How To Stop Worrying And Embrace A Nuclear North Korea

I’ve written a pithy blog-style piece for The Guardian on what the West should do to engage the DPRK. The editor axed a few of my more contrary statements directed at the media, but I’m pleased with the piece nonetheless:

It’s time to accept North Korea as a nuclear power and shift the focus from deterrence politics to human security. If anything, diplomatic efforts should go towards encouraging North Korea to sign up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and submit to regular IAEA inspections rather than stubbornly insisting that disarmament is a hard prerequisite for engagement.

Read the whole piece.

The Koreas, Bastion of Cold War Realism

In which I reluctantly defend neorealism as a grand theory applicable to the security situation in North East Asia:

Rather than asserting that realism or its offshoots are the ultimate International Relations grand theories, I suggest that neorealism remains a crucial aspect of IR security theory. The offensive realist behavior of the DPRK and the defensive realist policies of China and the South Korea serve to illustrate the unfortunate but continued significance of neorealism within international relations.

Read the whole lengthy article on The Diplomat.

Russo-Chinese Relations, US-ROK War Games, and the Facade of a United Sino-DPRK Perspective: Tongsin no. 5

At Sino-NK I edit the ongoing “Tongsin (통신)” or “news report” project, a collection of source data from Rodong Sinmun and the KCNA which relates to China, Chinese policy, and Sino-DPRK relations. While the North Korean state news is notorious for embellishment and propaganda, it affords us the official DPRK party line on China—a non-static and under-examined aspect of regional relations.

While outsiders highlighted fracture and disunity in the China-DPRK relationship, the North Koreans largely portrayed an image of synchronized attitudes. This issue of Tongsin looks at North Korean views of increasingly close Russo-Chinese relations, US-ROK military exercises, and more.

The Difficult Sino-DPRK Relationship

As PLA Marshall Zhu De famously said during the Korean War, China and North Korea are the “lips and teeth”: irrevocably connected, partnered. The Sino-DPRK relationship was based on a shared Marxist/Leninist ideology, a history of Japanese occupation, and an alliance against the US and UN during the Korean War.

The post-Cold War landscape is worryingly different from Pyongyang’s perspective. China is much closer to the US, Japan, and South Korea—China’s #1–3 trading partners, respectively—and China’s main policy goal is modernizing and strengthening China through a strong domestic economy, which requires regional stability. Therefore China’s policy on North Korea is two-fold: to dissuade Pyongyang from advancing their nuclear and missile technology; and to economically support the DPRK in order to avoid state collapse.

China is North Korea’s #1 trading partner and only major ally, but the PRC doesn’t approve of North Korea’s state sponsored crime—terrorism in the 1980s, kidnapping, drug trade, counterfeit, and extortion—and North Korea’s nuclear tests are a blemish on China’s international reputation. China views North Korea as a liability to regional security, and therefore Pyongyang potentially endangers China’s economic growth. As North Korea acts belligerently and the international community scoffs and calls for sanctions, China responds by increasing economic aid—not out of loyalty, but in order to prevent the country from collapsing and causing regional turmoil with potential humanitarian and refugee crises,  “loose nukes”, and political complications surrounding possible Korean reunification, a US-ROK joint administration of the North, and a squabble for the largely untapped natural resources therein. Beijing worries that any pressure or decrease in economic support could result in a crisis.

The ideal situation from the Chinese perspective is a so-called “soft landing” in the DPRK: economic and political reform from within which mimics China’s semi-capitalism without tumultuous regime change.

Kim Jong-un’s Limp and Other North Korean Non-News

Western media is shamelessly sensationalist and ill-researched, and especially so regarding North Korea: the DPRK is painted as irrational and exotic through click-bait headlines which exclaim how bizarre it is.

The “news” stories on Kim Jong-un’s hair, gossip about hidden mechanisms of the government, and most recently rumors about KJU’s limp are not only dull and unhelpful but perpetuate an Orientalist, othered misunderstanding of a complex state.

North Korea is not a weird specimen to be ogled under a curious Western gaze (some scholars reluctantly accept the title “North Korea watcher” with hesitation because of this implication). It is an opaque but not-unknowable state within which a myriad of human rights crises are unfolding; it is a source of regional instability that should be treated with seriousness; and above all it is a country of individuals—people—who are neither homogenous nor helpless and in need of a white savior. On this last point the West (although not homogenous either, it is a convenient way to group the Anglo-American-Euro/”global north”) is historically rubbish: apparently a balance between humanitarian intervention and recognition of the victims’ agency is elusive.

Tongsin | 통신 no. 4: War Games and the Sewol Sinking

Delegates representing the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) in Pyongyang, May 2014 | Image: KCNA
Delegates representing the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) in Pyongyang, May 2014 | Image: KCNA

This edition covers March–May 2014. These three months covered the US-ROK war games Key Resolve/Foal Eagle and Max Thunder and the North Korean response of several short- and medium-range projectiles over their eastern coast; and the Sewol ferry disaster. These two events were leveraged in DPRK state media to paint a picture of an allegedly harmonized Sino-DPRK perspective that is both anti-American and anti- South Korean. China’s news on Obama’s visit with the Dalai Lama and the US’ damning human rights report is highlighted by the DPRK state media.

Read the full PDF: Tongsin no. 04 March–May 2014

Originally posted by Morgan Potts on Sino-NK

“Prospects for Change in North Korea”: Event Review

Event details

“Prospects for Change in North Korea”
House of Lords, Committee Room 4A
Lord Alton of Liverpool (David Alton)
Hosted by the Centre for Opposition Studies
Open to the public


Lord Alton began by admonishing the impotence on the international community which has so far failed to act in any meaningful way on North Korea’s gross human rights violations, which were passionately enumerated in his powerpoint slide show. Memories of the Holocaust were evoked. American civil rights activists were quoted. We were reminded of the evils of [Soviet] communism, and the BBC was exalted as a beacon of hope for those trapped within the oppressive regime—a regime, we are told, which is comparable to present-day North Korea. Just as Soviet Ukrainians and Jews hoped for the collapse of that hellish communist command, so too the North Koreans hope and pray for change (apparently actioned by a benign external arbitrator). “In defeating communism we did so with wisdom and strength”, Alton clumsily asserted, and Kim Jong-un’s North Korean regime no doubt requires the same Manichaen treatment.

To his credit, Lord Alton offered a list of actionable items which would allegedly create an environment for the DPRK state to redeem its human rights record. This included: formalizing diplomatic relations between the US and DPRK, and ROK and DPRK; diplomatically engaging with the DPRK; protesting human rights abuses and promoting human rights initiatives; breaking the information blockade; encouraging peace talks in Beijing and Seoul; informing ourselves about the human rights situation in the North Korea; and “building bridges” where we can.

He concluded that, after a long history of human rights abuses, the North needs a face-saving strategy: that the regime will not last for long unless it pursues peace and advances rights.


I’ve very much enjoyed going to the Palace of Westminster for these DPRK events, though I’m sorry to say that the setting was far and away the most satisfying aspect of this talk.

The Lord’s Cold War perspective came across as foolishly triumphant and hopelessly outdated. The notion that North Korea needs “saving” by a benign Western allied force is patronizing and othering on top of being unhelpful. Grand narratives (“good capitalism defeated evil communism”) and reductive binaries (good/evil, us/them) demonstrate a clear misunderstanding of a very complex problem.

Alton seemed unaware of the numerous failed attempts at regional peace talks, and the work of human rights organizations already considering this issue. The idea that North Koreans could be empowered to change their system of government—rather than change being imposed upon them externally—completely passed him by.

Finally he failed to appreciate that—moral responsibilities aside—the DPRK’s neighbors are keen to preserve the status quo for the sake of regional stability.

The most interesting bit of the talk was when Alton alluded to potentially creating a DPRK government in exile headed by North Korean refugees in the South, but he did not elaborate on this.

A few minor but nonetheless insufferable points:

The lives of some one thousand fallen British soldiers in the Korean War were tastelessly given prominence over the several hundred thousand Korean dead, the victims of the 1990s famine, DPRK refugees, and those still-living in the North.

There was an unfortunate focus on the prosecution of people practicing Christianity—excluding that of the more commonly practiced Korean Shamanism (16%), Cheondoism (13.5%), or Buddhism (4.5%)—a thinly-veiled attempt at engaging his religious peers and/or appealing to a constituency which can’t empathize in the absence of religious commonality.

There was also one Churchill quote, which is one too many.

That Lord Alton is the Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on North Korea worries me. He is obviously passionate about ending the suffering of North Koreans, but his failure to acknowledge complexity coupled with his apparent “white man’s burden” does not bode well for the DPRK’s “prospects for change”.

All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea event: Jang Jin-sung

westminster eye

Event details:

House of Lords
Jang Jin-sung, with Shirley Lee translating
Organized by the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK)
Open to the public


Jang Jin-sung is a North Korean defector, poet, and the founder of New Focus International. This event was a short talk by him on the various organs of the DPRK state, including the reveal of the henceforth secret “OGD”, followed by an altogether disappointing Q&A. Rather than detail the dialogue here, I’m offer the minutes from the meeting.


The event was essentially a book launch for Jang’s Dear Leader. While the ODG reveal would be huge news in North Korea watch circles, Jang provided surprisingly little about the organization: only that it supersedes both the military and Kim Jong-un, thereby “controlling everything”. I suppose the talk was a teaser for the book, which ostensibly provides more depth, but my interest was not sufficiently piqued.

Tongsin | 통신 no. 03: The War Games Continue

At Sino-NK, the third Tongsin | 통신 examines the DPRK state media relating to China for the month of February 2014. This month, which included events such as the release of the UN report on crimes against humanity in North Korea, North-South family reunions, and Kim Jong-il’s birthday (also known as the Day of Shining Star), was focused on the US-ROK war games Key Resolve and Foal Eagle.

The narrative put forth by the DPRK state media is that the North is a sincere and cooperative actor interested in peaceful engagement and regional stability through improved North-South relations, and is supported by China in these aims—the South, on the other hand, is painted as a belligerent actor intent on pursuing “pro-US” policy and continuing the destructive war games during an otherwise peaceful moment in North-South relations, such peacefulness evidenced by the family reunions.

Read the full PDF.

US-ROK Announce Dates forKey Resolve/Foal Eagle

As expected, the annual joint exercises Key Resolve/Foal Eagle will take place as planned despite outcry from North Korea. Both exercises will commence on February 24.

Key Resolve, the CPX, will occur from 24 February – March 6. KR 14 will involve approximately 5,200 US troops, with about 1,100 coming from off-peninsula.

Foal Eagle, the accompanying FTX, will take place from February 24 – April 18. Foal Eagle involves air, land, and sea drills. About 7,500 US troops will participate in FE14, including 5,100 from off-peninsula.

The USFK press release indicates that the United Nations Command has informed the DPRK’s Korean People’s Army of the exercises and their non-provocative nature.

Tongsin | 통신 no. 02: Military Exercises and Reunification


The second installation of Tongsin | 통신 is now live on Sino-NK, edited by myself with research assistance from Leeds student and historian Vikram Jones.

In January, DPRK state media focused on the upcoming US-ROK joint military exercises Key Resolve/Foal Eagle, awkwardly forcing China into the narrative surrounding reunification.

Download the full PDF.