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Korean Conciliation: Will it Last?

Georgy Toloraya

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2018 started with a sensation in Asia – a “New Year’s gift,” if we are to use the words of Ri Son-Gwon, head of North Korea’s delegation at the inter-Korean talks held on January 9, 2018 in the South Korean segment of the demilitarized zone in Panmunjom.

In his traditional New Year’s speech, supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un proposed that an inter-Korean dialogue be launched. The proposal was timed to the participation of North Korean athletes in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Moon Jae-in’s government agreed immediately, which is understandable: the President of South Korea needs a success to increase his domestic political support. He also needs “join the game” on the peninsula, the stakes in which (peace or war) have been set over recent months by the United States and North Korea, without the participation of South Korea.

The talks (the first since 2013) are being held at the highest possible level (ministers in charge of the relevant matters from both countries), which allows the parties to discuss all manner of problems, and not just those related to sports. The results of the first round instil a certain amount of optimism.

In addition to North Korean athletes (who may even walk out under the same flag as their counterparts from the South) being allowed to participate in the Pyeongchang Olympics, the two Koreas also agreed that a North Korean governmental delegation, a demonstration taekwondo team, fans and a support group comprised of dancers and musicians could also attend. In total, an estimated 500 people will travel to South Korea. Perhaps, as we have seen in the past, the occasion will be used to develop political contacts both between the North and the South and between North Korea and the United States.

The agreement to restore the communications hotline between the militaries of the two countries (which the North Koreans cut it in 2013) and hold military consultations to reduce tensions was sensational news. Humanitarian and sports exchanges are expected to be stepped up.

It is also important that the two parties have outlined the prospects of continuing high-level consultations. Moreover, on January 10, President Moon said that an inter-Korean summit was possible. Particularly noteworthy was the fact that both parties confirmed their respect for former agreements which had been ignored for the last decade by South Korea’s conservative administrations.

What caused such an unexpected turn of events, which has given hope for a détente on the Korean peninsula?

The initiative is in the hands of North Korea. Kim Jong-un played a brilliant diplomatic gambit, breaking out (at least temporarily) of a seemingly hopeless dead-end where he had been driven by international sanctions stemming from his country’s nuclear missile programme. The entire world welcomes news of his initiative to ensure a safe and successful Olympic Games. Having played the “South Korean card,” Pyongyang used it as a “vent” to reduce pressure in the “Korean cauldron” by eroding the united front of its enemies. China and Russia eagerly supported these initiatives, and South Korea is on now on Pyongyang’s side as well, as it is extremely interested in the dialogue being a success. This means South Korea will be against initiatives to increase the pressure on North Korea and oppose Washington’s belligerent threats. Pyongyang has thus weakened the United States–South Korea military union. South Korea will no longer follow in the wake of the U.S. policy of coercion, which had made the country hostage to a possible military operation spearheaded by the United States. And Japan is unlikely to be particularly active, breathing a sigh of relief at the reduced threat of war that would inevitably hit it too.

The unprecedented regime of sanctions and isolation imposed on North Korea, the principal “achievement” U.S. diplomacy attained in the last few months (at the cost of an uncompromising dialogue with both allies and dissenters, including China and Russia), is now also up in the air. South Korea has already announced it will be limiting the sanctions due to the Olympics, and this creates an unpleasant precedent for the United States. Is there any reason why Russia or China should not organize a North Korea-related event that would also justify exceptions? And calls for new sanctions on the part of Washington will hardly be embraced in an atmosphere of dialogue. It is no coincidence that the United States appears to have lost hope in the United Nations. It now seems to be thinking about creating a “coalition of the willing” to defeat North Korea, choosing the “willing” from its allies.

The United States was forced to back down. The American leaders abruptly changed their tone: President Trump, who had recently rebuked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for “wasting time” in trying to negotiate with North Korea, suddenly announced that he had always favoured negotiations and that the inter-Korean dialogue had started because of his efforts since Kim Jong-un was allegedly scared of pressure. Even avowed “hawks,” such as Nikki Haley, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, suddenly started to pay lip service to political solutions. Moreover, plans for a “limited” strike against North Korea which, according to The Wall Street Journal, have been secretly discussed within the U.S. administration, are now hanging in mid-air.

Kim Jong-un has thus scored a tactical victory. In fact, the Russia-China proposal of a “double freeze” – stopping North Korean tests in exchange for restricting U.S.–South Korea military drills – was implemented at his initiative. The United States had already postponed the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle drills until after the Olympics. The postponement and possible modification of drills are conducive to the world getting used to North Korea’s nuclear status.

Using inter-Korean relations in this manner is a tried and tested manoeuvre on the part of Pyongyang. The method was first employed back in the early 1970s during a period of détente between the Soviet Union and the United States, when South Korea was searching for “approaches” to North Korea’s allies, and when North Korea was attempting to gain economic aid from developed western countries. North Korea probably tested the manoeuvre in order to decrease its dependence on the great powers, and South Korea played into its hand. On July 4, 1972, unexpectedly for many, the North and the South published a Joint Statement recording the principles of the country’s unification, which was to be achieved independently, peacefully and democratically, on the basis of national consolidation [1].

Later, for declarative purposes, the North proposed the idea of creating a confederation based on the principle of “one nation, one state (with a single national government) – two systems, two regional governments.” In the 1990s, the idea was augmented with the principles of consolidating the nation, national sovereignty, patriotism and the struggle against external interventions [2].

Pyongyang pulled the same trick in the early 1990s. The country was in crisis at the time: political ties with Russia had been severed; Russia had cut economic assistance to the country; and the United States and South Korea had stepped up pressure on the North, believing that North Korea was about to collapse and preparations should be made for “subsuming” the country “German style.” North Korea played a double game: on the one hand, it accelerated its nuclear missile programme, which had been conceived as a “deterrent” against foreign intervention; on the other, it played the “Korean unity” card, signing the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-aggression, Exchanges and Cooperation between the South and the North.

Pyongyang strove to drive a similar “wedge” between South Korea and the United States during the “liberal decade” (during presidencies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun). At the 2000 and 2007 summits, Pyongyang and Seoul attained a consensus on the prospects of separate state-building with growing economic and later cultural integration of the two states. As a result, South Korea in essence started acting as North Korea’s principal global sponsor and advocate, unseating China in that role. South Korea’s economic aid became the principal factor in North Korea’s “survival,” and the role of the United States dropped, causing its displeasure.

Washington is hardly pleased with Seoul’s current pro-active stance, although Seoul is protecting its own existential interests and is striving to prevent a war. As far as the United States is concerned, Seoul’s consent to North Korea’s nuclear status, as well as its cooperation with North Korea, are unacceptable. Although Moon Jae-in tried to convince Trump otherwise during their recent telephone conversation.

We can thus assume that the United States will undermine the inter-Korean dialogue. For starters, massive pressure will be put on Seoul to push the nuclear issue to the centre of the talks, which is patently unacceptable for North Korea. At the very first meeting, North Korea’s representative put a definitive stop to all such approaches by the South Korean side. He stressed that North Korean missiles are aimed not at South Korea, Russia or China (a reminder to the great powers of North Korea’s new status and capabilities), but at the United States, and North Korea hold talks on that subject with the United States. Apparently, in the current situation, the United States cannot avoid such a dialogue. The policy of pressure and blockade and threats of force essentially failed.

Will that last? It would seem that the forces hostile to North Korea will soon regroup. They grudgingly consented to the moratorium on military drills for the duration of the Olympics, but they will hardly let this hiatus last any longer, especially since the pretext of “strengthening defence capacities against the crazy regime” is always at the ready, since they are fully cognizant that such provocations will prompt a response from North Korea (for instance, new underwater missile launches or another nuclear test) and that will warrant a return to the customary tactics of isolation and an economic blockade.

That is, unless a miracle happens and the two Koreas achieve a breakthrough in their talks on cooperation and reconciliation, thereby forcing the United States to agree to a semblance of a compromise. At least until the situation escalates once again.

The active stance of China and Russia is of crucial importance for a positive scenario. Russia should make the Korean issue one of the crucial points in its relations with the United States, insisting that the U.S. obstruction of the diplomatic process is unacceptable. In particular, Russia should strive to reduce the scope of possible military drills and move them to regions far removed from the North Korean border and push for the United States to engage in a direct dialogue with North Korea as soon as possible. Russia may also offer the two Koreas a venue for a summit – in Vladivostok or Irkutsk, for example, since, for security reasons, Kim Jong-un cannot travel to the South and he hardly wants to travel to China, and because holding a third successive summit in North Korea is fraught with political costs for the South Korean leader.

  1. G. Toloraya. The Republic of Korea. Moscow: Mysl, 1990, p. 44.
  2. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Moscow: Nauka, 1985, pp. 260–262; Nodon sinmun, Pyongyang, 7.4.1993.

First published in our partner RIAC

Doctor of Economics, Professor of Oriental Studies, Director of the Asian strategy center at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences

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East Asia

Freedom, Sovereign Debt, Generational Accounting and other Myths

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“How to draw the line between the recent and still unsettled EU/EURO crisis and Asia’s success story? Well, it might be easier than it seems: Neither Europe nor Asia has any alternative. The difference is that Europe well knows there is no alternative – and therefore is multilateral. Asia thinks it has an alternative – and therefore is strikingly bilateral, while stubbornly residing enveloped in economic egoisms. No wonder that Europe is/will be able to manage its decline, while Asia is (still) unable to capitalize its successes. Asia clearly does not accept any more the lead of the post-industrial and post-Christian Europe, but is not ready for the post-West world.” – professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic diagnosed in his well-read ‘No Asian century’ policy paper. Sino-Indian rift is not new. It only takes new forms in Asia, which – in absence of a true multilateralism – is entrenched in confrontational competition and amplifying antagonisms.  The following lines are referencing one such a rift.

At the end of 2017, Brahma Chellaney, a professor with the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, wrote an article titled “China’s Creditor Imperialism” in which he accused China of creating a “debt trap” from Argentina, to Namibia and Laos, mentioning its acquisition of, or investment in the construction of several port hubs, including Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Piraeus in Greece, Djibouti, and Mombasa in Kenya in recent years.

These countries are forced to avoid default by painfully choosing to let China control their resources and thus have forfeited their sovereignty, he wrote. The article described China as a “new imperial giant” with a velvet glove hiding iron fists with which it was pressing small countries. The Belt and Road Initiative, he concluded, is essentially an ambitious plan to realize “Chinese imperialism”. The article was later widely quoted by newspapers, websites and think tanks around the world.

When then United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Africa in March, he also said that although Chinese investment may help improve Africa’s infrastructure, it would lead to increased debt on the continent, without creating many jobs.

It is no accident that this idea of China’s creditor imperialism theory originates from India. New Delhi has openly opposed China’s Belt and Road Initiative, especially the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as it runs through Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which India regards as an integral part of its territory. India is also worried that the construction of China’s Maritime Silk Road will challenge its dominance in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Based on such a judgment, the Indian government has worked out its own regional cooperation initiatives, and taken moves, such as the declaration of cooperation with Vietnam in oil exploration in the South China Sea and its investment in the renovation of Chabahar port in Iran, as countermeasures against the Chinese initiative.

Since January, India, the United States, Japan and Australia have actively built a “quasi-alliance system” for a “free and open Indo-Pacific order” as an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative. In April, a senior Indian official attending the fifth China-India Strategic Economic Dialogue reiterated the Indian government’s refusal to participate in the initiative.

The “creditor imperialism” fallacy is in essence a deliberate attempt by India and Western countries to denigrate the Belt and Road Initiative, which exhibits their envy of the initial fruits the initiative has produced. Such an argument stems from their own experiences of colonialism and imperialism. It is exactly the US-led Western countries that attached their political and strategic interests to the debt relationship with debtor countries and forced them to sign unequal treaties. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is proposed and implemented in the context of national equality, globalization and deepening international interdependence, and based on voluntary participation from relevant countries, which is totally different from the mandatory debt relationship of the West’s colonialism.

It is an important “Chinese experience” to use foreign debts to solve its transportation and energy bottlenecks that restrict its economic and social development at the time of its accelerated industrialization and urbanization. By making use of borrowed foreign debts, China once built thousands of large and medium-sized projects, greatly easing the transportation and energy “bottlenecks” that long restrained its social and economic development. Such an experience is of reference significance for other developing countries in their initial stage of industrialization and urbanization along the Belt and Road routes.

In the early stage of China’s reform and opening-up, US dollar-denominated foreign debt accounted for nearly 50 percent of China’s total foreign debts, and Japanese yen close to 30 percent. Why didn’t Western countries think the US and Japan were pushing their “creditor imperialism” on China?

Some foreign media have repeatedly mentioned that Sri Lanka is trapped in a “debt trap” due to its excessive money borrowing from China. But the fact is that there are multiple reasons for Sri Lanka’s heavy foreign debt and its debt predicament should not be attributed to China. For most of the years since 1985, foreign debt has remained above 70 percent of its GDP due to its continuous fiscal deficits caused by low tax revenues and massive welfare spending. As of 2017, Sri Lanka owed China $2.87 billion, accounting for only 10 percent of its total foreign debt, compared with $3.44 billion it owed to Japan, 12 percent of its total foreign debt. Japan has been Sri Lanka’s largest creditor since 2006, but why does no foreign media disseminate the idea of “Japan’s creditor imperialism”?

In response to the accusation that China is pursuing creditor imperialism made by India and some Western countries, even former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa wrote an article in July using data to refute it.

Most of the time, the overseas large-scale infrastructure construction projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative are the ones operated by the Chinese government and Chinese enterprises under the request of the governments of involved countries along the Belt and Road routes or the ones undertaken by Chinese enterprises through bidding.

It is expected that with the construction of large-scale infrastructure projects and industrial parks under the Chinese initiative, which will cause the host country’s self-development and debt repayment ability to constantly increase, the China’s creditor imperialism nonsense will collapse.

An early version of this text appeared in China Daily

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Arrogance of force and hostages in US-China trade war

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Even before the ink on the comments made by those who (just like the author of these lines) saw the recent meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires as a sign of a temporary truce in the trade war between the two countries had time to dry, something like a hostage-taking and the opening of a second front happened. The recent arrest in Canada under US pressure of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of China’s telecommunications giant Huawei, is unfolding into a full-blown international scandal with far-reaching consequences.

Meng Wanzhou faces extradition to the United States where she is suspected of violating US sanctions against Iran, namely by making payments to Tehran via the UK branch of the US bank HSBC. The question is, however, how come someone is trying to indict a Chinese citizen according to the norms of American law, and not even on US territory to boot?

China’s reaction was extremely tough with Deputy Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoning the Canadian and US ambassadors in Beijing and demanding the immediate release of the detainee, calling her detention “an extremely bad act.” First of all, because this is yet another arrogant attempt at extraterritorial use of American laws.

Other countries, above all Russia, have already experienced this arrogance more than once; suffice it to mention the cases of Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, or of the alleged “Russian hackers,” who, by hook or crook, were taken out to the United States to face US “justice”.

Enough is enough, as they say. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is usually careful in his choice of words, said that while Russia is not involved in the US-China trade war, it still regards Meng’s arrest as “another manifestation of the line that inspires a rejection among the overwhelming majority of normal countries, normal people, the line of extraterritorial application of their [US] national laws.”

“This is a very arrogant great-power policy that no one accepts, it already causes rejection even among the closest allies of the US,” Lavrov said. “It is necessary to put an end to it,” he added.

One couldn’t agree with this more. But first, I would like to know who really is behind this provocation, even though China’s reaction would have been much anticipated. The arrest of Meng Wanzhou sent US markets into a tailspin and scared investors, who now expect an escalation of the trade war between the United States and China.

The point here, of course, is Washington’s displeasure about Huawei’s activities, with The Wall Street Journal reporting that the US Justice Department has long been conducting a probe into the Chinese company’s alleged violation of US sanctions against Iran.

There is more to this whole story than just sanctions though. The US accuses Huawei (as it earlier did the Chinese ZTE) of the potential threats the company’s attempts to use tracking devices could pose to the security of America’s telecommunications networks. The United States has demanded that its closest allies (primarily Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, with whom it has set up a system for jointly collecting and using Five Eyes intelligence) exclude 5G Huawei products from their state procurement tenders.

I still believe, however, that the true reason for this is not so much security concerns as it is a desire to beat a competitor. Huawei has become a world-renowned leader in the development and application of 5G communications technology, which looks to the future (“Internet of Things”, “Smart Cities”, unmanned vehicles and much more.)

Since technology and equipment are supplied along with standards for their use, there is a behind-the-scenes struggle going on to phase out the 5G standard developed by Huawei from global markets.

As for the need “to put an end to this,” the big question is how. Formally, detainees are extradited to the United States in line with national legislation, but at Washington’s request (which often comes with boorish and humiliating pressure from the US authorities and is usually never mentioned in public).

Add to this the US Congress’ longstanding practice of changing, unilaterally and at its own discretion, already signed international treaties and agreements as they are being ratified – another example of “arrogance of power” as mentioned before.

The question could well be raised at the UN Security Council, but its discussion is most likely to be blocked by the US representative. However, there is also a moral side to the assessment of any political practice the work on international legal norms usually starts with.

If China and Russia, as well as other countries equally fed up with the “arrogance of power” submit a draft resolution “On the inadmissibility of attempts at extraterritorial use of national legislation by UN member states” to the UN General Assembly, it would most likely enjoy the overwhelming support by most of the countries of the UNGA, maybe save for just a dozen or so of the most diehard advocates of Washington’s policy…

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Will China Save the Planet? Book Review

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Barbara Finamore has been involved in environmental policy in China for decades.  Her new book, Will China Save the Planet?,is a succinct report (120 pg.) on the short, yet promising history of China’s actions to address climate change and pollution.

Chapter 1 is about the recent global leadership role that China has taken in the fight against climate change.  At first, the PRC was hesitant to commit to specific pollution-reduction benchmarks.  After experiencing increasingly devastating bouts of industrial smog in the 1990s however, China began to take its environmental commitments more seriously.  It has set out to become the de facto leader in combatting climate change through ambitious domestic action and sponsoring international conferences.  The Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement has only furthered China’s dominance.

Chapters 2-4 give in-depth analysis on China’s efforts to wean itself off of coal, develop its renewable energy capacity and become a global leader in electric vehicle production.  China has long used coal to fuel its unprecedented rate of industrialization.  In recent years, it has pledged to wean itself off of coal dependency by enforcing coal plant efficiency standards, enacting a cap-and-trade program, managing grid output, promoting local politicians based on their success in implementing green policies and supporting green energy developments.  China is now home to many of the world’s top manufacturers of solar panels, wind turbines and commercial & private electric vehicles.

There is much to applaud China for in its efforts.  Finamore writes that, “After growing by an average of 10% annually from 2002-2012, China’s coal consumption leveled off in 2013 & decreased in each of the following three years… Largely because of the dip in China’s coal consumption, global CO2 emissions growth was basically flat between 2014-2016.”  By moving away from coal, China has been able to, “Every hour… erects a new wind turbine & installs enough solar panels to cover a soccer field.” As of last year, “Chinese solar manufacturers accounted for about 68% of global solar cell production & more than 70% of the world’s production of solar panels.”

Chapter 5 focuses on China’s mission to export its green initiatives around the world, particularly through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  The BRI is shaping up to be the largest international infrastructure plan in history, investing trillions of dollars in 65 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.  China thus has a golden chance to help much of the developing world to adopt clean energy goals and foster economic growth.  The Chinese government is encouraging its citizens to invest in renewable energy initiatives in the BRI countries by implementing a “green finance” system.  Through its pivotal role in the G20, China can also help to lead the developed world by spearheading reports and policies among the 20 member nations.

Barbara Finamore has written a highly readable and informative overview of China’s role in the global climate change battle.  She lists the Chinese government policies that have led the world’s largest nation to meet and exceed many of the green benchmarks that it set for itself.  It would have been helpful if Finamore had written more about China’s water instability and how that ties to the Tibetan occupation, as access to drinking water is one of the top environmental issues in the world today.  As a whole, Will China Save the Planet?is a good primer for environmental policy analysts and anyone else interested in studying feasible solutions to climate change, humanity’s greatest threat.

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