Russian chess (part 2) – Tim Beal on Kim Jong Il’s visit to Russia

September 9, 2011

Tim Beal, author of Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War, writes about the relationship between North Korean and Russia, and what this means for the wider geo-political order, including Barack Obama’s foreign policy:

But what about Russia?  After all, just last year the Russian ambassador to Seoul was at pains to emphasise that his country was not ‘not an ally’ of Pyongyang. Now we have the Russian president describing it as a partner.  What has brought about this change? What have been the Russian objectives for the summit?

Russia’s strategy has two inter-related aspects – the economic and the geopolitical.

Russia wants to sell natural gas to South Korea.  This could be shipped from Vladivostok but that would increase costs; the cheapest way is via a pipeline, and that would go through North Korea.  The pipeline would be a major undertaking – 1,100 kms long, 700 of which would be through North Korea, and delivering 10 million cubic metres of gas a year. But it would complement existing pipelines to Europe and China so there would be no great technical barriers. South Korea itself is potentially a substantial market but the real prize is Japan, where it is anticipated that post-Fukushima antipathy to nuclear energy will boost demand for gas.  And then there is the China factor.  If Russia can develop substantial markets in South Korea and Japan this will give it leverage in what are reportedly tough negotiations with China over the price of gas imports from Russia.

If the gas pipeline goes through, so too do railways which have been bedevilled by the same political barriers.  If the railway systems between the two Koreas are reconnected, and the North’s upgraded, then there is a huge rail network connecting South Korea (and perhaps Japan) with Russia and Europe via the Trans-Siberian, and China and beyond, to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and one day to South Asia.  The economic, and geopolitical, implications of this, what the late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung dubbed the ‘iron silk road’ are huge and in fact dwarf the impact of the gas pipeline.  For the moment however, the emphasis is on the gas pipeline.

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Russian chess (part 1) – Tim Beal on Kim Jong Il’s visit to Russia

September 7, 2011

Tim Beal, author of Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War, writes about the relationship between North Korean and Russia, and what this means for the wider geo-political order, including Barack Obama’s foreign policy:

The visit of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to Russia in August 2011 received little attention in the international media, and most of the articles were uninformed. As is often the case, the South Korean media provided the best coverage.  The North Korean and Russian media gave little detail and scant analysis.  China was a bit better but tended to focus on the Six Party Talks, highlighting Kim (and Medvedev’s) commitment to resuming the talks without preconditions.  This is understandable, given that the establishment of the Beijing talks, bringing together the two Koreas, and the major world powers –the US, Japan, Russia, and China – was a great achievement.  Too great perhaps.  It was noticeable how quickly the US used the Cheonan Incident in March 2010 to sink the talks.  It is likely that the Obama administration realised that Bush had made a great strategic mistake in giving this diplomatic jewel to China and was glad of a pretext to let the talks wither.

In any case, Kim’s avowed commitment to the talks was not new; it restated statements made on visits to China, most recently in May,  and was consistent with long-standing North Korean policy.  The US, and South Korean, response was the same as before – no talks without preconditions.  It is an old diplomatic technique; if you don’t want negotiations you merely set preconditions the other side cannot accept without forfeiting their objective for negotiating. It was a common feature of US strategy during the Bush administration. Obama was supposed to change all that:

… when asked in a July 23, 2008 presidential primary debate, “Would you be willing to meet separately, without preconditions, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?” candidate Obama replied, “I would.”

But President Obama is, as we well know now, not the same person as Candidate Obama.

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All you need to know about the Korean crisis in 12 minutes

April 9, 2013

Tim Beal, author of two Pluto titles on Korean Politics was interviewed by Kathryn Ryan on the national New Zealand Radio show Nine to Noon about the escalating crisis between North Korea, South Korea and the US. Listen here.

Crisis in Korea

America, China and the Risk of War

Tim Beal

Balanced and deeply informed study of the increasingly volatile relations between North and South Korea and US concern about the rise of China.

£19.99 only £17.50 on the Pluto site

North Korea

The Struggle Against American Power

Tim Beal

This book demystifies North Korea by looking beyond the ‘axis of evil’ label.

“Timely, important, and provocative. A useful corrective to the stereotypes and misinformation that pervade ‘conventional wisdom’ about North Korea.” – Professor Charles Armstrong, Director, The Center for Korean Research, Columbia University. Author of The North Korean
Revolution, 1945-1950

“As with other official enemies of the United States, there has been a steady campaign of demonization against North Korea by US officials that has all too eagerly been lapped up by the US media, obscuring the real issues of US North Korean disputes and peaceful means of getting beyond them. In this corrective, Beal (Victoria U. of Wellington, New Zealand) provides a short history of Korea and US – Korean relations – up to the genesis of the current nuclear impasse sparked by the George W. Bush administration – in a treatment is significantly more even handed than the vast majority of what Americans read or her. He then turns to key themes and topics, including human rights and international aid, charges of involvement with illegal drugs trafficking and terrorism, and, finally, the nuclear issue. The work concludes with recommendations for US policy, suggesting that good faith negotiations are likely to be successful because North Korea desperately hopes to normalize relations and can’t pose much of a threat to the United States in the first place.” – Reference & Research Book News, May 2006

£21.99 only £19.50 on the Pluto site


After Kim Jong Il: Transition and change on the Korean peninsula

January 11, 2012

Tim Beal

A guest post by Tim Beal, author of Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War

With the death of Kim Jong Il and the accession to power, nominal and perhaps actual, of Kim Jong Un, many have been asking what change this will make to DPRK policy towards the outside world, and in particular towards foreign business.

The short answer is that in the short to medium term, none.

More important is whether this is the right question to ask. It implies that the barriers to peaceful engagement, and to greater business interaction, lie on the North Korea side. That is not so. It is the United States which has erected sanctions against the DPRK, and cajoled others (but China only to a limited degree) to follow. It is South Korea under Lee Myung-bak that has carried out a hardline, confrontational policy towards the North, reversing the policy of his immediate, and not so immediate, predecessors. Interestingly the Korea Times has just published a strong attack on his policy from, by all people, the advisor to Roh Tae-woo, the last of the generals to run South Korea.

So the question should be, will there be a change of North Korea policy by the US and South Korea, and how would the North react? We can presume that China and Russia will continue as before and be anxious to promote peace and stability. The United States is difficult to read but with a presidential election coming up the chances of a peaceful initiative are slight. One of the problems of the American presidential system is that peace does not win votes for an incumbent presidential candidate but war – the famous ‘October surprise’ – might rally electors around the flag. However, a war in Korea would be a war with China and that, we can hope, would put it outside a calculated strategy (though not perhaps a miscalculation).

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The new Korean border wars – a global flashpoint?

December 16, 2011

Sea of contention: the NLL,MDL, and the DMZ

A guest post by Tim Beal, author of Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War

One year on from the first artillery battle between North and South Korea since the 1950-53 Korean war, Tim Beal looks at the tensions between the two countries and what it means for the rest of the world.

23 November 2011 marked the first anniversary of the Yeonpyeong Incident, an exchange of artillery fire which left 4 South Koreans and an unknown number of North Koreans dead. This was the first artillery battle since the Korean War and many observers considered the peninsula closer to war than it had been for decades. A war between the two Koreas would automatically bring in the Americans, who have control over the South Korean military, and an invasion of the North would almost certainly bring in the Chinese. This was the background to my book Crisis in Korea.

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Simmering tension in Korea

August 16, 2011

Tim Beal, author of Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War writes on the growing tension between North and South Korea, and what it might mean for the rest of the world. 

With the Western media fixated by rioting in England and the on-going global economic crisis, it is not surprising that little attention is paid to events in Korea. However, as with Czechoslovakia in 1938 this ‘far off country of which we know little’ in reality is very important to the rest of the world. The Korean peninsula is where the US, Japan, China, and Russia meet and a war between the two Koreas would inevitably involve the United States (because it controls the South Korean military) and that would almost certainly bring in China. A military clash between the US and China would have unpredictable, but surely profound, consequences for the world.

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Saving the soul of our universities – Pluto’s manifesto for resistance out now!

August 10, 2011

John Pilger: "This book calls us to arms"

Clare Soloman: "This manifesto will play a huge role in providing alternatives"

Neal Lawson: "This book explains what's happening to higher education and what we can do about it"

Paul Gilroy: "Essential reading for anybody seeking to understand the crisis in British education and the forces that produced it"

Nearly a year on from the great student protests and occupations of 2010, we are proud to release The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, edited by Michael Bailey and Des Freedman.

With contributions from academics and students who are directly involved in the movement, The Assault on Universities is a contribution to the struggle for the soul of our higher education system. As well as offering an incisive critique of government policy, the book looks at what kind of university we should be fighting for, and considers strategies to take the campaign forward in the new academic year.

The book is also the launch-pad the ‘Manifesto for Higher Education’ which puts forward concrete alternative proposals to the governments agenda. Already over 500 people have added their names including: John McDonnell MP, John Pilger, Professor Richard Sennett, Neal Lawson (chair of Compass), Professor Ernesto Laclau, Nick Davies (journalist who exposed phone-hacking at the News of the World), Professor Nancy Fraser and China Mieville (award winning author). To view the demands of the Manifesto and to add your name visit the campaign website.

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Fire Fight at Yeonpyeong: The Manufacturing of Crisis

December 8, 2010

Korean brinkmanship, American strategic paralysis, and the road to war
Tim Beal

Summary of Pyongyang Report V12, N1, December 2010

The artillery clash between North and South Korea around the Island of Yeonpyeong on 23 November has been portrayed as an unprovoked attack by the North which involved indiscriminate fire on a civilian area. The reality is very different,. This reality can only be reached through a careful reading of the public reports combined with an understanding of the context.

The public record shows that far from being unexpected and unprovoked, the North had issued a number of warnings, including a telephone call to the local commander, saying that the proposed live fire exercise would be considered an intolerable provocation because the shells would fall in the North’s territorial waters, and that they would launch ‘a resolute physical counter-strike’ if it went ahead. The warnings were disregarded and the North shelled the large marine base on the island, killing two soldiers and injuring several. Two civilians were also killed and has been reported that there were working on a construction site on the base. It is not known how many were killed or wounded in the South’s counter-offensive on the North.

The Yeonpyeong clash happened at the time South Korea, with American support, was carrying out yet another huge military exercise practising war against the North, including marine amphibious assaults. These military exercises, which have been a feature of the Korean peninsula for decades, have been growing in strength and scope this year, and are part of conservative South Korea President Lee Myung-bak’s strategy of precipitating a crisis that will bring about the collapse of North Korea and its takeover by the South. To counter this, the North has a ‘zero-tolerance’ strategy whereby any attack (such as the frequently discussed bombing of their nuclear reactor at Yongbyon) or any premeditated infringement of their territory, would be met with fierce retaliation.

Yeonpyeong is situated in the vicinity of the Northern limited Line (NLL), a maritime boundary to the west of the peninsula, unilaterally drawn by the United States and rejected by North Korea. In 2007 the leaders of North and South agreed to set up a special zone to do away with this area of friction, but that agreement was overturned by Lee Myung-bak when he assumed the presidency in 2008.

The South has announced that it will restart, and expand, its military exercises around the NLL, and this will inevitably trigger a Northern retaliation. The South has threatened to escalate any clash with air strikes and there is an increasing danger of the situation spiralling into war. South Korea and the United States have rejected calls by China, echoed by North Korea, for negotiation but have, instead, launched further war exercises led by the giant nuclear-powered, and nuclear capable, aircraft carrier the UUS Washington. This is happened despite protests from China which fears that the show of strength is really directed at her. A second Korea war would inevitably involved the United States and would probably turn into a Sino-American war with incalculable consequences for the peninsula, the region and the world.

The full essay is available in various formats at the Pyongyang Report

North Korea

The Struggle Against American Power

Tim Beal

This book demystifies North Korea by looking beyond the ‘axis of evil’ label.

£21.99 only £19.50 on the Pluto site


Decoding Korea: Using Context to Explain the Artillery Clash

November 24, 2010

Reading an obituary of Chalmers Johnson – the American East Asia expert who moved from being a Cold War warrior to a trenchant critic of US imperialism – I was taken with his stress on the importance of context. Talking about the need to strip away the lies of government he wrote ‘The concept ‘blowback’ does not just mean retaliation for things our government has done to and in foreign countries. It refers to retaliation for the numerous illegal operations we have carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public. This means that when the retaliation comes—as it did so spectacularly on September 11, 2001—the American public is unable to put the events in context. So they tend to support acts intended to lash out against the perpetrators, thereby most commonly preparing the ground for yet another cycle of blowback’.
As with 9/11 so with the latest incident on the Korean peninsula..

If we were to believe the official line we would accept William Hague’s description of an ‘unprovoked attack’, a ‘brazen’ attack’ (Wall St Journal) on a ‘populated island’ (Guardian). If we understood the context we would be suspicious of this narrative and look closer. We would find that this is not just a ordinary fishing island. According to the New York Times, ‘Yeonpyeong Island sits just two miles from the Northern Limit Line, the disputed sea border which the North does not recognize, and only eight miles from the North Korean coast. The island houses a garrison of about 1,000 South Korean marines, and the navy has deployed its newest class of “patrol killer” guided-missile ships in the Western Sea, as the Yellow Sea is also known.’ The North Korea shelling, which targeted the marine base, followed a live firing exercise by South Korea. The North claims that the South was firing shells into its territory, the South denies that.

However, the actual events of this specific exercise are less important than a much larger one taking place at the same time. This is the Hoguk Exercise which is scheduled for 22 to 30 November and which ‘involves 70,000 South Korean military troops, 50 warships, 90 helicopters and 500 planes. The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) of U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Seventh Air Force will also participate in the exercise.’(Hankyoreh, Seoul) The 31st MEU is based in Okinawa (over the objections of the locals and, until recently, the Japanese government’) and is trained for a number of roles. One of them is to launch a commando raid during an invasion of North Korea. An article published by a US think tank puts it delicately: As a collapse of North Korea — rather than a North Korean invasion of South Korea — has become a more likely scenario, the 31st MEU can search and seize the North Korean nuclear arsenal, and prevent proliferation of those weapons.’ (PacNet, Honolulu)

The Hoguk Exercise, in turn, is just one of a series of joint US-South Korean military exercises, which have been going on for decades but which have increased in tempo, and aggressiveness, since the sinking of the Cheonan.

These exercises, and the Cheonan incident – or rather the use which has been made of it – can only be understood within the context of Korean politics and US global strategy. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (in contrast to his two immediate predecessors) has a confrontational policy aimed at precipitating a collapse of North Korea – and really giving those guys in the 31st MEU something to get their teeth into. The United States, fearful of rising China and bereft of much idea what to do about it, seems happy to tag along.

The geopolitical context is tortuous, and often hidden from view by politicians and press, but it is the key to understand what is going on. The situation in Northeast Asia is becoming increasingly tense and dangerous. If real fighting breaks out, rather than the skirmishes of the past, then we might well end up with another war between the United States and China, with incalculable, but surely disastrous, consequences.

Tim Beal is currently working on another volume for Pluto provisionally titled The Cheonan Incident: On the brink of war in East Asia. He has just returned from Northeast Asia, spending one week in Beijing, four weeks in Seoul, and a week in Pyongyang.

North Korea

The Struggle Against American Power

Tim Beal

This book demystifies North Korea by looking beyond the ‘axis of evil’ label.

£19.99 only £17.5 on the Pluto site


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