In one of his last acts as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo stated that the Chinese government’s extrajudicial internment of 1.8 million Uyghurs, the torture and forced labor of Uyghur detainees, and the forced sterilizations and abortions of Uyghur women, amounts to crimes against humanity and genocide. Hours later, in his confirmation hearings, President-elect Biden’s secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken agreed with Pompeo’s designation of genocide. Immediately, the U.S. press heralded the bi-partisan nature of this genocide declaration.
But genocide is not just about the acts committed; it also requires government intent to physically or biologically destroy the group. SeeConvention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”) (emphasis added). By declaring genocide, the U.S. government could easily get bogged down in this required element, an element that even Pompeo left out of his declaration. Nowhere in his statement does Pompeo assert that the Chinese government had an intent to physically destroy the Uyghur people.
That is why Pompeo’s declaration that the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang province amounts to crimes against humanity is more actionable, and has been for the past couple of years. Like genocide, crimes against humanity include acts that attack the very soul of a people and its culture: murder, extermination, torture, arbitrary detention, forcible transfer of a population, rape, sexual violence, forced sterilizations, apartheid. But unlike genocide, these crimes do not require an intent to biologically destroy. Instead, acts that constitute crimes against humanity merely need to be part of a widespread or systemic attack directed at a group, with the perpetrator’s knowledge that his or her acts are part of this larger attack. In looking at Pompeo’s declaration of genocide he states that “we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs.” In those words, he seems to mistake the element of crimes against humanity for genocide.
This isn’t to say that the crime of genocide is not occurring in Xinjiang nor that such a declaration is inconsequential. It certainly carries meaning and should. But the U.S. must ensures that it acts on these declarations and not just get caught up in a war of words with China and its allies, something that could more easily happen by solely focusing on genocide. In fact, the United Nations, through a 2005 Resolution signed by all 193 member states, requires countries to respond similarly to both genocide and crimes against humanity. For both, states have a duty to “protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” and must “use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means.” See¶¶ 138-39.
To fulfill this obligation to protect, the U.S. must step up its efforts. Pompeo’s statement, while full of important policy pronouncements, provided no new courses of action. Similarly, Blinken’s suggestions on how to respond – ensure that we don’t import cotton picked by forced labor and guarantee that we don’t sell surveillance technologies to China – didn’t break new ground. Instead, the U.S. should be advocating a liberal asylum/refugee policy for Uyghurs.
More obvious, the U.S. government needs to start discussing boycotting the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and encourage allies to do the same. How can the U.S. send its athletes to compete in games hosted by a country engaging in crimes against humanity and genocide? To do so would render Pompeo and Blinken’s statements today hollow words and would embolden the Chinese government – and all governments – to continue genocidal policies. The last time we ignored the genocidal intent of a host country – Berlin, 1936 – six million Jews were murdered by the governing party. The 2022 Winter Olympics are a little more than a year away. In fairness to our athletes, these discussions must begin now. Also, making these discussions public now, might save some lives in Xinjiang.
But the U.S. cannot go this alone, either boycotting the 2022 Olympic boycott or fulfilling its responsibility to protect. Only a multilateral response can defeat crimes against humanity; no individual country has ever been able to end a genocide. The U.S. must re-engage international institutions including re-joining the U.N. Human Rights Council, a body where has been dominated by China since the U.S.’ 2018 withdrawal from the Council.
Genocide is a bold word. Those words need to be followed up with bold action. Failure to do so only weakens those post-World War II international institutions and treaties the Biden Administration has promised to uphold. It also means that Uyghurs will continue to suffer while all we did was play word games.
2020 was going to be a good year for Josh Chin. He had just become Deputy Bureau Chief of The Wall Street Journal’s Beijing Bureau, had been awarded a prestigious New America fellowship, and received the Gerald Loeb Award for international reporting. His was a career on the rise; a long way from his start as a freelancer.
On February 19, 2020, Chin, in his new role as Deputy Bureau Chief, sat in a waiting room at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Chin’s boss was on the other side of a closed door, meeting with Ministry officials to discuss whether the Ministry would delay renewing one of their staffer’s soon-to-be-expired journalist visa. Two weeks prior, The Journal had published an op-ed entitled “China the Real Sick Man of Asia” and the Ministry immediately responded, lambasting the author for his arrogance, prejudice and ignorance. Chin and his boss were there to convince Ministry officials not to retaliate against their colleague.
When his boss emerged, Chin waited to hear his colleague’s fate: renewed credentials or delayed visa. Neither his boss told him. Instead, the Ministry had decided to expel Chin and another colleague along with the staffer. Even though Chin’s journalist visa was still valid, he had five days to pack up his life of 13 years and get out.
Since 2012, the Chinese government has used its power over the journalist visa process to censor foreign news outlets. For the Chinese government and the ruling Communist Party, the media exists to serve the Party. “[L]ove the party, protect the party, and closely align  with the party. . . .” President Xi Jinping told the government-run People’s Daily during a visit to their offices in 2016. To keep foreign journalists in line, the Chinese government has used harassment, surveillance, visa delays and visa downgrades according to the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.
But for the United States, the press is viewed as central to our democracy, its freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment. “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter in 1785. Because of this bedrock principle, the U.S. government has been hesitant to retaliate against Chinese journalists in response to the Chinese government’s provocations. But enter Donald Trump, a president who constantly attacks the press. For Trump, rolling back press Chinese journalists’ freedoms was not a hard choice. Instead, it corresponded perfectly with his effort to undermine the press, an institution crucial to our democracy.
President Richard Nixon, not a fan of the press
Trump is not the first president hostile to the press. John Adams signed into law the Sedition Act of 1798 which criminalized the publication of “false, scandalous or malicious writing” about the federal government. Richard Nixon privately maintained an “enemies list” and illegally surveilled certain reporters. The Obama Administration prosecuted 11 government employees and contractors for revealing classified information to the press. But Trump’s treatment of the press is different and more nefarious to our democracy. It’s “a systematic effort to de-legitimize the news media as a check on government power,” University of Georgia media law professor Johnathan Peters told the Committee to Protect Journalists last month.
The day Chin was expelled from China, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the Chinese government’s actions, stating that “[m]ature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions. The correct response is to present counter arguments, not restrict speech.” But on March 2, 2020, the State Department limited the number of journalist visas issued to Chinese state-run outlets to 100, effectively expelling 60 Chinese reporters. The Chinese government responded with more severe sanctions: the expulsion of U.S. citizens employed by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Not long after, the Trump Administration issued its most punitive sanction yet: downgrading every Chinese journalist’s visa to a three-month term from a previous unlimited time period, regardless of whether they work for a Chinese, state-run news outlet or The New York Times. The Chinese government has yet to respond. But expect it to similarly relegate U.S. journalists to a three-month visa or expel all U.S. journalists from China.
Two expelled Wall Street Journal Reporters – Philip Wen (L) and Josh Chin (R) – on their way out of China. Photo Courtesy of Greg Baker / AFP
The Trump Administration’s tit-for-tat diplomacy is a far cry from Pompeo’s “correct response.” Instead, it mimics Beijing’s tactics: restricting speech through the journalist visa process. The United States, once the international champion of freedom of the press, is following the lead of an authoritarian, one-party state. But this should not be a surprise. The Trump Administration’s treatment of the domestic press the past three years reflects its authoritarian bent. Trump repeatedly tweets “fake news” about news stories he doesn’t like and has called the U.S. media “the enemy of the people.” The White House revoked CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s White House press credentials after Trump told him he was a “rude, terrible person.” Trump’s re-election campaign has sued three major media organizations for libel in cases considered “long shots.” These are all pages from Beijing’s playbook, a playbook where the media is subservient to the ruling party.
Some of Chin’s last articles from China were on the emergence of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan. His reporting from early February, as well as that of his fellow, expelled colleagues, exposed the pandemic nature of COVID-19: hospitals overrun with patients; front-line medical workers dying of the virus; mortuaries unable to process the massive number of dead. Their reporting foreshadowed what we would see on our shores a few months later. Even with the Chinese government hiding early facts about the novel coronavirus, U.S. reporters were able to find – and report – the truth. But this truth is an impediment to the Trump Administration’s narrative that China’s lack of transparency prevented it from recognizing the severity of COVID-19. So while the Trump Administration publicly laments the Chinese government’s restrictions on U.S. reporters, it has to know that its retaliatory tactics means that there will be even less U.S. reporters in China. But this may be precisely what it wants.
This Thursday marks the 31st anniversary of the Chinese government’s violent crackdown on the peaceful protests at Tiananmen Square. On the night of June 3 and into the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, tanks rolled in to the streets of Beijing and the Chinese government did the unthinkable: it opened fire on its own people, killing hundreds if not thousands of unarmed civilians in the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square. That violent crackdown marked the end of student-led, peaceful protests in the Square, protests that sought to bring reform to China.
To mark this anniversary, I was going to write a post on where China is today and its new attempts to squelch any dissent, protest, or rule of law in one of the last areas in China that permits freedom of speech: Hong Kong. But as I sit here in New York City, on a picture-perfect spring afternoon, searching for photos of the tanks rolling into the Tiananmen Square area to accompany the blog post, my twitter feed is full of pictures of U.S. military trucks invading some of America’s largest cities to “put down” peaceful – and some less peaceful – protests. These protests erupted soon after videos emerged of the brutal death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck until Floyd stopped breathing. For eight minutes and 46 seconds, and even after Floyd’s handcuffed body went limp, the officer never stopped his pressure on Floyd’s neck. Three other police officers stood there and watched.
As protests erupt in the United States, our initial response is violence. Tear gas and pepper spray fill the streets of many U.S. cities with the police resorting to heavy-handed tactics. Peaceful protesters are hit with rubber bullets. There is little attempt by the police to de-escalate. Journalists find themselves the targets of police. The government blames “antifa” forces for instigating the protests. These scenes conjure up images of last year’s protests in Hong Kong, where violent police tactics were used against unarmed protesters. And with some Hong Kong protesters’ frustrations growing, they too sought to vandalize stores and destroy property. The Chinese government blames “foreign forces” for riling up the people. The one difference: President Xi Jinping didn’t tweet that the Hong Kong police should shoot the protesters; that would be too reminiscent of 1989. But, in the United States, President Donald Trump did tweet such sentiments. And mere days from the 31st anniversary of the Chinese government unleashing its military to massacre unarmed civilians, Trump has threatened to do the same.
Beijing, June 1989
US, May 2020
Hong Kong, 2019
US, May 2020
Hong Kong, 2019
US, May 2020
Journalists attacked at the Hong Kong protests, 2019
Journalists attacked during US protests, May 2020
Hong Kong, 2019
US, May 2020
Hong Kong, 2019
US, May 2020
I know that substantively comparing the United States and China is inappropriate. The police officer who killed Floyd has been charged with third degree murder and will be prosecuted at a public trial that will be covered by the press. The officer’s fate will be determined by an independent judicial system. These things would never happen in China, and increasing less so in Hong Kong. And there are some police officers and national guard members showing restraint and solidarity with the protesters; those who are not will be held accountable. Again, something that would not happen in China and isn’t happening in Hong Kong. But the images from the United States this week, and the sentiments from the U.S. president, are eerily similar to images of Beijing in 1989 and Hong Kong last summer. It’s too much to ignore. And I fear that like the protesters in 1989 who sought a better society for China, the protesters this weekend in the United States will confront a government that prevents them from realizing a better society for us: one that is truly equal and where black lives matter.
Every year, I dedicate this post to those killed on June 4th, 1989. But as I write this, I wonder, how many of the men and women who lost their lives in Beijing 31 years ago used their last breathes to cry out for their mothers, just like George Floyd did last week on the streets of Minneapolis. And while we still must remember June 4th, the lives lost and the dreams crushed, this year, I would like to dedicate this post to George Floyd. And to Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Eric Gardener, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and the countless other African Americans killed by the police in the United States (or people who thought they were the police). We need to say their names. We must never forget. For them, we must continue to build a better society with freedom, equality and dignity for all.
When Zhuang Liehong arrived in America he anticipated a country that would open its arms to him and celebrate his arrival. Only years before – in 2011 – Zhuang, then 28 years old, had been the darling of many a Western newspaper as he led the mass protests in his village of Wukan. It was Zhuang who started the Wukan revolt, waking up fellow villagers to the illegal appropriation of local land with little to no compensation. And it was these protests that would necessitate Zhuang’s exodus from China to the United States.
But as Lauren Hilgers portrays in her powerful, thought-provoking new book, Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown, America was anything but welcoming. Instead, Zhuang, and his wife Little Yan, find themselves friendless, jobless and directionless in New York; their infant son left in Wukan with Zhuang’s parents. The few contacts Zhuang has in New York don’t have the advice he needs to survive as an undocumented immigrant in Flushing, Queens. As Hilgers recounts, Zhuang came to America believing that applying for asylum could easily be done with a simple application and some newspaper clips about his advocacy. But Zhuang quickly learns that America’s immigration system is a bureaucratic nightmare; that this proud man whose name once was splashed on the pages of the New York Times, is nothing more than a number in America’s soul crushing asylum process. It is Hilgers’ deft writing and keen observations that allow the reader to feel with Zhuang. Yes, at times, he is arrogant, thinking that because of who he is, he will go to the front of the line. But at the same time, the reader feels the disappointment that Zhuang must have felt when reality set in.
Hilgers goes back and forth between Zhuang’s old life in China – recounting the injustices that the Wukan villagers suffered as a result of their standing up to the government – and his new life in Flushing, effectively interweaving the two stories into one narrative. But it is the second part of this narrative – the immigrant life – that currently resonates the most given the Trump Administration’s zero tolerance policy toward migrants fleeing violence in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras.
The size of the crowds of the 2011 Wukan Protests Photo courtesy of the BBC
Hilgers doesn’t shy away from the fact that for Chinese immigrants, it is in many ways easier to obtain asylum than those currently coming from Central America. U.S. immigration policy makes a distinction between state-sponsored violence and violence perpetrated by private actors, preferring the former. For the Chinese, showing state-sponsored violence – the one child policy, discrimination against Christians, assault of human rights activists – is pretty easy in a one-party, Communist dictatorship. In fact, as Hilgers documents, an asylum industry of sorts has emerged in Flushing: churches willing to give out attendance certificates to its members; Chinese immigrants who, unlike Zhuang, have never thought about democracy attend the weekly protests of the Chinese Democracy Party; and asylum lawyers that abound in Flushing, willing to tell their clients the “tricks” to get asylum, even after a 2012 raid by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Zhuang Liehong in New York City. Still Protesting. Photo courtesy of Lianian Films. http://www.lianainfilms.com/
But for the families coming from Central America, trying to obtain asylum is not as easy since the violence they are fleeing is perpetrated by criminal gangs, in other words, private actors. Even though these countries have weak governments, where crime is rarely prosecuted, that is not enough to show state-sponsored violence. And in addition to Trump’s current zero tolerance policy, a policy that initially ripped children from their parents, and Jeff Sessions’ rescission of domestic violence and gang violence as a basis for asylum, Trump has also revoked the temporary protected status designation for El Salvadorian immigrants, a status that allows undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States. By September 2019, 350,000 immigrants will be deported backed to El Salvador, one of the world’s most violent nations. Somehow, under U.S. immigration policy, unspeakable acts of violence on little Latino children isn’t a grave enough atrocity. Hilgers doesn’t discuss this issue in her current book, but it is something that many readers might be thinking about given Zhuang struggles and the current struggles of the migrants desperately trying to find a safe place for their children. And, as Hilgers recounts in her analysis of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, even with a complete ban, Chinese immigrants found a way to get into the United States. As long as circumstances in the home country remain dire, people will continue to flee to a better place. And that place has long been America.
Through Zhuang’s story and many of the other engaging characters Hilgers writes about – Little Yan, Karen, Tang Yuanjun – we get to see the insular, and lonely world, that is immigrant life in Flushing. At times it is heartbreakingly sad and at times, down right funny. But through it all, Hilgers brilliance as a writer shines through; every character she writes about, she completely humanizes. These are not immigrants from a foreign country with a different culture; these are human beings that, like each of us, suffer life’s disappointments and, like each of us, find joy in life’s small accomplishments. Given the times, it is important to be reminded of that and Patriot Number One is a must read.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump will host Chinese President Xi Jinping at his resort in Mar-a-Lago for their first summit meeting. While it is not clear what will come out of this two-day meeting, what will certainly be on the agenda is North Korea. But is Trump and his administration ready?
Trump has barely staffed up the upper echelons of the State Department or the Department of Defense and on Sunday, in an interview with the Financial Times, Trump yet again claimed that “China has great influence over North Korea.”
But, as North Korea expert Jenny Town made clear in an interview with China Law & Policy, China does not have the influence over North Korea that Trump thinks it has. “China’s current relationship with North Korea is not very good either, especially compared to past years” Town told China Law & Policy. “I think that there’s a lot of problems with the way that people think about China’s influence on North Korea, and I think they really over estimate that influence.”
Jenny Town, Assistant Director of the US-Korea Institute
And in a way, Trump underestimates the influence that the U.S.’ rhetoric has on North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. “I think some of [North Korea’s] antagonism with China is maybe also somewhat triggered by all this U.S. talk of ‘if we just push China enough, China will take care of this problem'” Town told China Law & Policy.
In his interview with the Financial Times, Trump also stated that if China won’t exert its influence – which, in reality, may not be that strong right now – the U.S. will go it alone. But will it really? Any actions the U.S. takes with North Korea will have a strong impact on South Korea and Japan, important strategic allies in the region with populations that will unfairly bear the brunt of the U.S.’ bellicose engagement with North Korea. In terms of a preventive strike on North Korea (preemptive strike is in fact a misnomer in this situation according to Town), “North Korea is almost guaranteed to have some kind of response. The response might not even be directly on the U.S., but again our allies in the region” stated Town.
Now if the Trump Administration’s idea of going it alone is one-on-one dialogue with North Korea, that could actually be game-changing. According to Town, the Obama Administration’s policy of
North Korea leader Kim Jong-un (Photo courtesy of CNN)
“strategic patience” – where it ignored diplomatic relations with North Korea and instead doubled-down on sanctions – was a failure, allowing North Korea to rapidly advance its missile technology. The Trump Administration has stated that it rejects the policy of strategic patience. But in her interview, Town questions if that is true, especially if the Trump Administration is just looking to issue more sanctions: “[W]hen [Secretary of State] Tillerson said strategic patience is over, we all look at the things that he talks about after that. Those are really just tenets of strategic patience. So again without negotiation you’re still just doubling down on the same tactic and hoping for a different result. Even if you’re making them harder-edged, it’s still not a new tactic. Again, if it’s been ineffective now for eight years, what makes you think just pushing a little harder is going to help?”
To listen to the full podcast of China Law & Policy‘s exclusive interview with Jenny Town of the John Hopkins’ US-Korea Institute, click the media player below (total time – 37:08). To read the full transcript, click here.
Yesterday, China Law & Policy published Part 1 of its exclusive interview with Jenny Town, Assistant Director of the U.S.-Korea Institute and noted expert on North Korea. While Part 1 of the interview focused on North Korea’s military build-up and the U.S.’ prior policy toward North Korea, in Part 2, Ms. Town discusses Secretary Tillerson’s announcement that no options are off the table, the precarious future of U.S-North Korea relations, and what role can China play in all of this. Is it really that “China has done little to help” as President Trump tweeted a few weeks ago?
Read the transcript below for Part 2 of this two-part interview where Ms. Town explains the role of China on the Korean peninsula. Or click on the media player below to listen to the interview (total time – 20:38)
Secretary Tillerson at the DMZ, March 2017 (Photo courtesy of CNN)
CL&P: I guess in that regard, I mean when Tillerson was over there this past month, he stated that he was going to leave all options on the table. What exactly do you think he meant by that, and is this harsher stance? I mean it sounds like it’s a harsher stance than strategic patience. Is it good or bad for peace on the Korean peninsula?
JT: I think it’s a little bit out of context. I think that the reality is Tillerson is not a seasoned diplomat, and so when he says certain things, he says certain things in ways that a seasoned diplomat wouldn’t. The reality is right now the [U.S.] government is going through a policy review. And as part of the policy review of course, they’re reviewing all options, including military options, including negotiations, and so they haven’t necessarily come out with their policy yet. So part of what he was saying is that yes, all options are still on the table, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing in the future.
President Xi Jinping (Photo courtesy of Time)
The [U.S.] government is expected to be done with their policy review in the next couple of weeks, especially before the visit by Xi Jinping to be able to have some level of strategic discussion with Xi Jinping. But, you know, it isn’t helpful for him to have said it either, again without those qualifiers, because it does come across more aggressive and more belligerent at a time when tensions are already very high. This kind of talk is very dangerous especially if that isn’t the direction which we end up going because it already put the thought out there, and it’s already sort of antagonizing the situation more than it needs to be.
CL&P: I think that’s true, because I think of lot of the press already have interpreted that statement as also equating it with preemptive strike. How serious of a possibility do you think right now in diplomatic circles down in D.C. people are talking about preemptive strike against North Korea?
JT: I would say people are talking about it, and they’re talking about it a lot. But most of the discussion about that’s happening right now is why it’s a really, really bad idea because all of the things that could go wrong in the process. Here’s the problem. It’s not even preemptive strikes. It’s not like we’re watching them load up an ICBM that we know is coming to the U.S. which would give us the right to defend ourselves from an attack. That’s what preemptive means.
What people are talking about now is more preventive strikes or surgical strikes. So basically preventing them from having the technology by trying to disrupt their systems; preventive strikes on say missile bases or missile arsenals, things like that. But, I think there’s a huge miscalculation if people think that North Korea wouldn’t retaliate. If the U.S. were to do something, North Korea is almost guaranteed to have some kind of response. The response might not even be directly on the U.S., but again our allies in the region. It makes it very dangerous. It’s a very dangerous proposition, one that could easily escalate into war.
CL&P:You had mentioned the new Trump administration figuring out a more precise North Korea policy before Xi Jinping comes to visit Trump, and I think that’s interesting. Because in President Trump’s Tweet a couple weeks ago about the North Korean situation, in addition to saying that they were behaving badly, he also brought up China, and stating that China has done little to help. I guess just to start us off if you can explain a little bit more what exactly is China’s current relationship with North Korea.
Better times. Prior N.Korea lead Kim Jong-il meeting with prior Chinese President Hu Jintao (Photo courtesy of the Wall Street Journal)
JT: China’s current relationship with North Korea is not very good either, especially compared to past years. Under Kim Jong-il China had a good understanding of North Korea and had a relationship with Kim Jong-il and could signal to him when he’s gone too far. They had a personal relationship with him and knew how he would react to certain things. Since Kin Jong-un has come to power, Kim Jong-un does not have a relationship with Xi Jinping. He hasn’t been to Beijing. They don’t know what to expect from him. They don’t know him. Everything that anyone is doing that’s trying to send signals to North Korea, we don’t exactly know how he will react.
We knew how Kim Jong-il would react because Kim Jong-il had been there for 20 years. He had been apprenticed under Kim Il-sung for 16 years before that. Kim Jong-un only came to the scene a year before his father died. We never got to know him as the successor before he took over, and now that he’s in power there’s a lot of times where people say he’s unpredictable. Well, of course he’s unpredictable to us because we don’t know him and we don’t have a relationship with him. And we don’t know how he’s going to react. Too many people assume that he will react like Kim Jung-il did, but he’s proven he’s not his father.
The question is now when are people finally going to take the time to accept that notion – he’s not his father – and try and build a relationship with him. To try and get to know him and better understand how he’s thinking and how he’s going to react to things.
Kim Jong-un’s half brother, murdered in Malaysia. (Photo courtesy of the South China Morning Post)
CL&P: I mean I guess also in that regards with Kin Jong-un taking over leadership and the relationship with China, it’s been mentioned a number of times that he hasn’t visited Beijing. Also, my understanding, correct me if I’m wrong, is that the execution of his uncle. His uncle was close to Beijing, and then also the half brother was protected by Beijing. Are any of these things being done to sever even further the relationship with Beijing or to prove something to Beijing, or do we just not know?
JT: It clearly has had a damaging effect on an already frustrated Beijing. I think that there’s a lot of problems with the way that people think about China’s influence on North Korea, and I think they really over estimate that influence. Again, under Kim Jong-il, I think it might have had a little bit more credence just because, again, they had a legacy of working together. With Kim Jong-un, it’s a much different relationship. It’s one of those things where Beijing does not want North Korea to have nuclear weapons either. But it’s hard to imagine a scenario where they [China] have this secret formula where if they just did certain things, North Korea would fall in line and that they just choose not to do it.
China’s Wu Dawei (center) visits North Korea
I think this is how a lot of Americans think about China policy towards North Korea. In the meantime, I think China has done a lot to try and address the issue, but has limitations on the influence that they have. They say this to us all the time. It’s not like China has a China-North Korea joint army like the U.S. and South Korea does. They don’t have a presence in North Korea. They can certainly send messages and send signals, but even the fact that back in 2015. Was that it? No, in 2016, even when Wu Dawei had gone to Pyongyang to talk to the North Koreans about settling things down. The fact that they announced that they were going to do another SLV launch on the day that he landed, I think shows a lot about how Kim Jong-un thinks about Beijing right now.
And I think a lot of it is the relationship has been damaged as Kim Jong-un is trying to show he can’t be pushed around. I think some of this antagonism with China is maybe also somewhat triggered by all this U.S. talk of ‘if we just push China enough, China will take care of this problem.’ I think it puts the Chinese in a very awkward position, but the Chinese always come back to us and say ‘hey look we’re doing what we can, but the U.S. should be doing more, too.’ And the doing more part has to do with direct bi-lateral diplomacy as well. So without that factor, all we’re doing is kind of skirting around the issue and just putting more pressure on an already boiling pot.
The border between China and North Korea
CL&P: I guess in that regards, with the situation today in the relationship between China and North Korea now, then how instrumental is China in easing the tensions on the Korean peninsula?
JT: I think China definitely plays a big role, but it doesn’t play the only role. It’s not something where if we just use China enough that China can scold North Korea and North Korea’s going to come to the table. The other problem too is that even if China – and here’s always sort of these clash of tensions – is that China’s national interest is to prevent instability in the region because instability is good for no one. The U.S., part of strategic patience, they’re kind of hoping that North Korea will collapse and that if we put enough pressure on the situation, we can get the regime to change which is sort of the path of most resistance and the most danger.
I think there is a certain degree to where China also recognizes that the more pressure it puts by cutting off,. . .Implementing sanctions is one thing, but a lot of people think ‘well if China just cuts of North Korea and all trade and all oil and all goods, that North Korea again will just bend over, and will come running back and beg for forgiveness kind of thing,’ but I think the problem is that that scenario is very unlikely. Even if China does that, North Korea’s more likely to be more belligerent. Belligerent could be belligerent towards China as well, so you never know. We talk about this a lot these days: be careful what you wish for. Getting China to cut off North Korea could go one way in a positive way. It could go really bad as well.
Xi to meet Trump next week at his Florida resort, Mar-a-lago
CL&P: When Xi Jinping meets with President Trump, what do you think he’ll be asking the U.S. to do with North Korea? What do you think his request will be?
JT: I’m almost positive he’s going to tell the U.S. that negotiations have to be part of any new policy. For instance if you look at the U.N. Security Council resolutions, when the U.S. talks about the U.N. SPR 2270 or 1718 or 2048, all the different resolutions now, they always talk about the sanctions resolution. In the last round, in the 2270 resolutions for instance, in those negotiations, I think people came away thinking ‘wow China really agreed to some tougher measures.’ We’re kind of impressed that China agreed to these tougher measures definitely sending signals to Pyongyang that they were unhappy with Pyongyang’s behavior.
When the Chinese talk about 2270, they talk about resolution 2270, not the 2270 sanctions. The big difference is that in that resolution, there’s also a mandate for negotiations. So when the Chinese talk about these things, and in response to pressure or criticism that they’re not doing enough, they always come back with ‘but you’re not fulfilling your end of the portion either.’
U.N. Security Council
CL&P: So basically the 2270 called for not just sanctions, but also going back to the table, and that hasn’t happened?
CL&P: Okay. So what they’re looking for, Beijing, is reverting back to the six party talks?
JT: Not necessarily. But at least getting some level of negotiations going and some level of engagement going because we’re not going to break this cycle of provocation and response until there’s some kind of diplomatic offer.
CL&P: In terms of getting negotiations going again, do you think that’s even possible given the current regime in North Korea and what’s been happening and also the language that’s been being used by the Trump administration, even if Tillerson misspoke. Do you see that given the tensions between the U.S. and North Korea right now, negotiations are a possibility?
Trying to get all parties to the negotiation table
JT: I think if it was up to the North Koreans, yes negotiations are possible. If it’s up to the Trump administration, I have increasing skepticism that we’re going to get anywhere. This is going back to your question of when Tillerson said strategic patience is over, we all look at the things that he talks about after that. Those are really just tenets of strategic patience. So again without negotiation you’re still just doubling down on the same tactic and hoping for a different result. Even if you’re making them harder-edged, it’s still not a new tactic. Again, if it’s been ineffective now for eight years, what makes you think just pushing a little harder is going to help?
CL&P: I know the new administration’s still getting together their policy team. Do they have anybody in the administration that specializes in North Korea to advise them on some of these issues?
JT: Well, in the State Department, there is a U.S. representative for North Korea policy, Joe Yun, Ambassador Yun. But it’s unclear to us who else is working on these issues at this moment because there still hasn’t been an effort to staff up the State Department or senior leadership in the DOD [Department of Defense]. There’s still a lot of questions even here in D.C. that we just don’t have answers for.
North Korean soldiers. Looking for the six party talks? (Photo courtesy of Int’l Crisis Group)
CL&P: If you had the opportunity to advise the current administration, assuming that it’s goal is to avoid war on the Korean peninsula, what would your advice be?
JT: My advice has been pretty consistent. The fact that yes, you can double down on sanctions and bolster defenses, but without the diplomatic track, the situation is going to get worse. The longer it takes to try and actually try to have talks about talks and see what’s even possible any more, the higher the stakes are going to be in the process and the more leverage that North Korea builds over time as it continues to grow its strategic arsenal. So if we really want to make a difference, then create a different relationship and one that serves our national interest, they’re going to need to have some kind of diplomatic track and need to be able to shoulder the criticism that’s going to come along with that from all the skeptics.
CL&P: The criticisms within the United States?
JT: Yes. There’s always the arguments of ‘well we’ve tried negotiations before, but they didn’t work,’ or ‘North Korea always cheats.’ Well just because we tried it before, does that mean … Diplomacy is not a one-off, and it’s not a linear path, and national security is not a linear path. If you don’t have at least talks about talks to figure out what’s even possible within the negotiating framework, you’re losing the battle. You’re limiting yourself as to what you can do. But these days there’s so much criticism because we’ve gotten so far off track. Whichever president decides that the situation’s gotten dire enough where we need to suck it up whether we like it or not and try some level of diplomacy, it’s going to come with criticism, and they need to be able to deal with that.
CL&P: I guess if you’re leaving all options on the table, why would you take diplomacy off the table?
CL&P: We talked about China, and we talked about the United States. I guess Japan and South Korea, I mean I would assume their interest is for more negotiations, or …/
JT: Not necessarily. You have a pretty hard-line government in Japan these days. They want to build up more missile defenses. They’ve even talked about missile interception and they sort of take the lead from the U.S. as far as that goes. With South Korea, it’s different. South Korea, it’s hard to tell what they will do next because it really will be dependent on who the next president is. Their policy could change drastically towards North Korea. It could be at odds with what the U.S. decides to do as well. Then that is going to really put pressure on the U.S.-Korea alliance.
Jenny Town, Assistant Director of the US-Korea Institute
CL&P: Well, this is a very interesting interview. It doesn’t sound like there’s any solution any time soon. I want to thank you again for spending time talking to China Law & Policy. Hopefully, people will listen to this interview, and conflict can be avoided.
Jenny Town, Assistant Director of the US-Korea Institute
Since January, the situation on the Korean peninsula has become increasingly tense with North Korea test firing missiles, using toxic nerve agents to assassinate Kim Jong-un’s half brother, and announcing that it has the capability for its missiles to reach the West Coast of the United States. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has responded to North Korea equally bellicose and frightening with threats noting that no options are off the table in dealing with North Korea including possibly preemptive strike.
Are we on a collision course for nuclear war, and what role does China play in all of this? To answer those questions and more is noted North Korea expert Jenny Town. Ms. Town is the Assistant Director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is the managing editor and producer of 38 North, a web journal and vital resource on all things North Korea.
Read the transcript below for Part I of this two-part interview, where Ms. Town discusses shifting U.S.-North Korea relations. Or click the media player below to listen (total time – 16:26).
CL&P:Thank you for joining us today, Ms. Town. Before we get into the current situation on the Korean peninsula, I wanted to give our listeners a little bit more background on North Korea. In the western press, North Korea is often portrayed as a hermit impoverished kingdom run by a dictatorial mad man, but is that perception true? Is that how we should view North Korea?
Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) (Photo courtesy of CNN)
JT: Thank you. It’s great to be here. I’m happy to be a part of this podcast. I think you’re asking all the right questions. The problem is that the more we treat North Korea as a caricature and we don’t take it seriously, the harder the problem becomes in the long run. A few years ago my colleague and I, we did write an article that talked about these myths about North Korea. It’s not a hermit kingdom. I think at some point we’re more isolated from it than it is from the rest of the world. There certainly are restrictions on information access and travel and movement, but there is a lot of contact with the outside world. There’s a lot of trade that goes on. There’s a lot of businesses, a lot of tourism. There’s a lot of NGO workers and diplomats, and so they do have access to the outside world. Not the same level that other countries have, but it’s not completely isolated.
The idea that Kim Jong-un is a mad man is also a dangerous characterization because he’s actually very calculating. The North Korean regime, even when Kim Jong-il was there, people liked to make fun of his sort of eccentricities. But when it came to state security, the decisions that he made were very rational. Sometimes miscalculated, but he’s the ultimate realist. They’re a country that perceives to have many enemies, and in the process will make decision on how to protect itself and how to protect the regime.
North Korea’s missiles in a military parade. (Photo courtesy of BBC)
CL&P: So in essence, we should see their movements as something that is rational if your goal is to protect the current regime?
JT: Yes, and we should take them seriously for what they’re doing because discounting them is not serving anyone’s good.
CL&P: Agreed. Recently there seems to be a lot of bellicose activity from North Korea. In the middle of February it test fired a medium long range ballistic missile, and then it used, I guess, what’s known as an illegal nerve agent to assassinate Kim Jong-un’s half brother at an airport in Malaysia. Then two weeks ago, it announced a successful test of a high thrust rocket engine. Then this week they had two failed missile attempts.
Why are we seeing such activity, so much activity that seems warlike in the past month or two? Why now? What’s going on?
US-South Korea joint military drills (Photo courtesy of The Sunrise)
JT: Well, some of this is a little bit expected. This is a time when the U.S. and ROK [South Korea] are running their joint military exercises in South Korea. Over the past year, especially the last year and this year, the nature of those exercises has expanded. It’s become more belligerent and it’s also included such things as decapitation drills and strategic over flights. These kinds of things always spark some kind of response and a strong response from North Korea because again, they do see it as more than just business as usual; but as a more provocative, more aggressive signaling to North Korea. Over the past couple of months, though, we’ve really seen an acceleration of testing and demonstration of capabilities over the past year.
At the end of the Obama administration, when it was clear that the nature of U.S.-DPRK [North Korea] relations was not going to change under the Obama administration, we saw a lot of demonstrations. In the past, there might have been missile tests, but they [North Korea] didn’t send out pictures of it, for instance. They didn’t send out pictures of Kim Jong-un celebrating different successes. I think now they’re clearly trying to prove capacity to the outside world. I think it was actually though very quiet from elections until inauguration and for a short time after inauguration as they [North Korea] were trying to figure out what to expect from America and if there was room for changing the nature of our relationship.
CL&P: Just to go back, when you were talking about the exercises that the U.S. and South Korea are doing, you’re saying because those have become stronger and more belligerent, North Korea is taking it more serious?
US and South Korean soldiers at the DMZ
JT: Yes. The exercises have been going on for decades and part of the function of the exercise is also signaling as to how the nature of the relationship with North Korea. There are times when they’re much more kind of routine standard operations and drills, but over the past couple of years, they’ve been adding drills and expanding it. And on top of that, the messaging coming out to the media about the [U.S.-ROK] drills and to the public about the drills has really emphasized certain things like decapitation strikes and strikes on Pyongyang and things like that. So it’s really become a much more antagonistic venture.
CL&P: Then [what about] the recent U.S. response to North Korea’s actions the past couple months, especially with the new administration. So Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, when he was visiting South Korea this past month, announced that the U.S. policy of what he called strategic patience has ended. I guess can you first explain a little bit more what this policy of strategic patience is or was?
U.S. Secretary of State Re Tillerson visit South Korea, March 2017 (Photo Courtesy of NY Daily News)
JT: Sure. So strategic patience was the Obama policy. Basically it was a supposedly principled approach that negotiations were only under certain conditions, and that in the meantime it was kind of doubling down on pressure on the regime to change it’s strategic calculus using such tactics as mostly sanctions. And then also trying to bolster defenses in the region, so in South Korea and Japan as well. But it was largely dependent on this whole intimidation, kind of pressure and intimidation factor to try and get North Korea to change its mind about how it wants to move forward.
CL&P: Under strategic patience, I assume that the policy, whether or not it was a failure, was put in place to try to limit North Korea’s ability to develop its nuclear weaponry. Was it successful with that at all?
JT: Absolutely not. It was a complete failure. If the goal of strategic patience really was to deter
President Barack Obama implements Strategic Patience
North Korea from developing it’s weapons programs, it’s WMD programs, it’s a complete failure because they have completely accelerated their programs during the Obama administration. In 2013, for instance, they restarted their five megawatt reactor to help produce more plutonium for nuclear weapons. In 2010, they had revealed that they had a uranium enrichment program, and in 2013, we saw that the main facility that they had shown to U.S. inspectors before had doubled in size. The centrifuge hall has doubled in size, potentially doubling it’s capacity to create weapons-grade uranium or highly enriched uranium.
We’ve seen several demonstrations of tests. Last year alone, we had two nuclear tests and over 20 missile tests. During the Obama administration, there’s been four nuclear tests. So, if the goal of strategic patience was to deter North Korea from moving forward and making the cost of nuclear weapons programs and WMD programs so untenable that it had to come back to the table, then of course it completely failed.
CL&P: So then they’re not going to come back to the table?
JT: Well, I wouldn’t draw that conclusion that they’re not going to come back to the table. What I’m saying is that the policy is not compelling the right response.
CL&P: In terms of all this development, I mean I guess this goes back to the first question, and your answer to the first question about not perceiving North Korea as this shut in country, where do they get the ability to develop this technology? How do they have the knowledge to develop this technology for nuclear weapons?
JT: They’ve been working on this program for a very long time, for decades. They have scientists in country. We know there has been cooperation with other states. They’ve gotten information from Pakistan and Syria and Russia in the past. There’s definitely plenty of people that they’ve worked with over the years to get to a point where some of it’s indigenous, some of it’s reverse engineering of designs that they’ve gotten from other countries. They’re a very resourceful people, and I would go back to again your first question and tying this all together, too. I think the underlying premise of strategic patience was this idea that Kim Jong-un would never be able to consolidate power under a third generation of the Kim family and that all we had to do was wait them out, and that eventually the state would collapse and then we could deal with someone else. That’s just simply not the case.
CL&P: No, it doesn’t look that way. I guess since the Obama administration’s policy of strategic patience allowed North Korea to develop it’s weapon technology, and it had all these tests and it’s really advanced, just to put it in more perspective, where exactly is North Korea as a likely nuclear threat? What can it do right now to its neighbors in Asia, and is it really true that they could potentially in very near future have something hit at the West Coast of the United States?
JT: We did a series of reports last year that was a technical assessment of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. And based on what we know or what we estimate to be their capacity to make fissile materials or to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, we estimate the baseline for their nuclear weapons arsenal to be somewhere between 12 to 15 nuclear weapons. They would have enough material to be able to make at least 12 to 15 nuclear weapons now. Given the capacity that they have to produce more – their five megawatt plutonium reactor, their uranium enrichment facility – we did projections that with the worst conditions for North Korea, making it most difficult for them for instance, that even by 2020 they could double the size of their arsenal.
By 2020 under mid-range with a little better conditions and getting their experimental light water reactor partially militarized as well, so they’d have more fissile materials, they would be able to produce maybe 50 nuclear weapons by 2020. Under the best conditions for them, if they have ample procurement, international procurement, and they have everything running in tip-top shape, at the high end we estimated they would have the potential to make about 100 nuclear weapons by 2020.
We see them really now in those ranges under those conditions that are laid out in the report. They’re somewhere on that mid to high range track. Then you add in the ballistic missile programs, and the fear is always for the how soon are they going to get an ICBM, an intercontinental ballistic missile. With the new engines that they tested last year and this year, [engines] that would be suitable for missiles and not rockets, space rockets, we’re talking that once they have an operational capacity, that they would be able actually to hit the East Coast of the United States, not just the West Coast. What we see that is probably given the designs that we’ve seen in the prototypes that they’ve displayed to us, we would suggest somewhere around 2020, somewhere in that range. Some estimates have that a little bit earlier. It really just depends.
But the reality is that they don’t need ICBMs to be a strategic threat because our strategic partners and strategic alliance partners are in Asia, so it’s South Korea and Japan. They definitely have missiles that can reach South Korea and Japan already. The big question is whether or not they have miniaturization capabilities. A lot of experts do believe they have the capability even if they haven’t been able to demonstrate it. Given the number of partners that they’ve worked with and the programs that those partners have as well and how long that they’ve been working on it. We do believe they do have the capability. It’s a huge threat, and it’s a growing threat the longer it takes to be able to have a real strategic dialogue with them.
Less than a week after the Chinese government failed to renew New York Times reporter Chris Buckley’s visa, reporters at China’s Southern Weekend staged a protest when the local propaganda chief decided to sua sponte change the text of the newspaper’s annual New Year’s message before it went to press.
Although China is far from freedom of the press as we know it, the burgeoning commercial press has been more inclined to go to the limits of government censorship rules and push the envelope with hard-hitting stories. Southern Weekend has long led the pack and has achieved international recognition for some of its reports.
Thus, when Southern Weekend‘s staff staged a protest, it made world news.
In a World Politics Review article, I analyze the meaning of last week’s protests, and highlight that the United States perhaps missed a perfect opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to a free press while thousands of Chinese were protesting for the same value. Read the article here.
The Chinese Government stated today that Mr. Chen Guangcheng has the same right to travel abroad as any other citizen of China. Mr. Chen has been offered a fellowship from an American university, where he can be accompanied by his wife and two children.
The Chinese Government has indicated that it will accept Mr. Chen’s applications for appropriate travel documents. The United States Government expects that the Chinese Government will expeditiously process his applications for these documents and make accommodations for his current medical condition. The United States Government would then give visa requests for him and his immediate family priority attention.
This matter has been handled in the spirit of a cooperative U.S.-China partnership.