December 9, 2013

Why Jang Song-taek's demise is not the end of the Byungjin Line

North Korean state media have just made official, via a surprisingly harsh communiqué and revealing visual footage, what South Korean intelligence officials already asserted in the South Korean National Assembly last week: the powerful Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-un's uncle, has been relieved of all his duties within the reclusive North Korean power structure.

Jang's downfall and even rumored execution marks the latest in a string of purges that Kim Jong-un has undertaken to cement his power over the past two years. The unprecedented prominence given to Jang's ousting also sends a strong signal on the need for absolute loyalty to the young leader and, according to some experts, also a clear message to the outside world: Kim Jong-un is not really aiming at reforming the crippled North Korean economic system with the so-called Byungjin Line  adopted during a Central Committee of the Party plenary meeting last March 31 and putting equal emphasis on nuclear and economic development  and is instead bent on pursuing his late father's Songun, or military first, policy under a new name.
However, Jang's demise could just indicate a strategic shift in Kim's gradual economic opening policy, and not its outright fall into oblivion. As asserted by Andrei Lankov, a reputed scholar and expert in North Korea, economic reforms are perfectly compatible with an increase in the level of political persecution to guarantee internal stability. 
Even if Jang Song-taek was widely considered a relevant reformist figure, he was mostly associated with Pyongyang's increasing economic ties with Beijing, including the development of the Special Economic Zones near the Chinese border. We should not forget that he was never the main symbolic figure behind the adoption of the Byungjin Line: the reemergence of Pak Pong-ju as Prime Minister in April 2013 was indeed the clearest signal of Kim Jong-un's commitment to strengthened economic development. It is no coincidence that a Chinese state-run newspaper, Huanqiu, has been quick to quell speculations that bilateral relations with China may experience a period of unpredictability or even be damaged by Jang's ouster by emphasizing Premier Pak's numerous on-site tours related to economic projects. As asserted by Yonsei University professor John Delury, "Pak Pong Ju is the face of economic reform, such as it exists — reform with North Korean characteristics."
The wide array of accusations against Jang Song-taek featured an unmistakable hint at the North Korean characteristics of the planned economic reform: Kim Jong-un's uncle was accused of living a "lavish, depraved life" infected with capitalism. As Adam Cathcart, an expert at the University of Leeds, told The Guardian, this statement indicates the potential for massive corruption and personal corrosion that lies beyond the borders of the DPRK.
In other words, Jang's harsh removal from power, mostly aimed at sending a strong signal to North Korean internal audiences, shows how the North Korean leaders might be trying to steer economic development away from increasing dependence on Beijing and Chinese interests – Jang was also accused of selling the country's resources on the cheap, a hint directed at deals he signed with Chinese mining companies by reasserting the central role of the Pyongyang leadership and the North Korean People's Army in the internal and economic affairs of the country. However, as also confirmed by Alejandro Cao de Benós, special representative of the North Korean Foreign Ministry, the Worker's Party has no plans to change its line of simultaneous development of economic and nuclear power.
Therefore, the future of Pak Pong-ju, widely considered to be a member of the pro-Jang faction within Pyongyang politics, might be the real key to knowing if the Kim regime plans to revert the ongoing capitalist reform of its economy or stick to its planned dual development course. His eventual purge, and not Jang's, would be the one sending a clear signal to the wider outside world – not just to Beijing and Pyongyang power circles.

December 1, 2013

The psychology of North Korea

Beyond the analyses we have grown accustomed to from journalists, analysts and academic experts in North Korea, behavioral psychology can help us better understand what lies behind the words of the Pyongyang regime, what we can expect from it at the end of the day, and what would be the best path to peace. What we often seem to forget is that North Koreans, whether ordinary people or leaders, are individuals with feelings, motivations and psychological processes just like ours.

The North Korean regime has historically distinguished itself by knowing how to survive between major powers and using disputes to its best advantage, often through a 'diplomacy of confrontation' rife with verbal and military provocations which, although it may seem irrational at first glance is actually far from being so. Precisely, one of the main characteristics of this particular strategy is the ability to attract the attention of the international public opinion, something that Pyongyang is very successful at: never before had there been so many people searching for information on North Korea, or had its threats monopolized international news headlines in newspapers, on the radio and on television for so long.

A number of empirical studies have shown that the human brain has a built-in mechanism designed to give priority to bad news: this is what is normally known as the survival instinct. In fact, the human brain is quick to respond to purely symbolic threats: the most emotionally charged words attract attention faster. That is to say that the human brain responds faster and with more intensity to the rhetorical concept of 'war' than that of 'peace'. While the threat is not real, merely remembering the negative characteristics of the concept sets alarm bells ringing. North Korea is a small and poor country which has historically pursued this notoriety through fear to extract concessions from the major powers that surround it.

There is another side to North Korea's actions, which likewise happens to be highly useful for the regime. We humans find it very difficult to multitask: that is to say, if we focus on one issue, we give lower priority to the rest. North Korean leaders are fully aware that the hysteria generated by the current escalation of tension allows them to detract attention from an issue which should always be a top priority: human rights within the country and the appalling living conditions of a large portion of the population.

After worriedly witnessing the events of the Arab Spring, the ruling elite knows that the best way to prevent a hypothetical spread is to avoid both foreign military intervention, the reason why the regime has developed a nuclear program, and prevent North Koreans from being exposed to outside influences, which would be much more likely if the international community were to constantly focus its attention on the situation inside the country. Diverting attention both outside and within the country is one of the regime's top priorities: indeed, this dialectical confrontation is usually directed exclusively at the North Korean public. Simply creating the perception of latent conflicts with external enemy forces is a great way to minimise internal conflict and unite a nation heavily indoctrinated by ultra-nationalist propaganda behind a common cause.

This dual strategy necessarily leads us to the rational calculation made by the key players in the North Korean regime, a political and military elite whose main objective is to retain its control over the nation for as long as possible. Going back to the psychology of human behavior  it is known that our brains are also programmed to give greater importance to losses and failures than to successes and gains. There is a clear asymmetry between the strength of the motivation to avoid losses and risks we are willing to assume in order to maximize profits. This aversion to losses is a powerful conservative force which favors minimal change and makes people and institutions tend to preserve the status quo. In other words, what the Pyongyang regime really wants is peace, not a conflict where the risk of loss is too great to bear.

Despite all this, North Korea is no longer just a spoiled child prone to crying and screaming who, when all said and done, remains a child among adults: unfortunately, thanks to its nuclear and ballistic capabilities, it has now become a rebellious teenager and far more dangerous than ever before. The days when the international community could smother the regime through sanctions and isolation, making it into an international pariah, may now be a thing of the past. Abandoning diplomacy could prove extremely dangerous and counterproductive for all parties involved.

The process thus has to involve dialogue and negotiation. If South Korea, China, Japan and the United States want to guarantee peace and stability in Northeast Asia while promoting economic, social and perceptual changes within the borders of North Korea, they should opt for a policy fostering a gradual opening of the regime, even if this means making concessions that are difficult to swallow initially.

John Gottman, a psychologist and relationship expert, gives us the key to human coexistence: to succeed in the long term, any relationship should spend more time focusing on preventing negative events than in search of positive ones. According to his calculations, for a relationship to be healthy and stable, positive interactions should outweigh negative ones at least five-fold. Therefore, the time has come to start negotiating a multilateral peace treaty, with the U.S. in the front row, and to generate a climate which maximizes positive interactions between the parties currently involved in the conflict.

This article was originally published on number 17 (September 2103) of the Peace in Progress magazine, edited by the International Catalan Institute for Peace. The original article can be found here.

November 15, 2013

Focusing on the wrong Chinese reforms

While the end of the infamous Laogai labor camp system and the relaxation of the one-child policy are making all the headlines, China might be bracing for two other reforms that will deeply and positively affect the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of its citizens.
This is not to underestimate the importance of the suppression of prison camps, with its tremendous implications for human rights and the rule of law in China, as well as for the approximately 200,000-300,000 inmates populating the camps at any given time, nor to underscore the relevance of easing the one child policy, so that urban couples in which just one espouse is a single child himself/herself (as opposed to both) will now be able to have two children: this certainly is a much-needed change of course, but one that will not dramatically effect fertility rates unless complementary policies to enhance work-life balance are devised and implemented.
Enter two additional decisions taken at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee, confirmed on November 15 by the Xinhua News Agency. First, the reform affecting China's gigantic SOEs: by 2020, they will have to pay 30% of their profits directly to the government, with the proceedings being redirected to "improving the people's livelihoods". How much do SOEs pay now? Anywhere between 0 and 15% of their benefits. We are talking about huge amounts of money: China's SOEs had pocketed almost 300 billion dollars in profits (1.77 trillion yuan) through the first 9 months of 2013.
This particular reform, surprisingly overlooked in many reports published by major newspapers, will not only benefit the state's coffers, but also level the playing field for private companies to flourish. Just ask any entrepreneur what it would mean not to pay any taxes (while the competition duly pays) and have nearly unrestricted access to credit: that's basically how SOEs operated in China, and this reform, coupled with plans to allow the creation of small-to-medium sized private capital banks, promises to bring sweeping changes to the Chinese market.
The second reform that must be duly highlighted is the removal of all restrictions to legally reside in towns and smaller cities, a crucial first step towards the eventual scrapping of the Hukou system, that binds every single Chinese to his/her birthplace. The vastness and implications of the floating population in Chinese cities can and should overwhelm most observers: 236 million people, or 1/6 of the total population of the country, including more than half of those labor-age born after 1980, left their places of origin to seek employment or education elsewhere, and now lack access to even the most basic public services.
Changing the anachronistic and deeply unfair Mao-era Hukou system is crucial for the accelerated urbanization process China is currently undergoing to be successful. This initial step, coupled with increased government revenue in form of taxes from SOE benefits, can mean that a stronger, more comprehensive social safety net –covering universal free education, healthcare and basic pensions– is eventually created and implemented nationwide. This would, in turn, allow an emerging middle class to allocate less of their disposable income to saving for the future and increase their consumption, thus fueling the increase in internal consumption that is urgently and sorely needed to balance China's economy and guarantee its amazing economic growth continues.
Nevertheless, all that glitters is not gold. Coupled with the already revealed announcement that a security committee, headed by President Xi himself, would be created (highlighting why Xi and not Putin is the most powerful man on Earth), the CPC reiterated its resolve to "strengthen public opinion guidance and crack down on Internet crimes". In other words, more censorship, both for separatists and restive ethnic minorities (a.k.a. "terrorists") and for dissidents. Luckily enough for them, they will no longer be sent to labor camps and might even benefit from a further promise to explore the establishment of a judicial system that is properly separate from the local administration...

November 11, 2013

The roles of confidence in the Iran nuclear deal

Confidence is widely understood to be a positive asset, crucial to succeed in life, to carve a successful career and, obviously enough, to maneuver towards good deals in negotiations. Reality, however, is always more complex, as the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1  the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany  over Tehran's nuclear program clearly demonstrate.
This rich setup of interests, personalities and priorities is bringing together those who have no confidence, those who are not so confident and those who are overconfident. If success is defined by Iran freezing its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of the tough sanctions that are crippling its economy, for the Geneva talks to eventually end up successfully, the parties should not let neither the non-confident nor the overconfident to control the agenda.
On the one hand, there are those who lack confidence in Iran, with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius as their accidental spokesman. With his assertion that France could not accept a "fool's game" (i.e. a weak deal) with Iran, Fabius immediately killed momentum in the talks and highlighted internal divisions in the Western camp, as acknowledged by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt via Twitter. Even if we can argue that Fabius' statement is just a reflection of French impotence in world affairs and inner lack of confidence, the main practical issue is a different one: showing no confidence in the incentives for compliance  in this case, a dramatic improvement of the Iranian economy, the mandate upon which Rouhani was surprisingly elected last June  and the goodwill of the opposing side, no deals are possible.
On the other hand, there are those who are brimming with confidence, headed by Israel's Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. It is easy to see how, in this case, confidence in one's power and influence can kill a deal instead of fostering agreement. While the influence of pro-Israeli hardliners and Netanyahu himself within certain sectors of America's political and economic establishment is undeniable, this overconfidence can also backfire. The diplomatic charm offensive by new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has already opened up a gap between the White House and Netanyahu's government, and Europe is quietly but robustly sending signals of its disapproval of Netanyahu's policies regarding both Palestine and Iran.
The same happens with the hawks in the U.S. Congress, who could well derail the deal by passing tougher sanctions against Iran. While swimming against the tide can reap political benefits, U.S. politicians opposing negotiations with Iran should take note of the most recent episode of Washington brinkmanship, featuring a painful Government shutdown and a last-minute increase of the debt ceiling from which President Barack Obama emerged the sole political winner. In any case, the power of these overconfident elements of the anti-deal camp should not be underestimated, as they might be capable to derail the talks or the implementation of any eventual agreements if they can impose their views by playing on the fears of the negotiators and decision-makers.
We are, therefore, in the hands of the moderately confident for some tangible outcomes to emerge from Geneva. One of, them, surprisingly, might be Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. As Iran expert Kenneth Pollack recently asserted in an interview, Khamenei's relative lack of confidence  at least compared to his predecessor Khomeini  has led him to give Rouhani the freedom to maneuver. Even if Khamenei does have the power to force his will through the system and to overcome the opposition, he has been willing to listen to his longtime aide Rohani.
This much was already clear last August, when Rouhani appointed outgoing Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, a pragmatist, to head Iran's nuclear program: Khamenei, not confident enough in his own power to steer Iran towards regional hegemony as a nuclear power despite internal economic hardship, was giving Rouhani the green light to negotiate, showing moderate but remarkable confidence in the new President.
Similarly, the moderate pragmatism and confidence shown by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, together with a very proactive EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, leading diplomatic efforts in Geneva and highlighting the EU's ability to lead when it speaks with one voice on the international stage, show the way to go: only a savvy combination of effective multilateral diplomacy, pragmatism and cautious optimism  as opposed to threats, overconfidence and lack of trust  can produce a substantial deal that can satisfy both Iran and the major powers.
As argued by Stephen Walt, this is a winnable battle by the P5+1 group. However, success will, at least on this occasion, depend on the ability of the involved parts to put their weight with the relatively confident and ignore both those brimming with confidence in their abilities to derail the talks and those threatening to derail them due to their lack of confidence. We must concur with Kenneth Pollack on affirming that this may well be the best opportunity that the West has ever had, and maybe that it will ever have, to get a deal with Iran – even if it involves accepting Iran's right to enrich uranium for nuclear energy production.

The most effective and efficient way to win the hearts and minds of those living in hostile regimes is to offer them a fair deal and to embolden the agents of change with reciprocal trust. There is too much at stake not to let the moderately confident moderates to take center stage in Geneva: let's be moderately confident that this will be the case.

November 1, 2013

Why the European Union should take a leaf from Deng’s book

Last September, Armenia stunned Brussels when it gave up on its association and free trade deal with the EU following Russian demands for Yerevan to join the Customs Union, thereby excluding the possibility of a free trade agreement with the EU.

It was not Armenia’s decision in itself that shook the EU foreign policy community, but a fear of the possible shape of things to come. As EUISS expert Nicu Popescu asserted, the Union is right to feel uneasy: its influence in world affairs should no longer be taken for granted, and it will become increasingly dependent on the ability of Member States to stick act in economic, security, and foreign policy matters.

A few weeks later, former Bangladeshi general Muniruzzaman Khan published an opinion article in which he pointed out that India, China and Pakistan depend on the glaciers of the Himalayas for water. Those glaciers are melting fast, and the world’s most populous countries, all with significant military capabilities (including nuclear weapons), could well find themselves facing an existential crisis within two decades. And, as Mr. Khan wisely pointed out, people do not always make the wisest decisions when faced with deprivation of an essential resource.

The combination of both articles made me think about the section Henry Kissinger devotes to Deng Xiaoping’s famous guidelines for the rule of an emerging but still poor China in his monumental book On China. Here is what Kissinger wrote:

As he receded from the scene, Deng decided to buttress his successor by leaving behind a set of maxims for his guidance and that of the next generation of leaders. In issuing these instructions to Communist Party officials, Deng chose a method from Chinese classical history. The instructions were stark and succinct. Written in classical Chinese poetic style, they embraced two documents: a 24-character instruction and a 12-character explanation restricted to high officials. The 24-character instruction read:

'Observe carefully; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.'

The 12-character policy explanation followed with an even more restricted circulation among the leaders. It read:

'Enemy troops are outside the walls. They are stronger than we. We should be mainly on the defensive.'

It might sound premature, exaggerated or even completely offshoot, but maybe  just maybe  the European Union should consider adopting a longer-term approach, calmly take the backseat and capitalize on strengths that are more durable than the benefits of free trade agreements, financial innovation and even technological leadership  valuable assets that can nonetheless be rapidly eroded in the era of networks and globalization.

In the context of a G-Zero world threatened by climate change, ideological radicalism and sectarianism, growing inequality and explosive demographic growth, Europe enjoys what emerging and even some more established powers do not: food security, internal stability and (still) fairly distributed economic wealth. Securing these enormous privileges while maintaining a relatively low profile  i.e. being an actor but not a leader  and ensuring greater internal cohesiveness makes quite a lot of sense for an ailing Europe.

It can be argued that demography is not at all on Europe's side if it really wants to be patient. However, it is not on the side of China, either, and a Pakistan or Nigeria-like demographic boom is no boon either. What is urgently needed for an approach based on strategic patience to be feasible is a comprehensive reform of EU immigration regulations and policies and an agreement on a common immigration policy for Europe.

Making sure that the right immigration flows enter the continent will not only help offset the strains tied to lower birthrates and longer life expectancy at home, but will also be crucial to ensure a greater degree of stability and prosperity in the EU's immediate neighborhood and beyond  all, of course, in a perfectly compatible manner with this low-key, benevolent strategic approach.

As Henry Kissinger correctly points out in his book, with his words, Deng wanted to invoke virtues such as calm in the face of adversity, high analytical and strategic ability, and discipline in pursuit of a common purpose. Seemingly unable to revert their crisis-fueled internal disunion, facing a potentially explosive combination of emerging threats and emerging powers, and increasingly impotent to make their partners follow EU norms, European leaders could definitely take a leaf from Deng's playbook: keep calm, keep close and wait for the right time to reemerge.