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Francis is a freelance writer and researcher, specializing in the
international affairs of East and Southeast Asia. He graduated recently
with an MSc in Global Politics from the LSE and is currently living in London.

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Francis is a freelance writer and researcher, specializing in the international affairs of East and Southeast Asia. He graduated recently with an MSc in Global Politics from the LSE and is currently living in London.

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Keep talking about (and dancing for) Burma

In May, Aung San Suu Kyi’s appeal to ‘use your liberty to promote ours’ will be at the heart of Brighton Festival (UK) as she becomes Guest Director from afar. But how else can we use our freedom to support those denied it in Burma?

Photo by Clinton Steeds under a Creative Commons licence.

Nearly five months since the fraudulent elections staged by Burma’s military junta in November, the lack of any genuine progress towards democratization or an improvement in the human rights situation is deeply worrying.

The elections were neither free nor fair; they categorically failed to meet internationally recognised standards. Vote-rigging was widespread on behalf of the military junta’s political party, the USDP, whose overwhelming majority in both houses, coupled with the 25 per cent of seats constitutionally reserved for the military itself, allows this effective dictatorship to unilaterally amend the already deeply flawed 2008 Constitution as it sees fit.

The release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the days following the election was well received by all who campaign for justice and human rights in Burma. But her release was, of course, a smokescreen deployed by the military junta to detract attention from the widespread domestic and international condemnation of the electoral process. The number of political dissidents and campaigners incarcerated in Burma’s appalling prisons system has doubled since 2007 and now stands at 2076.

Attacks on ethnic groups, many of whom were denied a say at the polls, have continued since November, and a recent report by the European Burma Network confirmed that ongoing human rights abuses under the ‘new’ government include extrajudicial executions, rape, mass use of forced labour, use of human minesweepers, recruitment of child soldiers, land confiscation, forced displacement and military attacks against civilians.

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Burma, such abuses constitute possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. Yet no concrete action has been taken by the international community. What can be done? The global campaign for democracy and human rights in Burma, of which Burma Campaign UK is integral, continues to work tirelessly to push for a UN investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma. Belgium recently became the 14th country to officially support this position.

But what can we do, you and I? The answer from Burma, elegantly articulated in 1997 by Aung San Suu Kyi, is simple: members of the international community should ‘use [their] liberty to support ours.’ Interpretation of this is purely subjective, and this has led to a glorious multitude of different responses (I know a guy in Scotland who spent 2 years walking ‘barefoot for Burma’ following the suppression of the monk-led uprising in 2007), but one in particular caught my eye a few weeks ago.

In October this year, Ben Hammond, a 32-year-old from south London, will attempt to break the World Record for the longest uninterrupted dance (131 hours), in the process raising money to get his educational charity, LearnBurma, up and running. As a citizenship teacher and former community organiser, Hammond clearly recognizes the importance of switching kids on to issues from an early age, before apathy kicks in, and equipping them with the tools to investigate, challenge and question what’s going on in the world around them. In this way, LearnBurma could be a powerful and dynamic force for raising the profile of Burma and encouraging action to affect change.

The year-long preparation for the world record attempt is called Free to Dance, an initiative that has seen Hammond dancing all over the UK, learning to dance dozens of different dances and organizing flashmob-style silent discos. He’s now training to dance the London Marathon, before dancing non-stop through Glastonbury Festival, and in August from John O’Groats to Land’s End. The idea is to get Free to Dance to as wide an audience as possible and to get people talking about the situation in Burma.

It’s about using our freedom to support those who, five months after elections, are still not free.

Are you Free to Dance? Join in!

WikiLeaks disclosures will only deepen the crisis on the Korean peninsula

Is it responsible to disclose a nation’s secret diplomatic communications? Following yesterday’s extraordinary revelations of backroom deals, government-level gossip and the breaking of UN rules by American officials, it would be difficult to argue that the disclosures are not in the public interest.

The proper functioning of a democracy is contingent upon transparency and accountability, and as the world’s foremost champion of democracy, the US should be held to account when it is engaged in dodgy diplomatic practices around the world. But in light of today’s headlines on China’s growing frustration with North Korea, questions about the wisdom and responsibility of the leaks have been brought into sharp focus.

As US and South Korean naval forces continue their joint military exercises in the Yellow Sea in response to the North’s artillery attack last week, the disclosure of such classified diplomatic exchanges risks inflaming an already dangerously volatile situation.

The Guardian today ran the sensational front-page headline, ‘WikiLeaks cables reveal China “ready to abandon North Korea.”’ (Curiously, the quote is not repeated in the article, so one can only assume that it was a conclusion reached by the author and put in quotation marks to inflate the gravity of the story. The quote has now been repeated across countless media networks around the world).

What emerges from the relevant cables is, to be sure, a fascinating insight into the increasingly high-level dispute in Beijing about the future of its North Korea policy. But it does not suggest, as the headlines imply, that the Chinese leadership is about to reverse its North Korea policy.

In the documents, South Korea’s vice-foreign minister is quoted as saying he was told by two named senior Chinese officials that they believed Korea should be reunified under Seoul’s control, and a figure from an international agency says that Chinese officials believe they could absorb 300,000 North Korean refugees in the event of a crisis. Following Pyongyang’s missile tests in April 2009, China’s vice-foreign minister apparently told American diplomats that North Korea was behaving like a ‘spoilt child.’

For most North Korea observers, the fact that many in the Chinese leadership are irate with Pyongyang is about as unsurprising as the revelation that Sarah Palin gets North and South Korea muddled up. China responded punitively to North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, unilaterally cutting off oil supplies for several days, and then for the first time joining in international condemnation and UN sanctions.

Harsher sanctions followed in May 2009, following the second nuclear test. As North Korea’s behaviour has become more unruly, and Beijing’s efforts to encourage Pyongyang down a path of Chinese-style ‘opening up’ have failed, the alliance has become increasingly strained. Of course China has considered the ramifications of a collapse, given the state of the North Korean economy and the leadership transition that is currently playing out.

What is extraordinary is that senior Chinese officials have spoken so openly about the possibility of reunification with their South Korean and American counterparts. Again, however, this does not indicate an imminent shift in national policy.

Should these exchanges be for public consumption? An editorial in the Guardian today claims that the revelations, if read in Pyongyang, will ‘instil realism into a regime that so clearly lacks it.’ Unnamed Chinese diplomats today responded to the leaks by saying that China supports the ‘independent and peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula.’ There could, however, be two alternative repercussions, both of which would serve to further destabilise the region.  

First, a humiliated and aggrieved North Korea might determine that it has little option but to up the brinkmanship through further military provocations, during what is already a deeply unstable period in its relationship with Seoul and Washington. In this regard, the timing of the disclosures must be called into question. Despite what its behaviour often suggests, Pyongyang is hugely concerned about its international image and will find the public reporting of China’s misgivings deeply humiliating.

Second, the disclosures make the task of resolving the current crisis profoundly more difficult for the Obama administration. A return to the Six-Party Talks was already perceived in Washington to be an option that would look dangerously weak and conciliatory. If China is now to be portrayed as being ‘ready to abandon’ the North, then any agreement the US can eventually come to with Pyongyang will look like a complete capitulation to North Korean demands. ‘Why not just nudge Beijing to abandon North Korea?’

Given the highly unstable moment at which these documents have been released, one would expect a little more restraint on the part of those reporting on them. It is difficult, given the chilling circumstances unfolding on the Korean peninsula, not to have deep misgivings about the wisdom of publishing such highly sensitive diplomatic exchanges.



After the artillery fire, time to engage North Korea

There was renewed concern on the Korean peninsula and beyond yesterday, as details emerged of extensive artillery fire by North Korean military forces on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, a military base. Two South Korean soldiers were killed in the attacks, and around 20 more injured.

Much remains unclear, but it has been reported that the South returned fire. Though naval skirmishes between the two sides have occurred with increasing frequency in recent years, this constitutes the first ground-to-ground assault between the two sides since 1953.

Joint Security Area, Demilitarized Zone, Korea. Photo by Kok Leng Yeo on Creative Commons licence.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak warned that any further provocation would result in ‘enormous retaliation’. Once again, Northeast Asia seems on the brink of a potentially catastrophic military escalation. Domestic social and political forces in the North and the South will largely determine what happens next, but the reaction of Washington will be critical to the long-term stability of the region.

It is time to engage Pyongyang bilaterally, as a means of kick-starting the Six Party Talks. Such a forum is in the interests of every major stakeholder in the region.   

Yeonpyeong Island sits close to the disputed maritime border demarcating North and South territory in the West Sea. The ‘Northern Limit Line’ was set unilaterally by US-led UN forces following the Korean War, but has never been fully accepted by the North, and disputes over territorial and fishing rights are not uncommon.

The sinking in March of a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, was just the latest in a series of naval clashes in the area, though the North continues to deny involvement, and deems the South’s subsequent implementation of comprehensive sanctions as a disproportionate and unjustified response.

Cheonan. Photo: Defense Statecraft blog.

Yesterday’s flashpoint would appear to suggest that, despite burgeoning trade with China, the breakdown in the relationship with South Korea – previously the North’s biggest trade partner – is hurting the North Korean economy during what is an extremely fragile period of political transition.

Factions and conflicts of interest between the military, the cabinet and the Korean Workers Party over how to approach the challenges of economic development, reunification, and relations with the international community in the post-Kim Jong-il era are increasingly evident. Most analysts interpreted the sinking of the Cheonan as retaliation for an incident in November 2009 in which 11 North Korean sailors died, and as a feather in the cap for heir-in-waiting Kim Jong-eun, a clear demonstration to the military of his credentials.

Yesterday’s attack may also be attributed internally to the Dear Leader’s son, but the primary purpose is to secure a return to dialogue, first with Washington, and then in the six party format. Pyongyang has long been calling for a return to the Six Party Talks, which it abandoned in April 2009, and to prod Washington it last week disclosed to American scientist Siegfried Hecker a ‘modern, industrial scale’ uranium enrichment facility at the North’s Yongbyon nuclear complex. (Though Hecker was adamant that the facilities produce low-enriched uranium and ‘appear to be designed primarily for civilian nuclear power, not to boost North Korea’s military capability’, the revelation provoked a maelstrom of hysterical media reporting about a new nuclear crisis.)

The Obama administration continues to insist that the North take irreversible and verifiable steps towards denuclearization before talks can begin, aware that without this a return to negotiations will be portrayed at home as a capitulation to North Korean demands.

However, the North’s disclosure of its ‘astonishingly modern’ uranium enrichment facility is intended to remind the US that the logic of squeezing a regime with a ‘military-first’ doctrine, and hoping it eventually gives in, is fatally flawed. It is social spending that suffers in the face of sanctions and isolation, not military spending.

Of course, it will be argued in Washington that the North cannot be trusted, evidenced by its reneging on the terms of the Agreed Framework in 2003, and the Six Party Talks in 2009. But despite the insistence of North Korean and US diplomats, in both cases promises were broken on both sides. Trust cannot be re-established on either side without an ongoing and wide-ranging dialogue, not only regarding the nuclear programme, but on issues such as human rights, the North’s missile programmes (not discussed formally since 2000) and economic development.

Political art - postcard from North Korea. Photo by John Pavelka on Creative Commons licence.

It seems likely that, as was the case earlier this year, the response of the United States and its allies to the events of the past few days will be one of defiance, exhibiting first military strength, and then enforcing further punitive sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

We have been here before, but lessons about North Korean behaviour are not easily learned in Washington. Until the Obama administration recognizes that it is folly to neglect Pyongyang and wait for it to return to the Six Party Talks on the stringent pre-conditions set by the US, the same cycle of North Korean belligerence and US-South Korean punishment will continue; this strengthens support in Pyongyang for military-first policies, whilst pushing the North to rely increasingly on proliferation activities and enhance its bargaining position at future negotiations.