Friday, February 24, 2012

The dependency illusion

Through trial and extreme error, communism has been thoroughly discredited in the last century; however, the theory of dialectical materialism survives into the new millennium. Marx suggested that the construction of new means of production inevitably leads to internal contradictions and new epochs are created through the process of synthesizing all the existing material realities. Today, we simply replaced the idea of an inevitable communist takeover with the presumption that every country will one day adopt the liberal democratic system.

This was Francis Fukuyama's famous thesis in "The End of History?" However, the revolt against this new world order began soon after the end of the Second World War, right alongside the Cold War. This was the struggle fought via economic nationalism and competing theories of modernization, taking shape in various ideologies and political systems. Latin American economists first led the charge in the 1940s and 50s with their "Dependency Theory." The core idea forwarded the view that poor and less powerful states will be subject to the political, economic, social and cultural domination of wealthier states. Adherents of this theory chose to disengage from the dominant economic systems of their world in favor of sovereignty.

There were varying degrees (everything from import substitution to self-sufficiency), but the most radical and extensive pursuit of this stance can be seen in North Korea. North Korea rejected the idea of being subject to either American or Soviet political and economic influences. Manifestations of this appeared in Pyongyang's refusal to join COMECON and its constant pursuit of heavy industry.

However, many analysts have pushed aside indigenous North Korean desire to be independent and instead analyzed Pyongyang's policies as an attempt to maximize political capital by playing the Soviet Union against the PRC during the Sino-Soviet Split. Naturally, in the post-Soviet era, the US foreign policy makers look to China as North Korea's patron and sole hegemon. As negotiations in Beijing carry on to denuclearize North Korea, this mistaken perception of Sino-DPRK relations will prove most ineffective for the US side.

North Korea appears to be increasingly dependent on Chinese economic aid and slowly making reforms to harbor cross-border trade. Some have argued that such reforms indicate North Korea's irreversible ties to China and a physical representation of Beijing's influence over Pyongyang, almost like the economic and political relationship that the US had with Latin America. However, to characterize the Sino-DPRK relationship as a traditional core-periphery model is short sighted.

The basic assumption that North Korea's economic dependence translates to political subjugation lacks substantial warrants. Yafeng Xia, a historian specializing in the history Sino-DPRK relations, portrayed China as less of a lever and more of a hammer, meaning that Beijing can strangle/starve Pyongyang to death but lacks the tools to apply less extreme changes or bring it to submission.

On top of not wishing to upset the balance of powers,North Korea serves as an important source of raw materials for development in China's northeastern provinces.

Furthermore, with everyone expecting millions of refugees to flood across the Yalu when the state collapses, it is hard to distinguish who has leverage over whom in the current state of affairs.

There is a predominant mood of inevitability when people discuss issues related to North Korea - that it will one day collapse or that it will inevitable bow to the economic realities and give themselves to the Chinese model. However, such thoughts are presumptuous and oversimplifies how different people view themselves and the world.

Imposition of dogmatism and a self-assuredness in one's own vision of history are not new things, but we ought to have learned our lesson and become more flexible.

Read my article in the context of the US-DPRK negotiations on Asia Times

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A short chronology of DPRK-US nuclear weapons negotiations 2010-12

February 2010
  • U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe meets with North Korea's president and foreign minister and "argue[s] strongly that the six-party talks should be resumed without preconditions or further delay."
  • On February 13, North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye Gwan arrives in Beijing and strongly pushes for a trip to the United States in March, but the U.S. does not authorized a visa for him.
  • February 15 North Korea’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam, states that North Korea will end hostile relation with U.S. through dialogue and negotiations.

March 2010
  • 26 March 2010, ROK Corvette Cheonan is scuttled

May 2010
  • Kim Jong-Il publicly supports cooperation “towards moving for a resumption of the Six-Party process.” Meanwhile, Clinton tours Asia.

June 2010

August 2010
  • Kim Jong-il expresses hopes for early resumption of six-party nuclear talks during his trip to China

November 2010
  • Special Representative Stephen Bosworth travels to Beijing to discuss the DPRK’s clandestine uranium enrichment program.
  • Yeonpyeong Island is shelled.

January 2011
  • North Korea invites South Korea to begin negotiations on inter-Korean trade; however, Seoul makes a counteroffer to discuss the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeongdo. Pyongyang agrees to meet in February.

February 2011
  • US NGOs observe signs of a severe food crisis in parts of North Korea
  • The first Inter-Korean military negotiation sine the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan starts and promptly collapses as the North Korean delegation storms out

March 2011
  • The US demands a show of seriousness by the North Koreans as a prerequisite for the resumption of negotiations.

May 2011
  • Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Ambassador Robert King and the USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance Jon Brause travel to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from May 24th to 28th to explore the possibility of extending food aid.

July 2011
  • Kim Kye-gwan arrives in New York on July 27, 2011 for negotiations “designed to explore the willingness of North Korea to take concrete and irreversible steps toward denuclearization.” Talks conclude without any substantive changes, but characterized as exploratory and constructive. Bosworth states that “before deciding our next steps to resume the process, the United States will consult closely with the Republic of Korea and our other partners in the six-party talks”
  • South and North Korean representatives meet in Indonesia to discuss prospects for restarting the 6 party talks

August 2011
  • US and the DPRK agree to discuss the search and repatriation of remains of US troops killed in North Korean territory during the Korean War
  • During his meeting with President Medvedev in Ulan Ude on August 24, Kim Jong Il promised to work on introducing a moratorium on testing and spent nuclear fuel processing. Senior Washington official states that the offer was “welcome but ... insufficient” to return to the negotiating tables.

September 2011
  • Top nuclear negotiators from North and South Korea meet in Beijing to discuss terms of restarting the 6 Party talks
  • On September 23, North Korea expresses interest in continuing negotiations with the US in October

October 2011
  • October 24, Bosworth meets with DPRK vice foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan in Geneva “to determine if North Korea is prepared to implement its obligations under UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874 and its commitments under the 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks
  • No significant breakthroughs in denuclearization negotiations. Bosworth states he is “neither optimistic nor pessimistic”
  • October 26, the US government is reportedly preparing to resume food aid to North Korea, but will stagger the aid in a series of deliveries. A source close to the North tells Yonhap News that Washington plans to restart the humanitarian assistance that stalled in 2008.
  • Mounting criticism that the US is coupling food aid with successful negotiations with the DPRK.

December 2011
  • Kim Jong-Il dies, but Pyongyang approves the continuation of negotiations. New York channel used to continue negotiations.

February 2012
  • North Korea makes a list of demands that South Korea must fulfill before resuming negotiations including the cancellation of joint American-South Korean military exercises. South Korea does not budge and the exercises are conducted on schedule
  • Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Kye Gwan leaves Pyongyang on February 21 for the 3rd round of talks with U.S. officials in Beijing.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Russian Winter Offensive

It has been a while since I wrote an article about Russia, but with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent visit to Damascus and Russia’s veto at the UN Security Council to block a resolution on Syria, the Eurasian giant deserves our attention.

Many analysts question why Moscow is acting so strongly against the United States when the Obama Administration appears to have done so much to achieve a "Reset" with the Kremlin. Most prominently, Daniel Drezner compares Russia and China in his Foreign Policy article and points out how Beijing's rhetoric towards Washington is more reserved than Moscow's despite China facing more direct challenges from the United States.

But objectively speaking, the baseline presumption that there actually had been a "Reset" between the United States and the Russian Federation may be a fallacy. With Putin at the helm, the Kremlin has seen the foreign policies of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, which invariably produces a long term perspective on US behavior towards Russia and actions in Russia's key areas of interest. Taking this view into account helps better explain why Moscow may not feel that Obama is all that different from Bush.

What the Russian leadership expected the “Reset” was for the United States to break from the policy of unilateralism and show “commitment to the notion that Russia can be a viable and trustworthy partner to the United States regardless of the state of Russia’s domestic affairs.” The Libya issue provides a good example of where the "Reset" failed to manifest - Russia abstained from the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 without totally rejecting it in deference to US leadership. Despite the silent understanding that the resolution should not be viewed as a green light for military intervention, NATO began air strikes on Libya. Therefore, in debating the crisis in Syria, it is only natural for Lavrov to give a firm warning to the "West" and use Russia's veto power to reject the resolution against the Assad regime. Furthermore, the criticism against Russian elections by the US State Department was not well received by the Kremlin, especially during a sensitive time for semi-democratic/semi-authoritarian regimes around the world.

What is more, Washington has nothing to bargain for. It has opted out of being an assertive negotiator or a stabilizer on the Korean Peninsula where Russia seeks stability in order to begin constructing new gas pipelines that will open way for the development of the Russian Far East. The US has not and cannot fulfill Japan's security needs, which is forcing Tokyo to reorient its military position from north against Russia to south against China (exchanging land based forces in Hokkaido for air and naval forces in the South China Sea) and leaving Russia in good position to conclude a favorable resolution on its island dispute with Japan.

Before, Russia saw the United States as a vital partner in engaging Asian countries - but with Washington forcing South Korea and Japan to reconsider their dependency on oil imports from the Middle East, Russians  can expect the East Asian economic powers to come to the Kremlin. In fact, South Korean entities have been in negotiation since 2003 to develop means to deliver gas to South Korea through North Korea - now Pyongyang has given a nod of approval and things will move along, with or without Washington.

The US-Russian friction is a reflection of Washington's massive loss of leverage over a country that had at one point desperately desired closer relations. Internal weaknesses of the Russian Federation may play a peripheral role, but obsessing over Putin's authority over the country misses the wider implications of current events.

Russia is a big country. It spans over vast territories and borders several regions where major world players have staked out their interests - Kremlin is challenged to produce a cohesive and coherent foreign policy to maximize Russia's gains. Naturally, the resulting policies are both reactive and pragmatic.

Looking at Eurasia from the perspective of those who rule over a significant portion of it seems like a good place to start for Washington if it seeks to better assert its leadership role there.

Read my full article on Asia Times.

Friday, February 3, 2012

"The concept of a dog does not bark"

We cannot recreate the past. After all, it would be impossible to maintain authenticity while being fully aware of the consequences of certain decisions. Nonetheless, toying with counter-factual scenarios and obsessively rereading the recent past are crucially important habits for attending to current social needs. By applying our current world view to our critical reading of history, we may gain valuable insight on presumptions and fallacies that may have been lost on us before.

In light of the mass public demonstrations in the United States and Europe, we must ask ourselves why so many of us have become so disenchanted with the dominant socio-economic paradigm that was so welcomed at the fall of Berlin Wall: the merger of liberal democracy and free market capitalism.

Since the phenomenon needs a starting point, one can start with the triumph of the "West" against its adversaries - and it may be useful to assess what and who the victory was against.

In the 2000s, when resurgent Moscow's foreign policy became increasingly confrontational towards the "West," many forwarded the notion that the Cold War did not end in 1989/91, it had simply gone into remission during the reconstitution of the Russian Federation. This view suggests that the Cold War was a conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. Add China into the narrative and one creates an interpretation of the Cold War that is largely great powers-oriented.

However, this perspective fails to account for civil conflicts around the world where domestic forces co-opted major powers to achieve political objectives. The Korean War is a great example of this: the North Koreans dragged the unwilling Soviet Union and China into a bloody conflict that very quickly involved the United States, but was initially only against South Korea.

Without accounting for other nuances of Cold War history, the nature of the post-WWII period is already very complex; nonetheless, a simplified model that continues to find itself into political rhetoric is the idea that the United States and Western Europe had championed the cause of democracy/capitalism against Soviet totalitarianism/communism.

German-American social psychologist Erich Fromm took offense to this notion and stated in his afterward to Orwell's 1984 that the use of "doublespeak" and the distortion of reality were prevalent in the West as they were in the dystopic novel and behind the Iron Curtain (obviously in varying degrees, but present nonetheless).
Just as the Inquisitors who tortured their prisoners believed that they acted in the name of Christian love, the Party "rejects and vilifies every principle for which the socialist movement originally stood, and it chooses to do this in the name of socialism." Its content is reversed into its opposite, and yet people believe that the ideology means what it says. In this respect Orwell. quite obviously refers to the falsification of socialism by Russian communism, but it must be added that the West is also guilty of a similar falsification. We present our society as being one of free initiative, individualism and idealism, when in reality these are mostly words.
One needs not go far back in history to find prominent examples to support Fromm's position; the overthrow of Iran’s democratically-elected Mossadeq government through CIA support, the praise for Pinochet's Chile as a key member of the "free world" and President Reagan's assertion that Grenada posed a threat to the security of the United States are only few of the examples among many disturbing contortions of reality during the Cold War that few in the general public questioned.

At the same time there is an important truism in narrowing the conflict to one between democracy and communism. It is not possible to maintain a pluralistic society and impose an economic system based on the denial of private property because such an economic model implies involuntary expropriation. Though some will argue that the forced march to industrialization helped the Russian people defeat the Nazis (again it's hard to create a counter-factual here), there is (or rather ought to be) little opposition to the notion that the Soviet Union was a supremely flawed experiment that produced neither prosperity nor equality. On the other hand, despite all its shortcomings, the handful of non-communist countries with its imperfect democratic institutions have undoubtedly nurtured the most tolerant and progressive societies in history. While there is a long road ahead, the progress made by the "West" must also be appreciated.

Reorienting our analysis to the era of globalization, the question now becomes the extent upon which democracy and capitalism are compatible, the limits and thresholds of their cohesion in the modern community of nations.

The friction between pluralism and capitalism is more nuanced within established liberal democracies because the system more or less provides avenues for redress and maintains a system of due process. However, as politics cannot be divorced from the appropriation of public funds and ensuring the general (economic) welfare of the constituents, there is ample room for principles to be trampled for (perceived) practical solutions.

The recent financial crisis in Europe revealed many contentious areas where the democratic system was in open confrontation with economic rationality.

Take George Papandreou's socialist government in Greece. When he came into office, he pursued a more transparent and honest economic policy than his predecessors and revealed that the Greek public debt was nearly two-folds higher than previously announced. This announcement panicked creditors and loans to Greece ceased, launching a major financial crisis. Papandreou was forced to devise austerity measures to qualify for a bail-out from the European Union, an absolute necessity for the economic survival of the Greek state; yet when these essential measures were introduced to the public, discontent boiled over and bloody riots reigned over the streets of Athens.

Naturally the markets reacted badly when the Greek government initially announced that it will place the conditions imposed by the European community on a national referendum. Under pressure to accept the conditions and curtail the market devastation, the government retracted the plans for a referendum and pushed forward without public consent. Ultimately, Papandreou resigned and a new coalition government is slugging along with the massively unpopular measures.

The question is: should the Greek government NOT have sought a popular mandate for the bail-out preconditions? The European Union clearly didn't think it was necessary, but is it so outrageous to seek the approval of the very people who will be most severely affected by the new policies? In fact, to act without a popular mandate on such a major issue seems abusive.

Many Greeks legitimately have redress against slashing public welfare funds - despite portrayals of Greeks lavishing in a Mediterranean paradise with generous pensions and retirement benefits that far exceed those received by Germans, this only applies to a portion of the population. Poverty rate in Greece is very high and in particular, poverty rate among the elderly rank highest in the European Union. Indeed, the cold front blowing across Eastern Europe and the Balkans appears to be a cruel twist by nature to further degrade the well-being of those Greeks whose safety nets have only recently been slashed open.

As evident in the Greek case, loss of faith in today's economic environment could spell disaster for a whole country. Most countries are drowning in debt and require a continuous line of credit to stay afloat - that's why the slow downgrading of the credit ratings constitute a serious threat to economic stability.

So the country's first line of order is to keep risk low and ensure the creditors that its macroeconomic policies are stable - but what happens when the wishes of the people are contrary to economic rationale? Or if the people's shortsightedness and the natural inclination of politicians to hold on to power turn into a vicious cycle?

In the case of Hungary, the economic performance of the entire country pivots around the electoral cycle - politicians promising economic/market reforms, incumbent government raising public expenditure, wild policies being proposed with even wilder expectations, etc. These are all legacies of Hungary's Goulash populism, instituted in the 1960s to appease the population that was still upset about the military occupation and repression following the 1956 Revolution. Under the communist regime, this populist policy manifested itself as small openings to the West. After the collapse of the Iron Curtain, it has turned into Clientelism by various political parties. Now, Hungary under the Fidesz government has finally maxed out the patience of its creditors.

What is happening in Hungary is not the people's fault. It's a moral hazard that political players waded into and then subsequently became stuck in. Nonetheless, it's hard to break from the vicious cycle when the general public reacts so wonderfully to increased government expenditure on welfare and wages.

The public often acts irrationally - fully knowing the consequences of their collective actions, societies still jump overboard, a la the Rapa Nui of Easter Island.

If this is the case, should the governments suppress public demands and forward plans that it sees will be for the welfare of the entire country? One is reminded of Bertolt Brecht's famous quote:
...would it not be be simpler,
If the government simply dissolved the people
And elected another?
Indeed the reduction of the government's power to influence the market has been a key element of the intra-state agreements on free trade. The European Union demands that the central banks of all member states be independent and the United States forwards standardized labor regulations that many think will eventually render minimum wage laws obsolete. But are these regulations inhibiting the people's right to collectively decide how to live their lives? More importantly, what is the impact of these new socio-economic model on the essence of democracy.

These are definitely issues that require greater public attention and detail. After all, the concept of a dog does not bark; we cannot simply call our society a democratic one without exploring what that means and then applying our ideals into practice.