Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How to tango with Pyongyang

New evidence unearthed by the North Korea International Documentation Project suggests that the 1968 hijacking of the USS Pueblo and the dramatic increase in violence between 1967 and 1968 were motivated by Pyongyang's desires to mend ties with Beijing. According to Romanian sources, Kim Il Sung believed that following Mao's anti-US strategy of opening a "second front" on the Korean Peninsula would bring much needed aid and supplies to the DPRK from the PRC.

This new interpretation of the Pueblo Crisis would remain consistent with how North Korea suddenly changed its behavior towards South Korea (despite maintaining hostile intentions) when China began its rapprochement with the US.

The new narrative of the Pueblo Crisis characterizes Pyongyang as malleable and responding to international conditions, running counter to how many have implicitly portrayed the state.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Jennifer Lind forwarded three elements that facilitate North Korea's deterrent capabilities:
  • unpredictability 
  • the catastrophic consequences of North Korea’s collapse
  • the regime’s nuclear capabilities.
While Professor Lind is correct to pin point North Korea's strengths, she provides no policy recommendation for Washington in the article because she is unconvinced of Pyongyang's responsiveness to external pressures. From Lind's perspective North Korea's history of provocations from USS Pueblo to the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 is a single narrative of a state acting without a long-term strategy.

However, the new Romanian evidence on the Pueblo Crisis challenges this view.

If North Korea does indeed react to outside forces, then it is likely to want, first and foremost, to reduce its overwhelming insecurity. This may create an opportunity for Washington to work with - Ambassador Morton Abramowitz suggested dispatching a senior-level politician (like the VP) to negotiate trading security, recognition, etc. for Pyongyang's missiles and nukes.

Alternatively the US could do nothing and see the entire region descend into paranoia and North Korean children starve to death. Washington ought to take the step to change the region for good.

Read my slightly less hyperbolic article on Asia Times Online

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Populism, internet freedoms and government spending

It's a critical year for several democracies around the world. President Sarkozy faces an uphill battle in the second round of elections; Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte tendered his government's resignation after failing to agree on new budget cuts; President Obama faces off Mitt Romney in the most important elections in the world; Prime Minister Noda will most likely fall victim to the split Diet this year or next; South Koreans will choose their president after the national assembly elections failed to yield a clear popular mandate for any party.

But elections in 2012 stand out from past displays of democratic principles - there appears to be a new wave of populism sweeping over the world, primarily characterized by widespread discourse regarding the role of government in the lives of the multitude.

In particular, defending the rights of individuals online has produced a political movement that will only gain greater following as US and EU policymakers continue to draft draconian measures to limit the freedom of speech. Democratization of public opinion through the medium of social networking sites has been an empowering force and the new Pirate Party seeks to "make sure that the offline civil liberties would carry over into the online world"

They have a five step plan:
  1. Create Sweden’s largest youth wing of any party, giving [them] credibility enough to succeed in… 
  2. The European Elections, where [they] need to beat 4% (note: [they] got 7.13%), which in turn is a stepping stone to… 
  3. Getting entry in the Swedish Parliament, which would start turning things around immediately. But in order to really change European policy, [they] need to… 
  4. Take about 5% in 3-4 more key parliaments in Europe, in key countries like Germany, France, or Poland, and use the combined leverage of those heavyweight parliaments to change the view on information policy across the European Union. Once that is done… 
  5. The world would have to follow, since no monopolistic repression happens if Europe doesn’t agree to it – since the EU is the world’s largest economy, larger than the US.
Considering the already sizable and growing support for this movement, Pirate Parties will have a place in European Union policymaking in the near future.

Meanwhile, the looming economic crisis has European country on edge and elected officials in a quandary - governments need to pass austerity measures to safeguard the economy, yet the public rejects any budget that would scale back spending on welfare.

Just today, the Dutch government collapsed over a new austerity budget that would have brought deficits below 3% of the GDP as agreed upon in the EU fiscal pact. According to journalist Neil Clark:
The people have had enough of austerity... Holland’s GDP growth in the ten years since it’s had the Euro has just been 1.5 per cent. And they’re now being told that because of this absolutely insane fiscal pact that was agreed upon last year. It will destroy the good life that the Dutch people have been used to over the years. And unsurprisingly the Dutch are saying, it’s enough.
Indeed, decreasing government spending is politically challenging and ruinous for coalitions; however, Sweden provides a clear example of how decreased spending complemented by reduction of taxes could have a positive effect on growth.

According to Sweden's finance minister Anders Borg, Stockholm owes its success to the following policies that were unpopular at start, but proved instrumental in improving services and development
  • Substantially reducing income taxes - particularly, through the introduction of earned income tax credits, for low- and middle-income earners - and reforming benefits systems. 
  • Reforming the educational system and improving the situation of groups with weak employment prospects. In particular, developing schools and vocational training to better target knowledge and skills for a modern economy. 
  • A strong commitment to sound public finances; a fiscal policy framework with an expenditure ceiling and a surplus target
  • Pro-growth reforms including the de-regulation of markets, selling of state-owned companies, introducing competition in health care and education, abolishing of wealth and inheritance taxes.
The US Tea Party supported similar positions, but overburdened itself by unnecessarily supporting socially conservative issues and failing to come up with a clear economic plan to resolve the deficit without capsizing the entire economy. In addition, the movement seems to be losing momentum as the Republican Party fields slightly more right than it had in the past.

While policymakers in the US and EU struggle to develop sound fiscal policy for long-term growth, Argentina has fallen wayside (again) - the decision to nationalize the oil firm YPF appears to be driven more by President Kirchner's desire to pander to the public than short or long-term benefits to the country.

Competing domestic forces have always limited the number of policies that elected officials can carry out. The new element in the 21st century is the increasing power of the masses to fuel the momentum of political movements. This will produce a mixed bag of politicians: some like Anders Borg will pursue policy and allow the results to speak for themselves; others like Christina Kirchner will revert to directly appealing to the public through cheap cosmetic measures such as nationalization and bursts of public spending.

As the US presidential election approaches, it remains to be seen how each of the candidates will field their positions - and unhappy America may see both candidates buckle

Friday, April 20, 2012

We built this nation on these mountains... rivers... and dams

The importance of energy security in attaining both national security and prosperity has been pronounced since the industrial revolution. Today, as the rising cost of crude oil threatens to break the backs of the global community, debating the issues surrounding energy production, distribution and consumption has become unavoidable.

However, there is a skewed focus. Analysts have mostly focused on how the industrialized economic-core acquires fuel resources from the periphery. Little attention has been expended on how countries without a massive mineral energy reserve will cope with development and how the challenges they face may lead to wider complications.

A recent article on Asia Times Online by Eelke P Kraak, titled "Power nexus skews Kyrgyz dam demand," captured the importance of energy politics in the periphery and sketched out possible consequences of the developments in Central Asia going awry.

To briefly summarize the crucial events, Kyrgyzstan has been constructing hydroelectric dams along the Syr Darya River, which brings water from the Tian Shan Mountains to the Aral Sea. For Bishkek, the project is absolutely necessary for the establishment of a functioning economy. However, this project has instigated conflict with Uzbekistan, which requires the water from the Syr Darya for its agriculture.  And the conflict is just beginning:  the Kambarata II Dam, which was inaugurated in August of 2010, was the first of 6-8 damns planned along the Kambarata cascade on the Syr Darya-Naryn river system.

Kraak sees the Soviet legacy of forcing industrial agriculture on the Central Asian nations as the roots of the conflict.
The Kambarata cascade is by no means the first hydropower intervention in the Aral Sea basin of which the Syr Darya covers half the drainage area. Hundreds of dams have been constructed since the 1930s as well as a plethora of reservoirs, irrigation canals, and other water management structures. These developments were part of the Soviet hydropower mission, a modernisation plan that made the conquest of nature an ideological imperative. By taming the wild Syr Darya and Amu Darya Rivers, it was thought, agricultural output could be greatly increased.
Indeed, Moscow succeeded (with massive help from displaced ethnicities imprisoned in Uzbekistan) and created the "Cotton Belt" - but the consequences of this policy can literally be seen from space. The Aral Sea is on the verge of disappearing.

(Courtesy of the United Nations Environment Programme)

Kraak sees an economic solution
According to economic analysis conducted by the World Bank, a win-win solution is actually possible without the expensive construction of more dams: recognising the economic value of water allows for the optimisation of existing dam operations. Kyrgyzstan could discharge water for Uzbek irrigation in summer, in exchange for nominal payments to cover the costs of an alternative electricity supply in winter.
However, even Kraak recognizes that such a pragmatic solution would be difficult to achieve when you have domestic interests ("hydroelectric elites") that are determined to maximize its own gains via the construction of the dams.

In addition, Kraak notes that rumors suggest a Russian hand in the hydroelectricity development in Kyrgyzstan. Apparently Moscow provided large loans to Bishkek in 2009 to jump start the dam construction and many interpreted this as the Kremlin's attempt to dislodge the US from Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan.

While I disagree with the implicit assertion that Moscow seeks a solid political hegemony in the region, Russia's vested interest in Kyrgyzstan (directly tied to its own national security) does make it difficult for the regional parties to come to a compromise.

Water sharing is a difficult issue to resolve and it's unclear if there really is a win-win solution. If hostilities over resources manifest in violence, the ramifications of such an event in an unstable and volatile region like Central Asia will be catastrophic. For Washington, attempting to bring stability to the region, poverty in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan acts as an obstacle that hinders statecraft and reconstruction of Afghanistan. This reflects one example of how scarcity and competition over natural resources can spill over into other vital areas of interest.

This much is clear: the increasingly self-evident nexus between energy production and food acquisition (or other agricultural products; like cotton) will be a pivotal facet of international development from now on and it will haunt both the developed and developing world. In short, scarcity in the periphery is not just the problem of the periphery alone, it's everybody's problem.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

End of an Era?

Tokyo is mobilizing for the upcoming North Korean launch with forwardness and confidence that is rarely seen in Japanese foreign policy. It is very possible that this is an indicator of the changing status quo in the Asia-Pacific: Japan is breaking from its Cold War-era role as a dependent state of the United States and making it on its own.

3 days before South Korea's befuddled officials announced their possible response to the rocket, Japan insisted with vigor that it would shoot down the rocket if it strayed into Japanese airspace. This announcement is somewhat shocking when you consider Article 9 of the Japanese constitution:
ARTICLE 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
During the Cold War, this law and the corresponding foreign policy doctrine (The Yoshida Doctrine) presented one of the best examples of the peace dividend. Tokyo was able to rehabilitate its international status and mend relations with victims of Japanese imperialism while receiving protection from the United States. Reconstruction of a bombed-out country is much easier when the government focuses entirely on the economy.

But the maintenance of the Yoshida Doctrine was always tenuous because it was not entirely rooted in the ideals of pacifism. On the contrary, this peace-loving policy was a cold and calculated maneuver that maximized gains both domestically and abroad. PM Shigeru Yoshida was able to satisfy both the left and right by institutionalizing neutrality while de facto remaining dependent on the US military. It was a brilliant political compromise to jump-start a shamed and defeated country.

So what has changed?

A lot of people are suggesting that it's China and its claims on Senkaku that has driven the Japanese to increase its focus on the military. But threats to Japan have always been present - 30 years ago it was the Soviet Union.

If we put the world of PM Yoshida and PM Yoshihiko Noda next to each other, one crucial difference becomes very evident: the decline of the US.

Japan slowly began rearming itself in the 1990s because of demands from Washington for Tokyo to be more engaged in regional security and Japan half-heartedly went down that route. Now "regional security" is not just an ambiguous term: Japan's security doctrine has completely shifted from home island defense to far-island defense. It plans to add 2 more Hyuga-class helicopter carriers and purchase American F-35 fighters (with vertical landing and liftoff capabilities), which would effectively equip the Japanese Self-Defense Force with 4 aircraft carriers. Last year, Tokyo even removed the self-imposed ban on arms exports, making way for the military-industrial complex to grow.

What Tokyo and other governments in Asia see is the increasing powerlessness of the United States before its own massive internal problems, both political and economic. For instance, Bruce Klinger notes:
The new defense strategy could prevent the U.S. from fulfilling its existing treaty requirements. For example, the current war plan responding to a North Korean invasion (OPLAN 5027) calls for the U.S. to deploy 690,000 ground troops, 160 destroyers, and 2,000 aircraft within 90 days. Doing so would require the entire U.S. Army and Marine Corps after the budget cuts. The Obama Administration should make clear to South Korea that future U.S. force levels will not support the current war plan.
No wonder the Japanese are rearming themselves - with Asia unstable as always with North Korean provocations and Chinese assertiveness, and with the US increasingly unable to fulfill its role as defender, Tokyo sees few options outside militarization. On top of that, unlike the 1940s and 50s, the economy is fairing better than people think it is.

While policymakers in Washington cheer Japan's increasing aggressiveness, few have raised the point that Tokyo's policies may be more of an indicator of American weakness.

The implications of Japan becoming a military force in the region are grave. There are ever-increasing tensions over the South China Sea and adding more robust military players into the region may not be a good solution. In addition, North Korea's response to Tokyo's militarization could also have some serious ramifications.

All in all, Northeast Asia is in for a rocky decade.

Check out my article on Asia Times Online

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Missiles, oh my!

North Korea's pronouncement that it will launch a satellite to celebrate the centennial of Kim Il Sung's birth has thrown the world into dismay. The thinly veiled decision to test its ballistic missile was even more shocking because Pyongyang had agreed to a missile test moratorium not a month before.

The timing could not have been worse for US foreign policymakers: the domestic situation in the US is fragile, weakening the resolve of Washington's close allies, while the ongoing crises in Syria and Iran continue to vie for Washington's attention. The "Leap-day Deal," the result of a year long negotiation, could have been President Obama's sole diplomatic accomplishment with humanitarian assistance rolling in (albeit late) behind IAEA inspectors and the ground works for restarting the Six-party Talks. Instead, the president's trip to Seoul for the nuclear summit was completely sullied by the foretold provocation.

So what has been the general talk on the whole crisis?

North Korea appears surprised by all the international condemnation, claiming that the launch will be for peaceful, scientific purposes. In November of 2011, Pyongyang published a white paper titled “Space Is Common Wealth of Humankind” where it claimed that space "serves as a powerful engine propelling the future development of science and technology as well as economy" and criticizing the US for "spurr[ing] the scenario for converting the space into the theatre of a war for realizing its strategy for world domination." This should have been read as a possible sign of North Korea's intent to test its ballistic missile capabilities under the guise of a satellite launch as it did in 2009.

This may have been disregarded because Washington probably assumed that Pyongyang knew that a satellite launch violates UN Security Council Resolution 1874 which banned the North Koreans from conducting anything involving their ballistic missile technology. Perhaps it should have been made more explicit.

Stephen Haggard summarized several legal issues surrounding North Korea's satellite launch and possible rationale behind Pyongyang's actions. Here are three hypotheses that he presents in why Pyongyang backed away from the deal.

  • That the February 29 deal was effectively vetoed by powerful groups in the military or elsewhere; 
  • That it’s all about inexperience; Kim Jung Un was sold a bill of goods by advisors who thought they could exploit the missile-satellite issue and get away with it; 
  • That this was completely calculated; Kim Jong Un knew the risks but rolled the dice in an effort to have it both ways (domestic political benefits of the launch plus substantive benefits of the deal). 

With the launch most assuredly moving forward, the question now is how to move forward in this time of uncertainty.

President Obama's first plan was to rally support from the Chinese. However, despite his tacit support against the launch, Hu Jintao will probably not move to really antagonize North Korea.

Both Japan and South Korea have announced that they will intercept the rocket if it strays from its expected trajectory. Those are very serious claims considering the well-known prowess of North Korean rocket scientists in keeping their rockets in the air much less in a pre-calculated trajectory. It's good that the US government has not said anything about intercepting or striking the rocket while still on the launch pad.

The approach that appears most amenable is reengagement using assistance and economic development as carrots. Professor Michael Mazzar suggests
[A] new strategy using the twin forces — markets and information — to alter the system. The fundamental U.S. goals would be peace, stability and a gradual process of reform and evolution in the North that could eventually change the character of the regime. Unlike traditional proposals for engagement, this approach would not try to use trade and economic benefits to change the North's behavior. Instead, it would use targeted direct foreign investment, people-to-people contacts, training programs for North Korean technocrats and more to accelerate the rise of alternative power centers in the North. 
This is the safest plan for moving forward. I asserted before that leaving the North Korean masses to starve will negatively impact the long-term interests of the US. Other analysts also support the idea of proactively supporting the North Korean people to better prepare the US for North Korea's collapse. Some even consider aid to be a step towards taking down the regime. Gordon Chang believes that
Food aid, if properly monitored, can further erode regime controls on information. Foreign food monitors, present in the country to ensure no diversion of aid, give the North Korean people an opportunity to meet outsiders and thereby learn the truth about their own society and the outside world. Moreover, the presence of the monitors tests the limits of the state’s ability. There are simply not enough local minders to watch over foreign workers, doctors, and monitors. In fact, there has been unsupervised contact between foreign food monitors and North Koreans. 
There is clearly a compelling argument for continuing engagement with the North Koreans through humanitarian assistance. For its part, Pyongyang is willing to continue negotiations and have not rescinded its invitation of IAEA inspectors in the face of Washington halting the delivery aid.

The point is that there are plenty of reasons why North Korea remains antagonistic; one cannot expect two nations to build trust without first establishing diplomatic relations nor negotiate over demilitarization without a peace treaty. It's time that Washington stops allowing Pyongyang to surprise it and instead surprise the North Koreans. America needs a peace offensive.