Strange but True in the Far East

Eating foot, triangulating in a region of bombastitude.

Now and then, it’s good to check in with the other side of the world.  U.S. cabinet secretaries John Kerry and Chuck Hagel have been doing that this past week – and you might think it would be hard to top the strange-but-true message their respective diplomatic displays have sent.

But you’d be underestimating the Far East if you did.  To set the stage, we note that U.S. and foreign analysts believe North Korea has restarted the plutonium reactor at Yongbyon in the last few weeks.  This is, of course, a move against which Pyongyang has been warned.  It comes on the heels of a months-long period of increasing provocations from North Korea, including a nuclear-warhead test in February 2013, and the multiple missile launches in May against which the Kim regime had been warned in April (Kerry: a missile launch would be “a huge mistake”).

The UN imposed a new set of sanctions on the North after the warhead test, whereupon Pyongyang unilaterally withdrew from its 60-year-old non-aggression pact with the South, and terminated the defense hotline between the two Korean capitals.

It’s not clear what, if anything, will be done about the reactor restart.  If everyone can come to an agreement on the assessment about it, there will presumably be a strongly-worded rebuke from the United Nations sometime in the next year, and perhaps a really emphatic reminder from Washington about U.S. sanctions.

Defense secretary Chuck Hagel was in South Korea early in the week, assuring the media that the U.S. has no plans to draw down or restructure our force level on the peninsula, as U.S. forces launch a major military construction project to relocate further from the line of confrontation with the North.  This plan has been in the works for some years, reflecting an agreement between Seoul and Washington for South Korean troops to assume more of the lead in the defensive coalition that enforces the armistice.

While in Seoul, Hagel viewed a military parade featuring South Korea’s Hyunmu-2 and Hyunmu-3 missiles, which would augment any stand-off counterattack plan against the North.  So far, so good: message of solidarity and readiness in the face of North Korean provocation.

The Kerry gambit

Then John Kerry showed up.  His message was somewhat different.  In the face of Pyongyang’s record of irresponsibility and provocation, he offered assurances, at a press conference in Tokyo on 4 October, that the U.S. has no intention of trying to regime-change the North, and, indeed, is ready to sign a nonaggression pact – something the Kim regime has long sought, but which the U.S. has long declined to commit to – if North Korea will denuclearize.


Kerry, taking time off from promising not to regime-change Kim Jong-Un, surprises Hagel with a birthday celebration in Tokyo.  Reuters pool photo
Kerry, taking time off from promising not to regime-change Kim Jong-Un, surprises Hagel with a birthday celebration in Tokyo. Reuters pool photo

Kerry’s gratuitous assurances against regime change are presumably a response to an intemperate refrain from North Korea casting every foreign criticism of the Kim dynasty as an attempt to regime-change it.  There was a time when it could go without saying that the U.S. was under no obligation to address, in our own diplomatic communications, the hysterical information themes of totalitarian dictatorships.  But we have clearly entered a different time, so it bears saying now.

It’s foolish in the extreme to assure Kim Jong-Un that we are not interested in regime change in North Korea.  For one thing, of course we are.  That doesn’t mean we are actively plotting it, but it does mean we have no stake in the continuation of the Kim regime – or, from a larger standpoint, in the continued division of Korea, as opposed to reunification on terms advantageous for both sides – and we shouldn’t send signals suggesting that we do.  The best way to avoid that is to discipline our communications so that we say only what we mean, rather than reacting to the formulations concocted by the North.

Meanwhile, Kerry could take a page from Colin Powell’s book on the topic of nonaggression pacts.  In 2003, after months of demands from Kim Jong-Il that the U.S. sign a nonaggression pact and recognized North Korea’s “sovereignty,” Powell reiterated for a media audience the longstanding U.S. position that we don’t sign nonaggression pacts, which typically end up being worthless anyway.  You’d think Pyongyang’s unilateral abrogation of the pact with South Korea six months ago, in a fit of temper, would be a timely reminder of just why we have long considered such pacts to be a bad idea.

But there is the equally significant point that after the series of events in 2013, Kim Jong-Un could be forgiven for concluding that the way to get the Obama administration to finally change U.S. policy on nonaggression pacts is to conduct a nuclear-warhead test, perform several missile launches, and pull out of the nonaggression pact with South Korea.

Regional urges

This mode of thinking can hardly bode well for future negotiations.  The Far East being the Far East, however, it’s not necessarily the most peculiar thing going on there.  Vying for that title are the unseemly lengths to which Russia and China are going – while both are signatories to the “tough” UN sanctions on North Korea – to boost their economic involvement with Pyongyang.  Whatever their meaning for the export of North Korea weaponry to the Middle East, the UN sanctions clearly have no meaning that matters for the economic relations of North Korea with China and Russia.  Indeed, Moscow and Beijing are in something of a “race” to develop the North Korean port of Rajin, on the Sea of Japan.  Russia scored big in September with the reopening of a long-defunct railway connection between Rajin and the Russian city of Khasan.

Rail line from Russia to North Korea (port of Rajin located at Rason). Asahi Shimbun map.
Rail line from Russia to North Korea (port of Rajin located at Rason). Asahi Shimbun map.


Peeling back layers of regional context is always helpful when analyzing developments in the Far East.  Immediately following the reopening of the railway segment from Russia – within a day, in fact – China announced a list of goods banned for export to North Korea, a move Beijing had previously resisted making, in spite of China’s nominal participation in the UN sanctions.  Although the drumbeat of foreign speculation about the restart of the Yongbyon reactor was building at the same time, China’s unexpected move was probably prompted by the combination of factors, including the bid for diversity of great-power patronage evident in Pyongyang’s economic move toward Russia.  China doesn’t fulfill naïve Western expectations by having straightforward intentions with “sanctions” activity against North Korea.  China is always jerking North Korea’s chain for some tangential reason of her own.

It’s not just port facilities in Rajin that put North Korea in the middle between Russian and Chinese economic interests.  It’s other factors too, some of which can look downright amusing to American eyes:  e.g., Russia’s inability to populate and effectively occupy her own Far Eastern territories.  I wrote about this back in 2011, laying out the very real Russian security vulnerability arising from the imbalance of 6 million Russians facing more than 90 million Chinese across a poorly defended border.

The Russians have courted Japanese investment, and even Japanese settlement and agricultural development, as a way of building up a counterweight to Chinese economic dominance of far Northeastern Asia.  Now it appears that Russia is negotiating a kind of immigration agreement with North Korea, probably to draw North Korean agricultural settlers into Siberia, on terms very advantageous for Pyongyang.  The article at the link notes that the terms proposed by Russia would cede agricultural land to North Korea at a remarkably low “rent.”  But for the Russians, the monetary return wouldn’t be nearly as important as having the land occupied by a friendly population, beholden to Moscow for its political purpose and security.

The Amur Region of the Russian Far East, where North Korea may contract for an agricultural settlement project. Google maps.
The Amur Region of the Russian Far East, where North Korea may contract for an agricultural settlement project. Google maps.

The Japanese, for their part, may not be the best source of a rent-a-kulak population.  They’ve got their own demographic challenges.  But Russia’s need for friendly relations – in the crudest terms, for non-hostile populations – on her Far Eastern border colors all her dealings with Japan as well as the Koreas.  Japanese investment in the Russian Far East is important enough to keep Moscow comparatively furtive and incremental about encroachments on the Kuril Islands, for example (the islands Japan calls the Northern Territories).

Wherever the eye alights on the map of the Far East, the strategic geometry to look for is that of the triangle.  American dominance might once have suppressed the dynamics of triangular relations in the region, but it no longer does.  The nations all have, and for the foreseeable future will continue to have, reasons to combine with each other against third parties as a way of balancing their security interests.  They will do this quite unabashedly all at once: Russia and China combining against the United States; Russia and Japan against China; China and the Koreas, most often singly, against Japan.  South Korea will try to maintain an equal outreach to all parties to guard her independence and strategic significance as a factor in stability.  In a series of triangular moves, Japan is diligently reaching out to all the nations on China’s perimeter, discussing the forging of security ties as well as economic ones.

In the long run, none of the nations of Northeast Asia has a game-changing demographic advantage over the others.  They are all seeing rapidly plummeting birth rates and aging populations.  The level and character of China’s demographic dominance will remain quite static over time, at least until the arc of the present descends below the horizon of predictability.  There is an odd poetic symmetry in the aging of the populations and the aging of the Korean armistice, at least as things appear today.  No one has a vision for knocking either human dynamic off of its current trajectory.

But man’s record of wisdom in taking things for granted is a pretty poor one.  It bears constant reiteration that World War I became the bloodbath it did not because Europeans had a vision or an appetite for big wars, but because, after decades of Bismarck-and-von-Moltke-ism, they took it for granted that modern wars would remain small.  Complacency, rather than enthusiasm, tends to be our worst enemy.  What is strange but true in the Far East could metastasize quickly and unexpectedly, as it could elsewhere.  It doesn’t help when the erstwhile “big dog” is still trotting officials around, like John Kerry, who throw wild promises into the mix where Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un can hear them.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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9 thoughts on “Strange but True in the Far East”

  1. ” we have no stake in the continuation of the Kim regime – or, from a larger standpoint, in the continued division of Korea, as opposed to reunification on terms advantageous for both sides.”
    We, whoever that might actually be, don’t have any real stake in the continuation of any regime. Without the mendacious media we wouldn’t even know that the Kim regime exists. Furthermore, why would we be interested in the reunification of Korea? Was Korea always a single country? Maybe some of the Koreans themselves would like to see the peninsula divided into smaller units more conducive to the desires of their citizens rather than a larger, centrally controlled bureaucratic state, the very thing that’s created the tension that permeates both camps now. Reunification of Korea is just another baby step toward world government.

    Russia’s attempt, if indeed there is one, to populate “its” far east with North Koreans is perfectly understandable. Isn’t that exactly what the US did in the “Great American Desert” of the 19th century? Weren’t the shiploads of Germans, Czechs, Scandinavians and others brought to North America expressly for the purpose of populating the Great Plains and forcing the natives onto both the societal and economic fringes of the new country? If a starving Nork gets to net fish in a Siberian river or grow colossal cabbage under 22 hours of sunlight every summer to make super kim chee, more power to him.

    1. “shiploads of Germans, Czechs, Scandinavians and others” were NOT “brought to North America”, rather they proactively took advantage of an opportunity to emigrate to lands well able to support a much larger population than the Indian’s nomadic lifestyle could accommodate.

      The Indians rejected the concept of private property but did accept the concept of tribal territoriality gained and maintained through force of arms. They ran into a ‘larger fish’ and were assimilated, which by their own customs was entirely proper. Indians faced the classic situation of ‘adapt or die’, some did and some didn’t. Sitting on a reservation, living off of gov. handouts while refusing to gain the competitive skills that an education can provide is entirely a personal choice, as is the consequences of that choice.

      1. Something I always tell the folks who have just come out of their 12 or 20th screening of “Dances with Wolves”.

        1. American Indians (Aboriginal Americans in actuality) operated functionally on a mid to upper paleolithic tribal social pattern. They were familial, insular, linguistically diverse (I’d have to go back and look it up but their were a stunningly large number of linguistic groups for such a small population over such a large area). This means that inter tribal warfare was common, and actually a way of life.

        2. Their only domesticated animals seem to have been dogs (which their ancestors brought with them from Eurasia) and in South America the camel’s cousins the llamas, alpacas and vicunas. In North America there is little evidence of permanent settlements, sustained long term farming… (there was lots of garden farming and plot farming, but it was largely subsistence and not particularly systemic.) On a parallel scale American Aboriginal people had advanced to about the level of civilization as the builders of Stonehenge… These people never invented the wheel, used metals for useful tools (though that barrier was beginning to fall), or advanced beyond the corbeled arch in any stone construction. The more advanced Smarian and Egyptian level architecture was heavily limited to Central and Western South America. But they two demonstrated few tooling and mechanical advantages over brute force labor.

        This is not a bad thing… It is a fact of social and technological reality.

        3. So faced with a further advanced civilization, Iron Age, mechanical, proto to pre-industrial “invaders” it is not surprising that the Aboriginal inhabitants of the new world succumbed to the deluge of a more advanced rapidly growing society. That too, is amoral, and frankly the entire thing was conducted by the same set of ancient rules the American Aborigines themselves lived under. He who wins, gets the goods, and writes the history.

        Yes there were terrible unjust and vile things done to the American Indian by the European settlers. Funny in our political correctness how we forget what they also did to those settlers, and what they did to themselves and each other.

        All that I know is that if it wasn’t for the Trail of Tears… I wouldn’t be sitting here typing this.

        That’s my way of saying… History is what it is. We got here because of what was done then, but we are here, after all.

        The world is a rough place, the color of nature is the crimson red of flowing blood, and the sound is the hair raising scream of the prey.


          1. Which is play by the same rules the American Indians did.. i.e. no rules.

            Humanity didn’t cover every continent of the earth (except Antarctica) several times over politely. The Lombards and the Etruscans brutalized each other.

            Here in the new world, Blackfeet and Crow vs Shoshone and Mandan. The various tribal families of Lakota hated everyone, including other American Indians. The There were brutal wars of conquest between Iroquois and the Huron (they hated each other many still do)… The Algonquin and Cherokee were constantly at war.

            The Maya brutalized their enemies. The stories of Aztec ritual and habitual cannibalism are not lies… their temples wreaked of rotted blood used as paint, and stacks of decaying skulls.

            What was “done to them” they would have done to “us”… Well now whether their ancestors get all pc about it or not, they are “us” because that is the greatest apology anyone can give. Aboriginal Americans are now voluntarily separate. They are full citizens of this nation, free to contract with whom they please, purchase property, vote, and live where they wish. That many choose the live of the reservation, permanent victimhood, and grievance is sad but it is completely voluntary, now.

            My great grandmother was Cherokee… (no joke, really was) she walked away from it to marry a German immigrant and raise a family in Arkansas. My grandfather never cared much about it, he “had other things to do”, and the kind of Chief that he was he earned through long enlisted service in the US Navy. I was never raised with it, and would never seek to intrude upon any tribal claims. But like I said.. If it weren’t for the “Trail of Tears”, I wouldn’t be here.

            Be at peace for what we are, because we cannot change what we were, and how we got here.

            v/r John

        1. We agree on much.

          However, re: “In North America there is little evidence of permanent settlements, sustained long term farming…”

          The lack of knowledge of the archaeological evidence does not eliminate the fact that, “By around 800 AD, eastern North America’s Indians were on a trajectory that might eventually have led to an Inca/Aztec-level civilization. The Mississippian Mound Builders certainly had some of the characteristics that in other areas eventually led to more sophisticated cultures. They were still at least a thousand years behind the Aztecs and Incas though-maybe more. European diseases and other disturbances ended any chance that they would catch up.”

          “The varying cultures collectively called Mound Builders were Pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America who, during a 5,000-year period, constructed various styles of earthen mounds for religious and ceremonial, burial, and elite residential purposes. These included the Pre-Columbian cultures of the Archaic period; Woodland period (Adena and Hopewell cultures); and Mississippian period; dating from roughly 3400 BCE to the 16th century CE, and living in regions of the Great Lakes, the Ohio River valley, and the Mississippi River valley and its tributaries.[1] Beginning with the construction of Watson Brake about 3400 BCE in present-day Louisiana, nomadic indigenous peoples started building earthwork mounds in North America nearly 1000 years before the pyramids were constructed in Egypt.

          Since the 19th century, the prevailing scholarly consensus has been that the mounds were constructed by indigenous peoples of the Americas. Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers made contact with natives living in a number of later Mississippian cities, described their cultures, and left artifacts.[2]

          By the time of US westward expansion, two hundred years later, Native Americans were generally not knowledgeable about the civilizations that produced the mounds. [European diseases introduced by the Spaniards wiped them out] Research and study of these cultures and peoples has been based mostly on archaeology and anthropology.

          The best-known flat-topped pyramidal structure, which at over 100 feet (30 m) tall is the largest pre-Columbian earthwork north of Mexico, is Monks Mound at Cahokia Indian Mounds in present-day Collinsville, Illinois. At its peak about 1150 CE, Cahokia was an urban settlement with 20,000-30,000 people; this population was not exceeded by North American European settlements until after 1800.”

  2. The Obama administration’s actions and the left’s certain to continue efforts to reduce American influence have made our global presence increasingly irrelevant. Obama has successfully demonstrated that he hasn’t the will to back up his words with force. Wolves do not respect a sheepdog without teeth.

    We are fast approaching the point where we will no longer be a factor in Asian affairs. Given the indebtedness we are creating it will be impossible to recreate the Pax Americana. The repercussions will be game changing.

    America under Obama is fully committed to a de facto isolationist policy. Russia and China will fill the vacuum and Islam will gain its nuclear teeth. Once Iran has nukes, the temptation to economically attack the West through seizing the Strait of Hormuz and holding hostage, passage of 1/3 of the world’s oil will be irresistible. Nuclear proliferation will spread through the mid-east and sooner or later nuclear terrorist attacks will occur. Prior to that, look for ground to air missile attacks upon American airliners.

    Both Obama and Kerry are on public record as being fully aware of the danger and predictability of nuclear proliferation in the mid-east, yet Obama’s policy of appeasement and vacillation allows him to permit those dynamics to continue, while pretending to be against Islamic nuclear capability.

  3. An independent note: JE has, in this short essay, opined in greater detail and with far more thought than either Jean Effing Kerry and Chuck “Mr. Potatohead” Hagel have ever given the subject.

    Until we somehow win the next two elections, we will be the laughing stock of the world…

    Kerry might has well have been breaking wind as far as our adversaries and allies on the Pacific rim are concerned because that is exactly what it was… gas… noxious hydrogen-sulfide body odor.

  4. If Russian and Chinese interests align on anything in North East Asia, they align on one point. They will not tolerate a regime on the southern bank of the Yalu River that could threaten, or be a staging area to threaten, their territories. So, if we couldn’t engineer regime change in North Korea at the apex of our influence, I doubt we will be able to accomplish anything now. Driving a wedge between Russia and China on the Korean issue will require farsightedness, persistence, many incentives, and much skill. We are deficient in all.

    On nuclear proliferation issues, the time is approaching where every prospective nuclear weapons power, of varying degrees of palatability, will invoke the kid glove treatment of the clandestine Israeli nuclear program and her noncompliance with the NPT, as an alibi to further their own nuclear programs. There is little we can do about it anymore. We cannot impose a solution on these states unilaterally (unless we go to war), nor do we have the credibility to moralize about preventing proliferation while protecting a nuclear weapon state that just happens to be in our own sphere of influence. It’s a glaring example of a double standard. One we cannot refute in discussions with either the Russians or Chinese. If Israel has an existential issue from her point of view, so does North Korea from hers…

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