Breaking Down Asia’s Iron Curtain in Korea: Lessons from Germany

The Buzz

As Germany celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Western press reexamined the process that culminated in this momentous event on Nov. 9, 1989.  Lessons from this German experience have policy implications for the other Iron Curtain that still stands, dividing the Korean Peninsula. Although many factors contributed to the collapse of the Wall, the following seem to be particularly instructive for the present Korean standoff:

First, the fall of the Wall could not have taken place without far-reaching changes in the Soviet Union, the main sponsor of the East German regime and its security guarantor.  A key aspect of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms was the Soviet leader's policy of eschewing the use of force and respecting the popular will in the Soviet satellite countries. This respect for the fundamental human rights and free will of the people had pivotal consequences when thousands of East Germans sought to reach West Germany via Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland in the months leading up to Nov. 9, 1989. Not only did Gorbachev refuse to aid the East German regime in trying to stop this outflow of people, but he actually facilitated their transit into West Germany. This exodus undermined the credibility of the East German regime in the eyes of its people and emboldened East Germans to challenge their regime, leading to the dramatic mass breaching of the Wall.

This is a stark contrast to the present situation in China and Beijing's policy toward North Korea. Beijing's leaders seem most concerned with preserving their grip on power in China and preventing a sudden collapse of the North Korean regime. As a consequence, Beijing has aided Pyongyang's efforts to stem the outflow of North Koreans who seek to reach South Korea via China by capturing them and sending them back to North Korea. Beijing's leaders must abandon this flagrant disregard for the basic human right of the North Korean people to determine their own destiny.

This is not only a moral imperative but also serves China's own national interests as Pyongyang progresses in its nuclear and missile program. North Korea now apparently possesses the ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads so as to mount them on ballistic missiles and is working on installing submarine-launched-ballistic missiles (SLBMs) on reverse-engineered submarines imported from Russia. Once Pyongyang possesses the ability to attack the United States with SLBMs while orbiting a missile or a satellite that can reach the US mainland or destroy the US electric grid in an EMP attack, Kim Jong-un will have effectively developed a nuclear counterstrike capability and nullified the US extended nuclear deterrent that shields South Korea and Japan. Armed with a credible nuclear deterrent, Kim will be in a position to blackmail the US and reduce his dependence on China to the extent where he could extract concessions from Beijing on key issues. Rather than being dictated by a nuclear-armed Pyongyang under an unpredictable tyrant, Beijing has more to gain from a reunified nuclear-free Korea under a stable democratic regime that is prosperous and can benefit China's own economy, especially in the northeast provinces bordering Korea. Aiding those North Koreans in their escapes to South Korea is thus in Beijing's interests, as this will help undermine the North Korean regime and hasten its demise.

Second, the fall of the Berlin Wall was possible, in part, because of relatively extensive inter-German contacts in the years before 1989 and thanks to the peculiar situation in Berlin, where millions of Berliners lived within walking distance of each other divided only by a concrete wall. For years prior to 1989, for example, West Germans could visit relatives in East Germany in their homes, and East Germans could access West German media broadcasts, which meant that East Germans on the whole were informed about conditions in the West. Thus, when dramatic changes in Eastern bloc nations took place in the late 1980s, East Germans knew about these changes and were galvanized for action. In Berlin, where East Berliners could literally walk to West Berlin if the East German border guards would let them, East Germans found the weakest link in the iron curtain. On the night of Nov. 9, 1989, East Berliners took matters into their own hands after watching news coverage of a press conference at which a spokesman for the East German Communist Party announced a new law permitting East Germans more freedom to travel and added, mistakenly, that this law would take effect immediately. When the East Berliners decided that this announcement allowed them to pass through the Berlin Wall that very night, they marched to the Wall, and the East German border guards gave in rather than awaiting clear instructions from higher authorities. Developments unfolded spontaneously rather than by a scripted plan.

In contrast, contacts between the two Koreas have been very limited, and there is no place like Berlin along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the Koreas. The sporadic inter-Korean family reunions that have taken place have always been in strictly controlled settings, and South Koreans have never been allowed to visit North Korean relatives in their homes. Although a significant number of North Koreans now have access to South Korean mass media via smuggled DVDs and the like, most are cut off from Internet access and from regular South Korean media broadcasts. Furthermore, the entire length of the DMZ, which is about 4 km wide, is heavily mined and fortified on both sides, and there is no large population center like Berlin which the DMZ bisects, which means there is no point where masses of North Koreans can readily walk across the DMZ in minutes if North Korean guards would let them.

All this points to the dire need for expanding North Koreans' access to the outside world and for promoting more natural inter-Korean exchanges to better inform North Koreans about conditions in the outside world. And this bespeaks of the need for projects along the DMZ that would decrease tension and provide places for easier border crossing. The proposals by South Korea's President Park Geun-hye to build international peace parks along the DMZ are a step in the right direction, as would creating more border crossing points and expanding the scope of the Kaesong Industrial Park to include an international zone along the DMZ where peaceful inter-Korean interactions can take place.

Only after border tensions have been lowered and more extensive inter-Korean human contacts have been established, will conditions become ripe for "accidents" such as those on the night of Nov. 9, 1989, in Germany, which would enable spontaneous actions by peoples of the two Koreas to peacefully overcome the Iron Curtain separating them.

Jongsoo Lee is Senior Managing Director, Brock Securities LLC, and Center Associate at Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University. Lee is the author of The Partition of Korea after World War II: A Global History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) and has served as Senior Research Fellow at Asan Institute for Policy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter: @jameslee004.

This piece first appeared in CSIS: PACNET newsletter here

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

Chuck Hagel Leaves No Legacy

The Buzz

The announcement that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had resigned on Monday came as no big surprise to many observers. The questions now are: How did the departure of Obama’s third Defense Secretary come about? What will Chuck Hagel be remembered for, and who will replace him?

First, Hagel will be remembered as one of the least qualified Pentagon heads ever to serve. He had no particular executive level leadership experience. His biggest “qualification” was that he had been a young “20 something” buck sergeant in Vietnam, and was wounded in action. Hagel deserves the nation’s thanks for his excellent service and sacrifice. But thousands of us have served in combat, and there are very few that should therefore be Secretary of Defense. Frankly, Hagel was not one of them.

Hagel was hired to oversee the budget slashing and force reductions in the Department of Defense. He oversaw the publication of a QDR that was completely budget–driven, devoid of any strategy at all. He was doing exactly what the president wanted him to do. Unfortunately for Hagel and for the nation, world events didn’t cooperate.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan has slowed, based on difficulties on the ground. Iraq flared up dramatically with the pivot by ISIS from Syria back toward Baghdad. Putin’s Russia is busily annexing large parts of other sovereign nations, and China has turned into a major regional bully. Meanwhile the administration is so anxious for a deal with Iran that they are practically ready to pay them to be our friend.

In the face of all this, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Hagel have finally found a little bit of spine, and had the temerity to say that the Obama policy in Iraq might not work without “some” American boots being on the ground. This apparently was too much. Someone had to go. Firing a uniformed leader short of gross insubordination is a very tough sell from a public relations standpoint, and Dempsey has been careful to never go that far. That left Hagel.

Frankly, the National Security Agenda (foreign and defense polices) belong to the president, not to his Cabinet Secretaries. They execute policy, and give advice, but the president owns it. The failures of this administration are not based on Chuck Hagel’s lack of skill and experience (although he has precious little of either). The failures are due to the poor policies themselves.

Failing to fund DoD to maintain readiness, failing to lead in situations where our interests are at risk, and diving into situation where we have no interests to speak of have led to simply bad policy. And that policy came straight from the White House, not from the Pentagon.

Hagel leaves no legacy. He was unfortunately the proverbial empty suit. His replacement could be anyone, but will likely be as inoffensive a Democratic Party functionary as they can find. If the chair remains empty, no one would notice. American was poorly served by Chuck Hagel, and even less well served by the president’s policies which he had to execute.

Steven P. Bucci, who served America for three decades as an Army Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official, is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

Image: Creative Commons 2.0 License. 

TopicsDefense RegionsUnited States

The Sum of all China's Fears: Genetically Modified Food

The Buzz

Among the worries that keep Chinese leaders awake at night surely is food security. Li Keqiang's first priority upon taking the premiership in 2013 was agricultural modernization. Civil rebellions and wars throughout China's history were fueled by the Malthusian need to keep people fed. As the nation now urbanizes, the demands of keeping Chinese healthily nourished grow more acute. A spat over genetically modified (GM) food encapsulates the dilemma. 

Self-sufficiency has long been totemic and officially China meets an impressive 95% of directly edible grain demand, almost 600 million tones annually. But with Chinese demand for meat already averaging 50kg per capita and approaching European levels for urban residents, China will need to import grains (mainly soybeans and corn) for animal feed, 120 million tonnes by 2020.

Yet with subsidies boosting rural incomes at US$75 billion or 11% of total output, domestic price support has perversely created high consumer prices and, surprisingly, a temporary “grain glut.”

In seeking self-sufficiency, China has hit an ecological ceiling. Crop yields still lag, and only with unprecedented fertilizer application rates. Now the productivity crunch is being sharpened by shortages in three key areas: land, water, and labor.

Chinese often say that “22% of the world is fed with 7% of its arable land.” Urban sprawl has in a dozen years gobbled 8.3 million arable hectares (twice Japan's total arable land) and threatens China's “red line” of 120 million hectares. Official statistics deny this threshold has been breached but cities have been ordered to stop paving over surrounding countryside. 40% of China's arable land has already suffered some degree of degradation. Water is becoming a constraint to food supply even as bureaucrats, incredibly, prioritize thirsty coal production. It might also seem odd that China faces a farm labor constraint, but migrants prefer life in the city. Chinese farming is a rotten business.

The reason is simple: farmers can't own and can't sell their land, so their plots are tiny. The average dairy farm has seven cows. China doesn't do agriculture, as someone has wittily observed, it does
“gardening.” Fragmented farms and supply chains result in pork production costs twice America's. There are huge ideological and social barriers to outright rural land privatisation, but Beijing is gingerly experimenting with industrial farms. Factory farming is contentious, however, and some worry about China following the American model. In China itself, food safety scandals have alarmed the public.

Enter the GM controversy. “Frankenfood” is furiously debated in many countries, but the squabble in China is unusually heated in a society where the state typically commands the agenda. In fact, in their pro-GM campaign, government scientists are visibly frustrated by the opposition, led by hawkish major general Peng Guangqian who detects “a monumental, supremely devious plot to annihilate the Chinese people.” Xenophobic conspiracy themes are perpetuated by nationalistic officials. Chu Xuping, a senior figure in the agency overseeing China's state-owned enterprises, rejects foreign investment in grain, pharmaceutical and water treatment SOEs. The dog-whistle message to the public is unmistakable: no Western fingers contaminating China's supply chain. (Incidentally a Chinese company owns Northumbrian Water in the UK).

China's GM rejection is rippling across world trade, visible recently in an ugly dispute over unapproved US GM corn. Beijing's stance may be geopolitically motivated; to allow a shift to friendlier Latin American sources. But there is also genuine concern about the sanctity of Chinese crop strains as GM seeds overrun the planet.

A close examination of president Xi Jinping's supportive pronouncements on the topic reveals what this is really about: “We must boldly innovate the heights of GMO techniques, and we cannot let foreign companies dominate the GMO market.” An industry analyst is more blunt: “The main reason for China's slow adoption of biotech grain crops isn't so much that the government is swayed by public opinion. It's that China doesn't have leading, marketable biotechnologies and is afraid of having the market controlled by foreign companies once commercialization is granted.”

Here is the nexus where land and water scarcity and concerns over food safety, social stability, industrial competitiveness and foreign dependence all meet. GM food is the sum of all China's fears.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

A U.S.-China War in Asia: Could America Win by Blockade?

The Buzz

Is it viable for the United States to impose a naval blockade against China in a potential conflict? That’s a critical question in the study of China’s maritime and energy strategies.

China’s crude oil dependence is obviously the key variable determining the success and failure of a blockade. Although China can produce many of its vital goods, such as grain and coal, in 2013 China imported 64.5% of its crude oil consumption. Oil-based liquid fuels, such as gasoline and diesel, are vital for vehicles. And an overwhelming proportion of China’s crude oil imports—with the exception of imports from Russia and Kazakhstan—rely on seaborne transportation.

But China’s reliance on seaborne oil imports isn’t matched by its naval capability. It doesn’t have overseas bases to support regular operations in distant regions. By contrast, the US Navy not only possesses formidable ocean-going capabilities, but also quantitative and technological advantages. That asymmetry between China’s high level of reliance on seaborne oil imports and its low level of naval capability to protect those imports means the US Navy could successfully interdict China’s seaborne oil trade.

Although China’s concern about a US blockade is often mentioned, few studies have attempted to provide a quantitative estimate of the consequence of a blockade. Using the inverse formula of energy intensity, drawing on statistics published by British Petroleum and the US Energy Information Administration, I produced a preliminary estimate that an energy blockade cutting off all 87% of oil imports that came by sea (that is, rather than overland or by river) would cause a direct reduction of 6.6% to the Chinese GDP (as measured by purchasing power parities), a figure equivalent to the size of the Australian economy. The indirect damage of a blockade in terms of reducing commercial/industrial efficiency would likely be even more serious. Therefore, I found a naval blockade could produce economic devastation and consequently a viable strategy for the US in a conflict with China.

Having concluded that the potential threat of oil blockade is serious, I then investigated the effectiveness of China’s counterstrategies to such hypothetical threat. I classify China’s counterstrategies to a US oil blockade into two categories: vulnerability-reduction strategies aiming at the protection of oil supply; and conflict-prevention strategies aiming at the avoidance of US blockade via the prevention of conflict with the US.

The two most discussed vulnerability-reduction strategies are the development of the PLA Navy to safeguard the seaborne oil imports and the construction of overland oil pipelines. But because of the large volume of China’s oil imports, and the distance between China and the oil producers in the Middle East, naval convoys would hardly be practical as a means for ensuring secure supply. A hundred-ship oil convoy, either during its 35-day trip, or during its fuelling and refueling, is an easy target for air/missile/submarine attack. Likewise, thousand-mile pipelines connecting China with Russia and Kazakhstan could be cut off by a single air strike. The protection of pipelines is virtually impossible. And complex oil refineries—difficult to rebuild—could also be targeted. Thus, I conclude that vulnerability-reduction approaches are costly and largely ineffective.

Nevertheless, it‘s more realistic for China to seek conflict-prevention strategies to counter a possible US blockade. There are many ways to prevent conflict with the US. For example, there can be ‘soft’ conflict-prevention strategies, such as diplomatic reassurance, and inter-military exchange programs. The key dilemma is that the pursuit of conflict prevention mustn’t hamper Beijing’s core security interests. In this sense, “hard” conflict-prevention approaches—especially more robust nuclear deterrence—might be an essential part of conflict prevention.

Because most contemporary US “war-winning” strategies, including Air-Sea Battle and naval blockade, aim at capitalizing on US conventional advantage, they downplay the “unwinnable” nuclear war. The US can conceptualize a conventional war with China because China, with a much smaller nuclear force can’t initiate nuclear exchange in a war with the US. China needs to transform its strategic nuclear force from one of minimal sole-purpose deterrence to a more robust multi-purpose deterrence. A robust Chinese nuclear deterrence could contribute to war prevention by replacing the option of “winnable conventional war” with “unwinnable nuclear war.” But, in order to construct a nuclear deterrence sufficiently robust to deter the US from engaging in a conflict with China, Beijing must make two major changes: it must renounce its No-First-Use declaration, and build up a strategic nuclear force more comparable to that of the US.

Xunchao Zhang is a student from the PRC who studies at the ANU. Earlier this year he was an intern at the Sea Power Centre-Australia. This article first appeared in ASPI’s Strategist here.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

What Really Matters About Extension of the Iran Negotiations

Paul Pillar

The single most important fact about the extension of the nuclear negotiations with Iran is that the obligations established by the Joint Plan of Action negotiated a year ago will remain in effect as negotiations continue. This means that our side will continue to enjoy what these negotiations are supposed to be about: preclusion of any Iranian nuclear weapon, through the combination of tight restrictions on Iran's nuclear program and intrusive monitoring to ensure the program stays peaceful. Not only that, but also continuing will be the rollback of Iran's program that the JPOA achieved, such that Iran will remain farther away from any capability to build a bomb than it was a year ago, and even farther away from where it would have been if the negotiations had never begun or from where it would be if negotiations were to break down.

Our side—the United States and its partners in the P5+1—got by far the better side of the deal in the JPOA. We got the fundamental bomb-preventing restrictions (including most significantly a complete elimination of medium-level uranium enrichment) and enhanced inspections we sought, in return for only minor sanctions relief to Iran that leaves all the major banking and oil sanctions in place. If negotiations were to go on forever under these terms, we would have no cause to complain to the Iranians.

But the Iranians do not have comparable reason to be happy about this week's development. The arrangement announced in Vienna is bound to be a tough sell back in Tehran for President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif. The sanctions continue, and continue to hurt, even though the Iranian negotiators have conceded most of what they could concede regarding restrictions on the nuclear program. There will be a lot of talk in Tehran about how the West is stringing them along, probably with the intent of undermining the regime and not just determining its nuclear policies.

That the Iranian decision-makers have put themselves in this position is an indication of the seriousness with which they are committed to these negotiations. This week's extension is of little use to them except to keep alive the prospect that a final deal will be completed. Also indicating their seriousness is the diligence with which Iran has complied with its obligations under the JPOA. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed today Iran's compliance with its final pre-November 24th obligation, which had to do with reducing its stock of low-enriched uranium in gaseous form.

Because the P5+1 got much the better side of the preliminary agreement, the P5+1 will have to make more of the remaining concessions to complete a final agreement. The main hazard to concluding a final deal is not an Iranian unwillingness to make concessions. The main hazard is a possible Iranian conclusion that it does not have an interlocutor on the U.S. side that is bargaining in good faith.

We push the Iranians closer to such a conclusion the more talk there is in Washington about imposing additional pressure and additional sanctions, as people such as Marco Rubio and AIPAC have offered in response to today's announcement about the extension of negotiations. We have sanctioned the dickens out of Iran for years and are continuing to do so, but the only time all this pressure got any results is when we started to negotiate in good faith. Surly sanctions talk on Capitol Hill only strengthens Iranian doubts about whether the U.S. administration will be able to deliver on its side of a final agreement, making it less, not more, likely the Iranians would offer still more concessions. Any actual sanctions legislation would blatantly violate the terms of the JPOA and give the Iranians good reason to walk away from the whole business, marking the end of any special restrictions on their nuclear program.

Indefinite continuation of the terms of the existing agreement would suit us well, but completion of a final agreement would be even better—and without one the Iranians eventually would have to walk away, because indefinite continuation certainly does not suit them. And besides, the sanctions hurt us economically too. To get a final agreement does not mean fixating on the details of plumbing in enrichment cascades, which do not affect our security anyway. It means realizing what kind of deal we got with the preliminary agreement, and negotiating in good faith to get the final agreement.

Image: State Department Flickr.                            

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East