Category All Things DC

China Ignores Seoul, International Treaty Obligations; Repatriates North Korean Defectors

For the better part of a week, South Korea has been worrying over and protesting China’s return of North Korean defectors caught inside China. The South has even discussed bringing the issue to the UN – a move that would mark a radical (and long overdue) departure from South Korea’s normal kowtowing to quiet diplomacy with its much larger neighbor.

It’s high time that China lived up to its international treaty obligations and stopped returning defectors to a country, in this case North Korea, knowing full well the dire consequences awaiting the refugees upon their repatriation. For its part, the South needs to be firm with China about protecting a group of people that, under South Korean law, have the right to become South Korean citizens. This may have short-term trade repercussions for the South with its largest trading partner, China, but long-term economic trends will mitigate any momentary damage to the relationship, plus provide domestic political and diplomatic benefits for the party willing to take a stand.


New Feeds Added for International Development, Foreign Affairs Job Listings

Thanks to a heads up from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service Alumni group on Linkedin, I’ve added new international development and foreign affairs related job postings to the jobs feed along the right side of the page. I also fixed, again, the near perpetually broken feed of international jobs from USAjobs (and yes, you should take this as a sign of what its like to work for the U.S. government). The new feeds, from AlertNet and Reliefweb, add a strong new flow of non-US job listings to the site.

Enjoy, and please let me know if I’m missing anything solid, especially if it has an RSS feed.


Hoya Saxa!

A quick congrats to Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service – the top MA program in International Relations, as reported this month by Foreign Policy magazine.

How to pay for it? I would suggest winning the lottery, adoption by Bill Gates, or getting a job at the university. I’ll put in a good word for you.


Kim Jong-il’s Death: What to Watch for Going Forward

UPDATE (21 December): So far, so good on Kaesong, one of the key indicators of stability and the state of North-South relations. Despite some reports of shorter hours and a tense atmosphere, the businesses in the complex are operating normally with little fallout detected or expected. If conditions in Kaesong remain stable, it’s a sign both of stability in the North’s government and non-hardline factions maintaining at least some influence in Pyongyang. Other indicators are mentioned below, in an earlier posting.

There is a lot out there on Kim Jong-il (KJI)’s death, his son and successor Kim Jong-un, and ‘what it all means’. I will not attempt to bore you by duplicating that here. Instead, I’ll highlight what to watch for over the coming weeks and months:

1. Changes in the status of Kaesong, the joint North-South industrial complex located in North Korea. A closing of the complex (unlikely), or new restrictions on its operation, indicate a harder line faction (likely from the ruling party, but possibly the military) is gaining the upper hand. The opposite, an expansion of the facility, indicates technocrats are gaining favor.

2. Increased mention in the North Korean press of Jang Song-taek (Kim Jong-un’s uncle) or one of KJI’s other sons. Jang is already one of the most powerful people in the North, thanks to his marriage to KJI’s sister, and the early transition to the young Jong-un could further empower him, or tempt him to make an outright grab for control. Press mention should offer a window into this possibility.


Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-totalitarian Politics

[Book Review] Though it starts out feeling like an odd combination of political science dissertation and basic intro to North Korea, with a theory that initially seems to amount to, “different factions exist in the North Korean government and Kim Jong-il plays them against one another” (um, duh), Inside the Red Box turns out to be a convincing examination of Pyongyang’s government.

I admit to having doubts when I saw the author works for the State Department, which left me expecting thick layers of bureaucratese, but the writing is quite clear and concise. The central thesis is that the party lost power in the transition from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il, shrinking from the center of power through which the government and country were run, to one of three factions (along with the military and cabinet) competing for ascendancy on a given issue. The author outlines a history of the three factions competing to have their agenda gain the imprimatur of Kim Jong-il, examining changes in North Korean policy through the lens of comments made by media related to each of the three groups.

The author’s case is convincing and a very welcome change from the “They’re just crazy/illogical/unknowable,” and the equally problematic “Kim Jong-il rules all,” lines of North Korean scholarship. With the exception of B.R. Myers’s The Cleanest Race, this is some of the best scholarship on North Korea in years.

The study even touches on my own favorite area of North Korean research, how access to international phones by the North Korean public can be used as a tool to gain information from inside the country and as a stick to compel changes in North Korea behavior. A stick that, “is more likely to impact one important basis of the regime’s claim to legitimacy than economic or financial sanctions […].” [pg. 233]


Driving Past Natanz, Home of Iran’s Nuclear Program (Book Excerpt)

With all of the recent news on Iran, including a possible Israeli strike on the Iranian nuclear site near the town of Natanz, here’s an excerpt from Axis of Evil Tour on my brief trip through the area.

Today was to be nuke day – our short drive north from Esfahan to Kashan was going to take us right by Natanz, the home of the Iranian nuclear program. While many news reports from Iran cite Esfahan as the home, the actual nuke facilities are about 60 miles away, near the small city of Natanz.

We drove quickly north, seemingly the only people on the smooth new expressway, minus a couple of checkpoints. Leaving Esfahan we stopped for directions and found that checkpoints had become such a fixed part of the landscape they were even used for navigating, “drive down this road for a while until you come to the police checkpoint [not the other ones], then turn right.”

Driving by, Natanz is just another exit on the highway, with the city visible in the distance. The nuclear site is not something mentioned by the local road signs. Professor saw me scanning the area, but told me not to bother.

Just past Natanz to the northwest is an isolated little village nestled in the mountains called Abyaneh. We wanted to visit, but finding the right highway exit proved a problem – Professor was used to traveling with large tour groups on buses that included drivers. This was the first time in several years he’d driven himself, so he was occasionally unsure of which way to go when we got into off-the-beaten-path areas.

As I studied the map, I realized we’d zoomed past our exit and were rapidly approaching Kashan, the day’s final destination. For a moment we debated just giving up and heading on, especially given all the snow we could see in the mountains that might close the roads.
The debate was short-lived however, and we were soon looking for an exit to use to turn around. Of course, we found none in the vast stretch of emptiness. That is, until we popped over a little rise and went flying past it.

Professor quickly slowed and pulled over to take a look. We could turn around, but we’d have to back up along the shoulder.

Just then, not 30 seconds after we’d come to a stop, came the sound of a motorcycle pulling up next to us, then a sudden tapping on Professor’s window. Two soldiers, an AK-47 swung over the shoulder of the passenger, had appeared out of nowhere. We were still within 15-20 miles of the nuke facilities and security was trigger-finger tight.


Israel Considering Strike on Iran’s Nuclear Facilities?

Interesting, and somewhat ominous article in the Times today (and another one in the Post) about Israel possibly stepping up preparations for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities in Natanz. Having been on the ground in the area, I can attest to the tightness of the security – not two minutes after pulling off to the side of the road to check directions, my guide and I had soldiers pounding on the car, demanding to know what we were doing.

While Iranian air defenses are probably too weak to prevent, or perhaps even detect, a surprise Israeli strike, antiaircraft weaponry is ubiquitous in the area and would certainly strive to be a factor.

My take? Once U.S. military forces have officially withdrawn from Iraq and are no longer ‘blocking’ an Israeli strike, the possibility of one increases markedly – an interesting corollary to our presence in Iraq has been helping to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran. Definitely an issue worth keeping an eye on once the new year arrives.


Sleeping with the Enemy?

I’m not sure why (boredom?), but I found this report that U.S. and North Korean negotiators are staying at the same hotel in Geneva interesting. According to the article, during the State Department’s endless job security for diplomats program (also known as, ‘nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea’), negotiators from the two sides have never before stayed at the same hotel during talks.

Staying in the same place will likely lead to a more relaxed atmosphere, impromptu and informal contacts, and maybe even a few secret discussions – the kind of relationship building necessary to encourage risk-taking and fresh ideas – the exact needs of the current negotiations. While a breakthrough is difficult to expect, this kind of meeting could lay the groundwork for actual ‘progress’ in the discussions and overall relations. Keeping in mind that progress in negotiations with the North is often ethereal, best measured in microns, and rarely sustainable.


Time for Fresh Approaches to North Korea

A familiar op-ed in Monday’s Washington Post by Victor Cha (Asian Studies professor at Georgetown, director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007, and deputy head of the U.S. delegation at the six-party talks) outlined how the U.S. should “disarm” North Korea. Put simply, the U.S. should get China and Russia to help, beef up financial sanctions, and strengthen the American alliance with South Korea … common proposals united by decades of ineffectiveness.

Instead, it is long past time for new ideas to reinvigorate U.S. relations with North Korea. I offer two examples here, one harnessing cellphones and the latest transmission technologies, the second going back to the armistice agreement that halted the Korean War in 1953.


SK President Lee Visiting US; Obama Takes Him to … Detroit?

Got a chuckle at the first sentence in this article from today’s Times on SK President Lee’s visit to the U.S. – especially the part right after the word “treated”:

“During the state visit of South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, which began on Wednesday, he will be feted at a White House state dinner, invited to speak to a joint session of Congress, and treated to a road trip to Detroit with President Obama, where the two leaders plan to tour a General Motors factory together.”

Having lived in South Korea, DC, and Detroit, I can think of a lot of places in the U.S. I’d take a visitor from the South. Of all of those places, “a road trip to Detroit” wouldn’t really make the list. Who knows though, maybe the President just really liked the Eminem ad for Chrysler.

Guess we’ll see what a visit to the D does for U.S.-SK relations.