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Challenges and Opportunities for Russia after the North Korean Hydrogen Bomb Test

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Even in situations where diplomatic negotiations over the North Korean nuclear weapons program are handled in a largely bilateral level, there is still often an element of multilateralism, as exemplified by the late Ambassador Bosworth’s briefing to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov regarding DPRK-US bilateral talks in 2009. Now, once again, Russia has received a challenge and an opportunity not only for its diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula, but for its broader relations with other states in Northeast Asia and, in particular, the United States.

The North Korean nuclear program is a case-in-point of where defense and diplomacy meet, for both are highly important factors in the Korean nuclear crisis. Given the highly multilateral nature of international handling of Pyongyang’s WMD program, the Russian Federation, which has been a somewhat lesser yet significant actor in diplomatic negotiations with the DPRK, may have a chance to play a greater role in this most recent development, and thus mitigate some of its own diplomatic isolation.

To be sure, there is some speculation and uncertainty as to whether North Korea has a truly functioning hydrogen bomb, or if it is a close but yet-incomplete hydrogen explosive device. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt of a new shift in the security landscape of both the Korean Peninsula and the broader Northeast Asia region. Regardless of whether this test means that North Korea currently does possess a functioning hydrogen bomb or is close but not in full possession yet, the Korean security game has been ratcheted up to a new level. Seeing as a hydrogen bomb has even more destructive power than a nuclear weapon, the stakeholders in the Korean nuclear crisis must now contend with an ever higher-stakes situation that will require even more diplomatic finesse.

Among the members of the former Six Party Talks, the Russian Federation was in a rather unique position. After the collapse of the USSR, its relationship with North Korea took a dramatic downturn, especially as post-Soviet Moscow established diplomatic relations with Seoul. Russia’s official policy toward North and South Korea was often described as “equidistance” toward the two Korean states. China, for its part, stepped into the void and became more closely aligned with North Korea.

After ties between China and the DPRK began to worsen once again, Russia has moved in as a partner for North Korea once again. This partnership has been limited largely to economic considerations. The DPRK and Russia have, however, initiated some limited cooperation on security issues, such as the signing of an agreement on preventing dangerous military activities in Northeast Asia. Yet even with these developments, there are certain limits to this revived partnership between Pyongyang and Moscow.

A common perception of the budding DPRK-Russia partnership is that both countries see an opportunity to essentially team up against the West. A crucial point to remember, however, is that while Russia may be willing to cooperate with North Korea on some economic and even security issues, North Korea’s nuclear program remains a source of anguish for Moscow just as it does for other countries in the region.

Shortly after the test, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign affairs committee of the upper house of Russia’s parliament, declared on his Facebook page that such activities directly affect Russia’s national security interests.

Not only has North Korea’s nuclear test drawn concern from Moscow, but Russian citizens in Primorsky Krai (the Russian federal division that shares a small border with North Korea) have also expressed concern about the potential for nuclear fallout to reach inhabited areas. The Primorsky Weather Center, however, has declared that citizens did not need to worry, as the test was underground, and that radiation will not be carried by the wind into any residential parts of the region.

In response to the test, South Korean president Park Geun-hye has called for the UN Security Council to issue new sanctions against North Korea. The Japanese government has also condemned the test, and has stated that it will be in close contact with other regional governments, including that of the Russian Federation, regarding the incident.  

One of the most crucial factors in Russia’s stance toward the North Korean nuclear crisis is that it has been a major proponent of multilateral talks and not just bilateral discussions between Pyongyang and Washington. To be sure, while the Six Party Talks have officially been defunct since North Korea walked out after its second nuclear test in 2009, informal negotiations and interactions between regional stakeholders have continued in earnest. This does not mean, however, that they have in any way been equal. Just as Russia fought hard to earn a place at the Six Party Talks against American wishes, Russia has once again found its interests affronted in the unofficial interstate interactions over the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities. Russia regarded the Sino-American cooperation on UN Resolution 1718 as an unpleasant surprise.

The news surrounding the North Korean test may present an opportunity for Russia to mitigate its diplomatic isolation. The last North Korean nuclear test occurred in 2013, before Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the attendant international condemnation. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia has a chance to present itself as a cooperative and constructive actor on the international stage. As Russia shares concerns with the US, there may be a chance for Russia to mend some of its broken ties with the US.

Yet while Russia has been condemnatory of the DPRK’s nuclear adventurism in the past, it has also been less outspoken than the United States in this regard. Depending on the extent to which Russia considers its revived partnership with North Korea to be important, Moscow’s diplomatic calculations may lead it to either take a harder stance toward Pyongyang, or continue in its role of condemning North Korea’s tests but not in the same way as the US. Regardless of which direction Russian diplomacy takes, the North Korean nuclear test will likely provide Russia yet another major opportunity to exercise some level of influence in inter-Korean and Northeast Asian affairs. In the end, the Kremlin will do what it feels is best for Russia’s own national interests. Yet it may also be a chance for Russia to mend broken bridges, or at least portray itself once again as a responsible member of the global states’ system.

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East Asia

Chinese extradition request puts crackdown on Uyghurs in the spotlight

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Chinese demand for the extradition of 11 Uyghurs from Malaysia puts the spotlight on China’s roll-out of one of the world’s most intrusive surveillance systems, military moves to prevent Uyghur foreign fighters from returning to Xinjiang, and initial steps to export its security approach to countries like Pakistan.

The 11 were among 25 Uyghurs who escaped from a Thai detention centre in November through a hole in the wall, using blankets to climb to the ground.

The extradition request follows similar deportations of Uyghurs from Thailand and Egypt often with no due process and no immediate evidence that they were militants.

The escapees were among more than 200 Uighurs detained in Thailand in 2014. The Uyghurs claimed they were Turkish nationals and demanded that they be returned to Turkey. Thailand, despite international condemnation, forcibly extradited to China some 100 of the group in July 2015.

Tens of Uyghurs, who were unable to flee to Turkey in time, were detained in Egypt in July and are believed to have also been returned to China. Many of the Uyghurs were students at Al Azhar, one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning.

China, increasingly concerned that Uyghurs fighters in Syria and Iraq will seek to return to Xinjiang or establish bases across the border in Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the wake of the territorial demise of the Islamic State, has brutally cracked down on the ethnic minority in its strategic north-western province, extended its long arm to the Uyghur Diaspora, and is mulling the establishment of its first land rather than naval foreign military base.

The crackdown appears, at least for now, to put a lid on intermittent attacks in Xinjiang itself. Chinese nationals have instead been targeted in Pakistan, the $50 billion plus crown jewel in China’s Belt and Road initiative that seeks to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic through infrastructure.

The attacks are believed to have been carried out by either Baloch nationalists or militants of the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), a Uighur separatist group that has aligned itself with the Islamic State.

Various other groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have threatened to attack Chinese nationals in response to the alleged repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

ETIM militants were believed to have been responsible for the bombing in August 2015 of Bangkok’s Erawan shrine that killed 20 people as retaliation for the forced repatriation of Uighurs a month earlier.

The Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned in December of possible attacks targeting “Chinese-invested organizations and Chinese citizens” in Pakistan

China’s ambassador, Yao Jing, advised the Pakistani interior ministry two months earlier that Abdul Wali, an alleged ETIM assassin, had entered the country and was likely to attack Chinese targets

China has refused to recognize ethnic aspirations of Uyghurs, a Turkic group, and approached it as a problem of Islamic militancy. Thousands of Uyghurs are believed to have joined militants in Syria, while hundreds or thousands more have sought to make their way through Southeast Asia to Turkey.

To counter ethnic and religious aspirations, China has introduced what must be the world’s most intrusive surveillance system using algorithms. Streets in Xinjiang’s cities and villages are pockmarked by cameras; police stations every 500 metres dot roads in major cities; public buildings resemble fortresses; and authorities use facial recognition and body scanners at highway checkpoints.

The government, in what has the makings of a re-education program, has opened boarding schools “for local children to spend their entire week in a Chinese-speaking environment, and then only going home to parents on the weekends,” according to China scholar David Brophy. Adult Uyghurs, who have stuck to their Turkic language, have been ordered to study Chinese at night schools.

Nightly television programs feature oath-swearing ceremonies,” in which participants pledge to root out “two-faced people,” the term used for Uyghur Communist Party members who are believed to be not fully devoted to Chinese policy.

The measures in Xinjiang go beyond an Orwellian citizen scoring system that is being introduced that scores a person’s political trustworthiness. The system would determine what benefits a citizen is entitled to, including access to credit, high speed internet service and fast-tracked visas for travel based on data garnered from social media and online shopping data as well as scanning of irises and content on mobile phones at random police checks.

Elements of the system are poised for export. A long-term Chinese plan for China’s investment in Pakistan, dubbed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), envisioned creating a system of monitoring and surveillance in Pakistani cities to ensure law and order.

The system envisions deployment of explosive detectors and scanners to “cover major roads, case-prone areas and crowded places…in urban areas to conduct real-time monitoring and 24-hour video recording.”

A national fibre optic backbone would be built for internet traffic as well as the terrestrial distribution of broadcast media. Pakistani media would cooperate with their Chinese counterparts in the “dissemination of Chinese culture.”

The plan described the backbone as a “cultural transmission carrier” that would serve to “further enhance mutual understanding between the two peoples and the traditional friendship between the two countries.”

The measures were designed to address the risks to CPEC that the plan identified as “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. “The security situation is the worst in recent years,” the plan said.

At the same time, China, despite official denials, is building, according to Afghan security officials, a military base for the Afghan military that would give the People’s Republic a presence in Badakhshan, the remote panhandle of Afghanistan that borders China and Tajikistan.

Chinese military personnel have reportedly been in the mountainous Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of territory in north-eastern Afghanistan that extends to China and separates Tajikistan from Pakistan since March last year.

The importance China attributes to protecting itself against Uyghur militancy and extending its protective shield beyond its borders was reflected in the recent appointment as its ambassador to Afghanistan, Liu Jinsong, who was raised in Xinjiang and served as a director of the Belt and Road initiative’s $15 billion Silk Road Fund.

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Quiet Diplomacy in the Midst of Storm: Olympics and the Peninsula Nuclear Standoff

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A memorial dedicated to reunification of North and South Korea at the entrance to Pyongyang

In late December, Choi Moon-soon, the governor of the province in South Korea hosting the Winter Olympics met the North Korean officials accompanying the under-15 Ari Sports Cup tournament team from the North in Kunming, China to discuss the possible participation in the Olympics by the North. Little did the world expect to come out of that meeting; in fact, expressing his skepticism, Mr. Choi stated “We were looking for any contact with North Korea, and the youth soccer teams were the only inter-Korean exchange still going on.”

Notably, soon after Choi’s overture, the leaders of the two nations made vital gestures of cooperation. In a television interview, the South’s President, Moon Jae-in, hinted that he would encourage the adjourning of the annual joint military drills with the United States — an inimitable gesture of optimism. This is exactly what the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has repeatedly condemned. Consequence to this overture, Mr. Kim, declared at the flinch of the year that his athletes would participate in the Olympics under the same flag with the South – the unification flag.

All this comes amidst high tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula. Indeed, the presence of the North in Seoul was the result of months of low profile discussions and “niche diplomacy” with the purpose of urging Pyongyang to attend the Olympics. Interestingly, it was during the same period that the DPRK once again tested its latest intercontinental ballistic missile, Hwasong-15, which it claims to be an indication of the completion of Pyongyang’s nuclear statehood, thus becoming a full blown nuclear state. This new development is described as a great success due to its capability of reaching the entire U.S. mainland. Could it be that the North is just being smart whereas the South is subtly being hypnotized or even hoodwinked? Should the Olympics’ “diplomatic bridge” be allowed a chance to, for the first time, denuclearize the Korean peninsula (theoretically speaking)? Should the nuclear brouhaha that has occupied the world politics and almost reached a brinkmanship be given a second chance as the world converge at the heart of the tension?

Today, the two Koreans are participating in the Games as one team, howbeit, demonstrations and protest from some sections of the South Korean populace. Indeed, skepticism from great powers, particularly the USA has soared and warnings cautioning the South’s President to disentangle himself from the North’s enchantment have kept trickling in every now and then. With both President Trump and President Kim threatening to use the “nuclear buttons on their tables” the possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula outshined the Olympic preparations, and the eminent catastrophe frightened fans and athletes alike. Some nations were even hesitant in sending their nationals to the games altogether.

“We cannot be complacent,” said Tillerson, “The pressure campaign will continue until North Korea takes decisive steps to de-nuclearize.” Tillerson made these remarks at a summit on North Korea’s nuclear threat held in Vancouver, less than a month to the Winter Olympics in South Korea. “This is a strategy that has and will require patience, but, thanks to your support, the regime is already facing costs it is having difficulty bearing,” Tillerson reiterated. This is an obvious indication that the West and other world leaders are not resting on their oars in terms of denuclearizing the DPRK.

In other to lessen the tension and alley fears, organizers of the Games concluded that the North had to be persuaded to participate in the Games. There is no doubt that if the North joined the Games, the eminent security tension would ease dramatically. After all, “we share power to share the responsibility to protect.” South Korea has therefore turned a potential liability — Pyeongchang’s propinquity to the world’s most profoundly armed border into “a gamble of hope”, despite initial strong objection by other nations.

Significantly, Kim Yo Jong, the first in the Kim regime to have ever visited the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, came with an unusual proposal from the brother, requesting President Moon Jae-in to accept an invitation to visit Pyongyang for talks with his North Korean counterpart. This diplomatic conundrum could be seen as a necessary evil that could be a defining moment for Moon’s leadership, especially in the wake of warnings and protests from within and outside South Korea, doubting the candidness of the North’s gestures. If the meeting took place, it would be the first North-South summit on the peninsula since 2007. In as much as it would be a diplomatic breakthrough for the Moon administration, which came to power with the promise of unfettering icy relations with the North, it could also strain relations with the United States, which has already expressed its objection to the recent overtures between the two Koreans. The principal opposition party in South Korea, the Liberty Korea Party, has also retorted the meeting would only “benefit the enemy”.  “We should firmly keep in mind that any talks where denuclearization is not a precondition only to buy North Korea more time to complete its nuclear capabilities while they fool us with their peace offensive facade,” party spokesman Chang Je-won cautioned. Japanese Prime Minister’s Shinzo Abe has indicated that “Now is not the time to postpone US-South Korea military exercises. It is important to move forward with the drills as planned.” The Blue House, however, deems the issue an internal affair and feel the South’s position is much more important. China on its part has maintained its insistence on given peace and reconciliation a chance on the Korean Peninsula.

It is worth noting that, the issue is both internal and global, particularly when it involves nuclear arsenals capable of hitting targets beyond the peninsula. Besides, the fact that it has something to do with great power balancing, geopolitics, global politics and security alone, makes it a global issue.

Now, what matters is whether Seoul’s allies should support Moon’s efforts at pursuing his policies of reconciliation, or put the screws back on to Pyongyang. Perhaps, Kissinger’s “secret or quiet diplomacy” in the early 70s could help answer this boggling question. Dr. Kissinger’s diplomacy came through amidst distrust, isolation and sanctions, yet, peace coupled with reconciliation was possible when given a chance. This paved the way for President Nixon’s historic visit and culminated in the historic turn toward normalization in 1972.Today, the US and China are important trade and “security” partners. Again, it must be made clear that the South is not canvassing for the lifting of the sanctions; neither is Seoul demanding that intelligence sharing on the clandestine activities of the North should be put on hold. Denuclearization of the Peninsula should be of utmost importance to all powers, both small and great- to eschew a nuclear catastrophe and massive nuclear armament in the region. However, the panacea should not only be focused on coercion, other peaceful means such as what the Olympics has precipitated ought to be embraced as well.

Indeed, recalling the spirit of the Olympic truce of the ancient Greeks, officials and world leaders have often viewed the “Peace Games” as means to promoting reconciliation among nations, and the Korean Peninsula would be no exception. As Bach, president of IOC, acknowledged, “The Games can send a powerful message of peace to the world.” The Ministry of Unification should therefore be given the opportunity to pursue this new path of South-North overtures, though not without upholding the tipping point sanctions.

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May the Olympic peace prevailing over the nuclear phantom

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Authors: Zhou Dong-chen & Wang Li

On February 9, the 2018 Winter Olympics began sensationally in Pyeong-Chang, South Korea. The world media once again focused on the Korean Peninsula, yet, this time is the Olympic Game instead of the war game between North and South Koreas. To certain extent, the event offered moments of euphoria. As Bach, President of IOC, declared that “the Games can send a powerful message of peace to the world”.

No doubt, peace never comes easily and cheaply as well. One can argue that there held two inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007 respectively, their athletes also waved unified flags aloft in Sydney and their unified-teams competed at the other Olympic Games. Even people thought these meetings and unified efforts at the Olympic Games as the signals of a beautiful friendship, but their hopes did not last long. Tensions in the Korean Peninsula soon resumed. In light of this, the new euphoria on the Peninsula has aroused a political debate between liberals and conservatives on the Korean issues.

Liberal opinion represented by Moon Chung-in argues that the Olympics should be an opportunity for negotiation with North Korea, a process they understand will take time and is unlikely to run smoothly. But they insist that this opportunity should be seized and that Washington should lend a hand and support the negotiation process, even if that means delaying the yearly military drill or abstaining from any military attack on North Korea. As a result, liberals called for efforts to create the right conditions to realize such a visit and urged Pyongyang to actively seek dialogue with the United States.

Yet, to conservative scholars headed by Kim Young-ho, they openly criticized the current President’s liberal policy towards the North. Consider the past experiences in dealing with the North, they argued now is not the time for concessions towards the North and that the sanctions placed on it should continue and even be increased. Their concern also goes to any economic assistance that might be promised by Seoul to Pyongyang during negotiations will undermine the effectiveness of the sanctions and allow Pyongyang to continue developing its nuclear and missile capabilities. This actually echoes the U.S. belief that the diplomatic drive by Pyongyang tries to weaken the measures against it and eventually to loosen the alliance between the Seoul and Washington. Therefore, Vice President Pence reiterated in public remarks that North Korea has to “put denuclearization on the negotiation table and take concrete steps with the world community to dismantle, permanently and irreversibly, their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.” Put it bluntly, “Denuclearization has to be the starting point of any change in Pyongyang.”

From the beginning, President Moon Jae-in has made a great deal of effort to persuade Kim Jong-un to send the North Korean team to participate in the Pyeong-Chang Winter Olympics. To that end, part of Moon’s effort involved persuading Washington to ease its anti-Kim rhetoric. As a result, Kim finally decided to participate in the Games to maximize the gains it would be able to accumulate following its achievement of credible deterrence via its ICBM with a nuclear warhead. It is believed that the Pyeong-Chang Olympics, followed by the Paralympics Games, should delay the next potential crisis until the end of March 2018, at which time the issue of the US-South Korea joint military drill will come back to the table. North Korea has demanded that South Korea not participate in this exercise. So far, no one can assure all the parties involved will do next simply because the United States was willing to postpone it until after the Olympics, but it will not approve a further request by Seoul to postpone for the sake of inter-Korean negotiations. Given this, President Moon will soon face the dilemma as follows: either participate in the military drill and terminate the dialogue with Pyongyang, or delay the drill, continue the dialogue, and intensify the dispute with Washington. That is evidently uncertain so far.

In a long run, South Korea can’t disengage itself from the United States but also has little chance of convincing Washington not to pursue such a stern policy toward North Korea. Yet, peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means. Because North Korea will not change or abandon its nuclear plan by overnight, all sides concerned should continue their efforts to persuade Pyongyang to return to the right side of history through joining rather than deserting the international community. In view of this, China’s leadership has demonstrated its will, wisdom and strength. During the state visit of President Moon Jae-in to China in December 2017, President Xi reiterated that China and ROK must firmly adhere to the goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and no war or chaos is allowed on the Peninsula. Due to this, China can only accept that the Peninsula would be resolved through diplomacy and it is ready to support two Koreas to improve their relations through talks. In his response to Xi, Moon reaffirms that Seoul is firmly committed to resolving the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue through peaceful means, and stands ready to work with China to jointly safeguard peace and stability in the region. On January 8, Moon formally announced that the United States and the ROK agreed to delay joint military exercise during the Pyeong-Chang Winter Olympics. No matter how is has been debated, it is surely a good start.

In international relations, legitimacy is usually built on the consensus between countries. Moon’s vow to work closely with China assures that peace remains there. As long as the key countries involved endorse peace, it is held that the spirit of the Olympics is bound to prevail over the nuclear phantom through multilateral dialogue in light of mutual respect and reciprocal benefits. Thus, Bach’s remark of “a powerful message of peace to the world” would be turned into a reality of peace.

 

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