs. https://t.co/AtMyRwt8Jq

— Maura Cunningham 马丽娜 (@mauracunningham) October 1, 2018

Looking at how local and provincial officials put their stamp on things, and the method of implementing policies, can tell us something about central demands. Who survives and who is promoted in this tense atmosphere? The answer can tell us much about the internal climate in the Party, and about the ways in which the “nationalities policy” toward ethnic minorities is being interpreted and implemented. Personnel shifts have occurred within the many groups involved in minorities policy and implementation under Xi Jinping’s banner after the 19th party Congress.

Jun Shi: From Sichuan to the United Front Department |The appointment of Shi Jun as the deputy head of the United Front Work department was flagged up by James Liebold as something that could tell us a “great deal about the increasing importance of stability maintenance in the new era.”

Appointment of Shi Jun [侍俊] as Deputy Head of United Front Work Department tell us a great deal about the increasing importance of UFWD and stability maintenance [维稳] in Xi Jinping's 'new era'. Shi crushed Tibetan unrest in Aba Prefecture 2007-12 & now also Deputy Head of PSB pic.twitter.com/FseukMkhVq

— James Leibold (@jleibold) September 26, 2018

The favorable coverage in the Party press that accompanied Shi’s appointment emphasized his law and order credentials, praising his anti-crime bona fides from Sichuan province and his successful prosecution of two criminal gangs whose leaders were put on trial in Hebei. The stories also praised his “zero tolerance policy” for people working under his supervision, recalling one instance where a colleague who had been playing with his mobile phone during the meeting was severely criticized. Finally his humanitarian concerns for his work on a big earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 were called out positively.

Jun has in some respects an unusual biographical background. He worked his way up in the Communist Party by starting from the factory floor lighting factory where he began work early (at age 16) and finally left six years later, in 1984. He spent about two years in Beijing studying during the relatively liberal mid-1980s but appears to have not walked outside any Party lines, given that he entered Sichuan Teachers’ College in June 1989 when any students or staff who had participated in the democracy movement would have been taking a semester off and writing confessional letters. In the 1990s he worked in local youth organizations and moved up in county level politics, and for five years from 2007 to 2012 he was the party committee secretary of a Tibetan autonomous county, which apparently gave him a reputation for smashing dissent.

In one extraordinary public complaint by an ethnic Tibetan cadre, he was accused of of promoting one ethnicity over the other, inflating economic achievements consistently, of not trusting local party leaders, and of generally undervaluing his counterparts and playing factional games.

Liu Hui (刘慧), ethnic Hui who has spent her life working across Party orgs in Ningxia, is vice-chair of State Ethnic Affairs Commission (minwei) since 2016. Laden w/ Xiist lingo, she recently took a tour of the Korean regions of PRC near NKorean border. https://t.co/Z7Sp5pFZ7N pic.twitter.com/en3rMLplfL

— Adam Cathcart (@adamcathcart) September 25, 2018

Li Hui: Tying it all Back to Xi | Li Hui’s work at the State Ethnic Affairs Commission demonstrates a less overtly controlling ethos than Shi Jun. But in the realm of ethnic affairs and ideology there is no one I have seen who demonstrates the importance of braiding Xi Jinping in to just about everything. Take her speech at the Ethnic Work conference of July 25, 2018:

Always standing firm with our political stance, we must always maintain a high degree of unanimity [高度一致] with the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core. Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the Party and the country have historic achievements, unleashed historic transformations, above all doing so through the strong leadership of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core. The most crucial thing is that General Secretary Xi Jinping is supported by the whole Party, loved by the people, and unreservedly accepted as the core of the Party, as the military marshal, and as the people’s leader who is the helmsman of the ship [最关键的是有习近平总书记作为全党拥护、人民爱戴、当之无愧的党的核心、军队统帅、人民领袖的领航掌舵].

This evocation of Xi’s centrality and greatness is followed immediately by a discussion of ethnic work for the Party. Li’s speech followed a tour through Liaoning province, and her colleagues in the Ethnic Affairs Commission also made forays into Yanbian.

Conclusion | As Xi Jinping continues to consolidate power and authority, the organs of state dealing with minority affairs will likewise adapt in a fashion. Even as the two Koreas circle nearer to one another diplomatically, Chinese-Koreans remain well outside of the bonds of inter-Korean identity. Their status, although nominally autonomous within the Chinese state, is tightly bound to the policies emanating from the center (Beijing) to the peripheral units, such as Yanbian and other borderland prefectures.

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President Lee Myung-bak (R) meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao (L) in 2010. Under President Lee, Seoul’s ties to Beijing became a “strategic cooperative partnership” | Image: Wikicommons

Quite apart from the impact of government-by-Twitter, the United States alliance with South Korea has been under continuous pressure since its inception. In 1950 alone, the two worked together to repel a North Korean invasion, occupy North Korea, repel a Chinese invasion, and solidify a main line of resistance against communist forces. That foundation of blood and territorial sacrifice has never been questioned for its importance, but the meaning of the past waxes and wanes when it comes to navigating new geopolitical alignments.

South Korea’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1992 brought a new player — or rather, an old player in a new form — to the stage. China’s subsequent meteoric rise as an economic and security power in the region has forced further changes. Anthony Rinna takes the long view of events in this essay, which looks well beyond Trump’s fits of public rage at alliance costs. — Adam Cathcart, Senior Editor

The ROK-US Alliance and Great Power Tensions

by Anthony Rinna

For those American officials whose focus is East Asian security, Washington’s decisions to remove troops from Afghanistan and Syria have been unwelcome. Lindsey Graham, who serves on the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, raised concerns over the implications of Syrian withdrawal in so far as it might send totally the wrong message to Pyongyang about America’s commitment to South Korean security. The populist platform of the current US administration notwithstanding, dramatic shifts in the US’s military posture in East Asia would appear to go against the wishes of a large part of the American voting public, too; there, support for the ROK-US alliance remains solid. More recently, the rise of China appears to have given Americans a renewed sense of appreciation for Washington’s alliance with Japan.

While a US drawdown in Korea would reduce American preparedness in dealing with a crisis situation, a decreased US military commitment could boost the interests of Washington’s main competitor in East Asia. Japanese diplomat and Atlantic Council visiting fellow Taisuke Mibae asserts that China’s medium- and long-term goal is to eject the US military from the Korean Peninsula in order to gain a strategic advantage over the US. After nearly two decades of focusing on terrorism and unconventional warfare, Washington’s defense establishment appears to have returned to an emphasis on the prospect of competition with China and Russia.

Concern in Beijing over Americans and their allies being so close to the Chinese periphery is understandable. But the situation is complex. Of late, South Korea has shown a degree of independence vis-à-vis the US position. Conversely, Tokyo’s stance in Northeast Asian geopolitics coincides with that of the US. Of course, South Korea is particularly badly exposed toChina, as the effects of the THAAD crisis on South Korea’s economy demonstrate, and is keener not to upset Beijing than Japan.

American missile defense: a common thread in the US alliance network | The United States’ alliances with Japan and South Korea together have allowed the US to project missile capabilities (ostensibly deployed to deter North Korea) near the Chinese periphery. Since 2017, South Korea has hosted the US Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, while the US Navy’s Aegis Ashore is slated for deployment in Japan from next year. American missile defense systems in East Asia have largely been tailored toward threats from smaller states in a regional context. Technologically, THAAD is designed to intercept short- and medium-range missiles from North Korea. Legally-speaking, Japan-based missiles are allowed to operate only against external threats to Japanese territory (although Japan-based radar can be used to track threats not directed against Japanese land).

Nevertheless, these problems are political, not legal, and Beijing has never really accepted the US argument that the aforementioned missile defense systems are for the sole purpose of deterring North Korea. The ostensible mutual threat that THAAD poses was no doubt behind the December 2017 joint missile defense exercises between the Chinese and Russian militaries. Indeed, even as Seoul and Tokyo’s decisions to host American missile systems were born out of concern for a common sub-regional threat, American missile deployments have raised the stakes in the regional context of US ties with China.

ROK then-Minister of National Defense Kim Gwan-jin attends the 8th PRC-ROK defense minister’s summit in Beijing, in July 2011. Despite nearly seven decade of military alignment with the US, South Korea cannot neglect its defense ties with China. | Image: Wikicommons

Great power contention: Seoul and Tokyo’s differing positions | In 2005, Tokyo and Washington clarified the nature of the Japan-US security partnership in light of post-Cold War realities. At the core of the Japan-US alliance is the challenge to Japanese and US interests that China and the DPRK simultaneously pose. This basic structure has not changed under the Trump administration, and, if anything, the broadening of the frame into the “Indo-Pacific” has strengthened these traditionalist impulses. As the US State Department’s fact sheet on Japan-US relations states, the scope of Tokyo-Washington cooperation extends across the wider Indo-Pacific. Japan and the US, along with Australia and India, form the so-called “Quad”, which exists in part to balance against China.

The ROK-US alliance, for its part, remains centered on protecting the Republic of Korea’s sovereignty against external threats. In the fall of 2018, then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and his South Korean counterpart Jeong Kyeong-doo signed a set of guiding principles on the future of the alliance. The document includes provisions how the ROK-US defense partnership would function in light of the Blue House’s conciliatory policy toward the DPRK, as well as promising the continued deployment of American troops in Korea while simultaneously pushing for ROK wartime command of its armed forces. The Moon Jae-in administration’s outreach to Pyongyang has to an extent also influenced South Korea’s military posture. The 2018 edition of the ROK Ministry of National Defense’s White Paper refrains from explicitly labeling the DPRK as an “enemy” (though Seoul’s defense budget has risen markedly at the same time).

The ROK Between Hard Power and the Power of the Purse | To say that South Korea has been feckless in its alliance with the US, at least in the context of Sino-American tensions, would be unfair. Rather, South Korea finds itself in the unenviable position of having to balance between reliance on China economically and the US for its defense. Since 2008, the Sino-South Korean relationship had been labeled a “strategic cooperative partnership.” Having assumed the South Korean presidency in the middle of the Beijing-Seoul discord over THAAD, one of Moon Jae-in’s first priorities was repairing the Sino-South Korean relationship in the form of a “reset”.

During the first summit between Moon Jae-in and Xi Jinping, Moon attempted to defend the importance of THAAD for South Korea’s security. At that time, the THAAD issue was not directly mentioned, but was labeled as the “reason that everybody knows” for the deterioration of China-ROK ties. Nevertheless, Moon also asserted that Seoul’s own economic plans were compatible with China’s “One Belt, One Road” framework, and that the ROK government wanted to collaborate with China economically.

The feeling of push-pull between China and the US is not limited to the political elites in Seoul, but also extends into public opinion. South Korean citizens on opposite ends of the spectrum on any given political or security issue have occasionally insinuated that their political opposite numbers have obsequious or sycophantic tendencies toward either China or the US. In 2016, for example, some columnists accused South Koreans who opposed THAAD’s deployment as being “pro-Chinese” and engaging in sadae (Korean: 사대), a term that refers to Joseon’s subservient tributary relationship with China. In return, opponents of THAAD accused those supporting the missile defense system’s deployment in Korea as being excessively pro-American[1].

South Korea’s entrapment between China and the US is not problematic only for Seoul, but for Washington as well. In what appears to have been an attempt to help anchor the ROK more firmly in the US alliance network, on the very last day of 2018 the US Congress passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018. Section 206 of that law declares that the US should push for closer trilateral cooperation with Japan and South Korea in fields such as intelligence sharing and missile defense. Such legislation, made from a comfortable distance on Capitol Hill, will nevertheless run into harsh on-the-ground realities. Chapter 3, Section 2 of the 2018 U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s annual report highlights that in the face of Chinese pressure, Seoul capitulated to the so-called “three no’s”: no more additions to the THAAD system currently in South Korea, no trilateral alliance with Japan and no direct ROK participation in the US’s missile defense network.

Conclusion | Agreement between Seoul and Washington over how best to manage relations with the DPRK has been a source of strain for the ROK-US alliance. Yet another major test for the strength of the South Korea-US security pact may manifest itself in how South Korea navigates its position between China and the United States. Given the ROK’s vulnerabilities, any great power contestation in Northeast Asia will likely put Seoul’s alignment with Washington to the test. Developments concerning the DPRK notwithstanding, when the US chooses to view its large-scale military deployment on the Korean Peninsula in geopolitical term, the ROK-US alliance becomes an asset in competition with China.

South Korea will not want to be forced to choose sides between Beijing and the US. Just as countries – including China and Russia – have pursued policies of “equidistance” between the DPRK and South Korea, so the ROK may be forced, in the name of preserving its sovereignty and middle power status, to occupy a balanced position between Beijing and Washington, the better to navigate a middle course in Sino-American tensions.

[1] 백영서 (Baek Yeong Seo) “역사적 관점에서 본 한중관계 25년: 성과와 과제 [25 Years of Korea-China Relations in Historical Perspective: Achievements and Challenges]”, ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2017.

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Image from Newsis 2019.03.01. photo1006@newsis.com

As scooters sped by on the streets of Hanoi with lethal speed yesterday, most international eyes were on the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel, where the leaders of North Korea and the United States sat down for their second summit following a convivial dinner the night before. Following on from the two countries’ first summit on June 12th last year, hopes were high that an agreement more concrete than the Singapore Joint Statement would result. On the contrary, talks collapsed.

The major challenge of yesterday’s failed summit doesn’t really rest with either Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump, both of whom emerge looking like tough negotiators who will live to fight another day. Rather, it is with the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, who was evidently planning to announce the launch of a dramatic new phase of inter-Korean relations today; March 1, the 100th anniversary of the day in 1919 when all Koreans — neither north nor south, and inspired by US President Woodrow Wilson’s emancipatory rhetoric — rose up against the occupying Japanese.

How South Korea acts hereafter is set to be a major point of interest for the coming months. South Korea’s credentials as a “middle power” are bound to be sorely tested. Here, Yujin Lim looks at the concept of South Korea as a middle power, and analyses the way forward. — Christopher Green, Senior Editor.

Small but Indispensable: South Korea as Jungjaeja

by Yujin Lim

President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un’s meeting in Hanoi ended more quickly than many had expected. In Seoul, ‘no deal’ might have been predicted, and certainly planned for, but this short-term result from Hanoi in no way bodes well for South Korean interests. Since taking office in May 2017, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has put significant effort into peacemaking with North Korea. His multiple meetings with Kim Jong-un last year rightly attracted keen attention and resulted in a framework for renewed inter-Korean ties, even in the sensitive area of military relations. South Korea’s role as a bridge-builder has left a strong impression on regional actors.

As US-North Korea relations remain stalled at the negotiating table, it is very likely that South Korea will again try to build a bridge across the impasse; as Trump said in his press conference after the meeting in Hanoi, “President Moon is working very hard; he would love to see a deal.”

@realDonaldTrump: "Well, I like President Moon very much. We have a great relationship…We'll be calling him very soon as soon as I get on the plane. He'll be one of the first calls…President Moon is working very hard and would love to see a deal." pic.twitter.com/MG78sdMUJ2

— NK NEWS (@nknewsorg) February 28, 2019

The question of the extent to which  South Korea can play the middleman role between Pyongyang and Washington is, on the one hand, very specific to itself. On the other hand, we can understand South Korea as a small state that has to operate within the international system. For a very good reason, South Korea calls itself jungjaeja (중재자), which can be translated as mediator or moderator.

Impartiality is a core aspect of mediation. Jacob Eriksson 1)Jacob Eriksson, Small State Mediation in International Conflicts: Diplomacy and Negotiation in Israel-Palestine (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015), 3. says that “small states are traditionally accepted as mediators due to their non-threatening political posture.” It is because that they do not have the capability to directly threaten the parties which can be used as a leverage to coerce them into an agreement. Secondly, a mediator is expected to have a good reputation for skillful diplomacy and regional expertise among its experts. Eriksson’s research looks at a relatively successful example of mediation; namely, Norway and Sweden’s role in mediating the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

In the strictest sense, and certainly from the North Korean point of view, it is clear that an intermediary role is not what South Korea stands for. South Korea is a state technically at war with North Korea. Seoul maintains extensive military capabilities, and constitutionally claims the North’s territory as its own. Nevertheless, under President Moon Jae-in, South Korea aims to be a facilitator of communication between Pyongyang and Washington, and that is what South Korea means by calling itself jungjaeja.

Given this role and Seoul’s obvious aspirations, how much leverage does the Moon administration have and to what degree can it influence the US or China? Prior to her appointment as Seoul’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Enna Park discussed South Korea’s limited diplomatic resources and the need to operate as a self-conscious ‘middle power.’

Ms. Enna Park, Ambassador for Public Diplomacy, Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs - YouTube

Influencing those Great Powers takes more than cultural diplomacy and military assets; a small country must prioritize its own interests whilst putting forth the common interest that it shares with the Great Power(s). Luckily, in South Korea’s case, security has always been at the core of its relationship with Washington, and the US has a significant interest in maintaining its role in South Korea as an important foothold in East Asia. This strategic tie has traditionally represented the common interest. However, Trump has been a disrupter of this military harmony, often complaining about the costs associated with defense – even raising the issue in his press conference after the failed Hanoi summit.

Trump’s skeptical viewpoint toward military exercises on the Korean Peninsula is well known, and he again vented his frustrations in Hanoi.

.@POTUS comments on @USForcesKorea and the ROK-US military exercises once again during his #HanoiSummit press conference: “We spent hundreds of millions of dollars on those exercises, and I hated to see it. I thought it was unfair.” https://t.co/EALpJIKYhR

— CSIS Korea Chair (@CSISKoreaChair) February 28, 2019

If this complaint is continuously made, and the US demands yet further cost-bearing by South Korea even after Seoul agreed to increase its contribution to a whopping 924 million USD in 2019, the possibility of reducing the number of exercises and troops involved cannot be ruled out. From the standpoint of power relations, regardless of the dollar figures, the very topic of US protection of South Korea puts the government in Seoul in an inferior position to the US.

The Korean language provides a convenient means of describing this situation. It is the relationship between gap (갑; 甲) and eul (을; 乙).  South Koreans often use this binary as a metaphorical phrase to frame a hierarchical relationship between the two parties (often used to refer the abuse of power) – gab is in a superior position to eul – just as in the relationship of the US and South Korea. The US has more power and it provides the protection whereas South Korea is a small power that is dependent on the US.

To borrow a Chinese idiom, this is a wukeinaihe (无可奈何) situation, meaning that there is no possibility of doing anything about it, because minor adjustments do not alter the basic asymmetry.

But South Korea is far from hemmed in completely. Moon was able to bridge diplomatic gaps in 2017 and 2018, and South Korea managed to build a base to legitimately call itself a jungjaeja. Moon Jae-in is not reading Eriksson, but this particular theorist’s work on the positive aspect of a small state very much holds true for South Korea: It has a non-threatening political posture and the reputation for skilled diplomacy along with extensive knowledge on the region. Its identity as jungjaeja is limited to the bridge-making role that brings parties to sit at the table, but it is a significant role all the same.

A Game Changer| South Korea’s ongoing cultivation as a middle power and as a mediator between Washington and Pyongyang is taking place within a global moment wherein American unilateralism is ascendant and US alliances and commitment to traditional institutions like the United Nations questioned.  In an interview with JTBC, Roh-era Minister of Unification Jung Sae-hyun said that US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s joining in the later part of talks with Kim Jong-un was a sign that made him kkeolimjig-hada [꺼림칙하다]  – meaning leery.

Bolton is clearly skeptical of South Korea’s role on the North Korean issue. This explains Jung’s further speculation that Bolton had unexpectedly broadened the issues to which the North Koreans had to respond in Hanoi and brought WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) to the table as part of the deal. Bolton’s participation might have changed the atmosphere of the talks.

"더 높은 합의로 가는 과정이라고 생각한다. 이제 우리의 역할이 더욱 중요해졌다". 문 대통령은 3·1절 100주념 기념사에서 "미국·북한과 긴밀히 소통하고 협력해 양국 간 대화의 완전한 타결을 반드시 성사시켜낼 것"이라고 말했습니다. #정치부회의 pic.twitter.com/WPg5JuR8UC

— JTBC5시정치부회의 (@JTBC5) March 1, 2019

Conclusion | Judging from the events and outcome in Hanoi, South Korea’s role as jungjaeja did not impact the negotiation between the US and North Korea. Nevertheless, given how Kim Jong-un answered a couple of questions from journalists before the meeting began, North Korea has already made progress in terms of coming out of its shell, and South Korea has played a big role in lubricating relations.

In his remarks at the 100th anniversary of the March 1st Movement earlier today, Moon said, “Now our role has become more important,” adding that South Korea will closely communicate with the US and North Korea to achieve a settlement, and that South Korea will take the lead in the New Peninsula System (신한반도체제); which he defined as the Peace and Cooperation Community (평화협력공동체) and Economic Cooperation Community (경제협력공동체).

In his speech, Moon appealed to the emotion of South Koreans by emphasizing that there was no North or South Korea on the Peninsula when the 3.1 independence movement happened 100 years ago, and all Koreans became one and shouted for independence peacefully at the time. Whether Seoul can now get its allies and adversaries to shout as one, and stop shouting at each other in the pursuit of regional peace, remains to be seen.

   [ + ]

1. Jacob Eriksson, Small State Mediation in International Conflicts: Diplomacy and Negotiation in Israel-Palestine (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015), 3.
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Do sanctions work? This question seems to unite academics and policy makers. After all, considering this puzzle with respect to North Korea in 2019 requires not just generalized tea-leaf reading of the Trump administration, but also a grasp of the historical context of how sanctions have worked, and failed to work, with apartheid-era South Africa, pre-2003 Iraq, or present-day Russia. Such work requires a combination of a general theoretical framework with country- or regional-level specificities. In North Korea’s case, United Nations sanctions have grown particularly stringent since 2017, yet the DPRK remains notably unbowed.

Even before the UN Security Council implemented resolutions 2375 and 2397, Justing Hastings of the University of Sydney presented a sound basis for understanding how the Pyongyang regime has managed to withstand increasing economic isolation. Here, Sino-NK Senior Editor Adam Cathcart offers insights into Hastings’ work A Most Enterprising Country. This review in particular analyzes how the work fits into recent research on North Korea’s sanctions busting, as well as how Hastings was able to reach his conclusions given the particularly fraught task of synthesizing data on this complex topic. — Anthony V. Rinna, Senior Editor

Review of Justin V. Hastings, A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2016), 240 pp., 9781501704901, hardcover $29.95.

By Adam Cathcart

A Most Enterprising Country, Justin Hastings’ “terse and densely documented” look at how North Korea sustains itself in the world economy. | Image: Cornell University Press

In the sulfurous wake of the DPRK’s nuclear and missile tests through 2017, an interlocking grid of sanctions were levied on North Korea by the United Nations, the United States, South Korea and Japan. The Trump administration undertook a “pressure campaign” against North Korea that was by turns belligerent, pleading, and vengeful, pushing for ever-tighter sanctions. Even the Chinese government seemed to cooperate at key moments, slashing overall trade with North Korea and only selectively deflecting foreign pressure on Pyongyang. Amid these geopolitical tremors and economic storms, North Korea’s trade balances have taken a hit, but its “sanctions busting” activity has seemingly not relented; Kim Jong-un appears to have rather deep pockets when it comes to an endless array of prestige projects.

In Washington, D.C., both the U.S. Congress and the Executive branch aligned around a common view that sanctions enforcement and restrictions on North Korean trade would, as Adam Szubin of the US Treasury put it at a 2018 hearing,  ‘wrestle them [the North Korean government] to the negotiating table,’ if not collapse the regime altogether. Work by research groups and think tanks has paralleled that of the American government action and US Treasury sanctions; namely, US, British, and Canadian scholars and groups like the Center for Defense Analysis (C4ADS) have done their part to leverage disparate data sets like shipping ledgers, satellite data, defector testimonies, and Chinese corporate and customs bureau websites. These scholars then map out how North Korea has been able to maintain what the UN Panel of Experts would consider illicit imports and exports. Thus, even if Kim Jong-un does turn up with a new Mercedes Benz from time to time, the mission of squeezing the court economy and holding the DPRK to an array of international standards continues.

Several areas of scholarly inquiry fall in the general orbit of sanctions, or investigate North Korea’s generally illicit means of avoiding those sanctions. The empirical base and awareness with respect to the importance of North Korea’s Chinese business connections has been demonstrated in work by scholars like John S. Park. When it comes to the role played by marketization in North Korea’s past, present, and future, Hazel Smith and Kevin Gray have written a great deal of useful work, while Andrei Lankov has looked at the newly moneyed North Korean elite and their role as political stabilisers rather than rogue and even anti-regime elements working to undermine the state’s authority. Nicholas Levi and Remco Breuker have looked at North Korea’s overseas labor force within the matrix of international law, and a large number of analysts are focused on the cross-border trade along the Sino-North Korean frontier.

Worthwhile criticism from Washington from a lawyer who spent several years blogging up details reported from precisely that border; he advises to keep an eye on shipping, and the US Treasury Department's role in sanctions & enforcement vs. North Korea. https://t.co/AqZLr7KawW pic.twitter.com/eaFweuAQmr

— Adam Cathcart (@adamcathcart) August 28, 2018

While work on sanctions enforcement is therefore a crowded field, North Korean marketisation and sea-bourne trade are in need of more critical examination and fixation to the sanctions debate. From RUSI, James Bryne and Tom Plant have launched a new report which moves in this direction.

Today we launch the first @RUSI_org Project Sandstone. We track the networks behind the Cambodian-flagged cargo ship named Jie Shun, which was discovered with a large cache of North Korean munitions #NorthKorea https://t.co/3eOjyH5FS0 pic.twitter.com/4u2FZ6pzdn

— RUSI (@RUSI_org) February 8, 2019

In his terse and densely documented new book A Most Enterprising Country, Justin Hastings brings a new perspective on North Korea’s economic adaptations and ambivalent relationship with international law. Blending international relations concerns with international political economy and trade analysis, Hastings, who is based at the University of Sydney, has put together an engaging and cohesive monograph. Readers familiar with some of Hastings’ work previously published work on North Korean drug smuggling networks will find resonance in the book, plus some expansion within a useful framework.

Looking across the Yalu from Dandong, where many of North Korea’s economic deals are done. | Image: Destination Pyongyang

Hastings deals firstly with supply chains in North Korea and the ability of North Korean firms to maintain and recruit entities to make profits and avoid international sanctions enforcement in the aftermath of wave after wave of sanctions since the first nuclear test in the Kim Jong-il era. As he puts it, after 2006, ‘The North Korean state was thus faced with an external environment where it was no longer just a backward, neglected country struggling to survive, but now had the full attention of many countries’ trade and finance regulators, and faced private companies and banks that were reluctant to do business (openly) with its representatives abroad’ (p. 69). Hastings engages in the very complex work of constructing a chronological periodisation of the sanctions up to about 2015. Although Enterprising Country went to press before the two additional North Korean nuclear tests of 2017 that sparked yet tighter sanctions and focus on the textile and seafood export sectors of the DPRK economy, his work provides a very firm foundation for understanding those areas anyway.

In terms of the data collected and used Hastings has done an excellent job of leveraging and synthesising diverse sources from media outlets such The Daily NK, some Chinese and Japanese media, and particularly the United Nations panel expert reports. He has also been able to do extensive interviews — some through a very able PRC research assistant — with Chinese entrepreneurs working in North Korea and with North Koreans in China.

Fieldwork on these kind of questions is always a slightly tenuous enterprise given that the Chinese police are increasingly being encouraged to see spies everywhere, and the quality of data gathered can be fragmentary at times and misleading at others. Hastings does a good job qualifying the data he has gathered from the border regions. For example, his eight pages of discussion of North Korean restaurants and waitresses is the best available for a subject that is frequently portrayed in a rather one-dimensional light. And one of the more surprising findings from the book deals with the role of Taiwan in North Korean trade networks.

North Korea’s Taiwan Option: Exploring Two Deals (2013) by @MycalFord https://t.co/jU5f6RIHCH pic.twitter.com/sVSte77IHF

— Adam Cathcart (@adamcathcart) March 8, 2016

For a period of time, North Korea trading networks had to transform and mutate rapidly. Again 2006 is a type of ‘year zero’ when lucrative Japanese Korean networks were more or less shut off for investment and trade with North Korea. Hastings ably covers the purge of the North Korean leader’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, and glides briefly into the seafood business and the nascent special economic zones.

The text’s abiding lesson, repeated over and over throughout the book, is North Korea’s ability to rapidly switch through shell companies and other organisations to find new sources of revenue. But Hastings also points to the paradoxes that these trading partnerships and relationships face when exposed to international pressure. In comparing the balance of land based trade in contrast with shipping, Hastings seems to focus on the maritime aspect as this is a much more important element in the North Korean economy. Indeed it is through international shipping that North Korea has been able to export and import arms and minerals and materials used in its supply chain for its nuclear program.

Story time! Here's what happens when you try to launder illegal shipments into China through North Korea https://t.co/d6eDRSA8ai

— Lincoln Davidson (@dvdsndvdsn) February 25, 2019

Scholars with interest in Chinese corruption networks and cross-border provincial ties between Chinese and North Korean officials will find some helpful threads, but not always bound clearly to an overarching thesis. This may be because, every so often (and not unlike any text packed with loads of details) Hastings gets a bit sidetracked by specific anecdotes about drug deals or shell companies. Perhaps this book is a type of gold mine, then, for creative fiction which could be spun out this material, as the contents of the book sometimes veer more toward the stuff of spy novels than Congressional reports. It takes intrepid sorts to do business with North Korea, and the North Koreans out operating in global supply chains appear to mix extreme calculation with fearlessness.

As Washington pivots and yet again aims to turn the screws on North Korea it is clear that work like Hastings is certainly worthwhile of considering and further developing. Likewise, it may help scholars to consider the role sanctions play within restructuring the country’s approach to economic activity generally. Absent this distorting pressure, could the energies of the North Korean economic trade elite be turned toward more systemic change? Currently, it remains rather difficult to find the line between the military first politics, or Songun, and the new strategic line. Like statistics in North Korea, precision on ideological matters is a difficult thing to pin down.

There is very little room in this otherwise exciting book to dwell on what it all means for the past or the future of North Korean economic reforms. If anything, it seems that whatever comes from North Korea’s elite, and whatever the ideological implications or irrelevancies, amid whatever US-led sanctions activities, players in the middle and within North Korea’s bureaucracies and government ministries have been given the space to create wealth. Hastings carefully describes how such people have gone about that extremely complicated process and in some ways very impressive task.

This essay will be published in the March 2019 (Vol. 18, No. 2) of the European Journal of Korean Studies, and appears in a preliminary version here.

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The mango mousse that started it all. | Image: Blue House

Spats over Dokdo/Takeshima are a recurring theme in Northeast Asia. A consequence of lingering territorial disputes, the disagreement is usually between Japan and one of the two Koreas. But it can also be a bone of contention in North-South Korea relations, in which regard it reveals the long-standing dance of attraction and repulsion between the two Koreas. In a new essay for Sino-NK, Ifang Bremer (Leiden University) explores the latest dispute — all started by a delicious mango mousse. — Steven Denney, Senior Editor

The Mango Mousse Incident: the Flexible Nature of the Dokdo/Takeshima Conflict in Inter-Korean Engagements

by Ifang Bremer

At the April 2018 inter-Korean summit, South Korea served a mango mousse dessert featuring a map of a united Korean peninsula. The map included the highly contested Dokdo/Takeshima islets, which are claimed by both South Korea and Japan. The islets are administered by South Korea, which refers to them as “Dokdo”, and since 1956 have been permanently guarded by South Korean Police.1)Sung-jae Choi, “The Politics of the Dokdo Issue,” Journal of East Asian Studies 5, no. 3 (December 2005): 465–94. Japan refers to the islets as “Takeshima”, and the Japanese government regards them as part of Shimane Prefecture. The Japan Foreign Ministry firmly criticized the mousse map and urged South Korea to rethink the menu. The incident was the latest brawl in Japan-South Korea tensions, a rivalry rooted in the colonization of Korea by Japan during the first half of the twentieth century.2)Sung-jae Choi, “The Politics of the Dokdo Issue,” Journal of East Asian Studies 5, no. 3 (December 2005): 465–94.

The “Mango Mousse Incident” showed that Dokdo, a borderland remote from North and South Korea, has a special significance for the central governments of both states. Furthermore, as the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict did not have an unduly prominent presence in past North-South Korea summits, the Mango Mousse case revealed a dimension of the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict often left underexposed: the role of Dokdo in inter-Korean relations.

North Korea’s stance on Dokdo ownership is identical to that of the South: both cite historical documents that mention the existence of an ancient state called Usan-guk around the sixth century. Both Koreas believe Usan-guk consisted of modern day Ulleungdo and Dokdo.3)Balazs Szalontai, “Instrumental Nationalism? The Dokdo Problem Through the Lens of North Korean Propaganda and Diplomacy,” Journal of Northeast Asian History 10, no. 2 (2013): 111. However, Pyongyang is less outspoken on the matter than Seoul. This is because, as Balazs Szalontai, one of the few scholars to research North Korea’s Dokdo policy, rightfully observes, for North Korea to acknowledge South Korea’s ownership over the islets would amount to recognizing South Korea as a/the legitimate protector of Korean statehood.4)Ibid., 117. For Pyongyang, this would be deeply problematic, as North Korea regards itself as the sole legitimate guardian of Korean national identity.5)Gi-Wook Shin, James Freda, and Gihong Yi, “The Politics of Ethnic Nationalism in Divided Korea,” Nations and Nationalism 5, no. 4 (October 1999): 478.

However, Dokdo is a returning theme in North-South Korea relations. It reveals the long-standing dance of attraction and repulsion between the two Koreas, mirroring the political conjuncture of North-South Korea relations. In the past, North Korea used the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict to criticize South Korean leaders and disrupt military cooperation between South Korea and Japan. However, today it seems that the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict functions as a “glue” in reunification processes; a development that could change the power balance within East Asia. 

North Korea articulates Korea’s claim to Dokdo on the wall of a North Korean hotel. | Image: Destination Pyongyang

The mango mousse incident is a microcosm of how that new division of power might look in the future: a unified Korea versus Japan. But how did the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict become a part of reunification politics in the first place? Georg Simmel’s conflict-cohesion hypothesis illustrates the mechanisms behind inter-state alliances based on identification of a common enemy. According to the conflict-cohesion hypothesis, a conflict with an out-group, or common enemy, can have two possible outcomes. It can increase the cohesion of the in-group and strengthens political centralization, or it can force antagonistic members of the in-group to repel another. Simmel makes the grim observation that “war with the outside is sometimes the last chance for a state ridden with inner antagonisms to overcome these antagonisms, or else to break up definitely.”6)George Simmel, Conflict And The Web Of Group Affiliations (New York: Free Press, 1955).

This theory, widely adapted in international relations, helps to explain the formation of alliances, as well as the creation or emphasizing of enemies. In Simmel’s terms, the in-group and out-group are not always clearly distinguished. In South Korea, political conservatives might regard North Korea as the out-group. However, recent attempts at reconciliation between the two Koreas reveal a different state of play: a united Korea as in-group, and Japan as clearly defined out-group. In this model, conflict between Japan and a unified Korea is at the basis of group formation, as being partners against a common enemy fosters solidarity among the partners.7)Robert J. Art and Kenneth Neal Waltz, The Use of Force: Military Power and International Politics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004): 17. In this situation, Dokdo acts as a meeting ground for the two Koreas.

Dokdo/Takeshima: North Korea as Rabble-rouser | At times when inter-Korean relations were at a low, North Korea’s involvement in the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict often took a different form: Pyongyang’s criticism of Seoul’s Dokdo policy. According to the conflict-cohesion hypothesis, unity can be formed when antagonistic members of the in-group (North-and South Korea) define a common enemy (Japan) in combination with a will of both parties to restore ties. Likewise, when both in-group members are in conflict with each other, it is not possible to form unity based on an outside enemy. The latter became especially clear during the tenure of President Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013), when inter-Korean tensions rose dramatically. In 2011, KCNA attacked Seoul’s “calm diplomacy” towards Japan, after an attempt by Japanese Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) officials to visit Dokdo via South Korea. The officials were denied access, and a diplomatic spat between South Korea and Japan followed. In response, KCNA released a report saying that “The situation in Tok Islets has reached such serious pass due to the south Korean authorities’ humiliating and sycophantic ‘calm diplomacy’.” For North Korea, President Lee’s initially cordial relations with Japan caused Tokyo to become more provocative in their claims over Dokdo.

On numerous other occasions, KCNA referred to Seoul’s Dokdo policy as “treason”. In a 1998 KCNA report, a spokesperson for the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (조국평화통일위원회) criticized the 1998 Korea-Japan Fisheries Agreement, which allowed both South Korean and Japan to fish in the waters around Dokdo, writing:

The “agreement” is a treacherous one that abandons the dominium over Tok islet, part of the inviolable territory of Korea, and sells territorial waters to outside forces. The South Korean authorities’ bargaining with the Japanese reactionaries over Tok islet and its surrounding waters is a treacherous act just like the treason of the five traitors of 1905 as it ignores the fact that they belong to the territory and waters of the nation. […] The South Korean authorities must immediately stop the unprecedented treachery, mindful that their pro-Japanese treachery will precipitate their own destruction.

By comparing the South Korean government with the infamous five ministers who signed the 1905 Ulsa Treaty that made Korea a colony of Japan, not to mention calling South Korea’s engagements with the Japanese government “treacherous,” “humiliating,” and “indifferent”, the reports create a juxtaposition between the disloyalty of South Korean leaders to the nation, and North Korea as protector of the Korean people against the former colonizer. Therefore, it seems that North Korea aimed to create domestic turmoil in South Korea by criticizing Seoul’s Dokdo policy.

This claim might seem rather bold; however, the past has demonstrated that South Korean leaders are highly susceptible to public opinion of how the government handles conflicts with the old foe. In 2012, South Korea and Japan called off a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), both of which were meant to improve and increase the sharing of military intelligence on North Korea. The agreements were cancelled due to severe domestic criticism of military cooperation with Japan, as many South Koreans regard Japan’s stance on historical disputes, such as the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict and the Comfort Women issue, unacceptable. Consequently, the cancelation of the treaties shows that the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict is in the way of full-fledged Japan-South Korea military cooperation. From a security standpoint, North Korea indeed benefits from the dissatisfaction of the South Korean public towards treaties with Japan.

Furthermore, in face of the criticism over GSOMIA, President Lee attempted to regain domestic support by paying an unexpected visit to Dokdo in August 2012.8)Sung Chul Kim, Partnership Within Hierarchy : The Evolving East Asian Security Triangle (Albany: Suny Press, 2017), 182. As Lee was the first South Korean president to visit the islets, the trip undoubtedly elevated their status as symbol of Korean national resistance against Japan. More importantly, the KCNA’s critiques of Seoul’s supposed inability to protect Dokdo, and President Lee’s visit, both show that the islets are a political instrument for both sides.

Dokdo as Reunification Glue | Today, we are looking at a radically different political landscape compared to 2012. North-and South Korea have been holding semi-regular summits, and Dokdo provides reunification glue rather than a source of conflict. A joint North-South Korea Dokdo outing first appeared at the 2003 Asian Games, when Dokdo was included on the Korean Unification Flag, a flag that represents the two Korea’s together. The flag appeared again at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, the 2007 Asian Winter Games in Changchun and more recently, at the Pyeongchang Paralympics last year.9)Shawn Ho, “Pyeongchang Winter Olympics – What’s Behind the Korean Unification Flag?,” RSIS Commentaries, February 8, 2018. Like previous instances, North Korea wished to include Dokdo on a unified North-South Korea flag during the opening ceremony. This time however, South Korea refused, as it would go against the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) recommendation not to politicize sporting events. Considering that for South Korea, the inclusion of Dokdo on the Unification Flag was not a problem in the past, this case shows the capricious nature of Dokdo-related political decisions amidst inter-Korean relations.

However, the view that Dokdo should have a central position in the reunification process remained, especially among South Korean Dokdo-related civic activist groups. As Alexander Bukh highlights, these groups believe that “Dokdo has the potential of uniting all of the members of the nation (South, North and overseas Koreans) and fostering the emergence of a true autonomous consciousness for the nation, which in turn will bring national unification.”10)Alexander Bukh, “Korean National Identity, Civic Activism and the Dokdo/Takeshima Territorial Dispute,” Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 3, no. 2 (August 1, 2016): 195. In South Korea, there is widespread support among people of all ages and all ideological backgrounds for protecting the Dokdo islets as Korean territory.11)Brandon Palmer and Laura Whitefleet-Smith, “Assimilating Dokdo: The Islets in Korean Everyday Life,” ASIANetwork Exchange: A Journal for Asian Studies in the Liberal Arts 23, no. 1 (March 1, 2016): 26. Japan’s claim over Dokdo is largely based on the 1951 San Francisco Peace treaty, which failed to recognize Dokdo as sovereign Korean territory. For that reason, civic activist groups, like most South Koreans, relate the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict directly to the colonization of Korea by Japan and the division of North-and South Korea. Consequently, they argue, expressing love for the nation through Dokdo is the “ultimate cure”12)Ibid., 195. for reunifying the peninsula.

The central role of Dokdo in inter-Korean engagements reached a climax during last year’s April 27 North-South Korean summit, with the inclusion of Dokdo on the infamous mango mousse. The dessert, named “Spring of the People” (민족의 봄), consisted of a mousse covered by a chocolate ball that had to be cracked open by a hammer. Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in ceremonially opened the dessert together, symbolizing a fresh start for reunification, whilst the presence of Dokdo on the the dessert emphasized the out-group, Japan, in the process. In this way, the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict became a means for North-and South Korea to overcome antagonisms by shifting the focus to Japan as common enemy.

Conclusion | For North Korea, the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict provides a space in which to foster conflict over Seoul’s Dokdo policy within South Korean society. This is perfectly logical. The cancelation of the GSOMIA treaty in 2011 demonstrates that discontent over Japan’s claim to the islets among the South Koreans can obstruct military collaborations between Japan and South Korea, which is beneficial for North Korea. But paradoxically, Dokdo also functions as cement in the process of (nominally) reunifying the peninsula. A common ground for the two Korea’s, Dokdo has played a leading part in recent summits and joint sporting events. The islets lay bare a power play of attraction and repulsion between North-and South Korea that can affect the power balance in the Northeast Asian region.

This may imply future deterioration of already-strained ties between South Korea and Japan, unless or until inter-Korean relations sour. With North-and South Korea as unified in-group and Japan as clearly defined out-group, reconciliation between South Korea and Japan will be nearly impossible and anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea will likely rise. Furthermore, the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict as stepping stone for reunification could provide the Japanese government with more grounds for advocating the abolishment of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes, as Japan will be less likely to rely on South Korea for military cooperation.

   [ + ]

1. Sung-jae Choi, “The Politics of the Dokdo Issue,” Journal of East Asian Studies 5, no. 3 (December 2005): 465–94.
2. Sung-jae Choi, “The Politics of the Dokdo Issue,” Journal of East Asian Studies 5, no. 3 (December 2005): 465–94.
3. Balazs Szalontai, “Instrumental Nationalism? The Dokdo Problem Through the Lens of North Korean Propaganda and Diplomacy,” Journal of Northeast Asian History 10, no. 2 (2013): 111.
4. Ibid., 117.
5. Gi-Wook Shin, James Freda, and Gihong Yi, “The Politics of Ethnic Nationalism in Divided Korea,” Nations and Nationalism 5, no. 4 (October 1999): 478.
6. George Simmel, Conflict And The Web Of Group Affiliations (New York: Free Press, 1955).
7. Robert J. Art and Kenneth Neal Waltz, The Use of Force: Military Power and International Politics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004): 17.
8. Sung Chul Kim, Partnership Within Hierarchy : The Evolving East Asian Security Triangle (Albany: Suny Press, 2017), 182.
9. Shawn Ho, “Pyeongchang Winter Olympics – What’s Behind the Korean Unification Flag?,” RSIS Commentaries, February 8, 2018.
10. Alexander Bukh, “Korean National Identity, Civic Activism and the Dokdo/Takeshima Territorial Dispute,” Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 3, no. 2 (August 1, 2016): 195.
11. Brandon Palmer and Laura Whitefleet-Smith, “Assimilating Dokdo: The Islets in Korean Everyday Life,” ASIANetwork Exchange: A Journal for Asian Studies in the Liberal Arts 23, no. 1 (March 1, 2016): 26.
12. Ibid., 195.
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Asia-Pacific leaders including Moon Jae-in, Shinzo Abe and Vladimir Putin at the 2017 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok.Image: Wikicommons

Great Power competition loomed large over this year’s Munich Security Conference, and while the event focused primarily on Europe and its periphery, discussion also touched upon East Asia. The pre-Conference report paid special attention to Japan’s role in East Asian security writ large, and ROK Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa held meetings with both US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono, in both instances (of course) to discuss granular issues of security on the Korean peninsula.

One overarching topic was the seemingly widening divide between Russia and the United States as “global influencers”. It is a much more complicated question than Cold War logics suggest. After all, just because Washington is currently on poor terms with the Kremlin doesn’t mean Washington’s friends are, too, and the same goes for the Kremlin. The ways in which Japan and South Korea deal with Russia’s role in East Asian regional security underscores the point.

Here, in the first of several essays covering the US’ Northeast Asia alliance network – and following up on a Sino-NK essay published nearly three years ago – Senior Editor Anthony V. Rinna looks at how Seoul and Tokyo view cooperation with Russia. – Christopher Green, Senior Editor.

Russia and Korean Security: The Views from Seoul and Tokyo

by Anthony Rinna

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” was a reasonable lens through which to view East Asia between 1945 and 1991, and Cold War-era regional frames have mostly persisted into the present, albeit more as a result of geopolitics than ideology. Nevertheless, even as Russia-US relations have deteriorated once more, US allies in Northeast Asia – Seoul and Tokyo – continue to view cooperation with Moscow as necessary for dealing with Korean security questions.

The Kremlin’s actions and policies vis-à-vis the Korean Peninsula, particularly over the past two years, have been widely analyzed in the West through the prism of Moscow’s ties to Beijing, to say nothing of growing DPRK-Russia connections. Given the enmity between the DPRK and Washington as well as cooling Sino-American ties, this could cause observers to view Russia’s role in Korea as an extension of the global Moscow-Washington power struggle. Moscow lacks independent influence in Northeast Asia (something that even some of the most prominent Korea analysts in Russia admit) and may well see openings to challenge US influence on the Russia’s Asian periphery. Seoul and Tokyo, however view the Kremlin’s role in ways outside of traditional understandings of power and influence.

This isn’t to say that Japan and the ROK’s ties with Russia regarding Korean security, particularly in light of their respective alliances with the US, have always been smooth. Both Japan and the ROK, as military partners of the United States, have adopted policies in the realm of missile defense that run counter to Russian interests. Moscow’s reactions to cooperation with the US over missile defense however, have been somewhat divergent. Complicating Moscow-Tokyo relations is the prospective deployment of the US Aegis Ashore missile system in Japan. Yet based on Tokyo’s positive attitude toward cooperation with Moscow, it appears that Japan’s decision to host American arms,does not in Tokyo’s view nullify Japanese goodwill toward Moscow. ROK-Russia relations, meanwhile went largely unscathed during the THAAD crisis of 2017, possibly because Moscow and Seoul valued each other as economic partners.

Dynamics in Japanese and South Korean Russia PolicyIn Tokyo, a key policy aim of the Shinzo Abe government has been to build up Japan’s Self Defense Force, buttressed by major defense budget allocations as well as potential revisions to the post-WWII constitution. These dynamics in Japan’s defense policy have occurred largely in response to the rise of China, but Russia is not far from the minds of Japanese defense and security officials. Over the years Abe and Vladimir Putin have held countless summits, with both leaders keen to develop bilateral economic cooperation in particular. Nevertheless, tensions over the disputed Kuril Islands/Northern Territories proving to be an endless source of frustration for hopes that Japan-Russia relations can normalize and develop.

Tokyo’s position toward Russia however, should be understood in its proper context. Indeed, Japan’s attitudes toward Russia have evolved from the Cold War era. Prior to 1991, Japan considered the USSR to be a threat to its security, even fearing the possibility of a Soviet invasion of Hokkaido. By 2013, however, the Japanese government had declared Russia an important partner. One of Tokyo’s main (admittedly lofty) strategic goals in relation to cooperation with Moscow on security is to neutralize the formation of a Sino-Russian bloc in Northeast Asia. Furthermore, Japan hopes that Moscow will leverage its growing influence with the DPRK to help stop Pyongyang’s provocations. None of this, however can paper over the fact that the Kuril Islands/Northern Territories quarrel constitute a major hurdle to the normalization of Japan-Russia ties.

In contrast to the festering tensions between Japan and the Russian Federation, ROK-Russia ties are not beholden to any disputes. Similar to Japan, Seoul’s policy toward Moscow has evolved considerably from the Cold War era, going from no formal diplomatic recognition up to the late 1980’s to the declaration of a Moscow-Seoul strategic partnership in 2008. Regarding policy developments in Seoul that affect ties with the Kremlin, Moon Jae-in’s outreach to the DPRK contrasts with Park Geun-hye’s comparatively hardline approach to inter-Korean relations. Concurrent with Seoul’s rapprochement with Pyongyang, the ROK values the Russian Federation as a partner, particularly in its New Northern Policy (an economic initiative aimed ultimately at fostering commercial interconnectedness between the DPRK, Russia and South Korea). Furthermore, Russian and South Korean officials have recently held meetings on nuclear security.

Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono, ROK minister of foreign affairs Kang Kyung-hwa and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meet in Vancouver, British Columbia in 2018. Russia was notably absent from this meeting of chief diplomats aimed at advancing peace on the Korean Peninsula.Image: Wikicommons


Japan and South Korea on Security Cooperation with RussiaIn the summer of 2018 in a meeting with Russian lawmakers, Chuiti Date, the chair of the Japanese Diet’s upper house, declared that cooperation with Russia was a critical aspect of Tokyo’s policies toward the Korean security crisis. Date’s comments echoed Shinzo Abe’s own sentiments on Moscow-Tokyo cooperation. While Tokyo’s sentiments toward the Kremlin stem in part from regional realities, Japan also views Moscow’s security capacity in part from a global vantage point as well. Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono has noted how Russia’s influence to promote North Korean denuclearization, by virtue of its veto power at the UN, could be of benefit to Tokyo. Furthermore Japan, like Russia, has been actively involved not only in efforts to stem nuclear proliferation in North Korea but in Iran as well, another potential source of Russo-Japanese cooperation. Indeed, ahead of the third “2+2” meeting between Japanese defense and foreign ministers, Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono stated that security cooperation with Russia was not limited to Northeast Asia, but included Iran and Syria as well.

Security cooperation between the Russian Federation and South Korea, on the other hand, occurs in a much different framework. To be sure, the ROK recognizes the Kremlin’s influence as a legitimately-recognized nuclear weapons state. South Korea’s top nuclear envoy Lee Do-hoon, like Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono, has also highlighted Russia’s influence by way of its UN veto. For Seoul, however, Russia’s value as a security partner is indirect while at the same time crucial for the current South Korean government’s wider vision for Northeast Asia. The ways in which Seoul has related to Russia as a security partner have evolved since the transition from Park Geun-hye to Moon Jae-in. Analyzing Seoul and Tokyo’s views on security cooperation with Russia nearly three years ago, it appeared that Tokyo valued the Russian Federation as a partner, while the ROK generally downplayed the notion of a constructive role on the Kremlin’s part. The essential argument still holds water today, yet for different reasons. Rather than Seoul dismissing Russia’s significance, South Korea has found a way for the Russian Federation to serve as a player in Northeast Asian security while suiting the ROK’s broader economic interests.

Moscow’s legacy on the Korean Peninsula is not unlike this area of the DPRK-Russia border: though spanning many years, the Kremlin’s ties to Pyongyang as yet remain highly underdeveloped.Image: Wikicommons

Following a summit between Vladimir Putin and Park Geun-hye in September 2016, Moscow and Seoul vowed to deepen cooperation over North Korea, with Putin highlighting the Kremlin’s “categorical opposition” to WMD proliferation. Cooperation on security notwithstanding, in the grand scheme of Russia-South Korea ties, as former Russian ambassador to Seoul Gleb Ivashentsov notes, economics has traditionally been the mainstay of ROK-Russian Federation relations. Exactly one year after Putin’s summit with then-president Park, Moon Jae-in declared that economic cooperation with Russia could be part of a wider strategy aimed at fostering peace in Korea. Furthermore, Moon noted that Russia-South Korea cooperation cannot stand on its own, but must include cooperation with North Korea.

The mainstay of South Korea’s policy of fostering peace on the Korean Peninsula by way of economic relationships is the New Northern Policy. Essentially, the New Northern Policy envisions a Korean Peninsula connected – especially by means of physical infrastructure that traverses the Korean Peninsula – to the greater Eurasian landmass. For Seoul’s New Northern Policy, the Russian Federation is a means to an end, in that the ROK government hopes to connect the two Koreas to other markets in Europe and Asia via Russian territory. For the Republic of Korea, therefore, security cooperation with the Kremlin is ensconced in the notion that Russia can in part facilitate economic rapprochement between the Koreas, rather than Russia having major leverage in inducing the DPRK to denuclearize.

No Permanent Friends (or Enemies)Alliances with Washington have not stopped Seoul or Tokyo from reaching out to the US’s major foe in dealing with North Korea. Even as the US may not share Japan or the ROK’s views on the possibility of Russia playing a constructive role in fostering peace in Korea, Seoul and Tokyo’s outreach to the Kremlin do not appear to contradict US interests or policies. For Japan, cooperation with the Russian Federation has both a regional foundation as well as being part of Japan’s professed strategy of being an agent of peace in the world. For South Korea, the Russian Federation offers the Korean Peninsula a chance to expand its global economic connections, with a hope in the background that prosperity will diminish the risk of violent conflict.

Whether Japan and South Korea’s tactics in relating to Russia will bear their desired fruit remains to be seen. But what we can see thus far is that neither Seoul or Tokyo is averse to reaching out to their greatest friend’s primary foe. It is an example of Palmerston’s oft-cited remark about permanent friends versus permanent interests, as well as a case-in-point of how Cold War dynamics, while still a part of Northeast Asia’s geopolitical landscape, have changed with the times.

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Although Pyongyang has singled out the US as “enemy number one,” the DPRK has engaged in diplomacy with Washington at levels unseen in nearly two decades | Image: Wikicommons

The arrival of a North Korean envoy in Washington highlights yet again the way in which the US and North Korea are talking to one another, under the shadow of nuclear conflict. The US Department of Defense’s recently released missile defense review, and the appearance of the President, highlighted a negotiating strategy trying to place US superiority again at the top of the docket. There is an ever-present tension between how North Korea projects its national identity to the world and what the international community, especially the United States, expects of it. To North Korea, it is a nation besieged, in needs of its “treasured sword” of nuclear deterrence; through nukes there is peace. However, for the US and its allies, peace follows nuclearization.

But even more than peace, there is also legitimacy, a somewhat vague but always intriguing concept. Being a nuclear state bestows a certain status, or clout, and if there is one thing North Korea wants, it is to be taken seriously. Expanding on this idea, Leeds University PhD student Yujin Lim, previously of the Brussels-based European Institute for Asian Studies, describes some of the deterrence theory and IR apparatus around North Korea’s quest for nuclear legitimacy.  — Steven Denney, Senior Editor

North Korea’s Nuclear State Status: Seeking Legitimacy in the International Community

by Yujin Lim

North Korea’s constant efforts at developing its nuclear capabilities and the expansion of its arsenals constitute a means to increase its leverage against those states it considers to be its enemies. Politicians and scholars have demonstrated the reason why DPRK is not willing to give up expanding its arsenal: the demonstration of force is vital for the regime’s survival.

The DPRK is recognized as a threat to the Northeast Asian sub-region because of its active nuclear development and missile launches. However, it has still not received recognition as a nuclear state despite its claims of possessing nuclear weapon and successful missile launches. This essay examines the question of why the DPRK is not recognized as a nuclear state. In order to answer this question, it starts with examining the issue of the “legality” and legitimacy of nuclear weapons. It then seeks to understand the claim of “self-defense” and the perceived “threat” against North Korea via the letter sent to the UN Security Council from the DPRK’s permanent representative to the UN. To answer the sub-question of from whom Pyongyang is seeking recognition as a nuclear state, this essay reviews the difference between “world society” and “international society”. It concludes that states will continue seeing the DPRK inside a bigger picture with other Asian countries together with nuclear capabilities.

All these questions and ideas are linked to theories of conflict and violence. The bigger framework of this topic is related to the question of “why states take up arms.” Within this broader question is the smaller framework of why some countries are allowed to have nuclear weapons while some cannot, which is similar to the main issue of why the DPRK is still not a recognized nuclear state. Instead of answering these questions with international relations theories (Constructivism, Liberalism, Realism), this essay will approach the questions by bringing the readings of legitimacy, sovereignty, and international society, and draw empirical observations. Since the nature of the topic is heavily security focused, however some international relations theories will underlie the empirical findings.

Legality of Nuclear Weapons | In 1996, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) handed down an advisory opinion requested by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. On the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons,1)Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons Advisory Opinion, (International Court of Justice, 1996). the court answered the General Assembly’s question: “Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstance permitted under international law?”2)Ibid.

The court’s answer to this question was actually very ambiguous. It was the first case of declaring non liquet (“it is not clear”) — in other words, there is no applicable law. Moreover, the jurors’ opinions varied – out of fourteen, five jurists appended dissenting opinions, while five others appended declarations (the other four were supportive of the court’s decision, yet, expressed controversial points). The conclusion of the court’s decision is that the court cannot say whether it is legal or illegal (non liquet – not having any point of reference in law to draw a conclusion). The most relevant controversial point is the dilemma of the survival of a state and legality of use. The survival of a state is linked to the state’s sovereignty in international law. Theoretically speaking, a state can decide what is important to it, what it wants to do, and what it is going to do with the reasoning of state sovereignty. Legitimacy is built based on these decisions.

Ambiguity in international law notwithstanding, North Korea has amassed an arsenal of various types of missiles, extending its reach beyond the Korean Peninsula | Image: Wikicommons

Self-defense Narrative to Build Legitimacy | The DPRK’s argument for developing nuclear weapons is directly targeted toward the US. Eight days before Security Council adopted the Resolution 2321 on November 30th, 2016, the permanent representative of DPRK to the UN sent a letter to the Security Council on the right to develop nuclear weapons “to defend itself against the US“.3)Permanent Representative of DPRK to the UN, “A Letter from the DPRK Transmitting a Memorandum on Its Right to Develop Its Nuclear Capabilities to Defend Itself Against the US,” in S 2016 988 (JaSong Nam Ambassador Permanent Representative of DPRK to the UN: United Nations Security Council, 2016). In the beginning of the letter, it says the DPRK “engaged itself in an all-out confrontation with the US imperialists to cope with their ever-worsening hostile moves and increasing nuclear threat against it.”4)Ibid.

The strong expressions in this sentence show the relationship between DPRK and the US. The first part of the letter argues that the US “suffocates” the DPRK to make North Korea’s political system collapse. Supporting the argument are examples from official documents. The second argument is that the US military cooperation with the ROK and Japan is a threat to the DPRK. The letter lists all of the military powers and exercises that the DPRK recognizes as a threat. The third argument is against the sanctions adopted by the UN. The DPRK calls them “inhumane,” stating “they are vicious hostile acts seeking to suffocate […] undermine the people’s livelihood and ultimately isolate […].”5)Ibid., 8. Based on these three arguments, the DPRK claims that it is the “legitimate right of the DPRK” to develop nuclear weapons and it is “a part of practical countermeasures.”6)Ibid., 9. At the very end of the letter, it says: “The US should face up to the new strategic position of the DPRK and take actual measures to show that they are willing to scrap its anachronistic and hostile policy and nuclear threat against the DPRK”.7)Ibid. This sentence shows that the DPRK views the US as having a strong offensive position that is considered to be a threat to the existing system, thus, it is standing up against it with an offensive mechanism and continuing its nuclear development.

Threat Perceptions and Nuclear Arms | According to Stephen Walt:

Threats […] are a function of power, proximity, specific offensive capabilities, and aggressive intentions, and the expected response to an emerging threat is to attempt to balance against it.8)Stephen M. Walt, “Alliances in a Unipolar World,” World Politics 61, no. 01 (December 18, 2008).

The word “balance” in Walt’s definition can be linked to “the law of proportionality” in the concept of jus ad bellum in international law, which is a set of criteria to decide whether or not to engage in war. The law of proportionality, in other words, entails taking similar measures. Proportionate decisions need to be made even in the case of engaging in war. The US military alliances with ROK and Japan can be considered as a threat in light of the definition Walt gave – military training of the allied countries in geographic proximity and the decision to deploy US missile defense system in ROK (nematode the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD) is a threat to DPRK.9)The deployment of missile defense system in ROK is mentioned in the letter of DPRK to the UN. The other neighboring countries, China and Russia, are also opposed to the deployment decision between the US and ROK. In that sense, it is considered to be a reasonable argument. Furthermore, the distinction between offensive defense and defensive defense, that in this case is the missile defense system, is unclear as some of the defensive defense has the possibility of carrying an offensive weapon with a slight tweak of technical alternatives. This is why Russia is voicing up in this matter and its position against the military alliances of the US with the NATO and in East Asia is very strong. Although the “threat” is a reasonable argument because of the joint military practices, developing nuclear weapons as a response to it cannot be considered as a reasonable measure according to the definition of Walt and the law of proportionality in international law.

Where theory helps us understand the world intellectually, it is in places such as the UN Security Council where ideas are played out in real life | Image: Wikicommons

Going back to the previous point on the discourse of reacting with offensive defense, even though DPRK constructed its argument and put out the discourse of fighting against its utmost enemy, the US, developing nuclear weapons is an extreme reaction. Moreover, the way states understand the use and purpose of nuclear weapons has evolved from the offense versus offense structure already (in terms of nuclear weapons) – from the Cold War to arms race to non-proliferation treaties and reducing the nuclear warheads. The DPRK’s political structure, under the succession of leadership, did not move forward with the rest of the world and that is why it is continuing such discourse, which is very far from the current international agenda on nuclear weapons – for instance, non-proliferation and safeguards.10)Michael Quinlan, Thinking about Nuclear Weapons (n.p.: Oxford University Press (OUP), 2009).

World Society and International Society | Despite the similarity in the names, the world society and international society are conceptually different from each other. Buzan defines “world society” as:

tak[ing] individuals, non-state organizations and ultimately the global population as a whole as the focus of global societal identities and arrangements, and puts transcendence of the states-system at the center of IR theory.11)Barry Buzan, From International to World Society? English School Theory and the Social Structure of Globalisation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Virtual Publishing), 2010).

When Buzan defined it, he marked that this is a revolutionary definition and explained “revolutionism is mostly about forms of universalist cosmopolitanism”.12)Ibid. In other words, this term covers generally the whole world. In that sense, “world society” was used in the previous sections when describing the DPRK as part of the global world. Diverse cultures, languages, and identities exist in different parts of the world and in different countries, thus, generalizing the entire world is nearly impossible; it does not require a country to fit into a certain standard because there is no universal identity. Theoretically speaking, this means that as a part of world society, the DPRK’s identity – who it is in its nature, how it is functioning as a group of people et cetera – is respected by the rest as it is. This idea can be tied to the legitimacy discussed above. However, each organ of the world society belongs to a certain group and becomes part of a smaller society; geographical groups, economic groups, political groups, and so on. The DPRK acceded to the UN and became a part of the international society where 192 other countries belong – officially, a total of 195 countries exist in the world so the UN is considered to be an international society that is analogous in size to world society. At this point, one may query what makes the UN, an international society, different from the world society if the size is nearly the same.

According to the differentiation made by Buzan between the world society and international society, “international society” is “about the institutionalization of shared interest and identity amongst states, and puts the creation and maintenance of the shared norms, rules, and institutions at the center of IR theory.”13)Buzan, From International to World Society?  The key word in this definition is shared – sharing in interest, identity, norms, rules, and institutions. It provides a common ground for the parties to act in the same manner as an institution. While the world community is not bound to a signed document that clarifies what the shared norm is, the international community (as in the UN, for example) has a clear definition of what the institution is standing for. The UN Charter is the structure of the institution and the member states of the UN all had to agree to adhere to the Charter when they first became a member state of this international community. As most of the countries in the world are part of the UN, the world society’s norms basically stand on the same foundation with the norms of the international society.

This categorization based on Buzan’s definition is from the English School of International Relations. Outside if this particular scholarly circle exists a similar categorization with different terms. Wildlak, in his book, points out that:

“international society” should refer mainly to a more functional and procedural understanding of a society based on the maximum pluralism values, whereas “community” implies a more demanding understanding, referring to a material union closer in values and actions […] the broad review of literature shows that “international community” is not only more customary in use […].14)Tomasz Wildlak, From International Society to International Community. The Constitutional Evolution of International Law (n.p.: Gdańsk University Press, 2012), 18.

Wildlak asserts that “international community” is more used widely and it emphasizes the values. Moreover, earlier in his book, he mentions that “international community” is a legal term. 

Fewer minds have helped advance our theoretical understanding of international relations more than John Mearsheimer (L) and Stephen Walt | Image: Wikicommons

Legality, Legitimacy, and Why Nuclear Ambitions Succeed | Each country with the nuclear capabilities and legitimately recognized as a nuclear state has different political leverage, or power, and foreign relations. Thus, finding similar cases to examine how they claimed their nuclear powers and how other countries accept it is difficult. On the Asian content, for instance, China is one of the five recognized nuclear states whereas India is not. Many scholars identify the reasons of India’s nuclear development success as: i) its political balance between Russia and the US, ii) its diplomatic skills that enabled it to enhance the bilateral relations with the five nuclear states, and iii) its non-offensive nuclear policies.15)Or Rabinowitz, Bargaining on Nuclear Tests: Washington and Its Cold War Deals(Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2014), Chapter 8.

The DPRK certainly is not in a similar situation where India was in the 1970s, when the number of nuclear tests increased – the DPRK calls the US its enemy and it does not have peaceful relations with many countries. As the example of India shows, having harmonious foreign relations increases the chances of gaining international recognition. Walker and Wheeler described how the DPRK is using the nuclear development as its bargain chip:

It (DPRK) has sought to overcome a chronic lack of external interaction capacity (international relations theorist Barry Buzan’s term) by acquiring or threatening to acquire nuclear weapons, hoping thereby to buttress the state and governing regime’s capabilities and chances of survival.16)William Walker and Nicholas J. Wheeler, “The Problem of Weak Nuclear States,” The Nonproliferation Review 20, no. 3 (November 2013), 417.

This is certainly the opposite to the direction India took. The case of India makes it clear that the nuclear issue needs to be solved with diplomacy, not with “threats,” to gain legitimacy by the community.

The grouping of the terms of similar concepts – legality and legitimacy, self-defense and threat, and world society and international society – is probed through contextualizing these concepts to a concrete example of DPRK to understand the complications behind recognizing a state as a nuclear state; it is not simply about the state’s capabilities. In conclusion, although two nuclear tests were conducted and many missiles were launched in the past years, DPRK cannot be recognized as a nuclear state for the following reasons: i) illegitimate despite the sovereign power because it does not fulfill its obligation as a part of the world society ii) illegitimate because the development of nuclear weapons is not proportionate to the level of threat it..

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