The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) – known also Tibetan Government in Exile – celebrates ‘Democracy Day’ on 2 September every year and has done so since 1960, one year after the Dalai Lama and his entourage escaped from Tibet. It was on September 2, 1960 when the Parliament of the CTA (known originally as the Commission of Tibetan People’s Deputies) began functioning, and since then the CTA it has presented itself as a democratic ‘government’ with a Constitution that protects the inalienable rights and freedom of its people.
As common as the concept of democracy appears to be in a modern and largely liberal world, the term has often been misused. The word is derived from the Greek word, ‘demos’ which means ‘common people’. Accordingly, a democratic society is one in which supreme power belongs to the people and is not vested in the figure of an authoritative leader no matter how popular he may appear. Neither is it a democracy when power over the people is yielded by a single-party regime that is free to bend the rules to keep itself in power because there is no mechanism or infrastructure to prevent it from doing so. In addition, a democracy functions by the principles of ‘majority-rule’ and guards against breaches of the basic rights of the common people. In a true democracy, the authority of the government comes from the people.
The CTA operates under the “Charter of the Tibetans In-Exile”, adopted in 1991 and changed in 2011. Executive authority is vested in the Sikyong (also known as the President or Prime Minister of the CTA) an office currently held by Dr. Lobsang Sangay, a US citizen living in Boston, who was elected in 2011. The Sikyong was initially directly appointed by the Dalai Lama. The first elected Sikyong was a 62-year-old Buddhist monk, Lobsang Tenzin (better known as Samdhong Rinpoche). On 10 March, 2011, the Dalai Lama proposed changes to the exile charter which would in appearance remove his absolutistic position of authority within the organization.
The democracy that the CTA claims does not in fact fit the most vital characteristics of a democratic system of government, leading critics to suspect that it is nothing more than a new coat of paint over its old feudalistic theocratic self. The CTA democracy claim began in the 1960s when the Dalai Lama promulgated a draft Constitution supposedly upholding and protecting the individual rights and freedom of the Tibetan people. Whilst some Tibetans had initially believed in the Dalai Lama’s stated intentions, it became clear in the ensuing years, as the CTA flouted one Constitutional provision after another, that ‘democracy’ was perhaps just a clever ruse for the Dalai Lama’s government to distant itself from a social and political genealogy that it now wished to hide.
Perhaps the Dalai Lama saw that it would be much easier to garner global support for his struggle if the ‘Tibetan cause’ was presented as a wrestle between the Chinese Communist Party, an oppressive totalitarian regime, and the CTA, a ‘democratic government’ forced into exile. This, as opposed to being a fight between a communist regime and a brutal feudal lordship which the Tibetan leadership in fact was. Up until 1959, when the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet, the majority of the people in Tibet were serfs and slaves owned by a monastic ruling class and aristocrats. When we lift the veneer of democracy, it becomes clear that much of the CTA’s attitudes in governance today is a reflection of its feudal theocratic roots.
During the recent Berman Lecture at Emory University, the CTA President or Sikyong, Dr. Lobsang Sangay attempted a rather awkward justification of what he referred to as ‘Tibetan democracy’. He presented what he regarded as certain unique features of Tibetan democracy which, when examined more closely, offer unmistakable signs that ‘Tibetan democracy’ is a complete fabrication, pointing out three features of the ‘Tibetan Democracy’.
In an exile government, the emphasis is on one leader
Dr. Lobsang Sangay began by admitting that the principles of democracy are in conflict with the goals of an exile government such as the CTA.
“In an exile administration, the emphasis is usually on unity, a single leader and a single voice. It is understandable because the purpose is to return. Unity is paramount in such exile set-ups. Once it is a democracy, there is a contradiction because in a democracy, instead of unity, you have to support diversity. Instead of a single leader, there are oppositions. Instead of a single voice, you must have freedom of speech”.
It should be highlighted that it is because of this disjunction – whether to afford space for diversity or to continue to enforce a single agenda decided solely and unilaterally by the Dalai Lama – that the decision of the CTA exposes its half-heartedness to operate as a true democracy. Stopping short of spelling it out, Dr. Lobsang Sangay was as good as saying that the CTA does not permit freedom of speech, dissenting opinions to that of the government, or diversity, because its exile agenda (read the Dalai Lama’s agenda) does not allow it to. And yet, the CTA insists it is a democracy.
In other words, the only democratic thing about the CTA is its self-appropriated label.
Sincere Buddhists cannot insist on exercising democratic rights
Dr. Lobsang Sangay claimed that the second feature of ‘Tibetan democracy’ is how the Tibetan people have had to step further away from their spiritual bond with the Dalai Lama. Dr. Lobsang Sangay referred to an old Tibetan lore that “all the Tibetan kings were manifestations of Buddha. Such is double bind of Tibetan politics that as long as the Tibetan people regard themselves as sincere Buddhists they cannot insist on exercising their inalienable human rights under a democracy without alienating themselves from their God.
The Dalai Lama and the CTA know this well and hence it is deceitful to suggest to the people of the world that the authority of the Tibetan leadership comes from the people when in fact it comes from their religion, of which the Dalai Lama is a living embodiment.
A true democracy is defined by rule by the majority, but for the Tibetan community in exile, the term means something quite different. Despite the CTA having an administrative configuration that resembles a democratic system, at the apex of the power structure is the lone figure of the Dalai Lama – both a god and a king who is not elected but rules by what is traditionally believed to be divine birthright. For centuries, the Tibetan people have been told that it is the duty of every Tibetan to obey the diktat of this king. But this King is also regarded as the most important god by the Tibetan people, and there is no aspect of his being which is not divine. Therefore, his secular and political decrees are also immediately taken as spiritual precepts to abide by.
The CTA can assemble their governmental structure in whatever way they like, and yet to defy the Dalai Lama is not only treasonous but also highly sacrilegious. And therefore, whether it is by law, by religion or by custom, the Tibetan people are trained to listen to the Dalai Lama without question. The Dalai Lama knows this well and can therefore toy with the idea of the CTA mimicking a democracy without losing any control over the Tibetan people.
A good case in point is the ban on the religious practice of Dorje Shugden. In spite of having a Tibetan Constitution in which Article 10 guarantees the Freedom of Religion, the Dalai Lama did not hesitate to override this charter to deny the people their right to religious freedom enshrined in the CTA’s highest law. A CTA minister of parliament who questioned the wisdom of the Dalai Lama’s religious ban was stabbed. Time and time again, even at the slightest hint of the Dalai Lama’s dissatisfaction at something or someone, the CTA immediately sets aside its democracy masquerade and becomes the enforcer of the Dalai Lama’s will. The Dalai Lama and all the officers and nominees who act in his name are in fact above the law. No democratic system permits this. On the other hand, it describes a feudal theocracy very well.
In 2011, the Dalai Lama apparently retired from all political activities and is said to have relinquished his authority to what the CTA regarded as a democratically elected Sikyong, or President of the Central Tibetan Administration. It was both an opportunity and a test of the CTA’s will to govern as a democratic administration. It could have abolished the Dalai Lama’s religious prohibition on the Dorje Shugden practice, or it could have chosen not to give additional expression to the Dalai Lama’s opposition of this religious ritual. But in 2014, instead of upholding the ‘Freedom of Religion’ and ‘Equality Before the Law’ provisions of the Tibetan Constitution, the CTA Parliament passed yet another official resolution to criminalize the Dorje Shugden practice. Again, this shows that there is no room for disagreement with the Dalai Lama regardless of the Tibetan exile government’s democratic façade.
Those like Tenzin Tsundue, a prominent advocate of Tibetan independence (called Rangzen) who is familiar with how the Tibetan government works, insists that “HH (Dalai Lama) is still the boss, not Sikyong. Lobsang Sangay’s showing the face in the media, on stage; being the head of CTA is still nominal and has little meaning. HH calls the shots.” In other words, CTA democracy is just a charade.
The populace agrees 100 percent with what the leadership says
Dr. Lobsang Sangay suggested that “the third unique feature of Tibetan democracy as its ability to exist without a physical border” and that “…when the Tibetan cabinet makes a decision, they send the notice to Tibetans around the world and it is followed by all…You have to realize that we don’t have a police to enforce the decisions, nor do we punish anyone if the decisions are not followed and yet it is followed by all without fail.” This despite the fact that there are no sanctions for those who do not follow.
It is true that once the Tibetan leadership makes a decision, all Tibetans tend to toe the line. Dr. Lobsang Sangay made the statement that there is no need for the leadership’s instructions to be administered by enforcement, to give the impression that the populace agrees 100 percent with what the leadership says. In truth, there is a big difference between submission out of assent and submission due to fear.
Given the political and spiritual centrality of the Dalai Lama in every Tibetan person’s life, the highest transgression that a Tibetan can be accused of is to be ‘anti-Dalai Lama’. And it is this threat that the Tibetan leadership wields as a weapon more powerful than a police force because its use is completely arbitrary and not bound by any rules of engagement.
In the 2016 elections for the post of Sikyong, Lukar Jam was the only candidate that stood for Rangzen (Tibetan independence) and so he was easily demonized by the other candidates as being ‘anti-Dalai Lama’. To vote for Lukar would be to vote against the king of Tibet, to vote against a Buddha. And to make sure that Lukar Jam had no chance of becoming Sikyong, the Election Commission, which takes its cue from the incumbent leadership, even changed its rules to disqualify Lukar’s candidacy in the final round of the Sikyong election, sparking protests from long-term Tibetan supporters to protest which, in the end, fell on deaf ears.
So, whilst Dr. Lobsang Sangay was right to say that the CTA does not have a police force, it is because there is no need for one. As we have seen time and time again, in the Dorje Shugden controversy and elsewhere, to be labelled ‘anti-Dalai Lama’ is a punishment in itself and carries with it the implied duty of every good Tibetan to shun and assault the victim. Lukar Jam, the political candidate, discovered this as did the journalist Milla Rangzen and the CTA Minister of Parliament Sharchock Cookta. All of them challenged the Tibetan leadership’s views at some point, or called out the CTA’s wrongdoing as they would have been entitled to in a democracy, and were punished for their audacity. Isn’t this more the mark of a totalitarian regime?
During his Berman lecture speech, Dr. Lobsang Sangay boasted that voter participation amongst the Tibetans in exile was up by 70%. Dr. Lobsang Sangay offered this as evidence that the exiled Tibetan people were becoming more involved in the democratic process. What Dr. Lobsang Sangay did not mention was that a Tibetan is only entitled to participate in the electoral process if he or she is issued with a Green Book by the CTA and it is here that the CTA holds a sword of Damocles over the head of every Tibetan in exile. The Green Book is in effect the only official documentation that identifies the Tibetan refugee, allowing him or her to claim ‘citizenship’ of a free Tibet once the CTA regains the homeland. Without a Green Book, the Tibetan refugee has no identity, no legitimacy and no entitlements whatsoever, so it is easy for the CTA to bend every Tibetan in exile to their will with the threat of denying him or her the Green Book. This is a mechanism that is subtle and yet supremely effective, hence Dr. Lobsang Sangay’s confidence that instructions emanating from Dharamsala, the CTA’s seat of government, are followed without fail. The Green Book must be renewed every five years which provides the CTA with a series of opportunities to control the Tibetan Diaspora.
For Tibetans who refuse to comply with the Dalai Lama and CTA’s arbitrary terms such as Dorje Shugden practitioners unwilling to denounce their faith, they not only live in fear of their lives, but are also considered persona non-grata, an exile within an exile community. A democratic government does not subject its citizens to such fear and conditions.
Indeed, in the CTA Constitution itself we see the supremacy of the Dalai Lama instead of the supremacy of the rule of law. For instance Article 20, which addresses the CTA Cabinet and the elected CTA Presidency, clearly identifies the Dalai Lama’s leadership even though he is supposed to have devolved himself of all political authority. Similarly, Article 36, which vests the Tibetan Assembly with the powers to create laws, states that such power can only be exercised with the assent of the Dalai Lama. And this submission to the Dalai Lama’s authority runs through the Tibetan Authority, although it need not have. The Dalai Lama’s authority does not come from the letter of the law but from heaven itself, and to every Tibetan person, there is nothing higher than that.
The five most important rights provided to citizens in a democracy
It would have been easy enough for Dr. Lobsang Sangay to prove that Tibetan democracy is real by showing that the CTA upholds the five most important rights provided to citizens in a democratic state:
1. Freedom of speech and expression – The most fundamental right that all citizens are afforded in a democratic state is the right to express oneself and one’s opinion. But this is manifestly absent in the Tibetan community governed by the CTA. In fact, the opposite is true.
For instance, as the Tibetan activist and writer Jamyang Norbu noted in ‘The Sad Painful Joke of Tibetan Democracy’, simply voicing one’s opinion in favor of Rangzen (Tibetan independence, as opposed to the Middle Way promulgated by the Dalai Lama) is enough for the Tibetan parliament in exile to call for one to be banished from the Tibetan exile society. Norbu further noted that such an act was in fact an order for members of the exile community to teach a lesson to the errant member who has the audacity to speak his mind.
If there is any doubt that the CTA employs violence in suppressing dissenting voices, then Tashi Angdu, the President of the Cholsum Organization, confirmed in an interview with Swiss TV that his organization enforces the CTA’s views and insists that no one should do anything that contradicts the views of the Tibetan leadership, and that they will resort to violence if necessary. “Anyone who is against the Dalai Lama must be opposed without hesitation with men, money and possessions, that is to say, all means including violence”.
2.The right to a fair trial and procedural fairness – The independence of the judiciary is not only a cornerstone of a true democracy but also the foundation of the rule of law. The reason the judiciary is protected from tampering by other branches of government in a democratic system is to ensure people’s rights can really be protected.
But in the CTA’s case, the judiciary becomes yet another tool for the ruling elite to oppress the people. When the Dalai Lama banned the Dorje Shugden practice in 1996, Article 63 of the Tibetan Constitution was amended to preclude the appointment of Dorje Shugden believers, who are forbidden from holding office in any branch of the government or judiciary by virtue of their religion. And yet Articles 9 and 10 of the same Constitution guarantee equality before the law and freedom of religion. This by itself irrefutably demonstrates the hollowness of the Tibetan Constitution and the ease with which the CTA bends the law to justify its acts.
It was only after constant ridicule from Tibetan and international observers that Article 63 was again amended to read:
Article 63 (3): A Tibetan who is appointed as the Chief Tibetan Justice Commissioner shall, before assuming office, take and subscribe an oath and affirmation of office in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama according to the form prescribed by law.
This essentially disqualifies any candidate that the Dalai Lama objects to, a subtler and yet no less effective means of denying any judicial fairness to those targeted by the government.
3.The right to a free and unperturbed media – Far from allowing a free press, the only independent Tibetan newspaper Mangtso (Democracy) was forced to close down for daring to publish news items that were not complimentary of the Dalai Lama or the CTA.
Jamyang Norbu who was a key member of the newspaper noted:
At Amnye Machen we published the newspaper Mangtso (Democracy), that attempted to report on Tibetan politics in an open and truthful manner. Our staff members and some young men who sold our paper on the streets were constantly bullied and threatened. The editors received death threats on a regular basis, and gangs and mobs often poured into our office, scaring the girls at the reception desk and harassing everybody else. All these incidents were clearly organized and instigated by the religious-right coalition in order to shut down the paper.
4.The right of every citizen to exercise his/her vote freely in public and open elections – In a true democracy, the highest power is vested in the people who affect how their government is chosen through the power of their vote in an electoral process.
However, as we have seen in the case of Lukar Jam, not only can the ruling class use the Central Election Commission to change its rules and regulations to disqualify candidates – which it does – but no Tibetan in exile can vote unless he or she is in possession of the Green Book, which is only issued at the prerogative of the CTA.
In the case of Dorje Shugden practitioners who refuse to obey the Dalai Lama’s religious ban, they are denied the issuance or renewal of the Green Book which is how the CTA ultimately manipulates and oppress the very people it is supposed to serve as a democratic government.
5.The right to worship religion in a free setting – Perhaps the most glaring example of Dr. Lobsang Sangay’s parody of democracy is the CTA’s ban on the religious practice of Dorje Shugden. This denial of freedom of religion not only breaches the Tibetan Constitution but also the Constitution of India, the host nation of the CTA, as well as a good handful of United Nations Human Rights provisions.
An entire section of the CTA’s official website is dedicated to the persecution of Dorje Shugden practitioners. For good measure, an identical section appears on the Dalai Lama’s official website.
How can Dr. Sangay claim a ‘Tibetan democracy’ when the CTA uses all branches of the government as well as the authority of its highest religious leader to deny the Tibetan people even the most basic rights that their law is supposed to uphold? As a matter of fact, the CTA under Dr. Lobsang Sangay is an affront to democracy, which makes his delivery of the Berman Lecture on democracy at Emory University a complete mockery.
‘Tibetan democracy’ is the Dalai Lama’s sleight of hand at its best. It is a deception and one of the best in modern history. No other authoritarian regime has pulled off this level of artifice. The Central Tibetan Administration is a government without a state to govern and a ‘democracy’ that uses state instruments to enforce a feudal lord’s will, all this while operating outside every single global framework that ensures checks and balances. ‘Tibetan democracy’ is an oxymoron and the CTA should be taken to task over its abuse of the term.
No Prospects for Denuclearization of North Korea
Analytical pieces—typically prepared by self-professed experts—abound as to whether denuclearization of North Korea could be possible or what its parameters would be. Such ruminations became particularly popular by the end of Donald Trump’s presidency when the negotiations eventually found themselves in deadlock. However, I would rather call it a “freeze,” and while this may not be the best solution to the problem, it is certainly not the worst either.
The crisis over North Korea’s nuclear missile program has been going on for some 15 years, and I would argue that the reason why no practical solution has been found lies in poor positioning. As I have repeatedly noted  North Korea’s nuclear missile program is not the root of the problem that disrupts the traditional world order; rather, it is a consequence of problems that are more global in their dimensions, reflecting the transition from the wonted world order to a new one.
There are a few signs to this new world order. First, some nations abuse the right to decide which state is a democracy and which is not, with the contrived singling out of “rogue states” to be countered through any methods, including those that seem ethically unacceptable. Broken promises are no longer perfidy but military stratagems. When it comes to North Korea, one might recall the Agreed Framework story or how President Kim Young-sam and his administration spared no effort to destabilize the situation in North Korea at a time when it suffered from what has been called the Arduous March. Seoul advocated providing no aid to the starving country, one South Korean official admits while privately talking to the author, in the hope that the famine would spur mass riots and subsequent “reunification.”
The second sign indicative of the new world suggests that international law and major arbitration institutions have lost their authority. UN Security Council resolutions that forbid North Korea to launch any kind of ballistic missiles is a good case in point. Incidentally, this violates the decisions enshrined in a number of other UN documents that guarantee the universal right to explore outer space for peaceful purposes.
The third sign has to do with the crisis of competence, which affects the quality of decision-making on the part of both politicians and subject-matter experts, blurring the line between the real country and its cartoonish propaganda image. This is well illustrated by the case of North Korea: any foolish news report about the country ultimately finds an audience. While the story of Jang Song-thaek being fed to a pack of dogs was debunked fairly quickly, no less fantastic death penalty stories for listening to K-pop are still popular.
Besides, the might of the law has been replaced with the law of the might. The new generation of politicians no longer fears a major war, rendering military conflict—“humanitarian” bombings of “rogue states” in particular—one of the acceptable means for achieving domestic and foreign policy goals.
Finally, under these circumstances, North Korea cannot use the conventional conflict resolution methods, thus being compelled to look for ways to defend itself on its own, especially since the threat of losing sovereignty is by no means hypothetical. Officially, the Korean war is not over, and South Korea’s Constitution still extends the state’s sovereignty to the entire peninsula, demanding that the president promote the country’s unification. What is more, the National Security Act refers to North Korea as an anti-state organization rather than a country. Even relatively liberal populists, such as Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in, failed to review this concept.
Relying on its nuclear missile program, North Korea sets itself two goals. The first is to achieve minimal and, eventually, guaranteed nuclear deterrence, which would certainly take a belligerent solution to the North Korean problem off the table. The North Korean leadership has certain reasons to believe that only North Korea’s nuclear weapons saved it from the fate of Iraq or Libya. It is well-known that once in a while the U.S. and its allies plan an offensive war against the North, whose elements are drilled at joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises irrespective of their scale.
The second goal is to achieve international recognition and ditch the “rogue state” yoke. Should North Korea theoretically join the “nuclear club,” this will put it on a par with the leading superpowers. This is the principal reason why—despite the UN Security Council’s internal disagreements—the Permanent Five have so far voted unanimously for yet another sanctions package each time North Korea has taken another significant step in developing its nuclear missile program. The current world order is based on the premise that only the five great powers are allowed to possess nuclear weapons. It also relies on the UN’s authority, which would collapse if it became known that at the end of the day North Korea got the UN to “cave in”—following nearly 30 years of condemnation, resolutions and sanctions.
It is no accident that the very term “denuclearization” is under discussion. American conservatives, such as John Bolton and others who adopt a strictly realistic approach, interpret “denuclearization” as meaning nuclear disarmament of North Korea, which should be stripped of all types of WMD and—to boot—of its nuclear program. This entails eliminating the North Korean threat both globally and regionally. In contrast, North Korea, as well as Russia and China, stress that denuclearization should extend not to North Korea alone but to the whole Korean Peninsula, which requires certain commitments on the part of the U.S. and South Korea, up to and including prohibiting U.S. warships carrying nuclear weapons from docking at South Korean ports.
It has to be noted that those who identify with the allegedly liberal approach to international relations view the North Korean issue as highly ideologically charged. Liberal democracy advocates and WASP conservatives alike perceive North Korea as an authoritarian regime imbued with atheistic collectivism, as an “Evil State.” They see it as the pure opposite of the ideal state—an abstract concept that exists in their minds. That, in turn, stimulates an intractable drive towards confrontation, since not only is the “Evil State” incapable of negotiations, such negotiations are impossible in principle. Any deal with such a regime is an unacceptable concession in terms of values, and value-based confrontations are always more inflexible than those political or economic in nature.
During the 2017 crisis, when I believed the probability of conflict really rose beyond 50%, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un emerged as pragmatic leaders, essentially putting the process “on hold.” The jury is still out on how this related to the Russia-China “double-freeze” plan, while each party would certainly have wanted more. Kim Jong Un would have loved to have the sanctions eased, with Donald Trump expecting further concessions. The pause that was achieved, though, allowed both parties a “small profit.” The U.S. president could say that, first, he prevented war and, second, that the sanctions were effective, with no missiles in the air and the U.S. having granted no unacceptable concessions. Kim Jong Un, on the one hand, got a peaceful breather, which allowed him to focus on the country’s economic development, and, second, his commitments were essentially unofficial and did not restrict the development of the nuclear missile program. This could be exemplified by multiple successful launches of short-range missiles as well as by presentations of new types of ICBMs and SLBMs, even though these were not tested.
Yet, since late 2019, both parties have been aware that “things are not going to get better.” In late 2019, Kim Jong Un said it was no use hoping for an easing of the sanctions, while allowing Donald Trump to “sit out” the final year of his presidency with no unnecessary tensions. As of the writing of this article, his moratorium is still in place, although American and South Korean experts believed that several dates came and went when Kim could have raised the stakes, opting for an escalation. I believe that Pyongyang is waiting for the White House to formulate and announce a new North Korean policy. So far, as Roman Lobov puts it, “the door is shut but not locked”; and Choe Song-hui, who seems to be still in charge of North Korea–U.S. relations, has not been dismissed from office and declares from time to time that the North will use force in response to force and amicability in response to amicability. The 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea emphasized that no change in the White House would change the U.S.’s overall hostility towards North Korea, which is why North Korea will hardly make the first step, choosing to wait for truly serious proposals from the U.S.
This is the situation three months into 2021, exacerbated by several additional aspects. The new U.S. president is the first such aspect. Of course, there is some hope that he will follow the same path as Donald Trump once did: a hardliner early in his tenure shifted to a more constructive approach once collided with reality. So far, however, it appears that the logic of factional strife is compelling Biden to go along “the main thing is not to be like Trump” pattern, and that means steering a course towards escalation. Such an approach will provoke North Korea to retaliate. More importantly, such blinders will keep the Biden Administration from rapidly developing a constructive approach to its interaction with the North. In particular, we can see that human rights issues in North Korea, all too valid for the Democrats, were not broached regularly under Trump while they have come under attention once Biden assumed office.
The U.S.-China confrontation is another aspect, which was pronounced to be value- rather than merely politics-based even under Trump. There has been no change to this approach under the new president. The U.S. attempts to restrict and contain China, with this confrontation being part of Russia and China’s more broad confrontation with what is perceived as the West.
I believe such a rift and its would-be consequences deal no smaller blow to the existing world order than Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. First, this reinforces North Korea’s conviction that the current situation makes the country rely on missile sovereignty. Second, rifts in the Security Council give North Korea a certain boost. It does not, however, mean that the Security Council will no longer remain unanimous should the North decide to raise the stakes sharply. Yet, if we consider the U.S.-China confrontation from the point of view of allies of both states, we will see that China could only rely on the North since it has for a long time stressed the two countries’ socialist nature and their friendship based on ideological values. Besides, North Korean media outlets have been condemning the U.S. for criticizing China’s policies. What this means is that China will keep Pyongyang afloat and contain American pressure to denuclearize Kim’s regime unless it decides that North Korea’s actions are too provocative. The same can be said of Russia, although the North Korean issue is less of a priority for Moscow, especially when compared to the post-Soviet states or the Middle East.
The coronavirus pandemic has also affected the global situation. First, self-isolation instituted throughout the country has generated a new spiral of suppositions revolving around the notion that its economic system is about to collapse and that a new Arduous March will ensue. Second, with diplomats and NGOs having left North Korea, gathering data has become more difficult, which has indirectly contributed to growing alarmist sentiments. Finally, we cannot rule out a situation when the North Korean issue may—for a number of countries—become a way to shift attention away from domestic problems, including those related to failures in fighting the coronavirus. In such a situation, any prospects for denuclearization are extremely vague.
The fourth aspect is the level to which North Korea’s nuclear program has advanced, which makes the monitoring methods used for the states that are at the early stages of their nuclear programs ineffective. Since North Korea is a de facto nuclear power, the set of measures intended to ensure complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization, as Vladimir Khrustalyov notes  will essentially demand that North Korea be essentially stripped of its sovereignty as far as the monitoring and checking powers are concerned, with which international inspectors should be vested.
Consequently, today it might be said that one can only go on talking about denuclearization for the sake of talking. It will take a miracle to move things forward. Option one is some fantastic change in the international environment, which would make North Korea no longer feel threatened and thus less reluctant to abolish its nuclear program. That would mean geotectonic rather than merely geopolitical shifts in the existing international security architecture. Option two, just as fantastic, provides for a North Korean Gorbachev who, for some reason, will make the decision to abolish an important component of North Korea’s political myth and its sovereignty guarantees. Harsher options envision denuclearization as a result of regime change, which is of very little probability as well.
Does this mean there is no way out of this predicament and that missile fireworks will follow sooner or later? No, it does not. The possibility of the “double freeze” is still there, and such a “freeze” could continue almost indefinitely. Another possibility requires more efforts as it entails resetting the agenda—while keeping the term “denuclearization”, new strategies would actually focus on arms control. Instead of destroying North Korean nuclear capabilities, efforts would be channeled into restricting it, operating on the premise that the existing capabilities already serve as minimal deterrence. Many scholars adhere to this stance, both in Russia  and abroad, while fully cognizant of the fact that a change in tack will prompt huge resistance, since this would go against the trend of preserving the global status quo. Any attempt to abolish the demand for full denuclearization of states aspiring to the nuclear club “membership” would amount to a crack in the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
On balance, true denuclearization of North Korea would require a radical change in the geopolitical situation in Northeast Asia: once the threat is gone, countermeasures will no longer be necessary. While there is no possibility of such changes, the Russia-China proposal of a “double freeze” settlement remains the most feasible solution, although far from ideal.
The study has been carried out with financial assistance from the RFBR (project No 20-014-00020).
- Asmolov, K.V. The Nuclear Problem of the Korean Peninsula as a Consequence of the Changes in the Global World Order (in Russian) // Paper presented at the All-Russia Academic Conference with International Participation “International Relations in the 20th-21st Centuries: 4th Chempalov Conference dedicated to the 75th Anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War and the 75th Anniversary of the end of World War II. 17–18 December 2020. Yekaterinburg.
- Zhebin, A.Z. The Korean Peninsula: From Denuclearization to Arms Control (in Russian) // Paper presented at the 25th Conference of Korean Studies Specialists from Russia and the CIS. 25–26 March 2021. Moscow
- Khrustalyov, V.V. (Vladivostok, North-East Asian Military Studies Project) On Fundamental Obstacles in the Way of Rapid, Guaranteed, and Irreversible Denuclearization of North Korea (in Russian) // Paper presented at the 8th International Conference “Russia and Korea in the Changing World Order – 2019.” 17–18 May 2019. Vladivostok.
From our partner RIAC
Kissinger Again Warns US, China Heading for Armageddon-like Clash
Last week, Henry Kissinger again warned US-China tensions are a threat to the entire world and could lead to Armageddon-like clash between the world’s two military and technology giants. Surprisingly, some Chinese are interpreting it as a threat to intimidate China in order to “accept and obey” the US-led world hegemonic order.
In January 2015, the peace group CODEPINK dangled a pair of handcuffs in front of the then 91-year old former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a Senate hearing. Twelve months later, at the February Democratic Debate Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton were seen engaged in a heated duel attacking and defending the acclaimed diplomat respectively. The late writer Christopher Hitchens in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger warned editors, TV news channel producers and presidential candidates to stop soliciting Kissinger’s “worthless and dangerous” opinions. The never ending outburst of enmity on the part of CODEPINK, Sanders and Hitchens was due to Kissinger’s role in the brutal killings of thousands of civilians, gang rape of hundreds of female detainees, and alleged slaughtering of over one million people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos among countless similar crimes against humanity since the early 1970s.
As documented in “Kissinger and Chile: The Declassified Record,” as some 5,000 people were being detained and tortured in Chile’s National Stadium, Kissinger told the ruthless Augusto Pinochet: “You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.” But Sanders-Clinton “spirited exchange” five years ago, as mentioned above, was not confined in Sanders’ words to Kissinger being “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history” of the United States. Sanders’ rare outburst also included Clinton defending her foreign policy mentor – Kissinger – on China. “[Kissinger’s] opening up China and his ongoing relationship with the leaders of China is an incredibly useful relationship for the United States of America,” Hilary Clinton emphatically pointed out.
Sanders responded disdainfully and berated Clinton for admiring Kissinger. “Kissinger first scared Americans about communist China and then opened up trade so US corporations could dump American workers and hire exploited and repressed Chinese,” Sanders had retorted. On the contrary, no one in Beijing either knows or seems interested in the so-called negative traits attributed to the veteran diplomat who is generally known as the most “influential figure in the making of American foreign policy since the end of World War II.” As according to Peter Lee, editor of the online China Matters and a veteran Asia Times columnist, the CPC leadership value Kissinger as the “symbol, custodian and advocate” of a US-China relationship that is special.
Professor Aaron Friedberg, author of A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, described the re-opening of relations with China as Kissinger’s greatest achievement. In a review of Kissinger’s massive book On China, Friedberg wrote: “Kissinger’s six hundred pages on China are an attempt to apply the principles of foreign policy realism to the most pressing strategic challenge of our day.” (Emphasis given) However, the approach, taken alone, was far from adequate in anticipating the behavior of an increasingly powerful China on the one hand, and for prescribing an appropriate American strategy to deal with a rising China on the other, Friedberg went on to add.
Since Mao, all successive top Chinese leaders have met with Kissinger one-on-one in Beijing, some even more than once. China’s current President Xi Jinping is no exception. In fact, given the deep esteem with which reform era CPC leadership has been embracing Henry Kissinger, the general wisdom in Beijing is President Xi has horned his diplomatic skills by learning well his (Kissinger’s) oft-quoted aphorism “you don’t go into negotiations unless your chances of success are 85 percent.” Kissinger had first met with Xi in 2007, when Xi, as the party secretary in Shanghai, had received the most frequent foreign visitor to China on a visit to the city. When asked for his assessment of the party’s new general secretary within days of the 18th party congress in November 2012 by the Wall Street Journal, Kissinger had said “Xi Jinping is a strong leader capable of rising up to any challenge.”
In the past four decades of Kissinger-CPC bonhomie, the first decade thanks to Cold War passed off rather smoothly and uneventfully. The second decade ushered in with perhaps the first most serious test for both Kissinger as well as for the US-China relations since the unfreezing of the bilateral ties by Nixon-Kissinger pair in the early 1970s. In June 1989, the CPC rulers used brutal force to crush peaceful student demonstrators at the Tiananmen Square and launched nationwide crackdown on suspected dissidents. Though criticized by the US political elite for “Kowtowing to Beijing” for defending the CPC authorities by saying “a crackdown was inevitable,” Kissinger did influence the Bush administration in imposing comparatively mild sanctions while deflecting congressional pressure for tougher action.
In third and fourth decades respectively, unlike during the first two stages, ideology gradually regained initiative over geopolitics in influencing the bilateral relationship. There are mainly two factors for this. First, from 1979 to the end of the last century, China was relatively weaker than the United States both economically and in military technology. Following China’s rapid economic growth beginning late 1990s and at the turn of the twenty-first century, a section in the US political elite became apprehensive of China’s assertive and highly competitive stance. These concerns soon gave birth to the “China threat theory” which Beijing unsuccessfully tried to pass off as “China’s peaceful rise.”
The second factor has much to do with the world financial crisis in 2008 which resulted in the beginning of decline of the US economy on the one hand, and the unfolding of the seemingly evident intent of the CPC leadership to “eventually displace the US” and “re-establishing their own country as the pre-eminent power in East Asia.” In other words, with Cold War and the Soviet Union both long gone, and China perceived as threatening to soon replace America as the world’s number one economy, the communist rulers in Beijing were under no illusion that the ideologically hostile US was plotting “color revolution” to replace the CPC with democratically elected leaders in the People’s Republic.
The chilling of US-China bilateral relations during the first year of Obama presidency itself, with China replacing Japan to become the world’s second largest economy in 2010 and further hardening of the US stance towards China, and finally the US “pivot to Asia” strategy introduced by the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton – all these were perceived by Beijing as the US “creating political framework for a confrontation with China in order to maintain the global hegemony of American dominance.” Even Kissinger was very much aware of the changing stance in Beijing, as is reflected from what he wrote in On China: “China would try to push American power as far away from its borders as it could, circumscribe the scope of American naval power, and reduce America’s weight in international diplomacy.”
Interestingly, although the most frequent US visitor to China has continued to visit China ever more frequently during the past decade, given the changing nature of polity in both the US and in China – especially the increasing “rivalry” under the Trump administration, it is not incorrect to conclude the Kissinger magic has gradually faded away from the bilateral relationship. It is least surprising therefore last Friday, when the “old friend of China” warned both Beijing and Washington in a speech at McCain Institute’s Sedona Forum in France, that their escalating tensions were leading the world towards Armageddon-like clash, the opinionated, vocal Chinese social media reacted with caution. “Kissinger used the so-called end of the world argument to threaten and intimidate China in order to accept and obey the hegemonic order by the United States,” a blogger responded.
A commentary in Chinese last week pointed out, ever since Trump launched “all out political war” against China, Kissinger has been in subtle and cunning way warning China to “cooperate” with Washington. The signed article entitled “Kissinger Continues to Scare the Chinese People” stated: “For the past two years or more, Kissinger has been repeatedly saying China must continue to compromise and obey the US hegemony and US-led global order. Otherwise, China will face the danger of World War I-like situation.”
To sum up, while calling Kissinger’s veiled threat a bluff, a reader posted in the chat room of guancha.cn – one of China’s most widely read online Chinese language news platform: the old man is a veteran who, more than anyone in China, has interacted with most number of China’s founding leaders. It is therefore his responsibility to explain to the world why most American politicians have failed to co-evolve with China’s leaders, Chinese government and with Chinese people? Why has America relentlessly carried on slandering China? Why America has been consistently accusing, vilifying and provoking China? Mr. Kissinger, please answer. Thank you.”
Post COVID-19, Can China Emerge as the New Global Power?
Authors:Makam Khan Daim and Mohammed Seid Ahmed*
There are many unknowns about the virus and that makes it incredibly challenging for every government to wage war against the common enemy. The politically divided United States was not ready for a crisis like such and is already going through a deep political division that is deviating the superpower’s attention from leading the world. The United has already left multiple multilateral agreements and organizations that it helped create in the first place Trump administration was running the nation without any clear policy goals. Trump’s administration was retreating from world leadership but at the same time reluctant to give up its position as a global superpower. Though the policies of the administration are pulling the US back from years of progress as a global leader. As the world waits for the US leadership in the outbreak of the virus, the administration and supporters downplayed the harsh nature of the virus. The repercussions of failing to contain the virus at an early stage have put the US as the leader in infections and death toll above all the affected countries around the world.
The previous US administration chose to engage in a war of words with China rather than undertaking measures to contain the virus at home and be an example to the world. On the other hand, the Asian nations have taken “draconian” measures in the American eyes but were successful in containing the virus more than any country in the world. China’s has 102,517 cases with 4846 death, the numbers might be disputable for some, however, figures from democratic countries like South Korea and Japan revealed that the Asian nation has successfully contained the spread of the virus. As of May 2nd, 2021, Japan has 82, 425 with just 1493 deaths, Korea has 123,240 cases with just 1833 deaths according to the latest data compiled by the John Hopkins University of Medicine, coronavirus task force. The US on the other hand, in the same timeframe, has registered a staggering 32,392,667infection cases and 576,722 deaths. Although Chinese figures are disputable the recent reopening of all cities and provinces, indicates that the virus is contained, and things are going back to normalcy.
Power is shifting to the East as many political scientists predicted and China as an Asian superpower is in the final stage of preparations to take the role of global leadership. India is the other Asian nation that can contest China, but India’s domestic issues, its relatively weaker economy, and the ever-growing population have been a challenge for the subcontinent to be a serious contestant for China’s activities in a global scale. In fighting this pandemic, the US has missed another opportunity to lead the world and take responsibility as a superpower. The administration’s adherence to the outdated protectionist policies, that is harming American workers, let alone leading the world in the fight against COVID-19, Trump’s denial of the reality and his enablers within the government put the nation in harm’s way and has culminated in the death of thousands of Americans.
New Zealand has come out of the battle against COVID-19 as a winner with its early lockdown and strict measures with the extraordinary leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Arden and her administration. The European nations Italy, Spain, France, and Germany that have been hit hard with the virus are getting a sigh of relief after their worst at the beginning of the outbreak. Their large size aging population have become the victim of the virus, with a series of lockdown and extreme measures they have finally managed to mitigate the likelihood of more deaths related to the virus. Africa to the surprise of lots of people is the last continent that has started to see new cases. Africa’s young population under the age of 35 that makes up over 60 percent of the continent’s population could have worked in favor of Africans because of the viruses’ nature to attack mostly immune compromised and aged population. Nonetheless, the recent increase in testing for instance in Ethiopia is revealing hundreds of cases every day. Now, Ethiopia is reporting 258,062, with just 3709 deaths related to the virus. South Africa and Egypt are among the worst hit countries from Africa, in which the former has reported 1,582,842 cases and 54406 deaths, and the latter reported 228,548 cases with over 43,402 deaths respectively. Although, the death of a single person is painful, with all the indications and data available Africa is surviving this outbreak with fewer casualties. If whether this could be attributed to the nature of the virus or African government’s measures is remained to be seen in further researches and reports in the foreseeable future.
The problems that Africa could face if the infection rate increases drastically are dire, given the continent’s record in poor healthcare infrastructure, scarce of ventilators, hospital beds, small size healthcare professionals in relative to the population size. Developed countries with advanced technology and healthcare system in place have not been able to cope up with the patients’ demand and has been extremely challenging for the government and professionals to fight the virus. It is no brainer the challenges that Africans could face without the infrastructure. Nonetheless, while all the traditional global powers closed their doors and were fighting the pandemic, there is one rising superpower who has emerged to play the global leadership role in the fight with the virus. China has emerged not only as the hotbed for the virus but as a global power who is using the pandemic to project its soft power around the globe and play the role of the so-called “responsible power”.
In conclusion, China would be the winner in this epidemic, because of the measures it took and its quasi-leadership in fighting this pandemic using its soft power. It has already lifted the ban in Wuhan and now things are slowly going back to normal ahead of many other countries, which is beneficial for China to survive the economic fallout. Economists are predicting a global recession following COVID-19, but even if that is the case China will not be the biggest loser, United States, Europe, and the rest of the world are. One thing we all learn from this pandemic is that because of our intertwined interests and living by each other there is nothing that the world could achieve today without the cooperation and collective actions. Time will answer the question that will the United States take the lesson, embrace multilateralism again, and get back to lead?
*Mohammed Seid Ahmed, Freelancer(M.Phil International Relations at Zhejiang University, currently based in California, the US)Mohemmed can be reached at mahmedseid89[at]outlook.com
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