Archive for the ‘South Korea’ Category

Instability in North Korea

February 3, 2010

Efforts by the North Korean government to revaluate the country’s currency and undermine black market trading have led to runaway inflation.  In November of last year, North Koreans were compelled to exchange their old currency for the new one at a rate of 100 to 1.  State-owned stores in one of the few remaining communist nations failed to stock enough goods to compensate for the decrease in purchases from illicit sources, and as a result the price of food has skyrocketed, which in turn has exacerbated levels of malnourishment  and starvation.  There have been reports of protests and turmoil in the isolated communist nation, and government officials are reportedly taking measures to avert an uprising.  The extent of the unrest is difficult to determine because of the limited amount of information that leaks out of the totalitarian state.

Another potential source of instability in North Korea is the upcoming transfer of authority from dictator Kim Jong-il to his son Kim Jong-un, which is anticipated to take place in 2012.  Kim Jong-il has reportedly been in ill health for some time; a fact that may explain why he will soon stepdown.  It is unknown how competent Kim Jong-un will be as a leader, nor is it clear if other top officials in the Communist Party or the military will initiate a power struggle while the change in leadership is occurring.

The international community should have a well-developed contingency plan to deal with the collapse of the North Korean government, especially China, South Korea and the US, which are in the best position to handle the issue.  The odds of such a situation developing in the near-to-medium-term may be low (as noted above, the outside world has a dearth of information about the DPRK), but the event would be disastrous if other powers are unprepared because an immense humanitarian crisis would almost certainly erupt.  The problem could entail massive refugee flows, widespread starvation and illness, large-scale violence and unsecured nuclear weapons.

It is inherently difficult to predict when a revolution will occur.  Few anticipated that the communist regimes in Eastern Europe would disintegrate in the late 1980s, and history provides many other examples of sudden political upheaval.  North Korea’s neighbors and other regional powers may not have much warning before the North Korean government falls, so they must prepare for that eventuality even if it appears that the ruling elites in the DPRK  have firm control over the country; if other nations are caught unprepared, they, and the North Korean people, will suffer the consequences.

The State of the US-Japanese Alliance

January 21, 2010

This week, three similar articles about the state of the US-Japanese alliance were published in major newspapers (two in The Economist and one in the New York Times), and in each piece  the authors argue that the relationship between the two nations is on the brink of major deterioration.  They cite the dispute over the relocation of the American airbase on Okinawa and the strengthening ties between Japan and China as key reasons for the supposed breach.  They note the fact that Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has thus far sought more independence from Washington than his predecessors; last September, his Democratic Party took power from the Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled the country for 53 years.

These analysts exaggerate the threat of a permanent rift between the long time allies.  The US and Japan still have major strategic interests in common, and the benefits that Japan derive from the relationship mitigate against a political divorce.  America remains the primary guarantor of security and stability in East Asia because of its military, economic and diplomatic clout.  The Treaty of Mutual Co-operation and Security enables Japan to spend less on defense and more on social programs, and it removes the impetus for the country to develop a nuclear deterrent against other regional powers who have the Bomb, including China and North Korea (the US also assists Japan with missile defense systems).  On an economic level, a falling out between the close trading partners would encourage protectionist policies in the US which would further hurt Japan’s relatively stagnant economy.

Although America and Japan disagree on some issues and many Japanese would like to assert more independence from Washington, it is highly unlike that the government in Tokyo would allow the alliance to fall apart because doing so would not serve its interests.  Domestic politics complicate the Futenma airbase problem for Mr. Hatoyama and it is unclear how it will be resolved, but when it comes to the big picture his political fortunes, and those of his party, will be jeopardized if he repeatedly pursues policies that alienate the US and undermine his country’s security and economic position.  American policymakers certainly need to pay attention to Japan’s concerns and keep relations as amicable as possible because the US benefits greatly from the trans-Pacific partnership; but people should not fear the dissolution of one of the strongest alliances in the world anytime soon.

Obama’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

December 11, 2009

Yesterday, President Obama visited Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.  Many people reasonably believe that the president does not deserve the award after serving less than a year in office and not having achieved many tangible goals when it comes to foreign policy.  But regardless of whether or not he earned the prestigious prize, his acceptance speech was excellent.  It was very Niebuhrian, and it revealed that the president holds a view of the world and human nature that can be described as “Christian realism,” although he did not identify it in sectarian terms  He believes that man is flawed and frequenty behaves in unethical ways, but he also maintains that the human condition can be improved through acts of goodwill motivated by moral principles.  Having just escalated the war in Afghanistan, he argued that war is sometimes justified and necessary, but he balanced his adherence to just war theory by stressing the need to achieve a just peace that serves humanitarian aims.

In addition to promoting humanitarian realism, he advocated what international relations scholars refer to as “institutionalism” and “constructivism.”  Institutionalists believe that peace and progress can best be achieved by nations acting in concert through international institutions like the United Nations and World Trade Organization, and constructivists believe that changes in norms such as notions of sovereignty and human rights can improve global society.  In his speech, President Obama said that international alliances like NATO are needed to keep the peace, and he argued that the US and other countries should embrace humanitarian concepts out of enlightened self interest.

For information about Rienhold Niebuhr, who President Obama has cited as a major influence on his thinking, and Christian realism click on this link.  For another perspective on the international relations theory aspects of the president’s speech, read Daniel Drezner’s recent blog post on ForeignPolicy.com.

North Korea’s Latest Gestures

August 19, 2009

Earlier this year, North Korea made several provocative moves.  It tested a nuclear device, launched an intercontinental ballistic missle (ICBM) with a satellite (similar in size to a nuclear warhead) attached to it, fired shorter-renge missiles near Japan, threatened nuclear war and imprisoned two American journalists and a South Korean worker.  These acts came on the heels of efforts by the Obama administration to extend an olive branch to North Korea in an attempt to improve relations and ease tensions in East Asia.  The administration responded to North Korea’s defiance by rallying the international community to impose more sanctions on the DPRK and make greater efforts to interept North Korean ships suspected of carrying illicit materials such as nuclear technology.

But in recent weeks, Kim Jong-Il’s regime has made what appear to be conciliatory gestures.  It freed the imprisoned Americans, announced that it would send representatives to attend the funeral of South Korea’s former president, requested a meeting with Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who negotiated with North Korea in the 1990s during the Clinton administration, and agreed to reopen tourism ventures with South Korea.  It also said it would allow families divided by the border between North and South to reunite.

North Korea’s recent change in posture is probably an attempt to persuade the outside world to ease sanctions and offer economic benefits to Kim’s regime as a reward for being more cooperative.  This is likely a temporary move in accordance with North Korea’s strategy of acting belligerent to garner the attention of the international community and then extracting economic aid in return for promises to behave better.  The US and other powers should keep this in mind when negotiating with North Korea and determining their policies towards that rogue nation.

Fight Breaks Out in South Korean Parliament

July 22, 2009

Earlier today, a fight broke out in South Korea’s parliament over a media reform bill that would loosen restrictions on ownership of television networks.  Opposition parties attempted to block legislators from the ruling National Party from entering the assembly room by stacking furniture near the entrance to the chamber.  National Party members managed to overcome the obstacles and enter the room, where they successfully passed the bills and precipitated a melee.  Injuries were reported and one woman was taken to the hospital.

This is not the first time that legislative contoversy has resulted in violence among South Korean parliamentarians.  Last year, opposition party members pounded their way into a committee room with sledgehammers in an effort to prevent the ruling party from drafting a bill to ratify a free trade agreement with the US.

Major confrontation is much more prevalent in legislative assemblies in many foreign countries than it is in the American Congress.  Multiple fights have occured in South Korea.  Earlier this year, there was a physical clash between lawmakers in Malaysia.  Scuffles also broke out in Japan and India last year.  In 2007, Turkish lawmakers got in a fistfight, and a Ukrainian politician was attacked by a member of a rival party after complaining about the vote for prime minister.  In 2006, a fight broke out in the Afghan legislature and violence occured in the Iraqi parliament over a politician’s ringtone on her cell phone.  In 2003,  Venezuelan assemblymen came to blows.  These are just a few examples of literal legislative fights.

There have been no serious physical altercations in the US Congress since the 19th century.  The most infamous one occured in the 1850s, when Rep. Preston Brooks beat Sen. Charles Sumner with a cane over the issue of slavery and almost killed him.