A carefully thought-out and written → article there. Quoting single lines or paragraphs wouldn’t provide an accurate account of James Fallows‘ reflections on U.S. President Barack Obama‘s planned Hiroshima visit.
US President Barack Obama gave NHK an exclusive interview ahead of his arrival in Japan, reports NHK, emphasizing that Obama would be the first sitting US President to visit the atomic-bombed city.
A full account of the interview doesn’t seem to be available online yet. NHK provides a video with excerpts from the interview.
News like this doesn’t make much sense without context. US-Japan relations, frequently dubbed one of the closest alliances worldwide, were contentious in 2009, according to the New York Times. At the time, Japan had just seen its first transition of power from one political party to another, and the Hatoyama government – in short – called for a more equal relationship with the United States, with a number of possible ramifications.
The departure from the usual Liberal-Democrats rule in Japan was only an interlude. And a nation’s foreign policies are usually bi-partisan, or meta-partisan – in Japan, too.
From the Middle East to Ukraine, questions are being asked about the U.S. ability and willingness to maintain peace. If it cannot or will not, who will fill the void?,
the Nikkei Asian Review asked in May 2015.
Japan sees its future more within Asia, the NYT quoted Eswar S. Prasad back then. That, however, doesn’t necessarily benefit Sino-Japanese relations, as suggested by the NYT six years earlier. Rather, Japan appears to be warming to Russia.
Japan and Russia have especially found ample opportunity to conduct a coordinated response to the most recent security crisis in North Korea. Japan and Russia have also sought to increase their economic and financial ties, which are particularly important for the development of the Russian Far East,
Anthony Rinna of the Sino-NK research group noted in March this year. The Russian pivot to the East – possibly with a lot of help from Tokyo – was hampered by two obstacles however, Rinna cautioned: the long-standing dispute over the Kuril Islands, and Japan’s alignment with the West over the Ukraine crisis.
the containment of China remains the primary purpose of the Japan-U.S. defense apparatus, U.S. strategic containment of Russia also continues to be an important factor in the Japan-U.S. alliance, which comprises one key flank of the American strategic posture in Asia,
But being part of an alliance doesn’t mean that Japan would forgo foreign policies of its own. When Obama (reportedly) tried to talk Japanese prime minister Abe out of a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin, his appeal was unsuccessful.
It’s not only Japan who needs to take existing alliances into consideration. The same is true for Russia – but less so than Japan. Russian obligations toward China can’t be compared to Japan’s obligations toward America. That may not be a general opinion in China, but observers who watch the developments probably wouldn’t be caught by surprise if Russia and Japan were to sign a peace treaty in the not too distant future.
In December 2013, Cui Heng (崔珩) of the East China Normal University’s Russia Research Center in Shanghai, published an opinion on the China Internet Information Center (中国网) website. Titled “Russia won’t keep away from Japan because of Russia-Chinese relations”, Cui’s article pointed out that Russia’s preparedness to be considerate of China was limited, even though Sino-Russian relations were “at their best in history”.
Abe’s generation in particular had, because of their country’s economic successes, developed a sense of national greatness, and were seeking normalization for Japanese statehood. The economic revival after Abe’s taking office [there was a revival indeed, three years ago] had added to this conscience among Japanese politicians, Cui wrote. Ending the official state of war with Russia would be part of normalization. Even if hardly relevant in military terms, the status quo weighed heavily in terms of in terms of symbolism.
By coming to formally peaceful terms with Russia, Japan could also shed its status as a defeated country, Cui argued, and then addressed a factor that made Russia’s perception of Japan different from both China’s, and America’s:
Russia isn’t only prepared to develop beneficial relations with Japan for geopolitical reasons. In Russian historical memory, there isn’t much hate against Japan. During the age of the great empires, Japanese-Russian relations in the Far East were of a competitive nature. Many Russians still talk about the 1905 defeat, but the Far East wasn’t considered a place that would hit Russian nerve as hard as the crushing defeat in the Crimean war. Back then, Japan wasn’t perceived as a threat for Russia, and from another perspective, if there had been anti-Japanese feelings, there wouldn’t have been a revolution. According to perception back then, the  defeat was a result of the Russian government’s incompetence, not [brought about by] a strong adversary. The outstanding achievements of the Soviet Red Army in 1945 led to a great [positive] Russian attitude, but still without considering Japan a great enemy.
By visiting Hiroshima, Obama appears to make a concession to Tokyo’s desire for “normalization”. Of course, few decisions are made for only one reason – they are part of a network, or hierarchy, of objectives. One objective was stated by Obama himself – that we should continue to strive for a world without nuclear weapons.
There is no great likelihood that Japan would shift away from the alliance with Washington. Japan’s distrust of China probably outweighs even America’s. That’s a stabilizing factor in US-Japanese relations.
But Tokyo is certainly trying to put its relations with America on a more equal footing – not just formally, but by creating diplomatic and economic facts that will help to further this aim.
Russia’s Far East is nothing to disregard, in terms of its economic potential. Japan can do business with Ukraine, and with Russia, and is likely to cooperate with both.
Very few things can be taken for granted. Tsai Ing-wen‘s presidency will have to address issues from pension reform and social issues, to relations with China and efforts for economic-cooperation agreements with countries in the region, beyond Singapore and New Zealand.
From tomorrow, many things will be different from preceding presidencies. But one thing will not change at all: Beijing’s latent aggression against the island democracy will stay around.
Tsai will probably try to avoid anything that would, in the eyes of many Taiwanese people and especially in the eyes of Washington or Tokyo, unnecessarily anger Beijing. That in turn may anger some or many of her supporters.
But in tricky times, Tsai needs loyal supporters, who are prepared to believe that she has the best in mind for her country, and that she has the judgment and strength to make the right choices.
There will be disagreement, and there will be debate, which is essential. But underlying these, there needs to be loyalty within the Democratic Progressive Party.
Probably, there will be no loyal opposition – there are no indications, anyway, that the KMT in its current sectarian shape will constitute that kind of democratic balance.
Distinguishing between blind faith and loyalty will be a challenge for people who support the president elect. But if Tsai’s supporters expect her to perform well, they themselves will have to play their part, too, in terms of judgment, strength, and faith.
… counter-revolutionary students in public squares!
The PLA is here to kill, kill, kill you with responsibility!
Remember June 4, 1989.
The Russians are coming was a standard line when I was a child. Sometimes, everyone into the blockhouses would be added. it was meant to be fun, but there was an underlying fear in it.
Another term for Russians in general would be The Ivan*) (probably an echo from “Ivan the Terrible”). At least in West Germany, fear of Russia was part of collective post-war identity – much more so than in Britain or France.
There may be many possible explanations for this, and I tend to believe that it was a combination of several factors (Germany being subject to allied, including Soviet, control being one that lasted particularly long) was one of them. West Germany’s existence and raison d’être as a frontline state was another. And then, there was a widespread inclination among many Germans to see their country as a victim in the first place, rather than as an initiator of Nazism and boundless war.
By 1983, it had become evident, at least in certain quarters, that the USSR had lost most of its expansionary power. In terms of soft power, Moscows message had become about as attractive as athlete’s foot, and in military terms, the “Evil Empire” was grossly overestimated.
But there was a narrative, and as usual (when the narrative is well crafted), it prevailed over facts. On March 31, 1983, US president Ronald Reagan told a Los Angeles World Affairs Council Luncheon that
In the last 15 years or more, the Soviet Union has engaged in a relentless military buildup, overtaking and surpassing the United States in major categories of military power, acquiring what can only be considered an offensive military capability. All the moral values which this country cherishes-freedom, democracy, the right of peoples and nations to determine their own destiny, to speak and write, to live and worship as they choose—all these basic rights are fundamentally challenged by a powerful adversary which does not wish these values to survive.
Der Spiegel, back then a center-left and liberal German newsmagazine, took issue with Reagan. While the USSR was certainly no paper tiger, and while it was true that Soviet military had seen a huge push during two decades under Leonid Brezhnev (with American military budgets being reduced by some 2.5 percent per year during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter presidencies), the USSR’s military power wasn’t as strong as first reported.
Shortly before a paper was published by US secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger (also in March 1983, and supportive of Reagan’s March-31 remarks), the CIA had retracted all its US statements concerning Moscow’s military budget:
military expenditures had been overestimated by fifty percent. Rather than by three, four, or more percent, there had been growth by a maximum of two percent since 1976.
Fourty-year-old statistics like those debted in the early 1980s are hard to verify (or falsify). But in at least one respect, the Spiegel authors, in 1983, were wrong: contrary to what they believed (quoting “experts”), America proved able to finish the USSR off in a gargantuan arms race, and the factors that lead to the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991 were pretty much the weaknesses that the Spiegel authors themselves had pointed out less than a decade earlier.
The rest, as they say, is history. The world, from Alaska to Siberia (the long way round, of course), and from Pole to Pole, happily awaited huge peace dividends. After all, we had reached the end of history.
But Russia felt squeezed by NATO – understandably, the Baltic nations and Poland had felt rather urgently that they needed a strong reassurance against potential future Russian expansionism. (Not everyone appeared to trust the story about the end of history, and besides, a democratic society doesn’t necessarily live in a peaceful, unaggressive state.
Germans have viewed Russia – and the Soviet Union – differently since the mid-1980s. By 1987, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had overtaken Ronald Reagan, in terms of popularity here. That didn’t change after the USSR’s demise: while Gorbachev was seen as a failure, or even a “sellout” of sourts, among many Russians, Germans considered him “the” man who had made German unification possible. And Boris Yeltsin‘s Russia, even if not looking terribly respectable at the time, certainly didn’t look like something to fear either.
In an article in Germany’s weekly Die Zeit, a Moscow correspondent stated in May 1994 that once again, a majority of Russians considered the end of the USSR a greater calamity than its beginnings, and that Russian reformers had not been successful in “learning from the West”, as stipulated by Yeltsin two and a half years earlier.
Yeltsin had to accept that the safeguarding of authority, which had for centuries been based on expansion rather than on enlightenment, could not be redesigned with a new constitution alone.
Jelzin hat einsehen müssen, daß Herrschaftssicherung, die seit Jahrhunderten durch Ausdehnung statt durch Aufklärung erfolgte, mit einer neuen Verfassung alleine nicht umgestaltet werden kann.
Only pacts and compromises with conservative forces could save the “autumn” of Yeltsin’s presidency, the correspondent wrote.
In economic terms, a Stratfor paper dating from November 1999 suggested that veterans of perestroika, such as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, could strip the oligarchs of their wealth and influence, and enact more centrist policies.
To quite an extent, this seems to be what Vladimir Putin‘s presidency has done. In its early years, it continued the ideological consolidation started by Yeltsin himself, and his administration began to implement a policy that the “Zeit” Moscow correspondent described as west-oriented as a matter of principle, but moving away from America in particular. […] In America, however, the “Zeit” article quoted Yeltsin, forces were concentrating that would like to keep Russia in a state of controllable paralysis. That said, Putin – in the eyes of investors – may have arrived at a point similar to Yeltsin’s, by now. Too little appears to move, economically.
When reading the press these days – certainly the German press -, you might be forgiven if you think that Russian policies had fundamentally changed since the 1990s. But they haven’t. There has been a remarkable Russian continuity – and a tendency in the West to disregard realities in Russia, and in its remaining sphere of influence.
When late German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle told Moscow in December 2013 that it was “not appropriate” for the EU “to ask third parties for permission before inviting the Ukraine to develop into Europe’s direction”, this represented widespread western- and central European illusions.
Russia, too, is a European country – most Russians live on the European continent, and Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Volgograd not least, are European cities. The discriminatory – and self-centred – approach of equating Europe with the EU has done much to its recent crises, be it on its eastern, be it on its northwestern boundaries.
There is an important difference to make: it would have been unethical if NATO had refused Polish or a Baltic country’s accessions, and it would have been particularly unethical if Germany a main author of Polish partition and loss of the Baltic states’ sovereignty,- had demanded such a refusal.
But in Ukraine, there had been no consensus to join an alliance with the West. In a row, administrations closer to Moscow or closer to the West had been elected, but there had been no continuity. There was Russian intervention, but there had been unwarranted Western interference prior to that. I have no doubt that any Russian leader, be it Putin, Yeltsin, or Gorbachev, would have reacted just the way Putin did. That was no matter of conviction; it was a matter of geopolitics.
Now, Germany’s federal government intends to counter Russian espionage, propaganda, and disinformation in Germany, writes German daily Die Welt. What they mean is, that Russian and pro-Putin publications have blown several issues in the news – issues that have recently troubled many Germans – out of proportions, or given them a slant that favored narratives from the fringes, rather than the much-conjured “center” of German society.
If the German public can be persuaded by domestic propaganda to swing back from a rather “russophile” (since the 1980s) to a rather anti-Russian attitude again (as from the 1940s to the 1970s) remains to be seen. But if the political class have their way, it is going to work that way.
That said, there are surprises, once in a while. In May 2015, Joachim Gauck, not particularly famous for being a friend of the Russian people, gave a speech in the Westphalian town of Schloß Holte-Stukenbrock, a prisoner-of-war campsite during World War 1 and, more notoriously, World War 2. What Gauck said, was this:
We have gathered here today in Schloß Holte-Stukenbrock to recall one of the worst crimes of the war – the deaths of millions of Red Army soldiers in German prisoner-of-war camps. They died in agony without medical care, starved to death or were murdered. Millions of prisoners of war for whose care the German Wehrmacht was responsible under the law of war and international agreements.
Saying that was laudable, especially as most Germans I know aren’t even aware of this chapter in their history. But there is a catch: to say something only once hardly changes anything. Only regular repetition – as anyone with just a faint idea of how propaganda works can tell you – will make sink inconvenient truths like these sink in. Most Germans I know aren’t actually aware of the scale of German warcrimes against Soviet war prisoners. And to make the warprisoner story sink in isn’t deemed desirable: neither by most of Germany’s media, nor by the German population in general, many of whom would like to see a Schlußstrich, a “final stroke” underneath the complete chapter of Nazism.
Some time in the early 1980s – prior to Gorbachev’s tenure as Soviet party secretary -, the West German foreign office published a booklet for use in school classes. Our school was a rather conservative environment, but the booklet made it into our classroom anyway. Titled “Aufrüsten-Abrüsten” (Armament-Disarmament), it was a try to educate us in foreign politics, and I don’t remember much of it. But there was a remarkable line in it which basically said that, no matter to which conclusions we, as school students, might come concerning the Soviet Union’s role in Europe, we should develop some sympathy – even if not necessarily acquiescence – in the light of the past.
I guess that this booklet had much to do with the man at the helm of the foreign office at the time – Hans-Dietrich Genscher, German foreign minister from 1974 to 1992, who died on Thursday. As phobic as West German feelings against the “East” might have been back then, there seemed to be an understanding, at least in some substantial quarters of the political class, that you can’t have peace without trying to understand those who may (or may not) become your foes, and that your own decisions may matter in the process.
This understanding may no longer be here, and I’m wondering how much misery it may take before we will regain some common sense.
*) Max Frisch, in his novel “Homo Faber”, raised a modest monument for German anti-Russian sentiment, in the shape of an, as it turns out later, otherwise/actually/mostly quite likeable German philistine:
No German desired re-armament, but the Russian forced America into it, tragically, which I, as a Swissman […], couldn’t judge, because I hadn’t been to the Caucasus, he [the German] had been in the Caucasus, he knew the Ivan, who could only be taught a lesson with weapons. He knew the Ivan! He said that several times. Only possible lesson through weapons!, he said, because nothing else would impress him, the Ivan —
I peeled my apple.
I ate my apple.
Kein Deutscher wünsche Wiederbewaffnung, aber der Russe zwinge Amerika dazu, Tragik, ich als Schweizer (Schwyzzer, wie er mit Vorliebe sagte) könne alldies nicht beurteilen, weil nie im Kaukasus gewesen, er sei im Kaukasus gewesen, er kenne den Iwan, der nur durch Waffen zu belehren sei. Er kenne den Iwan!
Das sagte er mehrmals. Nur durch Waffen zu belehren! sagte er, denn alles andere mache ihm keinen Eindruck, dem Iwan –
Ich schälte meinen Apfel.
Unterscheidung nach Herrenmenschen und Untermenschen, wie’s der gute Hitler meinte, sei natürlich Unsinn; aber Asiaten bleiben Asiaten –
Ich aß meinen Apfel.
The prospect of a North Korean nuclear arsenal can’t be promising in Beijing’s view – but appears to be preferrable to a scenario where the regime in Pyongyang would collapse and give way to South Korea’s political system, with US military close on its heels.
Given that, it is no great surprise that China doesn’t agree to sanctions that could endanger the very survival of the North Korean regime. And given that, the sanctions Beijing agreed to anyway, in negotiations with Washington’s mission to the UN that were concluded on Thursday, look as if they were unusually biting after all, even if stopping short of causing Pyongyang fatal or near-fatal calamities. After all, the sanctions’ effect depends not only on what the Security Council agrees to, but also on how far North Korea’s trading partners, including China, are prepared to go in implementing them.
What made Beijing agree to the resolution draft that should be voted on shortly? Not least fear of a regional arms race.
A Foreign Ministry official confirmed that China’s Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin requested a meeting with South Korea’s Ambassador to Beijing Kim Jang-soo,
KBS World Radio, South Korea’s foreign broadcasting service, reported on Febuary 9.
The official told Seoul-based Yonhap News Agency that China conveyed its stance on the launch of the THAAD negotiations during that meeting. Asked about what stance China had expressed, the official said it is not appropriate to reveal content from consultations held via diplomatic channels,
the KBS report continued.
The confirmation came as China’s Foreign Ministry announced on Monday that Liu urgently summoned the South Korean ambassador and protested the launch of South Korea-U.S. negotiations on deploying the U.S. THAAD system on the Korean Peninsula.
In her speech to parliament, South Korean president Park Geun-hye also conjured THAAD:
The Government is making sure our military readiness posture is solid and is also making thorough preparations for nonmilitary provocations including cyber- attacks and acts of terrorism in public places.
To maintain robust deterrence against the North, the Government is enhancing the Korea-U.S. combined defense capability and engaging in consultations with the United States to improve our alliance’s missile defense posture. The start of formal consultations to deploy the THAAD system to US Forces Korea, as announced on February 7, is also part of these efforts.
Eleven days earlier, Park had been on the phone, talking to Chinese party and state leader Xi Jinping. The conversation didn’t appear to bear fruit, and certainly not the way Park had hoped for. China was “still unprepared” to “think about this in larger strategic terms”, Yonhap newsagency quoted Jonathan Pollack of the Brookings Institution. Pollack was also quoted as pointing out
how much effort Park has put in to strengthen relations with China and build personal ties with Xi, including her attendance at a massive Chinese military parade in September that was shunned by Western leaders.
“President Park’s expectation, I think legitimate expectation, was that she wanted a different answer from China. She’s made a lot of commitment to China,” the expert said, noting that Park risked domestic and international criticism to attend the September parade.
“She expected something in return, and so far, she has not received that,” he said.
Broadly speaking, Seoul’s plans for tough sanctions against Pyongyang had been frustrated. But there was a pressure point on Beijing. While Seoul had reportedly long been reluctant – or ambiguous – about the idea of deploying THAAD as part of American military defense, the South Korean leadership quickly warmed up to it during the past six or seven weeks.
And Beijing – not terribly successfully, it seems – tried to find an effective line in its communications with South Korea. In a meeting with Kim Jong-in, leader of South Korea’s largest opposition party, Chinese ambassador Qiu Guohong (邱国洪) – quoted by Chosun Ilbo as in turn quoted by Huanqiu Shibao –
[…] emphasized that Sino-South Korean relations could thus be negatively affected, as mentioned at the beginning of this [Huanqiu, that is] article. The [Chosun Ilbo] report says that Qiu Guohong had expressed the Chinese position in three points. Firstly, the South Korean government says it would limit the radar reach and lower the performance of ‘THAAD’, but the Chinese government cannot possibly believe that. As a friend, China can believe South Korea’s promises, but the problem is that America has all powers in the deployment, the upgrades, and adjustments made to ‘THAAD’. In the end, China and Russia would become target objects, too.” Secondly, this [THAAD] issue would destroy the regional strategic balance, cause an arms race, and fire up nervousness and disquiet.” Ambassador Qiu reminded the South Korean side of the question of how South Korea’s seucrity should, under such circumstances, be guaranteed? His last point was that “the South-Korean-American consultations concerning ‘THAAD’ had, to some extent, dispersed the international community’s unanimous reaction concerning sanctions against North Korea. Without this issue, maybe there would be a new, passed, UN resolution already.”
The South Korean government wasn’t amused and summoned Qiu to the foreign ministry on Wednesday to discuss his comments during his talks with the country’s opposition leader. This was no dramatic response to a questionable Chinese move, but an unusually strong reaction by South Korean standards, in its relations with Beijing. And there is no indication that Seoul will drop the idea of THAAD deployment again, after what appears to have been a successful game of hardball with Beijing, forced upon the clestial kingdom by three unruly barbarians: America, South Korea, and – not least – the North Korean “ally”.
On Thursday, the day when Beijing’s and Washington’s missions to the UN agreed to the resolution draft on sanctions against North Korea, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi apparently struck a more conciliatory tone, saying that the decision was ultimately up to South Korea, and China understood the desire of the United States and South Korea to ensure the defense of their own countries. However, China’s legitimate security concerns also needed to be taken into account, Reuters quoted Wang as saying – an explanation must be provided to China.
North Korea’s “Historical Moment”
On February 7, North Korea launched a missile. Pyongyang referred ot it as a satellite launch, and that’s how they had registered it with the International Maritime Office in London, a few days earlier.
But the world appeared to be in disbelief. One month earlier, on January 6, North Korea had conducted a nuclear test, and given that space rockets’ and ballistic missiles’ technological platforms are quite similar to each other, it is believed that Pyongyang chose the space option (a three-stufen rocket) rather than a (two-stufen) missile so as to circumvent UN Security Council restrictions on its missile program.
Beijing, too, expressed disbelief and “regretted” the satellite launch which, as the foreign ministry spokesperson emphasized, had been based on ballistic-missile technology.
Pyongyang’s claim that it had tested a hydrogen bomb was met with skepticism in the West, in Japan, and South Korea, and at least semi-officially – via the world of Chinese science, as usual – Beijing expressed doubt, too.
He wouldn’t rule out that North Korea mastered a bit of hydrogen-bomb technology already, PLA Academy of Military Science researcher Du Wenlong told CCTV, but the available data “didn’t support a ‘hydrogen-bomb test’”.
There were no such doubts about North Korean television’s wonderweapon: “Heaven and earth are shaking because of the historical moment”, announced Ri Chun-hee, a veteran presenter, re-emerged from retirement for the festive occasion.
South Korea’s Reaction
And South Korea’s leadership was steaming with anger. If it was up to the South’s foreign minister, Yun Byung-he, the North Korean leadership would be entering a world of pain:
“I believe it is time for the international community to show zero tolerance to North Korea’s uncontrolled provocations”, he told the Munich Security Conference in Munich on Thursday, and: “it is time now to inflict unbearable pain on Pyongyang, to make them take the right strategic decision, as Iran has done.”
South Korea sees itself affected by Pyongyang’s nuclear test more immediately as other neighbors or opponents taking part in the six-party talks on the Korean peninsula’s denuclearization. Different from the world outside the peninsula, reunification of the two Koreas is on the agenda, even if outside the South Korean government, considerable doubts are expressed concerning the use and feasibility of such unification.
There was a special relationship between South Korea and Germany, because of the painful experience of division, South Korean president Park Geun-hye said during a visit to Berlin, in March 2014.
Her demand that “meticulous preparations” should be made for making Korean unity happen was probably meant seriously then, and still is. Basically, the situation on the Korean peninsula isn’t that different after the North’s fourth nuclear test, anyway: America and China can agree to a common denominator concerning sanctions against Pyongyang, but no sanctions that would call the continuation of the North Korean regime into question.
Besides, flashes of official Korean anger – northern or southern – might be considered a ritual. As German sinologist Oskar Weggel observed decades ago, student protests in [South] Korean cities always took the same shape and followed the same script, while life continued as normal just next to where young people were battling it out with the police. 1)
But for some South Korean companies, life may be anything but normal now. An industrial park jointly run in Kaesong, by North and South Korea, has ceased operation last week. On Thursday, Pyongyang deported all the South Korean employees to the South, after South Korea had stopped production. The South Koreans’ apparent attempt to take their assets and stock across the border to the South reportedly didn’t succeed: according to Radio Japn news on Friday, the North Korean committee for reunification announced that South Korean assets in Kaesong would be frozen, and also on Friday, China Radio International’s Mandarin service reported that the South Koreans had only been allowed to take personal belongings with them. The industrial park had been sealed off as a military zone – chances are that this halt will last longer than a previous one in 2013.
Valued more than 500 million USD in 2015, inter-Korean production in Kaesong may be considered less than decisive, in macro-economic terms. However, according to South Korean broadcaster KBS’ German service, South Korean opposition criticized the production halt in Kaesong as the governing party’s “strategy” for the upcoming parliamentary elections in April. Also according to KBS, Seoul feels compelled to take relief measures for companies invested in Kaesong. All companies residing in the industrial park are granted a moratorium on loan repayments, and companies who took loans from an inter-Korean cooperation fund may also suspend interest payment.
Chinese-North Korean Relations
China had “total control” of North Korea, Donald Trump claimed in a CNN interview – there would be nothing to eat in North Korea without China. If you go by statistics, Trump appears to have a point.
From 2009 to 2011, North Korean exports (imports) to (from) China rose from 348 mn (1.47 bn) USD to 2.5 bn (3.7 bn) USD. In total, North Korea’s exports (imports) reached a value of 3.7 bn (4.3 bn) USD.2) Even after a contraction of North Koran-Chinese trade in 2014 and 2015 to 2.3 bn (2.6 bn) USD by 2015, there’s hardly a way to reject the notion of North Korean dependence on China.
North Korea also depends on China in military terms. An American-led attack on Pyongyang – be it to occupy the North, be it for the sake of “regime change”, is hardly conceivable – directly or indirectly, Beijing’s nuclear umbrella protects the regime.
All the same, it is wrong to believe that Beijing wielded substantial influence over Pyongyang’s behavior. Neither economic nor military support from Beijing has been able to satisfy Pyongyang. Given Chinese reform and opening up “to the West”, or to international markets, since 1978, China’s leaders are considered weaklings by North Korean peers, despite some private-economy tries of their own. To consider oneself an economic or military dwarf, but a giant of ideological purity vis-à-vis China has some tradition in Korea.
That China has joined several initiatives – resolutions and sanctions – against North Korea hasn’t been a confidence-building measure for the neighbor and ally either.
That Pyongyang, under these circumstances, keeps striving for nuclear arms, come what may, is only logical – at least by the regime’s own interest –, and not negotiable, unless the regime falls. There are no conceivable guarantees – be it from Beijing, be it from Washington – that could make the North Korean political class abandon their nuclear goal.
No matter if there ever was or wasn’t a Western “guarantee” to the former USSR not to expand NATO eastward: a precondition for any feasible arrangement of that kind – in east or west – would be a situation where all parties involved would see themselves in a position to enter a non-aligned status, or to maintain one. There is no way that this could currently be done in East Asia. Even as there is no structure comparable to NATO in East Asia – and South-East Asia, for that matter -, none of China’s neighbors will discard the option to play America and China off against one another, thus increasing its own leeway – neither North Korea as China’s current “ally”, nor any other state within the former Chinese imperial state’s range of influence. And neither America nor China – strategic rivals of one another – would abandon the option to establish or to maintain alliances in Asia, based on partnership or on hegemony.
If the North Korean regime collapsed, there would be no guarantees for China that a North Korean power vacuum wouldn’t be filled by South Korea and the United States. And if China invaded Korea’s north preemptively, it wouldn’t only violate its own attitude of non-interference, but it would risk war, or at least a crash in its economic relations with America and many other countries. Not least, a Chinese invasion would harden an antagonism against China that already exists among former tributary states.
From China’s perspective, there is therefore no convincing alternative to the incumbent North Korean regime. The status quo costs less than any conceivable alternative scenario.
America knows that, too, and a newly lected president Trump would get real very quickly, or America would lose a great deal of influence in the region.
Last week’s developments will be most frustrating for the South Korean government, particularly for president Park. Her public-support rate will hardly depend on national reunification drawing closer, but it will depend on a reasonably relaxed co-existence with the North, including at least a few fields of cooperation, as has been the case in the Kaesong Industrial Park. The South Korean opposition’s accusations against the government to have stopped production carelessly or intentionally, it’s exactly because levelling such accusations can damage the government’s reputation with the electorate.
A phone call between Park and Chinese party and state leader Xi Jinping didn’t provide Park with good news either, let alone progress in her efforts to influence the North through international channels. China was still “not prepared” to change its …. Toward North Korea, an editorialist for South Korea’s Yonhap newsagency stated cautiously, adding a quote from Jonathan Pollack who had emphasized how Park had made efforts for good relations with Beijing, even by attending the Chinese military parade in September, commemorating the end of World War 2.
Pyongyang is hardly at risk to suffer from unbearable pains, as demanded by South Korea’s foreign minister in Munich.
But Beijing, too, can’t be happy with the situation. It offends face-conscious Chinese people to be fooled, on the world stage, by a gang – that’s how many Chinese view North Korea’s “elites”. The effects of North Korea’s behavior also strengthen the hand of the US in the region. Just as Pyongyang helps itself to a Chinese military umbrella without much cost (if any), most other neighbors afford themselves, to varying degrees, an American umbrella. Even Japan and South Korea, facing North Korean nuclear armament, might work to defuse mutual antagonism, as feared by Chinese military professor Zhang Zhaozhong, in 2010. Preparedness to improve Japanese-South Korean relations appears to be on the increase.
Besides the – aggressive indeed – role played by China in the South China sea, North Korea’s attitude remains another strong anchor point for America’s military and political presence in the Far East.
1) Oskar Weggel: “Die Asiaten”, Munich 1989, 1994, 1997 p. 148
2) FAO/WFP Group and Security Assessment Mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Rome, Nov 28, 2013, p. 7