Lowy Institute

The much-anticipated speech by US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore today struck an intelligent note of US determination regarding security in the South China Sea, without being needlessly confrontational. The full text has just gone online here.

There's been a drumbeat of media speculation in recent days that the scene was being set for an exceptionally tense weekend here at this gathering of ministers, senior officials and experts from across the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Attention has focused on China's extraordinary acceleration of island-building in contested waters in the South China Sea, as well as growing signs of resolve from the US and others in challenging this form of provocation.

In what seemed a sign of things to come, a few days ago Carter included a firm indication of American resolve in a speech in Hawaii that was otherwise about a changing of the guard in Pacific Command and Pacific Fleet. It wasn't an ultimatum, but the clearest yet expression of where the US stands on the Chinese island-building and the right of all countries to fly or sail their forces freely in international waters. US forces had earlier allowed a CNN television crew to join a surveillance flight in the vicinity of the artificial islands, where they witnessed Chinese forces warning the US flight to keep away from a 'military zone', behaviour that is reportedly becoming quite frequent.

This preview strategy is turning out to be a smart US move. It set the stage for Carter's Singapore speech in a way that allowed him to emphasise the reasonableness of the US approach.

To be sure, Carter still conveyed some strong messages. Without specifically speaking in terms of deterrence, he noted that the US would continue to make its best capabilities and newest military technologies part of its strategic footprint in Asia. He called for an end to island-building by all states in the South China Sea, and a halt to any further militarisation. Significantly, he affirmed:

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...the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as US forces do all over the world. America, alongside its allies and partners in the regional architecture, will not be deterred from exercising these rights...After all, turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.

This remains sensibly ambiguous about whether the US and its friends and allies would exercise that right within 12 nautical miles of the new artificial islands China has created, though it makes it plain that the US does not rule out such action.

But the Shangri La speech was less a ratcheting up of tensions than a narrative that put American expressions of determination on the South China Sea into a context that aligns American involvement with the interests of the wider region in stability and associated prosperity.

Thus, in language co-opting China's 'community of common destiny', Secretary Carter emphasised that a stable Asia would need to be one in which 'everyone rises, everyone wins'. He referred to India, Japan, and smaller powers whose rights and interests needed to be protected. He endorsed ASEAN-centric institutions such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus.

Above all, he made the point that China's actions were putting it out of step with the region, with global stakeholders in the security of the South China Sea, and with international rules and norms.

Last year's Shangri-La Dialogue involved a dramatic heightening of rhetoric from the Chinese delegation, which arguably turned out to be counter-productive for China's interests. Stark, confrontational language tomorrow from Admiral Sun Jianguo, China's delegation leader, would confirm Secretary Carter's point about China being out of step.

US-China diplomacy around the South China Sea and the Shangri-La Dialogue is becoming both subtle and serious. There are at least three simultaneous themes. First, the Americans and the Chinese are each looking to show resolve. Second, they are looking also for ways to restrain or limit any kind of clash — neither side actually wants an incident at sea or in the air to escalate. But third, they are also looking for that messaging edge which can demonstrate that the other side was the proximate cause of any confrontation.

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Tensions in the South China Sea have risen steadily this week. First with Washington's public relations offensive using a P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft and CNN, then with the revelations here in Australia that China may be moving weapons onto the artificial islands it occupies. Expect more to come out of the 15th Shangri-La Dialogue this weekend in Singapore. Here's Euan Graham on China's more assertive stance on the issue:

China doesn't yet have the capability to perform aerial intercepts over the Spratlys, much less to enforce a South China Sea-wide ADIZ. Yet if Beijing continues to build up its military facilities in the Spratlys, including possibly with one or more operational airstrips by 2016, the inevitable consequence will be the spread of Sino-US military competition across the South China Sea at large. US Navy ships are already regularly shadowed there by PLA Navy counterparts.

Why President Obama may be losing interest in the Middle East, from Rodger Shanahan:

In dealing with the Middle East, few if any modern US presidents have been able to find a balance between upholding US ideals and meeting America's practical foreign policy goals. Obama has been dealt a poor hand in the Middle East but has tried harder than most to narrow the gap between ideals and practicalities. He is trying to introduce the concept of government legitimacy as a greater determinant in US relations with regional governments.

He also believes that US military interventions treat symptoms rather than causes, and that they have given Middle Eastern states absolutely zero incentive to reform the political and social malaise that has given rise to the insurgencies the region faces.

If B-1 bombers did start to rotate out of Australia, what would that signal for the alliance? Iain Henry:

In the future, if B-1 bombers are stationed in Australia, and if they conduct freedom of navigation exercises over the South China Sea, then this will occur only because Australia has concurred in US forces using Australian bases for that purpose. It could be said, just as accurately, that the operation occurred only because Australia chose to not veto it.

In such circumstances, it will be harder to say that the alliance is 'not directed at any one country'.  Because US forces could only operate from Australian soil with our concurrence, we would essentially be enabling the operation. Our alliance is not 'directed against China', as some have claimed, but if such an operation were to occur it would definitely be directed against Chinese activities. Would the finer points of this distinction matter to the leadership in Beijing? 

David Brewster responded to an op-ed in The Age from Hugh White on India's future strategic role in relation to China:

For its part, Beijing has long been dismissive of India's national power and strategic aspirations. But one thing that really makes Chinese analysts sit up and take notice – and indeed makes them quite incensed – is the possibility of a military partnership between India and the US. Delhi is very much aware of this, and it is why India is doing what it can to leverage its relationship with the US to the absolute hilt. President Obama's presence on the podium at India's Republic Day parade last January was indeed a postcard addressed to Beijing. The US relationship bolsters India's credibility in Beijing, or at the very least significantly complicates China's dealings with India and its neighbours in South Asia. Who exactly is the stooge here?

What is the importance of Palmyra for ISIS? Lauren Williams:

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But Palmyra,  the site of the country's most treasured antiquities, also holds a sinister and important place in the county's national identity, as the site of the notorious Tadmur Prison. Thousands who were locked up in the early uprising against Bashar Assad's rule are known to have languished there for years without trial. Palmyra, therefore, has become an important symbol of the opposition movement. ISIS seized the prison on Thursday and while there is still no word on the fate of the inmates, freeing them could serve as valuable propaganda for the group.

Aaron Connelly wrote on the proposed plan to strip the citizenship of dual-nationality Australians participating in terrorism overseas:

In elevating citizenship in the national conversation about radicalisation, in depriving dual nationals of rights to due process which other Australians still receive, and in launching a national conversation that seems more likely to alienate than embrace, the Government is making the possibility of 'dual authenticity' less likely. 

A three-way competition between the US, Russia and the EU is heating up, says Matthew Dal Santo:

Today, NATO and EU membership seems to have encouraged a classic case of freeloading — and a bolder foreign policy than the country's own defences would warrant. 'On Ukrainian, Georgian and Moldovan membership (of NATO), we must not accept a veto right by Russia', declared one official. 'If we have on our borders a country with different values, different conduct, we are all the losers.'

Robert Kelly wrote on a recent women's peace march across the DMZ on the Korean Peninsula:

This raises yet another credibility issue for the marchers, with their pointed focus on the role of women. The most damning criticism I have read of the march came from Suzanne Scholte, head of the North Korea Freedom Coalition: 'If they truly cared, they would cross the China-North Korea border instead, which is actually more dangerous now than the DMZ' (in reference to the trafficking issue).

This march will do little to alter the geopolitics of the peninsula, which has been locked in for decades. But high-powered feminist attention could have done a lot to press China for better treatment of North Korea female escapees. A missed opportunity...

President Abe just concluded PALM7 with Pacific Island leaders, and Jenny Hayward-Jones and Philippa Brant wrote on the outcomes from the meeting:

The fact that Japan hasn't dramatically increased aid to the region in the face of increased attention from China suggests Japan is not seeking to engage in explicit chequebook diplomacy with China in the Pacific Islands. Instead, Japan is trying to position itself as the partner of choice on issues of key concern to Pacific Islanders grappling with the effects of climate change and natural disasters. Importantly, Japan is focusing on issues which matter to the region and where Japanese assistance can make the most difference.

Stephen Grenville argued that the debate over inequality is repeating itself, 40 years on:

Others have been more pointed – and more political – in their criticism of how the rich got to be at the top of the pile. The free-market, regulation-reducing, tax-lowering policies begun in the Thatcher/Reagan period have boosted inequality more than growth. The economic elite have turned rent-seeking into an art form, exploiting the many distortions and monopolies in the economy. They have buttressed their favoured position by manipulating the political process. Their share of national income reflects their power rather than their productivity.

Is there a brewing 'diaspora war' between China and the US? Julian Snelder:

China's concern for its diaspora is understandable, but the more Beijing trumpets its involvement in overseas 'bamboo networks', the more nervous other countries will become about 'fifth columns.' Almost half a million Chinese go abroad for study annually, and the conveyor belt of knowledge moves steadily in China's net direction (which may explain Shen's sangfroid and America's 'anxiety'). Cross-border scientific collaboration is a good thing collectively but John Mearsheimer (among others) has long foreseen the day when Washington sees a need to restrict Chinese nationals from studying and working in sensitive strategic fields.

A side-effect of the Southeast Asian refugee crisis might be the inflaming of sectarian tensions, argues Elliot Brennan:

There is increasing concern that the recent treatment of the Rohingya will bolster narratives for radicalisation in the region. There is no evidence of links between Rohingya and jihadi groups, but jihadists near and far have condemned the plight of the Rohingya. Al-Shabab, in a rare statement this week, blamed the 'savage Buddhists' for the Rohingya's plight. Al Qaeda last year announced it would extend its operations into Myanmar for similar reasons. A statement from ISIS – which would have the most pull in the region – is also likely, possibly in the next edition of its recruitment magazine, Dabiq (which has long courted Southeast Asians). Needless to say, much of this work has already been done on Twitter and Facebook. 

Evan Laksmana laid out a vision for a more strategic Australian-Indonesian bilateral relationship:

On Jakarta's side, an equal strategic partnership means Indonesia needs to start picking up the tab in terms of investing in its own governance institutions – from corruption to education. As long as Jakarta relies heavily on foreign aid, a strategic partnership with Australia will never be equal. Some in Jakarta are realising this imperative. After all, as Hugh White noted almost a decade ago, no one, especially Indonesians, likes to need help, and gratitude is usually tempered by the unease at being placed in the position of supplicant. This is perhaps why Jakarta'sreaction to the cut in Australia's aid budget to Indonesia was so subdued. 

Finally, Daniel Pinkston wrote on the internal political dynamics on the Korean Peninsula and the recent execution of General Hyon Yong-ch'ol:

South Korean lawmakers repeatedly compromise sensitive intelligence to impress constituents, though it damages national security and intelligence cooperation with allies, as International Crisis Group has reported. While many citizens and lawmakers complain about the NIS being politicised, the National Assembly's predictable leaking gives the intelligence organisation a means to enter the political realm without democratic accountability. Indirect disclosure in this way undermines the trust needed for a 'healthy democracy' (one of President's Park's favourite terms).

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Pacific Fleet.

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For the Ukrainian Government, the EU summit in Riga, Latvia, last Friday was a bitter pill. EU leaders dashed hopes for fast a track to Ukraine's membership. Kiev received non-committal promises about a visa liberalisation program and pledges of €1.8 billion in loans (national debt has almost reached 100% of GDP). But even this is dependent on structural reform and anti-corruption measures that the country has proved unable to make in twenty-five years of independence.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was visibly disappointed. 'During these (past) 18 months, the Ukrainian people...made a revolution of dignity, and paid a very high price for their European choice', The Guardian quoted him as saying.


Odessa Harbour. (Flickr/mikesub.)

But this result was plain in April when European Council President Donald Tusk and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker met Poroshenko in Kiev. As a prominent pro-EU Ukrainian oligarch is said to have put it then: 'Couldn't you have told us this before 6000 people died in the Donbass?'

Ukraine remains deeply divided over its European future. Last week I was in Odessa, a city of a million and Ukraine's busiest port. At traffic intersections, billboards carried Poroshenko's portrait with an EU flag fluttering in the background. 'Poroshenko for a European future!' was the message. On the second day, the mayor presided over a thinly attended pro-EU ceremony. That Odessa is a European city was on every official's lips. But Odessa is no less a culturally Russian city. The lingua franca — indeed, the only language I heard spoken on the streets — is Russian.

A Ukrainian analyst explained the city's complex identity politics. 'Most inhabitants don't have a strong connection with Ukraine as a state', she said. 'They came here as settlers after the Russian conquest (in 1794) — refugees from serfdom, Bulgarians, Greeks, Albanians, Germans, invited by Catherine II. They remained grateful to the Russian Empire for the land they received.'

This doesn't necessarily translate into support for Russian annexation.

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'There are many pro-Russians', she said. 'But those who are pro-Putin are very few. Most of those who are pro-Russian are in fact pro-Soviet. It's about nostalgia for one big country, the absence of borders, for a time when the rest of the world respected us.'

These divisions resulted in tragedy a year ago. On 2 May 2014, around 45 pro-Russian demonstrators were incinerated inside Odessa's Trades Union Building in a fire allegedly lit by opposing demonstrators. The city is still restless. 'Troublemakers spies and terrorists...stir up anti-Ukrainian sentiment at public markets and on public transport', our analyst said. 'If Kharkhov goes, Odessa will be next. Anything could still happen.' The city has recently experienced a series of bomb blasts, though no one has been killed.

Odessa's tangle of language, history and identity was visible in other ways.

Competing with the Ukrainian Army recruiting posters (in Ukrainian), billboards bearing the Soviet hammer and sickle wished the locals happy Victory Day (in Russian). Commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the USSR's victory over Nazi Germany, the posters seemingly thumbed their noses at a recent law making it a crime to deny the 'criminal character of the communist totalitarian regime of 1917-1991 in Ukraine'.

According to an international observer, local sentiment is 'about 60:40 pro-Russian', although the majority, she said, are 'not so much pro-Russian as pro-federalist...They're not interested in being ruled by Moscow. They want more regional autonomy and are critical of the new authorities in Kiev. For this, they're seen as traitors (by the pro-unity side).'

Each party defined itself in reference to the Second World War. Pro-unity Ukrainian nationalists are engaged in a battle 'to prevent the Soviet Union taking over the country again'. Federalists see themselves as 'saving the city from the Fascists, the way the Red Army did'. There is 'total confusion about historical reality', she said. 'But the Ukrainian famine (1932-3) isn't part of the dispute. It's all about the War.'

She also worried about press freedom in Odessa. 'There are plenty of news outlets', she said. 'But only one has been targeted by police.' The day before, journalists at a pro-federalist website had been charged with Article 100 of the Ukrainian criminal code ('An attack on the unity of Ukraine').

The conflict of narratives — and identities — also reaches into the local history museum. In the middle of the hall dedicated to the Second World War, surrounded by Red Army battle standards and Soviet wartime memorabilia labelled in Russian, were twenty-eight or so portraits bordered in blue and yellow remembering the local men killed fighting pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk. 'War for the Defence of Ukraine', read the accompanying sign in Ukrainian.

One observer criticised the EU's tendency to downplay these tensions and to assume that the whole country was united behind the Government's Europhile rhetoric. 'Public opinion in Ukraine is much more divided than Brussels would like to imagine', he said. 'Europe has created certain expectations, whereas the reality is much more complex.'

Odessa is not necessarily Ukraine. By pushing the 'pause' button, Brussels will disappoint many. But it will also give a divided country a chance to figure out its past as well as its future.

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The Lowy Institute has released new polling data about Australian attitudes to foreign aid. From the media release:

New Lowy Institute polling released today shows  the majority of Australians are in favour of the recent cuts to Australia's overseas aid budget. Although nearly one in five express strong opposition to the budget reductions to overseas aid (19% saying they are 'strongly against' the reductions), only 35% of Australians overall oppose the reductions to the aid budget, and 53% are in favour.

Views on the generosity of Australia's aid program vary considerably across age groups, with younger Australians far more inclined to be critical of the level of the aid budget. 

When asked last weekend about the $1 billion reduction to the aid budget , only 33% of 18-29 year- olds (compared with 58% of those aged 30 and over) support the reduction, while 42%  — though still not a majority — of that age group oppose the cuts. In our annual Poll survey in February/March, 34% of 18-29 year-olds said that the 2014-15 aid budget was 'not enough', compared with only 17% of those aged over 30. 

Australians, it should be remembered, are pretty confused about how much money the Government actually spends on foreign aid, as Charlie Pickering memorably explained on the ABC a few weeks ago.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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The Southeast Asia boat crisis is the latest event to inflame religious divisions in the region. The crisis elicited a nasty backlash on social media and rendered what should have been a united response to a humanitarian crisis the subject of divisive debate across the region. The biggest failure of Southeast Asian governments in the crisis has been to allow the religious narrative to dominate. Indeed, this has been a root cause of the abysmal response. 


A terrorist attack on a Southeast Asian religious site would be disastrous in the current atmosphere. (Flickr/Mikaku.)

Over the past week, protests organised by religious groups in IndonesiaMalaysia and Myanmar have highlighted these divisions. In Malaysia and Indonesia, religious groups have focused on the imperative to save Muslims rather than people of any creed. In Yangon, Buddhist extremists led protests against the Rohingya Muslims, while the response by the Myanmar Government suggested the Rohingyas are a problem for Muslim-majority countries to solve.

Thailand backed away from the region's initial resolution to help the Rohingyas stranded at sea, even when Indonesia and Malaysia announced their commitment. Along with ongoing reports of jungle camps and mass graves in Thailand, this suggest that some in Bangkok hold similar views to Myanmar's Buddhist extremists. Both Buddhist-majority countries have unresolved conflicts with Muslim minorities in their countries. These conflicts, while markedly different, feed the same narrative that pits Buddhists against Muslims.

The deathly slow response from ASEAN to act in the crisis has deepened these divisions.  

Extremism and conservative religion has flourished across the region in recent years. Brunei adopted draconian hudud, the Islamic penal code. Aceh, in Indonesia's west, followed suit, reinforcing its Sharia law. Malaysia's Kelantan state has pushed ahead with the introduction of hudud. Jihadi groups, once on the wane thanks to effective counter-terrorism responses, have been invigorated by ISIS's success and are now seeing a resurgence in the region.

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While the region's struggle with extremist interpretations of Islam gets column inches, a resurgence in Buddhist extremism also continues.

In 2014 Myanmar's firebrand monk, Wirathu (often dubbed the 'Buddhist Bin Laden', though he prefers to think of himself as James Bond), visited the Buddhist extremist group Bodu Bala Sena in Sri Lanka, the group responsible for 2014 attacks on Muslim communities in the country's south. Wirathu was met with a standing ovation, and the two groups signed an MoU to 'protect' Buddhism. Wirathu's group, the 969s, is responsible for leading much of the violence against the Rohingya and Muslim communities in Myanmar. 

The fault for these divisions lies at the feet of weak governments. Gone are the days of strong leadership in Southeast Asia from the likes of Lee Kuan Yew. Today, Southeast Asian governments court dangerous populism and bend to extremism. In Malaysia, the government has played into a political game to 'out-Islam' its political opponents. In Myanmar, the long-running conflict with dozens of armed ethnic groups has embedded a legacy in which Buddhist narratives dominate the political space. 

These divisions could be exacerbated by the increase in Islamic finance and banking in Malaysia and Indonesia (the region's biggest economy), which will likely see a strengthening of religion in business and politics. 

There is increasing concern that the recent treatment of the Rohingya will bolster narratives for radicalisation in the region. There is no evidence of links between Rohingya and jihadi groups, but jihadists near and far have condemned the plight of the Rohingya. Al-Shabab, in a rare statement this week, blamed the 'savage Buddhists' for the Rohingya's plight. Al Qaeda last year announced it would extend its operations into Myanmar for similar reasons. A statement from ISIS – which would have the most pull in the region – is also likely, possibly in the next edition of its recruitment magazine, Dabiq (which has long courted Southeast Asians). Needless to say, much of this work has already been done on Twitter and Facebook. 

Perhaps most worrying of all is the threat of an attack on a Buddhist temple or religious site carried out in the name of the Rohingya. These sites are soft targets – far softer than the 2013 foiled bomb plot on the Myanmar Embassy in Indonesia by an Indonesian cell sympathetic to the Rohingya. Of primary concern is the UNESCO-listed temple of Borobudur in Java. Such an attack, which could be reminiscent of the 2013 attack on Mahabodhi Temple, one of India's holiest Buddhist temples, would provoke tit-for-tat violence on Muslim communities in Myanmar. In the present environment that would be hard to contain.

At a regional level, ASEAN must do more. The boat crisis won't be the last divisive problem the bloc faces. It must assert greater control over this crisis and more generally over the political narrative regarding religious divisions (a leaked internal EU document explains how this might be done in regard to a boat crisis). If ASEAN and its member governments allow extremist views to trump the politics of moderation they will have a tough time steering good policy. 

The danger of doing nothing is to allow deep divisions which will  be difficult to repair. 

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The report that Korean People's Army General Hyon Yong-ch'ol, Minister of the People's Armed Forces, has been shot for insubordination – by an anti-aircraft gun and before a crowd of officials, no less – raises troubling questions about both halves of the divided Korean Peninsula.

While there still is no confirmation regarding the purge from Pyongyang, South Korean National Assemblyman Sin Kyong-min, a member of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters that Seoul's National Intelligence Service (NIS) has multiple sources for its claims.

The scepticism of many analysts is less about the reported execution than the timing and motivation behind its sudden revelation. Though Hyon is supposed to have been executed on 30 April, the news emerged only on 13 May, a fortnight in which NIS appears to have suffered two intelligence embarrassments. 

On 29 April, the NIS told National Assembly members the North's leader, Kim Jong-un, 'was highly likely to visit Moscow' for the 9 May World War II Victory Day celebrations, only to be proved wrong the following day. Then Pyongyang appeared to take Seoul by surprise by testing a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on 8 May. Although North Korean state media suggested the SLBM is operational, it appears to have been an ejection test from a submerged barge and the missile only flew a short distance.

South Korean President Park called the test a 'serious security challenge' at the National Security Council meeting she convened on 12 May, and she probably then approved the NIS leak to the National Assembly about Hyon's execution as part of an effort to alleviate public concerns.

For sceptics, releasing the news about a spectacular purge in the North looks like an NIS attempt to rehabilitate its reputation. It could also be intended to shock the international community in order to garner support at the UN and elsewhere in case Seoul decides to impose additional sanctions against Pyongyang.

But if Hyon has indeed been executed, what are the implications?

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Some analysts say the recent increase in purges is a sign of instability in the North. Others argue that Kim remains in firm control because the problems of planning collective action against him are insurmountable. Another group suggest improvements in the economy indicate the regime is becoming stronger.

I see no signs of any rebellion against Kim and I'm sceptical about internal instability at this time. I believe the leader has several advantages in managing the dictatorship in order to remain in power: his vast, established institutions of repression; the difficulties of organising collective action against him; and the array of dilemmas someone in the elite faces in trying to persuade anyone to join a rebel faction.

Hyon was probably more vulnerable than many realised. A career soldier, he enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the military, which he joined in 1966. He was elected to the Supreme People's Assembly in 2009, and the next year was promoted to four-star general and elected to the party's Central Committee. He was advanced to vice marshal and Chief of the General Staff in July 2012, the same day his predecessor, Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, was stripped of his positions and disappeared. About a week and a half later, Hyon became a vice chairman of the party's Central Military Commission, only to lose one of his general's stars after three months. In March 2013, he was back on track as a candidate member of the Politburo, but two months later he again lost a star and was reassigned to Kangwon Province, far from the seat of power. 

Hyon appeared to have redeemed himself when he regained the star and was appointed Minister of the People's Armed Forces in June 2014. Rehabilitation seemed complete in September with his election to the National Defence Commission. As recently as April, he was in Moscow for an international security conference.  

Kim needs professionals to run his military, and Hyon was a survivor with proven ability to 'reform' and play the North's brutal political game of redemption and rehabilitation. That his career may have ended with him paying the ultimate price demonstrates that even a senior leader can miscalculate. 

It is also worth considering the implications of the way Hyon's reported execution was made public by an NIS leak. The information was provided to the National Assembly's Intelligence Committee during a 'closed hearing' with the expectation it would soon reach the media. This common South Korean practice is indicative of the dysfunctional relationship between the NIS and the legislature.

South Korean lawmakers repeatedly compromise sensitive intelligence to impress constituents, though it damages national security and intelligence cooperation with allies, as International Crisis Group has reported. While many citizens and lawmakers complain about the NIS being politicised, the National Assembly's predictable leaking gives the intelligence organisation a means to enter the political realm without democratic accountability. Indirect disclosure in this way undermines the trust needed for a 'healthy democracy' (one of President's Park's favourite terms).

For the international community, and South Korea in particular, the recent shadow boxing could have grave consequences. Peace and stability on the Korean peninsula are now based solely on deterrence, yet in the South, intelligence has sometimes proved flawed, and in the North, a key player may have made the ultimate miscalculation.

Photo by Flickr user Republic of Korea.

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The view from Jakarta

The role of the Indonesian military under President Jokowi came into focus this week with the release of a report on its encroachment into political and civilian life. Meanwhile, an activist was stabbed in Jakarta, allegedly by a member of the Navy, and the president was asked to respond to concerns over continued limitations on press freedom in Papua.

Jokowi's administration is undoing some of the early work of the reform era by allowing an increased civilian and political role for the military, warned a new report released on Monday. The report was produced by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), directed by Sidney Jones, who spoke at the Lowy Institute earlier this year. A return to the military's entrenched role under Suharto's New Order is not predicted in the report, but concerns are raised over the increasing encroachment of the military into domestic security and civilian affairs.

The report says several of Jokowi's ministries have signed Memoranda of Understanding with the military promoting its involvement in development programs, such as handing out fertiliser to farmers and in providing security for public and private infrastructure. Among other things, this has increased overlap in authority between the military and police, adding to tension between the two forces, already heightened due to the ongoing spat between the police and the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). Meanwhile, little progress has been made on defence policy and reform, as pushed by former president Yudhoyono, or on improving military accountability. It remains to be seen how closely Jokowi will ally himself with the military, and what the implications will be for politics and civil freedoms in Indonesia.

The accountability of the armed forces also came under the spotlight this week when an activist was stabbed to death in Jakarta, allegedly by a member of the Indonesian Navy. Jopi Peranginangin, an activist for several social and environmental causes and one of the ranks of volunteers behind Jokowi's presidential campaign last year, was fatally beaten and stabbed outside a Jakarta nightclub early on Saturday morning. No link has been made between the incident and Jopi's work as an activist, including his involvement in palm oil monitor Sawit Watch.

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Since military personnel in Indonesia are subject only to military courts, investigation of the suspect, a Navy private, has been handed over by Jakarta Police to the Naval Military Police. While there are fears that justice will not be served by an internal trial held within the ranks of the Navy, the case is likely to come under intense scrutiny from the victim's friends in civil society, who have already launched an online petition for the perpetrator to be arrested, fired and imprisoned, and have started a hashtag in solidarity: #Solidaritas4Jopi. With continued public attention, the trial may yet become an open test for justice in cases involving military personnel.

Meanwhile, other elements of civil society are monitoring action on Jokowi's promise to lift restrictions on foreign journalists reporting from the region of Papua. Human Rights Watch this week urged Jokowi to issue a clear directive on the matter, since a number of ministers have expressed their reluctance to give foreign press free access to the region, as ordered by the President.

In addition to the expectation that foreign media report only on 'good news' stories, ministers have said that journalists' movements will be closely monitored, and that they will be expelled for any actions perceived as amounting to sedition. The slow response to implement the President's orders highlights his weak political position, and adds to concerns that despite rhetoric from the central government, the 'security approach' remains firmly in place in Papua and West Papua.

Photo by Flickr user Hendrik Mentarno.

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The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • Why are China's largest tech companies investing in America's hottest startups? It's about Smartphones.
  • This article claims Facebook is becoming a hotbed of anti-migrant sentiment in Southeast Asia.
  • China's Ministry of Defence has opened official accounts on Weibo and WeChat. Both accounts are providing live updates on the release of China's defence white paper and have promised to provide detail on ministry polices, military construction and cooperation initiatives.
  • South Korea has been ranked no.1 in global mobile app use (the most widely used being KakaoTalk), with smartphone users spending more than half their time on social media and chat apps.
  • South Korea's love affair with mobile apps may not carry into the next generation, after the Government announced telecom companies must install spying apps on all mobiles used by those under 18 years.
  • Large internet companies in China employ 'porn identification officers'. China's Global Times has a neat infographic explaining what these officers actually do.
  • The era of Internet memes has arrived in Myanmar. (H/t Asia Digital Life project.)
  • A researcher and statistician from the French Government's aid agency has written an interesting blog post looking at whether big data and mobile data can really serve the world's poorest.
  • At the inaugural Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Shanghai this week Asian tech companies have been laying out their vision for the 'internet of things'.
  • Behind the scenes at the CES, there are alleged complaints about Chinese copycat products (spurring the acronym 'C2C' – Copy2China). But do Chinese copycat companies actually succeed?
  • If the global 'selfie' obsession makes you mad, the latest trend in Asia — the Selfie (iced) coffee — might push you over the edge. Using a special printer and edible ink, cafes in Malaysia, Taiwan and Singapore are offering customers the chance to view themselves in their coffee before drinking themselves up. (h/t Steph.)
  • A student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in China has produced a great animated video about the harmful effects of smartphone addiction: 

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Visas which give wealthy business people and investors a pathway to permanent residence and Australian citizenship through various forms of investment have been around for many years. The new twist, under the Government's recently announced 'complying investments' for the Significant Investor Visa, is to channel some money out of safe investments and into venture capital and start-ups.

The $5 million worth of investment that a foreign investor must make in Australia to qualify for a visa must now include at least $500,000 in eligible Australian venture capital or private equity funds investing in start-ups and small private companies. The Government expects to increase this to $1 million for new applications within two years. In addition, at least a further $1.5 million of the $5 million total must go into in eligible managed funds or listed companies that invest in emerging firms.

Some commentators, including venture capitalists, have applauded the move. On the other hand, migration agents reportedly have concerns over whether their clients will see this requirement as too risky and turn their attention to other countries. The Government has tried to manage this by only requiring 10% of the total investment to go into the highest risk investments.

One wonders why, if these investments are truly desirable, they cannot stand on their merits and attract sufficient capital without the need to effectively subsidise them by offering visas and a pathway to Australian citizenship as an incentive to foreign investors. Alternatively, why aren't broader-based non-visa options being pursued to attract venture capital, such as a HECS-style loans scheme?

The changes also raise the broader question of the effectiveness of migration schemes to attract wealthy business people and investors.

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Australia has experimented with variations of such schemes over several decades. State and Territory governments are attracted to them in the hope of bringing foreign business talent and money into their economies.

The traditional migrant 'bargain' with the host country is that he or she contributes their skills, resources, physical presence and family to that country's future in return for permanent residence and access to citizenship and its benefits. However, because of their wealth, business and investor migrants have a lot more scope and flexibility to gain benefits without making much contribution.

The Australian Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Migration, in its March 2015 Report of the Inquiry into on the Business Innovation and Investment Programme, struggled to find any substantive benefits, noting in the Foreword that 'the data provided by the Government was limited and furnished little evidence that the programme was actually meeting any of its objectives.'

And yet the risks are substantial. Migration schemes for business people attract a disproportionate number of applicants from a small number of countries, usually countries where it is difficult to verify all aspects of the background of the individuals and the sources of their wealth. China was by far the largest source country for the over 6000 visas granted in the Government's Business Innovation and Investor programs in 2013-14.

There is an ever present risk of attracting people of character concern who will, down the track, be the subject of criminal investigations in the source country and embarrassing extradition proceedings. There is also the risk of attracting 'hot' money, borrowed money and dubious financial arrangements.

Then there is the underlying public suspicion about wealthy people 'buying' their way into Australia. One of the earliest schemes, the 'Business Migration Program', was terminated following a critical report of the Joint Committee of Public accounts in 1991 , including concerns about the role private migration agents had been given in the system.

Despite all these dilemmas, Australia probably has to compete with other countries and have at least a limited facility for interested business people to migrate permanently. It is untenable to say that a genuinely interested wealthy business person cannot settle here in the way that a skilled migrant can.

However, policy and administration in this area need to be tightly controlled and the results closely monitored to ensure there is a real benefit for the country. The trick for governments is to find a set of rules that lock in the benefits for Australia without scaring away most of the genuine migrants. Scams that undermine the integrity of this element of the immigration program must be quickly identified and terminated.

Without careful scrutiny, there is a good chance that any new arrangements will end in tears, like some of their predecessors.

Photo by Flickr user Nicki Mannix.

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An American genius on the edge of madness? A Cold War backdrop? It's A Beautiful Mind, Part II.  Or, to give it it's official title, Pawn Sacrifice, the story of chess master Bobby Fischer:

Looks OK, but the Cold War thriller I'm really looking forward to, long rumoured but seemingly perpetually 'in development', is Reykjavik, about the Reagan-Gorbachev summit at which the two leaders almost agreed to abolish their entire nuclear arsenals. Wikipedia says it will star Michael Douglas as Reagan and Christph Waltz as Gorbachev. C'mon Hollywood, you can do this!

(H/t Slashfilm.)

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Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced on Tuesday that the Australian Government will introduce legislation giving the immigration minister the authority to strip Australians of their citizenship if secret evidence showed that they had participated 'in serious terrorist-related activities.' Abbott argued that this 'is a necessary and appropriate response to the terrorist threat.'

Yet the available evidence suggests it will make, at most, a marginal contribution to the struggle against violent extremism, and it is in any event inappropriate in a liberal society which values the rights of citizenship. Indeed, it could alienate the Australian Muslim community, including the small number of youths in that community who are susceptible to radicalisation.

Others have taken on the details of the proposal on The Interpreter already. Former senior immigration official Peter Hughes argues persuasively that it would be 'a very limited tool.' As he notes, Australians fighting overseas can already be prevented from returning to Australia through the cancellation of passports, so this new measure can't be about that.

My colleague Rodger Shanahan argues that this is really about sharing intelligence with allies on Australians suspected of terrorism in third countries, so that those allies can then kill them. While that prospect raises serious questions about due process, perhaps it would make a modest contribution to the fight against ISIS and other groups. But the Prime Minister's focus on Tuesday was on the problem of domestic radicalisation, which is of far greater importance to Australian security than enabling one-off drone strikes abroad. And it is a problem his initiatives are likely to aggravate.

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In announcing the changes, the Prime Minister said that former Attorney-General Philip Ruddock would lead a 'national consultation' on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. I would submit that reducing dual nationals to second-class citizens, without the same rights as other citizens, is a poor way to begin that consultation. 

Ruddock's later remarks to the press indicated that he is concerned about 'some people' who 'argue that the law ought to be subservient to what they see as religious obligations. We say we have one set of laws for all Australians.' Yet the Government has just announced that some Australians  can be deprived of their citizenship based on secret evidence, while others cannot. That suggests there are two sets of laws for Australians: one for true blue Aussies and one for those whose national identities are more complex.

Nor can we ignore the distinct impression left by the Prime Minister that his proposed 'conversation about citizenship', which 'will enable us to consider whether the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are well understood and how we can better promote these, including among young Australians', is really a talking-to directed at Muslim youth. Ruddock has already indicated that he is not interested in taking on complaints of discrimination by Muslim groups in Victoria as part of this conversation.

The risk, as articulated by Waleed Aly in a 2011 lecture at Parliament House, is that the Government is falling into the trap laid by extremists eager to radicalise young Australian Muslims:

...what’s implicit in the global terrorism narrative is that you essentially choose which one identity you want to have. [According to this narrative] You can be Muslim or you can be Dutch, British, Australian or American or whatever it is, but you can’t be both. And the reason you can’t be both is because [Westerners] will never have you.... That means, it seems to me, that the most potent message that could be internalised that would resist that narrative or make it less effective through a series of social experiences and public rhetoric, is one that emphasises the possibility, in fact celebrates the possibility, of what I call dual authenticity.

In elevating citizenship in the national conversation about radicalisation, in depriving dual nationals of rights to due process which other Australians still receive, and in launching a national conversation that seems more likely to alienate than embrace, the Government is making the possibility of 'dual authenticity' less likely. 

I should acknowledge here that I come at this question from a somewhat different background. As an American, I assume that rights are inalienable. It is an assumption at the very core of American jurisprudence. For this reason, the US Supreme Court has made it very difficult for the US Government to deprive Americans of their citizenship, and thus their rights.

In fact, the Prime Minister erred yesterday when he said that these new powers bring Australian laws closer to those of the US. Americans  found to have joined terrorist organisations can only be stripped of their citizenship by a court, and only if the Government is able to meet a higher burden of proof than is normally required in civil proceedings. After all, if one can be stripped of his or her rights by a single minister based on secret evidence, as the Prime Minister proposes, they aren't really rights at all. But I accept that rights are not at the heart of Australia's constitution, as they are in the US constitution.

There is another difference between Australia and the US that is worth pondering. We are two proud multicultural societies, but while the US has at least ten times the Muslim population of Australia, there are more Australians fighting with terrorist organisations in the Middle East than Americans. It seems clear that communal relations in Australia could be improved. The Government's conversation on citizenship, however well intentioned, is unlikely to do so.

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The Indo-Pacific is a strategic system encompassing the Indian and Pacific oceans, reflecting the expanding interests and reach of China and India as well as the enduring role of the US. The Lowy Institute's International Security program presents a weekly selection of links illuminating the changing security picture in this increasingly connected super-region.

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In a recent op-ed (India Won't Provide Solutions to our China Questions), Hugh White argues against relying on India as a decisive factor in balancing against China. This is an important question, as China is almost inevitably an important factor in Australia's growing strategic relationship with India.


India's Republic Day 2015. (White House.)

Hugh relies on a few propositions to make his case. He argues that India will never allow itself to be used by the US and its allies as a stooge against China. He questions whether India's interests are aligned with Australia, given that New Delhi does not seek to maintain US strategic dominance in Asia. He also questions whether India and China really have much of a beef with each other in the long term, arguing that the Himalayas will ultimately keep them apart on land. Contrary to claims by Indo-Pacifists that India and China will increasingly come into naval competition as they project maritime power into each other's oceans, in fact each side will have too much to lose by interfering with the other's sea-borne trade. Geography and mutual deterrence, Hugh argues, will moderate any strategic rivalry between them.

As usual, Hugh's arguments seem convincing. But, on reflection, the propositions that he relies upon don't really stack up.

The 'India is no stooge' argument is one we hear from time to time, but it is ultimately a weak one. Anyone with experience of India should be in little doubt that Delhi will not allow itself to be used as a 'stooge' against China. India guards its independence and freedom of action jealously (arguably sometimes too jealously for its own good). Its famed prickliness towards the US may be slowly fading, but is unlikely to go away any time soon.

But the great majority of Indian policy-makers also have a clear understanding that China represents the greatest long-term security threat to India. This is driven by a raft of factors, including Beijing's territorial claims over much of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (which was repeated during Mr Modi's recent visit to Beijing), its nuclear, military and political support for Pakistan, and its growing interests elsewhere in South Asia. These are regarded as core concerns in Delhi and none of them are likely to go away.

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For its part, Beijing has long been dismissive of India's national power and strategic aspirations. But one thing that really makes Chinese analysts sit up and take notice – and indeed makes them quite incensed – is the possibility of a military partnership between India and the US. Delhi is very much aware of this, and it is why India is doing what it can to leverage its relationship with the US to the absolute hilt. President Obama's presence on the podium at India's Republic Day parade last January was indeed a postcard addressed to Beijing. The US relationship bolsters India's credibility in Beijing, or at the very least significantly complicates China's dealings with India and its neighbours in South Asia. Who exactly is the stooge here?

The argument that Indian and Australian interests are not aligned because Delhi is not seeking to preserve US military primacy in Asia is also ultimately a weak one. India makes no secret of its long term aspirations towards a multipolar region in which it would sit at the top table alongside the US, China and Japan. India also has long-term (if somewhat vague) aspirations to be the dominant power in the Indian Ocean. Delhi has become comfortable with seeing the US spend a lot of money providing public goods in the Indian Ocean, and especially in the Persian Gulf. There is a view that the US military presence in the region should be allowed to gradually wither away in coming decades just as Delhi took a relaxed view of the withering away of Britain's military presence in the 1950s and 1960s.

Maybe India's strategic ambitions will come to pass, and maybe they won't. More likely, they will just take a very long time to happen. But these aspirations only increase, not reduce, India's importance to Australia as a strategic partner. Australia may prefer to see the continuation of US military primacy in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean for as long as possible, but we are also realistic that it won't last forever.

In the meantime, India is a useful friend for Australia for many reasons, including in helping to contribute towards a more balanced region. If India ultimately achieves its strategic aspirations it will almost certainly only happen over a period of decades. This is not necessarily inconsistent with Australia's interests: a strong, friendly and democratic India in a multipolar Asia is undoubtedly a lot better than many of the alternative scenarios we could face.

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It is hard to avoid a sense of déjà vu when one looks at Indonesia-Australia relations today. Our fundamental strategic interests mostly converge – from regional and maritime stability to managing China's growing power – even if our policy preferences diverge in various issue areas. And each country realises the importance of the other.

But although the Indonesia-Australia relationship looks balanced and sturdy from the outside, it is easily knocked down. 'Exogenous shocks' – from terrorism to asylum seekers, beef exports and executions – regularly test the relationship. 

Yet those shocks also offer some lessons. Even though, under President Jokowi, the relationship is at a low point, we are not entering uncharted waters. We have been here before, which means we can build on a familiar narrative. Analysts did this when they pointed out what both countries could do to repair the diplomatic damage created by the Chan and Sukumaran executions.

But if we want Indonesia-Australia relations to break free from this pattern and enter a new phase, we should start sketching out what a genuinely equal strategic partnership would look like.

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On Canberra's side, one can start by abandoning outdated lenses to make sense of Indonesia. For example, we can debate the extent of a 'cultural gap' between the two societies, but to cast the relationship as one of 'cultural divide' or to argue that it suffers from lack of 'cultural intelligence' is unhelpful. For one thing, cultural variables are often immutable as far as policy is concerned. For another, using cultural lenses to view policy problems might lead to a xenophobic slippery slope. There are certainly differences between our societies, but they are not the 'root' of all the bilateral problems.

Indonesia is a now a democratic state, and it should be understood as such. How often does Australia consider its problems with other democratic countries in the region as one of 'cultural difference'?

Indonesia should be understood on its own terms, rather than defined by preconceived fault lines such as culture. But of course democratic consolidation is a messy process, which makes it difficult to fully understand Indonesia's trajectory. As Richard Woolcott once noted, Australia sometimes overlooks how long it can take to fashion a stable democracy. However, we should be encouraged that, as a recent Lowy poll noted, there is growing pragmatism among the Australian public over better ties with Indonesia, and perhaps a greater appreciation that Indonesia needs time to stabilise its democratic politics.

There will be times when Indonesians and Australians elect leaders with different views, ties and personal stakes in the bilateral relationship. For a stronger partnership to survive, we need to think harder about institutionalising the relationship beyond the personal ties. Efforts to move in that direction have begun in recent years with the establishment of regular 'Strategic Partner' talks between defence ministers. But dialogues shouldn't simply be high-level events where prepared statements are traded. They should be a series of regular, sustained discussions before and after those meetings. Regular consultations breed familiarity and help to avoid surprises (such as when Jakarta felt slighted over the placement of US Marines in Darwin).

On Jakarta's side, an equal strategic partnership means Indonesia needs to start picking up the tab in terms of investing in its own governance institutions – from corruption to education. As long as Jakarta relies heavily on foreign aid, a strategic partnership with Australia will never be equal. Some in Jakarta are realising this imperative. After all, as Hugh White noted almost a decade ago, no one, especially Indonesians, likes to need help, and gratitude is usually tempered by the unease at being placed in the position of supplicant. This is perhaps why Jakarta's reaction to the cut in Australia's aid budget to Indonesia was so subdued. 

Jakarta needs to be more proactive in driving the agenda in the partnership. Indonesia's passive stance stems from another outdated lens; one that has historically seen the country as the 'geopolitical prize'. This is exacerbated by a misguided sense of entitlement, both within the elite and general public, that Indonesia is a rising global power. Jakarta needs to abandon this passive approach. Rising power means a rising responsibility, and the foremost responsibility is to maintain a stable regional environment, for which our relationship with Australia is key. 

Furthermore, a more proactive Jakarta gives Canberra a better sense of Indonesia's priorities, and it signals that we are as invested in understanding and engaging our neighbour as the other way around. In short, if Jakarta wants to be treated as an equal partner, it should start behaving like one.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user G20 Australia 2014.

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On Sunday 24 March, a global group of female peace activists crossed the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Led by American feminist icon Gloria Steinem and Christine Ahn, a Korean-American activist of some notoriety for alleged excuse-making for Pyongyang, the march stirred up a surprisingly sharp debate among Korea analysts and sparked a backlash rally by South Korean conservatives.

I argued against the march and received hate-mail for it (best put-down: 'your stuff is older than Kim Il Sung's rusty pistol'), while anti-march protesters told the marchers to 'go to hell'. For something so apparently minor and innocuous – I strongly doubt the march will open the North or change the basic confrontationalism of the South – the whole debate got remarkably heated. For a good case in favour of the march, try this; for the case against, go here.

I see four undercurrents that led to this surprising outburst from all sides.

1. Traditional democratic right-left Cold War divisions remain alive and well in the Korea debate

In the West, much of the debate over how to respond to communism has faded into intellectual history. That acrimonious and largely unresolved split between right and left has, thankfully for all, receded.

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But in South Korea, it feels like time stands still: it is still 1982, with an evil empire, replete with gulags and economic collapse, threatening nuclear war, and all the McCarthyite paranoia that breeds in response. Just as in the West a generation ago, conservatives here see the left as appeasers, if not traitors, while left-wing parties think the South Korean right is unhinged and bellicose, driving North Korea into belligerence.

Most notable to me is the replication on the left here of almost exactly the same tortured debate on communism which roiled the Western European left throughout the Cold War: is recognition 'appeasement'?; a persistent admiration of socialism 'in theory' while 'real-existing socialism' is grudgingly rejected; a far-left party that is openly pro-communist; the constant challenge at the ballot box to convince voters they are not tools of Moscow/Pyongyang; and so on. The march has brought these underlying divisions forcefully to light.

2. Moral equivalence is the main challenge to the march

My primary concern throughout the march debate was the appearance of moral equivalence between the two Koreas regarding both culpability for the continuing division, and the moral character of the competing regimes. Ahn has spoken of 'parity' between them. In reality, North Korea is the worse on both counts, and that cannot be re-stated often enough (a point I tried hard to make in my Al Jazeera English interview on this).

Fault for the continuing division today lies almost exclusively with North Korea, or to be more specific, a North Korean elite terrified of post-unification justice and the loss of their privileges, if not lives. During the Cold War, culpability was arguably equal, as each camp sought a different version of Korea that had some ideological defensibility. But today, that is long over. All the other Cold War-divided states (Germany, Yemen, Vietnam) are re-united, and the bankruptcy of the socialist alternative is apparent in all those cases, as it is in Korea. There is really no reason anymore for North Korea to exist. The game is over. The steady hemorrhage of North Koreans out of country against enormous odds, the gulags, and the massive internal military presence all suggest domestic illegitimacy. Given a chance to vote freely, is there any doubt North Koreans would choose other leaders, if not unity with happier, freer, wealthier South?

Similarly, the North and South are not morally analogous competitor regimes which deserve a similar chastising. South Korea is easily the better place on almost every conceivable vector, including importantly, the one privileged by the marchers themselves – the treatment of women. Does it need to be said that South Korea has elections, a free press, due process (nothing like the songbun system or the gulags of the North), a female president, and so on? Given how obvious this is, I found it worrisome that the marchers ducked these obvious distinctions in their various press conferences.

3. The North regularly instrumentalises prestigious foreigners for regime legitimacy

North Korea, like East Germany before it, has long struggled to attain global legitimacy against what came in time to be seen as the 'real' Korea (or Germany). One East German stratagem was the global attention gained from Olympics victories, leading to the world's most notorious doping program in the 1970s and 80s. In a similar vein, North Korea seeks at every turn to accumulate and record prestigious foreign personages and institutions interacting with the regime in such a way that implies its existence is legitimate. The Kumusan 'Palace of the Sun' (the 'sun' being the Kim family) houses a large collection of foreign recognitions, as does the Juche Tower. This is likely the reason why North Kora seeks out high-profile US visits when US citizens are taken hostage (and why such visits are so rare). Even 'useful idiot' Dennis Rodman served this purpose.

In the case of the marchers, critics assumed the North would try to attribute sympathetic comments to them, which it did. This has led to a predictable argument over who said and did what. For example, the North claims the marchers labelled the US 'a kingdom of terrorism and a kingpin of human rights abuses,' which Ahn has had to publicly deny. That a high profile personality like Steinem, with her moral credibility, would flirt with such predictable manipulations is unhelpful.

4. North Korea's terrible record on gender and sexuality heighten the march's contradictions

Not only is North Korea the world's worst human rights violator, a point indisputably established by last year's UN report which likened its internal repression to the Nazis, but it is particularly harsh for women. The general culture is deeply Confucian patriarchic (habits that are slowly [too slowly] eroding in South Korea). Pyongyang elites – party, military, Kimist – are nearly all male, and they enjoy the services of the notorious 'joy brigade' as well.

Far worse, the treatment of women in the gulags is appalling, almost certainly meriting ICC prosecution – rape, sexual abuse, and infanticide are now well established facts. The terrible exploitation of Northern women continues should they escape North Korea. North Korean women are trafficked in China to pay for their and their families' escape.

This raises yet another credibility issue for the marchers, with their pointed focus on the role of women. The most damning criticism I have read of the march came from Suzanne Scholte, head of the North Korea Freedom Coalition: 'If they truly cared, they would cross the China-North Korea border instead, which is actually more dangerous now than the DMZ' (in reference to the trafficking issue).

This march will do little to alter the geopolitics of the peninsula, which has been locked in for decades. But high-powered feminist attention could have done a lot to press China for better treatment of North Korea female escapees. A missed opportunity...

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