Friday, May 18, 2018

Pivot or no pivot?

If you’re following me on Twitter (and everybody should), you would have seen me post this PBS NewsHour story, that includes a picture of newly minted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo eagerly — and I mean with apparently great enthusiasm — shaking hands with a grinning not-so-newly-minted North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

And then you would have read my tweet essentially saying that it may sound crazy, but I think it’s possible that what we are witnessing here may actually be North Korea willing and trying to make a pivot away from China and toward the United States and South Korea. Which would be epic, legendary, the stuff that changes history (and may potentially win one or two leaders a deserved Nobel Peace Prize if it comes with a resolution to the Korean War and peace on the Korean Peninsula, which it probably would).

I added that the coming days may present a golden opportunity for the US, South Korea, and even Japan, but that I’m not so sure President Trump — who utterly lacks knowledge of Northeast Asia, including why North Korea does what it does — is up to the task, though I hoped maybe Pompeo is. If anyone would know how to tap into Kim Jong-un’s Western upbringing (he was educated in Switzerland) and his possible desire to be the Deng Xiaoping of North Korea and pull his country out of the morass so that they’ll love him instead of fear him, it would be Pompeo (as long as he came with a bag of goodies, a very big bag).

And I was all set to crank out that post, when this happened: North Korea canceled talks with South Korea and threatened to cancel the upcoming historic sit-down between Trump and Kim Jong-un.

There could be so many reasons behind this, from North Korea’s fears that they’ll end up like Libya’s leadership (deposed and executed), to merely it being a hardline negotiating position. I’m hoping for the latter, but in case it’s also the former, we need John Bolton to start shutting his mouth. Like starting in 2005.

I’m still holding out for the possibility that a pivot could happen. North Korea relies on China for so many things, but at the same time resents that. Kim Jong-un may be tired of North Korea being China’s “little brother,” while reaching out economically to South Korea, the United States, Japan, and possibly Taiwan could offer a better future. There are (as far as I’m aware) no Chinese military bases in North Korea to worry about, and Pyongyang is experienced at sealing off its border to the PRC and Russia, so it could be done. The trick is getting North Korea to see how it benefits them.

And managing a pivot is something Trump can do that Obama would have had trouble doing. Not because he’s an excellent negotiator (in fact, such a deal would require the U.S. giving a lot of things to the North) but because Republicans in Congress will let it slide if dealing with a murderous regime (i.e., the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, aka North Korea) means dropping sanctions, holding your nose, and giving them money or allowing U.S. corporations and individuals to do business there, whereas they would have screamed bloody murder at Obama had he tried the same.

So here’s hoping we’re at that moment in history where everything is lined up just nicely for North Korea to drop its guard and embrace the West. But first, gag Bolton and tie him up in a closet and take away Trump’s Twitter phone.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Beijing on board

US President Donald J. Trump asks, via Twitter (because where else?), where his groundbreaking summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un should take place, should it take place at all:

There are loads of places that would fit the criteria of neutrali-ish ground, accessible to someone who only wishes to travel by train (i.e., Kim Jong-un), and worthy of such a historic moment. Mongolia would be about as neutral as you can get and still be in the region. Vladivostok, which is not terribly far from the Russia-DPRK border, could be an interesting choice that would let Russia know they are not being left out.

Meanwhile, Japan is out, since that is probably just too far a boat ride from North Korea’s east coast. South Korea could play host, but they are too much of an American ally in the overall picture to be a neutral player, despite South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s adept diplomatic efforts to bring all sides together.

My vote is Beijing. Not just China, but the capital and symbol of PRC power. Sure, China is no neutral party, being in North Korea’s corner for decades, but one simple fact makes this the optimal choice: Barring some absolutely seismic shift where North Korea throws its hands up in the air and basically drops all its offensive positions, China must be an active and willing participant in whatever agreement results from all these meetings.

We name monumental agreements from historic sit-downs after the cities where they took place: the Yalta conference, the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement. Imagine, if you will, the Beijing Accord. Imagine denuclearization of North Korea and an opening up of DPRK’s economy to the United States, Japan, and South Korea, if not the rest of the world. There is no way Beijing would allow the Beijing Accord to be scuttled or fail. The Vladivostok Agreement, maybe. The Ulan Bator Treaty, perhaps. But never the Beijing Accord.

And as long as the yellow dust has passed, Beijing would be a lovely place to visit in late spring.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Peace in our time?

It is amazing how fast the promises are flying. I am a bit loath to say “how fast things are changing,” because the reality is that nothing has actually changed yet. But there is potential. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is promising to denuclearize if he gets clear assurances from the United States that it won’t invade:
In a confidence-building gesture ahead of a proposed summit meeting with President Trump, a suddenly loquacious and conciliatory Mr. Kim also said he would invite experts and journalists from South Korea and the United States to watch the shutdown next month of his country’s only known underground nuclear test site.

In Washington, Trump officials spoke cautiously about the chances of reaching a deal and laid out a plan for the dismantling of the North’s nuclear program, perhaps over a two-year period.

That would be accompanied by a “full, complete, total disclosure of everything related to their nuclear program with a full international verification,” said John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s new national security adviser.

The apparent concessions from the youthful leader were widely welcomed as promising signs of ending the standoff on the Korean Peninsula, frozen in place since fighting in the Korean War ended 65 years ago.
This indeed is a game changer — if the promise and the denuclearization come to fruition.

And let’s be realistic: a lot could go wrong to derail this. Trump could get unsound advice from the belligerent Bolton and say the wrong thing, which causes Pyongyang to doubt any assurances from Washington, for example. Or Beijing could decide Pyongyang is getting too cozy with Seoul, or Washington and Tokyo, and scuttle the whole thing. Or this could all be a ruse by Pyongyang to bide it’s time and/or squeeze concessions and cash out of Seoul or Washington before resuming nukes again.

But color me optimistic. Kim Jong-un has a number of reasons to try to make nice with Seoul and Washington, among them that it’s possible his nuclear program has collapsed on its own. Also, it appears to be no small number of people in the North Korean regime who are tired of living under the thumb of Beijing, who might see advantage in gaining favor and trading status and/or developmental aid with the United States and Japan.

As I’ve said before, the Switzerland-educated Kim Jong-un may be poised to make himself the Deng Xiaoping of North Korea, poised to rule for decades based on bringing improvements to the masses.

But make no mistake: the Democratic People’s Republic is anything but democratic or the people’s; the regime if not Kim Jong-un himself is responsible for unspeakable atrocities against the North Korean people. And it’s entirely possible that North Korean government may fall back on its despotic ways. For now, it behooves to the Moon administration in Seoul to keep their feet on the ground even if they are looking to the sky, and the Trump administration must do its homework so that they don’t miss any opportunities or misunderstand any actions.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Korea’s Blue-House-to-Big-House pipeline

Former South Korean President and Marilyn Manson lookalike contest winner Lee Myungbak has been indicted on several charges, including bribery and embezzlement.

It’s the latest example that the Republic of Korea’s presidency is a nearly surefire way to end up behind bars or six feet under. Let’s recap:

  • President Rhee Syngman: deposed and exiled to Honolulu (I’ve visited his house)
  • President Park Chunghee: assassinated by his trusted minion
  • President Chun Doohwan: sentenced to be executed, commuted, exiled in forest
  • President Roh Daewoo: sentenced to be executed, commuted, now really old
  • President Kim Youngsam: escaped the Blue House curse
  • President Kim Daejung: escaped the Blue House curse
  • President Lee Myungbak: indicted and will likely be imprisoned
  • President Park Geunhye: impeached and imprisoned
It makes you wonder why anyone would want this job. (But we know the answer, and it’s the same reason so many get into hot water later.)

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Is it too late to get the other Bolton instead?

Former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton will soon officially begin his duties as National Security Adviser, having replaced General McMaster, who turned out to be the McMaster of none (President Trump really, really, really doesn’t like being lectured to as if he doesn’t know shit, even though he doesn’t know shit).

As I wrote many times here at Monster Island and places such as the now-defunct* Marmot’s Hole, going back more than a decade, Ambassador Bolton is a dangerous combination of belligerent and ignorant, a chickenhawk who believes that giving North Korea “a bloody nose” will be the end-all-beat-all decisive action to halt tension on the Korean peninsula because he seems to not have thought through that Pyongyang would punch back, quite possibly in a big way. IOW, one-dimensional chess.

For better or for worse, those of us with homes in South Korea aren’t the only ones to take notice of how frightening this prospect is. As this New York Times op-ed piece notes, Ambassador Bolton’s call for taking out North Korea’s nuclear facilities before they are a more imminent threat may in fact be illegal:
John Bolton will assume office Monday with his first controversy as President Trump’s national security adviser awaiting him. Six weeks ago, he outlined his advocacy of an attack on North Korea in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.”

“Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea,” he wrote, “we should not wait until the very last minute” to stage what he called a pre-emptive attack.

Mr. Bolton’s legal analysis is flawed and his strategic logic is dangerous. As he did before the 2003 Iraq war, he is obscuring the important distinction between preventive and pre-emptive attacks. Under rules of international law based on Daniel Webster’s interpretation of the Caroline case in 1837, a pre-emptive attack can be legal, but only if an adversary’s attack is imminent and unavoidable — when a need for self-defense is “instant” and “overwhelming.”

For example, if America had intelligence that North Korea had alerted military forces and was fueling long-range missiles on their launchpads or rolling out missile launcher vehicles, the United States could reasonably assume an attack was imminent and unavoidable and could legally launch a pre-emptive strike in what international lawyers call “anticipatory self-defense.”
For now, I’m safely in Honolulu, where attacks by North Korea remain — so far — hypothetical or imaginary, but if I were back in Seoul, I’d nearly be at the crapping-my-pants stage. It is a very realistic concern that Mr Bolton is giving Trump a green light to attack North Korea, and North Korea will attack back. The question is whether it will be a big reprisal or a small one. I may not be in Seoul, but most of what I own actually is, and I have family, friends, and two very nice tenants to worry about.

* On the subject of The Marmot’s Hole’s disappearance, when I snarkily joked of there being only “three remaining K-blogs” in 2020, I assumed The Marmot’s Hole would be one of them.