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Comment on the North Korean Missile Launch

I was on BBC television this evening (via the Leeds studio) discussing the North Korean missile launch with Celia Hatton, who, fortunately for me and the BBC, is a veteran ‘China hand’ with years of experience in Beijing. Hatton is now a presenter in London, and she was kind enough to have a discussion with me about the relevant issues prior to going on the air, and also to give me the chance to fully debrief a BBC News producer so as to carve down areas of maximum value for our on-air time.

As the episode is not on the BBC iPlayer, I thought I would share a few of the ideas here.

  • China was possibly forewarned about the test on 7 February at the DPRK Embassy in Beijing.
  • North Korean leaders are hypersensitive to Chinese pressure and influence in their country.
  • China is structurally locked in to (and indeed voted for) United Nations sanctions on North Korea, but enforcement along the border is not a matter for UN inspectors and its long-range plan hopes are for a limited renaissance of capitalism or marketization in North Korea.
  • The PRC Foreign Ministry was absolutely seized on Friday with questions about Trump and Taiwan, and has yet to comment on the launch.
  • Although the US State Department is still lacking bodies, American alliances with South Korea and Japan were among the few areas that the Trump administration officials (not just obvious candidates like General Mattis, but the embattled National Security Advisor Michael Flynn) had made efforts to shore up prior to the current launch.
  • The US has yet to take Kim Jong-un and his regime to task for human rights violations at the UN or elsewhere, which is surely appreciated by Pyongyang.
  • North Korean state media has not taken anything resembling a provocative step by denouncing Donald Trump, James Mattis, or Mike Flynn by name, even though both Mattis and Flynn have met with hated members of the South Korean state and the U.S. plans military drills in Korea next month.
  • Even if the Trump administration dissolves into a heap of factionalism, isolationist ethnonationalism, and total ineptitude, Congress is going to continue to push for secondary sanctions on Chinese firms doing business with North Korea; this problem is not going away.

A few related tweets:

Image: Kim Jong-un in a new apartment building elevator for scientists with a decidedly Trumpian touch. Screengrab from Chosun Central Television documentary. 

North Korea and Border Crossings in Northeast Asia

On 17 February, I will be lecturing at the Irish Institute for Korean Studies at University College Cork, a dynamic university in the revolutionary heartland of the Republic of Ireland. The title of the lecture is ‘North Korea and Border Crossings in Northeast Asia.’ The lecture series is sponsored by the One Asia Foundation, and includes a number of notables in the field, including James Lewis of the University of Oxford.

Selected Readings: 

Suk-Jung Han, ‘From Pusan to Fengtian: The Borderline Between Korea and Manchukuo in the 1930s,’ East Asian History, No. 30 (2005), pp. 95-106.

Tessa Morris-Suzuki, ‘Exodus to North Korea Revisited: Japan, North Korea, and the ICRC in the “Repatriation” of Ethnic Koreans from Japan,’ The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol 9, Issue 22 No 2, May 30, 2011.

Adam Cathcart, ‘Beijing’s North Korea Policy in 2016: Keep Calm and Carry On,’ RUSI Newsbrief, Royal United Services Institute, 5 September 2016.

Image: Looking over the Yalu estuary, 2011; by Adam Cathcart. 

Border Consolidation in Liaoning: From Chen Yun to Xi Jinping

For presentation at Leiden University lecture series “Borders: Life on the Edge of Area Studies“, 28 February 2017:

For the Chinese Communist Party, the northeastern province of Liaoning today inhabits an odd position on the “One Belt, One Road” strategic line. Stuck with a recalcitrant North Korean neighbour, the CCP is endeavouring to revive the regional economy by reaching beyond various fundamental North Korean blockages and toward Seoul and Incheon, while simultaneously securing the border from drugs and deserters from Sinuiju. Corruption remains a staggering problem in the province, whose economic growth is among the lowest in the People’s Republic in spite of massive improvements in infrastructure, with occasional spectacularly dangerous interfaces with the North Korean economy (as in the case of Hongxiang, a firm targeted by US sanctions as a result). The first section of the paper will draw upon fieldwork in the province to investigate these issues.

In search of continuities, the paper then leaps back in time 70 years, and uses newly published documents to investigate the CCP policy in the border region during the Chinese civil war, or “War of Liberation” (jiefang zhanzheng), followed by the Korean War. Led by the Northeastern Bureau and Chen Yun, the CCP was a party forced to the periphery and a rural strategy in 1945 and 1946, a period when cross-border interactions with occupied Korea were mediated by the Soviet Red Army. Chen Yun and Gao Gang took an activist role in the establishment of base areas in the province, leveraging interactions with North Korean counterparts and ultimately winning the debate over the need to focus on the peripheral border regions over the large industrialized urban trunk of Manchuria. During the Korean War, Dandong was a hub for international socialist interactions as well as supply of the (literally underground and heavily bombed) North Korean economy.

There are striking parallels amid the obvious discontinuities. In both periods, we see the difficult role of CCP leaders in the province, questions of loyalty and corruption amid international interactions in the border region, and the age-old tension between local realities and central needs (be “the Center” in Zhongnanhai, Harbin, or Yan’an). We also see how the Party takes an ambivalent view toward North Korean assistance of Chinese Communist Party goals throughout: Even when North Korean comrades might lend vital assistance, the CCP rarely forces the issue, and looks for solutions within the province and the Party itself. Finally, the paper compares international pressure on the CCP in the border hub of Dandong today with that the Korean War era, noting the focus of the UN in both cases on interactions with North Koreans in the border region, a charged site of interaction, inspection, and potential violence. 

Image: Wind band of the People’s Liberation Army upon victory in Shenyang, 2 November 1948, via Hebei State Television.

Borderlands in Asia and Beyond: Readings

Moving toward a text dealing with the Chinese-Korean border region, I have been catching up on my borderlands studies literature readings, some of which I aim to share in this post and update from time to time. — Adam Cathcart

C. Patterson Giersch, “Why Kham? Why Borderlands? Coordinating New Research Programs for Asia,” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review, E-Journal No. 19 (June 2016), 202-213. 

The literature on China’s border space with Tibet (as opposed to the frontier with India) is caught up in the notion of westward expansion of the Han. Kham (known as Kang/康 in Chinese) has been on the frontlines of this expansion.

In this sense, the Chinese-North Korean border region is rather unlike Kham. Expansion into the region of Yanbian has been both Han Chinese and ethnic Korean, overlaying Manchu political and military dominance in the seventeeth through nineteenth centuries.  More recently, we ought to be mindful that the Chinese-North Korean border region is only formally an “ethnic borderland” in Yanbian and parts of Heilongjiang, and is far less permeated with the imperatives of minzu zhengce, or ethnicities policy, in the Liaoning border space.

“For insiders,” the author explains, “Kham might be understood as a coherent space and a source of belonging, while, for many outsiders, it simply never existed as a single unit but has always been an incoherent hodgepodge of rugged terrain and divided loyalties” (Giersch 2016, 204). Aligning the history of our preferred border with this question, we might label the Sino-Korean border region in the early 20th century as “incoherent”, particularly the time around the Russo-Japanese War, when loyalties were likely highly varied in the regions, not to mention business interests such as Romanov-linked lumber concessions along the Yalu. Coherence arrives, to a large extent, after the Korean War, a period during which the region was contested internationally — recall the debate over whether or not the Yalu consisted of a boundary to a “Manchurian sanctuary” and MacArthur’s explicit desire to bomb beyond that frontier. Today, the region is contested neither formally nor informally at the bilateral level between China and the DPRK, the territorial issues having been settled in the early 1960, but the international contestation of the border region comes from the United Nations, a body which is largely powerless today to examine, much less exploit, the space between the two countries for reasons of sanctions enforcement.

For scholars of borderland studies more generally, one of the more interesting aspects of this essay is its critique of “newly reified concepts such as Zomia.” These were to have moved away from state-based modes of analysis but which have, in the author’s view “saddled [the inhabitants of this conceptual region] with ‘immobile aggregates of traits'” (Giersch 2016, 203). This caution is particularly apropos when trying to decide whether or not to apply the term “borderlanders” to Chinese or North Koreans operating on either side of the frontier, a label which Brantley Womack suggests has its uses and analytical imperatives.

Finally, Giersch encouragingly endorses an “extremely open-ended approach” to studying Kham, in order to allow more scholars and readers with different disciplinary fluencies into the topic (Giersch 2016, 204). Working with political scientists, anthropologists, and others on the Chinese-Korean border region, it is hard to disagree with the merits here.   

Photo credit: Franc Pallarès in Kham. 

North Korean Human Rights: Rex Tillerson as Blank Slate

Will the Trump administration maintain and extend US pressure on North Korea on the human rights front?

Will the Executive Branch aim to extend and intensify US criticism of and dialogue with Chinese counterparts on topics regarding the PRC’s mistreatment, hukou discrimination, imprisonment, and/or refoulement of North Korean refugees?

At a 29 November 2016 event at the Bush Library, Senator Lieberman said keeping up the human rights pressure would be logical under Trump, but is far from a fait accompli. Now Victor Cha, who organized and appeared at that event, appears to be in the mix for an Assistant Secretary of State position, which would presumably a better chance of that pressure being kept up.

A number of analysts have advocated that the Trump administration undertake immediate negotiations with DPRK. I wonder if those well-meaning individuals have considered that a Trump administration could actually get the North Koreans one step closer to nuclear compromise or the longed-for panacea of a peace treaty by watering down the North Korean Human Rights Act (HR 4011, 2004) or dropping human rights pressure altogether? That is how I read the North Korean statements, anyway — they don’t hammer at it and say it’s going to tear down their social system for nothing, and the US/UN has succeeded in now adding it to the mix of pressure points.

I look forward to hearing more about Rex Tillerson has to say about the subject, and if he’s got any room in his binders for Bob King, or Justice Michael Kirby (the chairman of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK) for that matter.

This is more than a matter of rhetoric. The North Korean Human Rights Act (HR 4011, 2004, renewed in 2008) is due for renewal in 2017, and little to nothing has been said about the office now held by Robert King — the foremost institutional symbol in Washington, D.C. for the issue — or if King will stay on during the Trump administration.

Diplopundit, an excellent blog focusing on the Foreign Service and the US State Department, has some well-informed responses to that very question (see the discussion thread on the following tweet).

Tillerson’s opening remarks at his Senate hearing (during which this post is being prepared) discussed advocacy of human rights, the specifics for which were limited to Cuba. The potential Secretary of State also failed to breathe the word “Europe” in that statement. One gets the feeling that, like much of the Trump transition, Tillerson is already in over his head, and there is likely to be an internal struggle over the role of human rights in the overall approach to China and North Korea which is likely to take several months to become clear.

This post originated as a response to Joshua Stanton’s One Free Korea post of 10 January 2017. Image via Sanho Tree

Britain’s Global Cold War: Publications by Alexander Nicholas Shaw

One of the nice things about my job is that I get to work with some the most talented young historians in the field today. Alexander Shaw is one of those  working and publishing in international history. He is active in archives including the UKMigrated Archives and addresses many questions pertinent to readers of this website. His work on British policy towards East & Southeast Asia covers Hong Kong, Singapore, and small but strategically significant countries like Brunei. He has also put forth compelling new evidence and arguments about British strategic debates during the Korean War.  

Alexander is currently a PhD student at the University of Leeds, having won funding from the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), researching a doctoral thesis entitled ‘British Intelligence, Internal Security and the Cold War in the Far East: Regional and Local Human Intelligence Operations in Singapore, 1948-59’. He has presented papers at the University of Oxford and at various conferences in Europe.


British fighters on the HMS Thesus off the west coast of Korea, 8 December 1950. Image (A 31790) via Imperial War Museum.

Alexander Nicholas Shaw, ‘We Have Just About Had It’: Jack Slessor, the Foreign Office, and the Anglo-American strategic debate over escalation of the Korean War, 1950-51,’ Yonsei Journal of International Studies, Vol. 6 Iss. 2, 2014.

Abstract: This paper develops a new understanding of the Anglo-American strategic debate during the first year of the Korean War, using hitherto absent material from the personal papers of one of its major participants: the British Chief of the Air Staff, Marshal John ‘Jack’ Slessor. In deciding to intervene in the Korean conflict, Britain and the United States were united in motivations: reacting out of geopolitical, international and Cold War psychological considerations. But the enhanced vulnerability of British territorial possessions in East Asia, in addition to the proximity of the British homeland to Soviet nuclear forces in Europe, conditioned a more cautious strategic policy. In response to the strategic conflict with the escalatory policies of General Douglas MacArthur, the British state was not a unitary actor. Slessor and the military lobby engaged in vocal criticism of the Pentagon’s war prosecution, using their own channels in Washington to articulate concern. Conversely, Ernest Bevin’s Foreign Office was reluctant to take measures which could jeopardize his vision of an enduring transatlantic alliance. Building on the research of authors including Peter Lowe, the paper argues that this inter-departmental dissension within the British decision-making establishment was a vital determinant of transatlantic strategic policy. Only once the Foreign Office became confident that the alliance was sufficiently solidified did it emerge in full support of Slessor’s position. As a consequence of this newly established unity, the opinions of MacArthur’s London-based detractors were to prove a vital factor in precipitating President Truman’s decision to dismiss the controversial General.

Queen's Own Highlanders in Brunei, 1962, via IWM.jpg

The Queen’s Own Highlanders on patrol in Brunei, circa 1962. Image (TR 18614) via Imperial War Museum.

Alexander Nicholas Shaw, British counterinsurgency in Brunei and Sarawak, 1962–1963: developing best practices in the shadow of MalayaSmall Wars & Insurgencies Vol. 27 , Iss. 4, 2016.

Abstract: This paper uses recently-released material from the ‘Migrated Archives’ to provide an original counterinsurgency analysis of the TNKU revolt in Brunei and Sarawak from December 1962 to May 1963. It argues that, despite a failure to act upon intelligence predicting the outbreak of insurgency, Britain developed a highly effective counterinsurgency organisation. These records also indicate that decision-makers drew inspiration from the Malayan Emergency to inform success in Brunei. Although Malaya has been challenged as a counterinsurgency paradigm, the Brunei operations show the utility of striking a balance between inappropriately copying from past campaigns and developing best practices applicable to the unique environment of Borneo. In turn, the evolution of effective operational practices in Brunei informed their successful application to the subsequent Indonesian Confrontation.


Indian troops on guard at an occupied Iranian oil refinery in World War II. Image (E 5329)  via Imperial War Museum.

Alexander Nicholas Shaw, ‘Strong, United and Independent’: the British Foreign Office, Anglo–Iranian Oil Company and the internationalization of Iranian politics at the dawn of the Cold War, 1945–46Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 52 , Iss. 3, 2016. 

Abstract: This article challenges traditional accounts of the 1946 Cold War Crisis in Iran by moving beyond Soviet–American confrontation to focus on British policy. In contrast to the United States, Britain was a major stake-holding power in Iran due to the valuable holdings of the Anglo–Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). By comparing the reactions of the AIOC and Foreign Office, continuity between the events of the 1946 Crisis and later developments in the Mosaddegh premiership becomes apparent. Soviet interference in Azerbaijan prompted great concern from representatives in Iran, but the central Foreign Office pursued a more cautious policy. Only concerns relating to the growth of domestic Iranian communism in the form of the Tudeh Party and the threat this entailed to the British concession prompted the Foreign Office and AIOC to take measures rendering them partially complicit in the internationalization of Iranian politics, setting an important precedent for future action. This article evaluates the policy-making process and its impact on Anglo–Iranian relations by utilizing records from the UK National Archives, British Petroleum Archive and diplomatic personal papers.

Lead image: ‘Rear Admiral A.K. Scott-Moncrieff ashore on Korean Island, June 1952’ via Imperial War Museum.

Chinese Patterns of Response to North Korean Disasters and Collapse

Korea Map Book YorkOn 29 September, I presented a paper at the Korean National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul. In addition to conversations with members of the ROK Foreign Ministry (my hosts), I also had a chance to meet, debate, and learn from Chinese scholars like Jia Qingguo, Jin Jingyi and Cheng Xiaohe as well as the one and only Bruce Klingner.

The full text of my paper is available as a pdf. here: