Losing Your Alliance: Risking an American Withdrawal from South Korea


There is an understandable tendency to look at South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, as a kind of hesitant mother, watching nervously from her front door as her ordinarily level-headed teenage daughter (America) is being led away for a date (summit diplomacy) by a clearly unpleasant and poorly intentioned older boy (North Korea). Helpless to stop them, the mother is stuck watching-in from the fringes, hoping that it all ends before her daughter gets too damaged by the whole experience.

As onlookers we might rightly sympathise, but how long should that concern last after we notice the mother encouraging her daughter to apply more make-up before each date, to hike-up her skirts and show more leg, to wear lower-cut tops, and when that all fails filling up her daughter’s purse with condoms when she isn’t looking. The daughter, now walking away into the night – arm in arm with her new boyfriend – hears her mom shout a reminder (loud enough for the boy to hear) to “do whatever it takes to keep him happy, and coming back for more”. How long after seeing this should we hold our judgement, watching the mother sell-out her closest relationship for the brief adrenaline of a vicarious, and ill fated, love affair?

How long before the daughter becomes resentful of her mother’s willingness to take liberties with her, and risks on her behalf, and moves out permanently? Never to return!

In 2012, when Moon Jae-in was confident of winning the presidency – and so no longer in need of grand political gestures – he publically committed himself to achieving a North-South confederation before his term was finished. He wasn’t pandering so much as expressing his deepest convictions, and indeed lifelong hope. This was not the first time Moon had made this explicit pledge, just the first time during the campaign.

As a young advisor Moon had watched former presidents from his side of politics talk this way (Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun), and yet leave office without anything to show for it. This perceived lack of urgency is something Moon has been conscious of avoiding. And no better way of doing this, and of signalling your intent to Pyongyang than by appointing Im Jong-seok as Chief of Staff. Im comes from the same stock as those people who protested against authoritarian rule in the 1980’s (the 386 Generation), but was always considerably more upfront about –and willing to act upon – his belief that North Korea was the more legitimate of the two countries. While leading an explicitly pro-North group, Im campaigned for reunification under Kim Il-sung – effectively hoping for the destruction of his own republic.

During this period, Im Jong-seok was in direct contact with the regime in Pyongyang, and eventually served time in prison for this. Yet when elected to the National Assembly, and despite the end of authoritarian rule in the South, Im still had a near single-minded focus on furthering North Korea friendly policies. One such success was the enforcement of royalties upon the use of North Korean media in South Korea. So now every time a network chooses to air images or films of Northern origin (even propaganda), they have to pay a copyright charge directly to Kim Jong-un, all thanks to the second most powerful political appointee in South Korea.

An isolated case? No! The new Unification Minister, Kim Yeon-cheol, has publically championed a diplomatic approach even more chummy and forgiving than Moon Jae-in has dared, has begun pushing for an exemption to sanctions, and has even spoken about reunification being the solution to the nuclear crisis, not just as a downstream benefit. Other key positions have been filled – without shame – by people with similar pro-Northern resumes, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) is no longer enforcing its own security laws regarding North Korean agents, school textbooks have been edited favourably (removing mention of military incursions), the word “free” was removed from the constitution in regard to the nature of a future reunified peninsula (reversed only after public outrage), and the conservative media has been censored in its criticisms of the current policy direction through an abuse of libel laws.

The day after the Hanoi Summit collapsed, Moon Jae-in was already calling for deeper inter-Korean economic cooperation; in other words permission to violate international sanctions and United Nations Security Council resolutions. Rather than question how serious Kim Jong-un actually is following his paltry diplomatic offer, Moon immediately launched back into the role of match-maker. This despite Kim Jong-un in his speech to the 14th Supreme People's Assembly belittling the South Korean President as a “nosy mediator” rather than “the one who protects the nation's interest”.

This is North Korea giving their patron the hurry-along – as with the recently announced test of a “tactical guided weapon”. The whole discussion defies logic: if North Korea were serious about wanting sanctions relief to walk hand-in-hand with denuclearisation, then they never would have developed the weapons in the first place. The sanctions only exist – and became steadily more imposing – due to the presence of the nuclear program, and now we are asked to believe that North Korea will give it all up in order to wind things back down to zero. All that pain and sacrifice for nothing. Besides, does anyone – no matter how critical of America’s role in the world – think for a moment that Washington are a flight risk here? That they might turn delinquent and back out of their bargain if North Korea verifiably relinquishes their weapons first. It is unlikely that even the regime in Pyongyang has this concern.

There is a not-too-subtle game being played out. As Moon Jae-in has his sights on the North, Kim Jong-un has his on the South. Fresh from trying to coax Donald Trump back into the fold, and playing the role of messenger between the two parties, Moon is now talking up the need for another inter-Korean summit (this would be the fourth of his presidency): “Now is the time to begin the preparations in earnest for an inter-Korean summit”…“I hope the two Koreas will be able to sit down together, regardless of venue and form, and hold detailed and substantive talks on how to achieve further progress that goes beyond the previous two summits between Chairman Kim and President Trump.”

Lost in this is an understanding of American interests, and the fragility of alliances. Who knows where it may lie, but at some point there will be an end to Washington’s patience and commitment. Unreciprocated in Seoul, the American desire for denuclearisation as a precondition for improved relations is eventually going to force a decision. South Korea can behave the way they are, and gamble on the well-meaning intentions of Kim Jong-un, only because their alliance with, and the presence of, American troops remains as a failsafe to a second Korean war.

But with their goals noticeably diverging, and with the Moon Jae-in administration’s outreach to Pyongyang done so with the intention of bypassing weapons talks and alleviating sanctions pressure regardless, how long before Washington comes to see Seoul as part of the problem here? That, if only implicitly, Kim Jong-un’s bellicosity and obstinance is being encouraged by every meeting, every statement, and every policy from South Korea. The only real incentive at the moment for Pyongyang is to dig their heels in, to ride out the pressure, and have South Korea hand-deliver the reunification that they’ve always wanted. Donald Trump’s impulsiveness contributed to it of course, but the sight of the U.S. Marine Corps undertaking its annual Korean-American exercises in Hawaii and not South Korea should – but likely won’t – terrify Moon Jae-in and his administration.

Or to put it differently: soon the daughter grows tired of her dangerous boyfriend, the infatuation wears off, and she stops answering his phone calls. Increasingly irate, he stakes-out her house, and shouts abuse whenever the opportunity arises. Through this, the girl’s mother seems to be primarily concerned with reconciling the relationship; excusing the boy’s behaviour and even blaming her daughter for leading him on and being a tease. Eventually her mother’s manipulation and duplicity become too much to bear, and so the daughter packs her bags and moves out.

Alone in the house for the first time, the mother answers the door late at night and finds the young man standing on the porch. Drunk and aggressive, he says that with her daughter out of the way the mother can now get what she’s always wanted – they can finally be together. With nothing between her and this dangerous young man, her attitude changes instantly. The flirtatious predisposition is gone – all she feels now is vulnerability and fear. In a panic she tries to slam the door shut, but the young man already has his foot in the way; he steps forward contemptuously and pushes her aside….

Sudan’s Brief Moment of Freedom?


If this were only pre-2010, there would be a lot more jubilation in the air. A lot more talk about ‘people power’, ‘self-determination’, ‘watershed moments’, and the ‘irrepressibility of the human spirit’. Omar al-Bashir’s three-decade rule of Sudan is over – decades full of oppression, starvation and a lethargic, but unyielding, genocide in Darfur – and yet for anyone testing the winds of international sentiment, the overwhelming feeling has been a kind of exhausted fear. A popular uprising against an unpopular leader –of dubious legitimacy – ought to catch the throat, if only a little. The yearning is all-inclusive, the courage is rare and wishful; and so the people on the streets should become instantly cosmopolitan, and every witness a participant in their mind - “Ich bin ein Sudanesischen”.

The change here has nothing to do with Sudan at all. Al-Bashir came to power in 1989 when, as a brigadier in the Sudanese Army, he orchestrated a military rebellion against the democratically elected Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. Al-Mahdi was widely unpopular at the time, but the act of heresy that pushed al-Bashir and his mutineers over the edge was the opening of peace negotiations with southern rebel groups. The new military regime banned all political organizations, purged the army, shut down independent newspapers, imprisoned opposition leaders, and significantly – after allying itself with Hassan al-Turabi – began implementing a form of Sharia Law so repressive that Osama Bin Laden migrated there for safe haven after Saudi Arabia could no longer tolerate his fundamentalism.

But it was with those southern rebels that al-Bashir crossed a line of, at least symbolic, importance. The epicentre of the crackdown naturally became the untapped oil fields of Darfur, where al-Bashir sold off the excavation rights to newly seized land so quickly that the state-owned Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) literally began following the violence, so that it could begin construction of the necessary mining infrastructure without delay. This hasty sale of national resources might seem a little reckless, but it allowed the government in Khartoum to dramatically increase its imports of arms. As the conflict thundered forward, and the world became increasingly outraged by the atrocities on the ground, Sudan managed nonetheless – through leveraging access to its oil fields – to increase its military purchases 13,700 percent from 2001 to 2006. And also, when desirable, use the civil infrastructure being developed in its wake as a launch pad for further incursions.

Omar al-Bashir’s decision for war with southern separatists resulted in the deaths of 400,000 people, the forced displacement of three million, the collapse of diplomatic relations with neighbouring countries who were forced to deal with the refugee flows, and almost the entire Darfur region in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. This wasn’t a conventional war with an achievable military aim (the pacification of rebel groups); this was a genocide. The Sudanese were open in their objectives – the cleansing of the non-Arab population from Darfur. Language like this comes with significant legal obligations, and so the international community are often hesitant to apply such labels or talk about the need for intervention. Yet watching Darfur, few people were under any allusions as to what they were seeing.

In 2004, American Secretary of State Colin Powell, testified before the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “genocide has been committed in Darfur”. In 2005, the British Parliament announced that “if the responsibility to protect means anything, it ought to mean something in Darfur”. And Kofi Annan saw symmetries in the violence with the most scarring moment in modern humanitarian history: “we had learnt nothing from Rwanda”. But Al-Bashir had bet everything on the unwillingness of those concerned governments to actually risk anything on the ground, especially if he could make a defence – no matter how tenuous – in the same language in which the accusations were being made – human rights, independence and international law.

The brief momentum of history was at his back, with Algerian President, and then President of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), Abdelaziz Bouteflika, championing the absolute right of non-interference in the affairs of other states as “our final defence against the rules of an unjust world” in 1999. And then Nelsen Mandela announcing in 2000 that the protective mandate and intervention in Kosovo set a precedent that was “more dangerous to world peace than anything that was currently happening in Africa”. Omar al-Bashir had his battlelines, and so quickly began taunting the world with its own principles of justice: “we will not accept colonial forces coming into the country”. United Nations sanctions condemning Sudan came and went, and talk of the need for a military intervention was never short of those willing to champion it, and yet even when a peacekeeping mission was authorized, no member state was willing to back-up their words with actual material support (12,000 to 20,000 properly equipped troops).

And inexplicably, the Sudanese attempt to twist international law and best moral practice worked, with the United Nations – even after authorising an intervention – hinging everything on permission and support from the government in Khartoum, with Security Council resolution 1706 seeking “the consent of the Government of National Unity”. Having successfully called the international communities bluff, al-Bashir got back to his killing, observed at every step, but almost entirely unchecked. In March 2009, the International Criminal Court (ICC), made al-Bashir the first sitting president ever to be indicted under their jurisdiction. The charge sheet detailed a guided campaign of rape, mass killings and forced expulsions; in other words, genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. This was, of course, tokenistic. A man unwilling to stop a mass atrocity under foreign pressure, is unlikely to then suddenly accept the supremacy of international law and wilfully hand himself over for prosecution.

And yet patrons of the International Criminal Court are still unlikely to have their moment of satisfaction. Al-Bashir was removed – reluctantly – by his own military, only after months of street protests showed no signs of falling away. Surrounded by Sudanese flags, Defence Minister Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, made the announcement on state television, while also crushing any hopes of a democratic handover. Instead, the military will rule for the next two years, with no transition plan in place.

Most insightful of all has been the kid-gloved treatment of the disposed dictator. Al-Bashir is under house arrest – an unbelievably luxurious type of confinement (completely unworthy of the name ‘imprisonment’ based on the riches of the property in question) – and the bloodlessness of the coup likely speaks to a negotiated retirement, rather than an actual arrest and punishment. And on that question of punishment, no sooner was the overthrow of Al-Bashir’s thirty year rule announced, than the defiance of the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction also continued. The seventy five year old ‘prisoner’ will face court in Khartoum rather than The Hague. Not necessarily a problem in itself, but the chances of achieving judicial independence while military rule is still in effect is next to zero.

So with their constitution in tatters, and their revolution stolen, it is back to those people on the streets, and a test of their conviction. The protests started –just as those in 2010 during the Arab Spring – in response to epidemic levels of corruption, poor management and economic stagnation. How willing are protestors going to be to risk it all again for the principles behind, and not the material of, their original grievances? The Arab Spring laced the world with hope, as they watched a once politically comatose region shaking itself awake. Soon enough that hope was replaced by fear, as those champions of democracy showed themselves instead to be theocrats in their own right, or alternatively unable to gather the same broad support against their newly emerging enemies.

Omar al-Bashir came to power in an act of rebellion against a peace accord with southern rebels. With his own limitations forced back upon him, in 2011 al-Bashir oversaw the division of his country with the formal independence of the Republic of South Sudan. The absence of principles here matters – if for nothing else than to show the malleability of once held ‘best’ intentions. There is no shortage of countries who, once willing to help al-Bashir defy his international arrest warrant, would likely now offer him – and his personal wealth – asylum if his prosecution ever becomes a little too authentic. In the meantime, the Sudanese people have likely just replaced one tyrant with another.

25 Years Since Rwanda: International Blame for the Genocide


In April 1994, the world was understandably dialled-in to the theatre of South African elections. The last remaining pillar of apartheid – and the symbolic end of racial hatred in South Africa – was finally coming down under enormous fan-fare and hope. And so few people even noticed the event that sparked the collapse of Rwanda, and with it the entire African Great Lakes region.

The surface-to-air missile that hit Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane on his return to Rwanda, ought to have caught the international eye more than it did – it was, after all, the assassination of a sitting President. But soon enough it no longer mattered, there were more important things to worry about – within hours, roadblocks were constructed, refugees crowded toward the borders (250,000 refugees arrived in Tanzania alone within 48 hours of Habyarimana’s death), the police and army morphed into vigilantes, neighbours hunted each other in the streets, and ten thousand people were being killed each day – hacked down with machetes – in the fastest moving atrocity the world has ever been witness to.

Responsibility for the assassination remains in dispute, but it was accepted at the time to be the actions of an ethnic Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The ethnic majority Hutus saw this as the first open attack in an idle, but simmering, civil war, and so began circulating ‘kill lists’. Suddenly the two communities, living side-by-side, intermarrying, speaking the same language, and largely indistinguishable from each other, were demarcated in plain sight; one side targeted for murder, the other duty-bound to do the murdering.

Violence and unrest in Africa was not a surprise at the time, but the scale and willingness to participate was. Tutsis sheltering in churches were often killed or informed on by their own priests, and Hutu husbands began killing their Tutsi wives (failure to do so before the mob arrived would result in both of their deaths – one for being Tutsi, the other for sympathising with the enemy).

Rape became a tool of war in newly sadistic ways, with thousands of aids patients released from hospitals and conscripted into ‘rape squads’; charged with the single purpose of infecting as many Tutsi women as possible. Three months later when the violence eased, as many as half a million women had been raped, upwards of a million people were killed, seventy percent of the Tutsi population murdered (as well as ten percent of the Rwandan population as a whole), and fifty percent of the entire country were displaced.

These are the type of numbers that don’t straightforwardly process in the human mind. What was easier to comprehend was the risk – when the violence came there was already UN peacekeepers in place monitoring the Arusha Accords (a tentative power sharing agreement and peace settlement). These forces, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) Led by Canadian Major-General Romeo Dallaire, were reporting to anyone willing to listen that, “Time does seem to be running out for political discussions, as any spark on the security side could have catastrophic consequences.”

But no one – at least in the necessary positions of power – needed to be told this. In the years before the violence, ‘death squads’ were openly roaming the streets in pre-skirmishes, and in the three months before the genocide erupted the CIA had been reporting on the likelihood of this happening, and even predicting half a million people would die as a result.

World leaders like American President Bill Clinton would look back on Rwanda and call it their ‘greatest regret’, and perhaps the speed and cruelty of the violence caught them off guard. But what nagged at their consciences was something a little more deliberate and calculating. In 1993, as the build-up to genocide was unmistakably underway, South Africa, Egypt, Russia and France were fighting-out a battle of their own – trying to outbid each other in order to supply arms and military hardware to the Rwandan government’s increasing needs.

As late as 1994, France continued to make illicit weapons sales to Rwanda, in strict violation of a United Nations arms embargo. Human Rights Watch then later reported South Africa, China, the Seychelles, Zaire (DRC) and France for further arms embargo violations, for resupplying the Rwandan military. This allowed, even as the violence eased-off at its epicentre, for a regional contagion of killing. With the genocide crossing borders at will, soon 150,000 people were killed, and over a million displaced in neighbouring Burundi. A year later, as people and their grievances crossed into the Congo, what was soon to be known as Africa's First World War broke out. The conflict rumbled forward for the better part of a decade, with 3.8 million people dead.

At its peak, the Rwandan genocide sucked-in nine neighbouring countries, and twenty different armed groups. The literal heart of Africa was burning to the ground, and this was only possible because foreign governments couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a little profit.

More immediately, Major-General Romeo Dallaire, on the ground as this all unfolded, has maintained since that he could have halted the genocide in its early stages, saving millions of lives, with as little as five thousand properly equipped, and mandated, United Nations’ troops. This might have a touch of hyperbole to it, but long form studies have concluded, on multiple occasions, that at least twenty five percent of the deaths could have been avoided under a ‘realistic military intervention’.

Newly freed from the shadow of the Cold War, and with a fresh hope for humanitarian cooperation and morally guided decision making, the proper place for international action was the United Nations. And yet when the debate came before the Security Council, they inexplicably chose to adopt resolution 912 which rather than increasing the peacekeeping presence on the ground, actually reduced troop numbers from 2558 to 270. With the obligations inherent in the Genocide Convention looming in people’s minds, these debates turned near-comical as member-after-member carefully avoided any reference of the term “genocide”.

Instead an obfuscating language was introduced to the world, as the same countries that would champion the Genocide Convention – before and after Rwanda – talked about a million deaths as “sporadic violence” and as only isolated “acts of genocide”; watering things down just below the threshold of where they would be legally-bound to intervene.

Meanwhile on the ground, the UNAMIR troops that remained – hopelessly understaffed – were also under-resourced and only mandated in a ‘monitoring’ capacity. Meaning as long as the genocidaires didn’t threaten them directly, they simply had to watch as the killing continued around them. And in the moments when they were attacked (once significantly alongside Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana) they chose not to respond for fear of inciting a larger response.

On 19 June, the French government announced Operation Turquoise, a military intervention in Rwanda under a United Nations mandate. The Hutus, against whom the tide of conflict was starting to turn, saw this – based on previous military and governmental support from France – as the arrival of allies, not enemies. So on the edge of retreat, the radio broadcasts inciting violence returned with a new vigour, and a new offensive was launched.

The United Nations requisitioned ‘Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Actions of the UN during the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda’ diplomatically saw it to be "unfortunate that the resources committed by France and other countries to Operation Turquoise could not instead have been put at the disposal of UNAMIR II”. A nice way of saying things would have resolved a lot quicker if France didn’t actively prop-up the Hutu government.

The genocide in Rwanda officially ended in July 1994, not because international outrage grew too loud to ignore, but rather because a Ugandan-backed Tutsi force of rebel troops fought their way into the Capital Kigali, and removed the Hutu government by force. They were led by current President Paul Kagame.

Set up to prosecute those involved in the killings, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established in November 1994. In a country that almost to-a-person became either perpetrator or victim, only ninety people have been convicted. A problem evermore pronounced by the near-complete lack of non-governmental aid agencies inside Rwanda at the time, limiting the real-time reporting of these crimes. 

The United Nations post-mortem shifted its sights to the global community, blaming the escalation of the violence on a “lack of resources and political commitment”. The sad truth about Rwanda is that it ought to have been expected. The record of the United Nations, and of individual member states, when it comes to intervening in mass atrocity crimes, is incredibly poor.

Five months before the genocide started, eighteen American soldiers were killed in the Somalian capital, Mogadishu. The withdrawal of all U.S. troops was almost immediately underway… a year later the United Nations followed suit. Left behind was a decades old civil war, a country razed of infrastructure, 1.5 million people on the brink of immediate starvation, and 4.5 million people requiring emergency humanitarian aid in what United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar described as “the most serious humanitarian crisis of our day”.

More alarmingly, the will of the international community was exposed as fragile. And so the genocidaires in Rwanda had a guide post before them: the language of the international community is unlikely to correspond to actions, the expressed moral outrage of foreign governments will always be dwarfed by their fear of their own soldiers dying in defence of that concern, and when things turn messy domestic political considerations will take precedence with United Nations members near-universally lacking the stomach for difficult conflicts.

In Rwanda the international community was not caught flat footed as the theory goes, but simply betrayed by their own reversion to habit. Somalia offered encouragement for those planning genocide in Rwanda – since then this incentive to violence has only increased in moments when those charged with addressing international mass atrocities have preferred to watch as the killing rolls on. Sure outliers exist, but for every Kosovo and Libya, there is also Uganda, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Indonesia, Guatemala, Timor, Bosnia, Cambodia, Burundi, the Congo, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, China, Algeria, Angola, North Korea, Syria, Georgia, Yemen, Kurdistan, Guinea-Bissau, Central African Republic, Lebanon, Egypt, Eretria, Mali, Chechnya, Kuwait, Bahrain, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Kenya…….

Fighting North Korea Outside Its Borders


Screams from a terrified woman… in a public street… in a foreign language… running from armed home invaders. Neighbours alert the police, and one of the criminals in question casually answers the door. He says he doesn’t know anything about the break-in, the beatings, the interrogations, nor the temporary imprisonment (as the woman’s complaint, then being translated from Korean into Spanish, alleges). But no! The police officers are not welcome to enter the property and see for themselves; it is a question of sovereignty – North Korean sovereignty. The house is, after all, a converted embassy. 

A few hours later the perpetrators simply drive away – watched anxiously by the same gawking neighbours – leaving behind a traumatised staff, bound, gagged, and slowly wriggling free. The police return on cue, and despite the obvious assault and theft that had just occurred, no one is interested in filing an official complaint, let alone pressing charges in the event of an arrest.

From all directions, there is an air of mobsterism: a brazen, daylight crime; the calm, authoritative, legally nuanced dealings with the police; the scene of eight brutalised victims refusing to cooperate in any way; and the sense that justice – if ever possible (or desirable) – will only come through reciprocal violence.

The ‘criminals’ – a group known as Free Chosun (formerly Chollima Civil Defense) – first came to any real public attention in the aftermath of Kim Jong-nam’s assassination in Malaysia, for apparently spiriting Nam’s son, Kim Han-sol, (and other family members) away into safe keeping. The motivation for the rescue – all the way down to the public thank you message by the 21 year old Han-sol – felt more along the lines of grooming an heir-to-the-throne, than that of international witness protection.

It all seemed a touch ad hoc, a fortunate enterprise rather than a diligent calculation. And Free Chosun’s website (https://www.cheollimacivildefense.org/) – still with its former name in the title – is a backyard effort if ever there was one. A single scrolling page… with plenty of donation links. Which is why this latest raid feels so different. The planning and execution has a near military finish to it, including how they adapted so impressively to their own missteps (so much so, that it was originally suspected to be a CIA operation). Their amateur days are seemingly over.

It is that idea of a growing – and now efficient – organisation that would likely worry North Korea. Washing purposefully around the global community of defectors for decades, the formation of a North Korean government in exile has strangely never managed to take hold. Likely due to the focus on securing leadership as a prerequisite. For many years, people hoped Hwang Jang-yop, a key author of Juche literature, and the defector with the most immediate name-brand recognition (and of greatest former importance to the regime in Pyongyang), would be this figurehead.

The expectation was too much, and poorly conceived. Escaped North Koreans tend to want what most people do: freedom, a peaceful life, and the safety of their family and friends. They don’t want to end up like Kim Jong-nam… and who could blame them. Because people don’t tend to gather around anonymous political forces, this first hurdle toward an exiled government was also the last.

It is in the nature of this escalation in Madrid, that Free Chosun are fashioning a solution. Exactly what they got from the robbery is open to be guessed, but they were deliberate in what they went after: computers, hard drives, cell phones. Rebel movements over the centuries have always targeted – by necessity – the weak points of their enemies (outposts and regional infrastructure). When you can’t fight, you frustrate.

This was not that. Free Chosun wanted information from Pyongyang, not anger. North Korea uses its embassies for the illegal transiting of goods, money laundering, and covert operations, such as that against Nam in Malaysia. Counting their loot from the Madrid raid, the robbers will be hoping for contact lists, emails, bank accounts, trading partners, sympathisers, and spy networks. The tactic here, is a much deeper assault on the Kim regime. By interrupting North Korea’s cross-border operations, maybe Free Chosun can make their actions felt back inside the palaces of Pyongyang.

North Korea are a hard target: legally protected both inside its borders, and inside its embassies. But this immunity only extends so far: the behaviour of embassy staff can be enough to get them expelled; and prosecutions, the seizures of funds, and the public airing of dealings, can be enough to permanently dissuade foreign enablers. This is certainly the goal anyway.

So this all begins to smell a little more like a preliminary assault, than a one-off attack. And perhaps most significant, are the self-made claims that Free Chosun are being assisted in their actions by foreign governments, having tipped their hat to Taiwan, Holland and America following the rescue of Kim Han-sol; and in the lead-up to Madrid posting cryptically on their website that they had “received a request for help from comrades in a certain Western country”, with a “highly dangerous situation”.

Much of this stretches credulity. So far, their public successes certainly have a feel of high-level planning, financing, and operational experience to them. But none of it demands an explanation on the level of global conspiracy. Still, this is a careful game, and if Free Chosun can start making actual changes, improvements, even symbolic grand gestures like harbouring dissidents or picking deliberately at the weak links in a regime, then they might be able to embody something that looks like a government in exile. So a little hyperbole – if indeed that is what is happening here – can perhaps be excused.

What is certain, is that the attack in Madrid would now have Kim Jong-un’s attention, and in that, a strange, immoral satisfaction can be found. I challenge anyone concerned about North Korea’s international harassment – even assassinations – of journalists, publishers, film makers, and particularly South Korean politicians and North Korean defectors, to not gain a little morbid pleasure here.

For someone who has, for so long, exploited the difficulties of applying international legal principles, Kim Jong-un is learning that he is vulnerable in the same way. It is not a high minded, nor a morally grounded sentiment, but where judicial systems fail, extrajudicial ones are likely to take over. Criminality becomes the cause for celebration, and retributive justice the only means of satisfaction… my only fear is, that none of this will make any substantive difference.

The Retirement of Dictators: Chun Doo-hwan in Court


If the passing of time is reason enough to forgive someone, then what about age itself? If not forgiveness, then how about a considered disregard? A decision to leave behind what cannot be changed – to simply get on with things.

Chun Doo-hwan is old (88), and as he walked into court this past week, shuttled along by his wife, it was – for anyone looking in on the scene from a position of neutrality (difficult in this case) – an alarming spectacle. There was a very real sense of physical danger to things. A frail, disorientated old man surrounded by – what is too common a display outside South Korean courts – an overly excited crowd of pawing media, pushing aggressively past visibly desperate, and overmatched, police officers.

This slight expression of concern would be too much for most people. Chun is also a former dictator and military leader, who ruled through coup d'état, and the last man at the scene of the crime – still fighting against the coming wave of South Korean democracy. In a country that struggles with the legacies of its former leaders, Chun rarely has this problem. He is the monster of Gwangju, a dictator without an upside, and germane to his current day in court, almost entirely unrepentant for his crimes – I don’t think it is a stretch to say – against the Korean people as a whole.

On trial again, Chun is now accused of ‘defaming the dead’, an odd charge in itself; also one with ‘criminal’ ramifications in South Korea. The deceased victim, a priest, Cho Bi-oh, claimed to have seen helicopter gunships fire upon protesters during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. In 2017, Chun published his memoirs, and responded by calling the priest a “shameless liar unworthy of the ecclesiastical title” and a “masked Satan”.

The charge itself hinges around technical details concerning the helicopter. There is enough in the historical record now to show that such firing upon civilians (from helicopters) did occur. But Chun doesn’t have to fight this. He merely has to show that such an incident did not likely happen at 2 p.m. on May 21, 1980 (the time Cho Bi-oh claimed to have witnessed it). Beyond this, Chun can, and according to his lawyers will, assert the defence (quite reasonably) that his “memoir was based on his own memory” and so there was no ‘intent’ to defame Cho.

But all this has very little to do with Cho Bi-oh. Adding to the theatre of the day, large crowds camped outside the courtroom, and sang old protest songs of the 1980’s. Returning to Gwangju (under subpoena) for the first time since the uprising, for many of the people waiting this was a chance to finally confront Chun, and express 39 years of built up anger and grief. For them this was about the commemoration of a massacre.

When interviewed they seemed to all return to a single theme: Chun Doo-hwan has never apologised for ordering the military crackdown. Instead he has always maintained that he acted in defence of the republic, against a “revolt caused by North Korean military intervention”. It is here that the real problem with Gwangju can be found. In recent years, the declassification and release of American documents has helped shed a little light on events, but it is still a clouded moment in history.

The North Korean question is often entertained as a slur against the memory of those fighting Chun’s authoritarian rule. But there is also the testimony from North Koreans defectors to consider. Some of whom have claimed that there were indeed Northern agents on the ground in Gwangju. What we know for sure, is that during this period Pyongyang had managed to embed thousands of spies inside South Korean society. It is unreasonable to believe that at least some of them did not head to Gwangju to help stoke things along, and ferment unrest, once the word got out. The impact they had was almost certainly next-to-zero, but to deny their likely presence altogether is unhelpful, and conspiratorial in its own right.

It couldn’t have helped ease Chun’s belief that three years later he narrowly escaped an assassination by North Korean agents whilst on a state visit to Rangoon, Burma (17 people were killed, including Korean cabinet ministers). Not the sort of thing that encourages someone to become a little more nuanced and open-minded.

On the stand, again Chun showed no remorse; but maybe a little dementia. Significant neurodegeneration from Alzheimer's disease was one of the reasons Chun’s legal team tried to have him excused from appearing in person at the trial; and recent sightings of Chun golfing don’t disprove his poor health, as so much of the media have tried to claim. Almost as soon as the hearing was underway, the judge carefully informed Chun of his right to refuse testimony. Chun replied, “I don't understand what you mean.”

By any reasonable measure, those outside the courtroom will never receive satisfaction. But their ire does feel a little narrow. For his eight years of authoritarian rule, Chun was convicted and sentenced to death in 1996; the specific charges being ‘mutiny’ and ‘corruption’. An appeals court commuted this to ‘life in prison’, and then President Kim Young-sam (acting on the advice of President-elect, Kim Dae-jung), pardoned both Chun and his successor Roh Tae-woo, under the guise of ‘political reconciliation’.

South Korean prison sentences just aren’t what they seem. Political leaders and the heads of the large Chaebol (family owned conglomerates) have a revolving door relationship with the justice system. They are regularly convicted, given exorbitantly large prison terms, and are then released on appeal, or pardon, after only a couple of years when the heat has died off. Lee Jae-yong, the de facto head of Samsung, is already free and back in charge of the company, despite being sentenced to serve five years in 2017; and in recent weeks thousands of conservative protestors have been demonstrating for the early release of his partner in corruption, former-President Park Geun-hye, sentenced to 24 years.

It is a strange targeting of anger to condemn Chun Doo-hwan, but not the men – nor the system – that excused him from his punishment.

If convicted of defaming the dead, Chun will face two years in prison, or a maximum fine of five million Korean Won (approximately US$5000). Based on the track record of such courts, and Chun’s age/health, it is unlikely to be the former. If the latter, then it can simply be added to the near-200 billion Korean Won he still owes from earlier court decisions (money he clearly doesn’t have, and will never earn).

Symbolic prosecutions are not entirely without value, but they do rely on the process being the punishment – an institutional sickness in itself, and a contemptuous attachment to the principle of judicial fair treatment. The only satisfaction being gained here, is that of inconveniencing Chun’s retirement. Soon the case will pass, the moment will wash-by, and left behind will be the Gwangju crowds; still hoping for an apology that will never come, as a replacement for the grief they can’t be free of.

The crimes of Gwangju will never feel normal, and apologies rarely fill the moral void that people imagine they will. What if Chun Doo-hwan, at his next court appearance, offered a full-throated repentance? Apologised, sobbed and grovelled approvingly in front of those watching. Would the Korean public suddenly forgive the man for whom so many of their historical scars are blamed? Chun will always be hated, and perhaps that is appropriate, but it should be so for what he did, not for his continued presence in society.

The victims of Gwangju, and Korea at large, are much like the technical victim in this particular case. From beyond the grave, Cho Bi-oh can hardly feel wronged, and as a priest, I wonder how comfortable he would be as a proxy for so much externalised pain and loathing. Forcing history back into the light cannot change it.

Behaving like the old soldier he is, Chun is firmly dug into the conviction that as he ordered the troops into Gwangju, he was fighting an existential enemy. If feels like nothing will change his mind on this, and coercion is not the answer. If you insist on people expressing contrition, then you are simply asking to be lied to. It may be abhorrent, and insulting to those personally affected, but in a free and open society Chun is entitled to question the history of Gwangju, regardless of how established a fact it is.

Korean libel laws are notorious for missing the point. They focus on offence and not truth. Truth only becomes so, as Karl Popper showed, through defending itself against criticism; intellectually, not legally. Through the court system, the media eye, and draconian laws, there is a risk of making Chun look like a victim (beyond this, what are the chances of him getting a fair trial in a city like Gwangju?). It is surely a mistake to campaign against authoritarianism, with the tools of authoritarianism. Either way, so much for Kim Dae-jung’s ‘political reconciliation’.

Kim’s Summit Victory?


The Hanoi Summit is now in the hands of the South Korean Left.

It is a strained mental image: Kim Jong-un slowly rattling his way back to Pyongyang, through the eastern heights of Chinese industrialisation; from light to dark. The smatterings of information, second-hand reports and occasional image of Kim smoking on a platform, becoming less-and-less frequent, and reliable, as the sixty hour journey moved further away from Hanoi, then disappearing completely across the Yalu River into North Korea.

The sense outside of Kim’s bubble was one of defeat and miscalculation. He overplayed his hand, asked for too much, and stood too strongly over his convictions. Inside the bubble, things would have been different.

The only people paying any real attention to Kim – or indeed North Korea – during that leisurely train ride are called – and call themselves  – ‘Pyongyang Watchers’. It is a strained piece of language, and one I have never liked, but it does speak to the nature of North Korean studies (or what often passes for North Korean studies) in many academic circles.

These Watchers, with the world’s spotlight shifting elsewhere, are soon back to the grind of their daily work: picking through satellite images, market prices, imports and exports, and the presence – or absence – of regime members in official media broadcasts. From this, infer away! Try to divine intentions, new policies and indeed, national sentiment. What you get are plausible, yet nearly completely unfounded claims, about the internal cogs grinding away north of the DMZ.

A much more solid science is that which runs the other way, and which no-one seems to give much heed to. If the world is full of Pyongyang Watchers, then Pyongyang is also full of Seoul Watchers. Not Washington Watchers, London Watchers, Berlin, Moscow, or even Beijing. Kim’s game is the same one that his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and father, Kim Jong-il, were committed to playing. And it has nothing to do with joining the nuclear club, self-defence or even sanctions relief (which is, of course, derivative of the first two).

It is often by taking Pyongyang at their word, that we get our talking points about a nuclear deterrent and a country fearful of attack. And a Libyan Model/Fear of disarmament, collapse, invasion and presidential assassination.

The trouble is, North Korea have never behaved like an externally insecure regime; just the opposite in fact. Only one of the Koreas has ever had to fight off military incursions, political killings, terrorism, and full scale war from the other. Besides, what type of nervous, fearful regime spends its time in bellicose threats and intimidation towards the world’s most powerful military? Or indeed, doing the one thing that has been a redline for conflict and intervention elsewhere: the construction of a nuclear arsenal.

If nuclear weapons and the accompanying missile technology were the only thing capable of holding back an American attack, then the corollary must run that America would never have let them achieve it. That Pyongyang’s slow-motion nuclear build-up escaped a surgical strike or two along the way, is all the proof needed that North Korea’s conventional forces were always deterrent enough.

Which brings us back to the Hanoi Summit, and the question of what this is all about. Decades of long-term internal propaganda (intended for North Korean ears only), stretching back to the founding of the state under Kim Il-sung, gives a very clear answer. It is, and always has been, all about South Korea.

Reunification. Or as it is known in the North, ‘The Final Victory!’

The ‘victory’ connotation is important. It fits with Songun (North Korea’s ‘Military First’ policy), and should (but never does) echo as a permanent threat to the South Korean republic. Kim’s reunification is reunification under the Northern flag – the consumption of one state by another. North Korea will continue, enlarged and stronger; South Korea the necessary sacrifice.

It is here, and only here, that America is of any interest. 20,000+ American troops stationed in South Korea represent a unique problem for Kim. Any Northern absorption will be in steps: confederation, deeper political integration, a greater will for the fight within the North Korean citizenry, and at some point – preferably early in the process – the removal of American troops.

It is this hinge that the regime in Pyongyang are most concerned about, and rightly so. Edging the South toward capitulation is a lot more certain a proposition once they have first stepped away from their military and political alliances with America; a friendship consummated instantly with the American victory over Imperial Japan, which was in turn the liberation of Korea.

The Americans stayed around, invested, defended, and became Seoul’s deepest military ally. So how, if you are Kim, do you break this marriage up? First you spend a year (2017) making sure that both countries are paying very close attention to how badly things could go. Despite the desire for reunification in South Korea, it is often muffled into silence by an understandable fatigue and related apathy. Nuclear tests and missile launches are enough to wake anyone up.

Then you offer a rapidly escalating peace – an uncomfortably fast courtship. But coming out of the shadow of conflict, one that seems too good to ignore. You push for cooperation, the binding together of economies, policies and institutions; something Moon Jae-in and his government have been all too eager to commit to (trying to fulfil an election promise to complete the process before the end of his term). Pushing toward confederation at such an uninhibited speed, that extraordinarily the nuclear issue has fallen into the margins.

Except for the Americans, for whom nuclear weaponry is still the looming concern, and the only reason for talking to Pyongyang at all. So Kim asks for something he knows Washington cannot reasonably agree to, both parties walk away, and Kim watches carefully for Seoul’s reaction.

South Korea’s conservatives cheered Trump’s resolve, but they are a near irrelevant political voice these days, having still not recovered any sense of identity following the Park Geun-hye scandal. And elsewhere, Kim would have been happy. Boundless amounts of editorial space in leading newspapers were quick to accuse America of being too ‘negative’, ‘obstinate’ and ‘lacking consideration for the plight of the Korean people’. Then there were the voices of important public figures such as former Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun, saying: "I believe the breakdown was intentionally brought about by the U.S. side”.

The remedy: “An inter-Korean summit should be held”…the government should move fast."

Imagine the smile on Kim’s face: his battle being fought for him, and by none other than the people he intends to victimise next.

Large-scale anti-Americanism of the past is unlikely to return. But those moments in history do offer a look into just how fragile the U.S.-South Korean alliance might be. The two most infamous cases involved the accusation that U.S troops deliberately ran down two school girls from their military transport, and that Korea was to become the dumping ground for diseased American beef. Both factually wrong, both formed with an obvious air of conspiratorial thinking, and yet both drawing large scale street protests.

Taking the political wind inside South Korea, Kim Jong-un must be sensing his opportunity. A very real chance to convince his divided brothers and sisters that the only real barrier to peace and reunification is the American troop presence. A troop presence that Donald Trump has just strong-armed them into paying more to house and maintain.

And if things begin to fall silent in Seoul, and if that fatigue begins to re-emerge, Kim only needs to fire up a missile site or two, and dust off a few launch pads. Reminding South Koreans how badly things could go if they don’t play their part in pushing for reunification of the peninsula; at all costs, and in a manner that the regime in Pyongyang approves of.