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.

Book Review: Cat Country [1932] by Lao She

Lao She, Cat Country [貓城記]. William A Lyell, trans. Penguin Books: Melbourne, 2013 [1932]. ISBN: 978-0-14-320812-9

A Chinese man crash-lands on Mars, finding himself in a country inhabited by Cat People. One of my colleagues and I have a long-standing mutual exchange of books whenever we see each other; I saw this on their shelf in their office in Leeds and insisted on borrowing it (thanks, Adam!).

A glimpse into the political situation in China in the 1930s through the eyes of a pessimist: Lao She despises both the ossified bureaucratic state and the hapless youthful revolutionaries; both groups are irredeemably corrupt and idiotic. References to the Chinese state, Karl Marx (“Uncle Karl”), and Communism (“Everybody Shareskyism”), and opium (“reverie leaves”) are thinly veiled. The text is interesting and enjoyable, if you enjoy fuel for misanthropy. The main thrust: everyone is irredeemably stupid to the point of deserving death, for what is the point of living such hopelessly selfish, vacuous lives?
I don’t like this translation and its gratuitous use of English/British idioms—I prefer when translators use idioms of the original language, explained in footnotes or endnotes. There are some poetic moments (“My brain was a murky ox rolling in the mud”), and I’m sure there are many more in the original Mandarin.

Finally, on gender: the book is hopelessly dated in this regard, with Lao She’s depiction of women/femininity as frivolous, pitiful, and spineless. The phrase “I’m not a misogynist, but…” actually appeared in the text. All women are either wives, concubines, or whores, defined entirely by their relationships to men; they have even less agency than the Cat Men, who at least have enough sense of self as to be selfish. This is a hard limit for me, and greatly reduced my appreciation of the text.

Science fiction is one of my favorite mediums for political satire. Cat Country is valuable primarily for its historical insight; the plot and characterization is not interesting if you deprive it of context. The lessons are not exclusively Chinese, offering a general critique of the tensions between conservatives and leftists. I recommend it on a historical basis, but for works of brilliant science fiction I might instead suggest Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, or anything by Ursula Le Guin.

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.

China Publishes New 10-Dash Line Map of Territorial Claims

China's new 10-dash line map | Image: Xinhua
China’s new 10-dash line map | Image: Xinhua

On Tuesday, China unveiled a new “vertical atlas” of territorial claims, including Taiwan, the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (“South Tibet”), the continental shelf extending to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islapolicies s, and almost the entirety of the South China Sea.

The old nine-dash line maps either used boxes to enlarge the Spratly and Parcel Islands, or instead cut off most of mainland China. The new ten-dash line map is elongated to show continental China and all of its territorial claims, stretching down to the coasts of Malaysia and Indonesia, on one map with the same scale.

china nine dash line
China’s older “cow’s tongue” nine-dash line map, recreated in English by the CIA | Image: Wikipedia

This is the latest in a string of territorial altercations, which some analysts are suggesting might lead to war. While China’s territorial disputes are all long-standing, complex, and unique, they are not impossible. If China and its neighbors were interested in resolving their territorial disagreements they could do so without much ado: for instance, as China and Vietnam have done in the Gulf of Tonkin, where the two countries share fishing rights without explicit claims of sovereignty. This suggests that China—and Japan, regarding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands—is not only refusing to solve its territorial disputes but deliberately aggravating tensions.

The simplest explanation is that the Chinese government is invoking nationalism to: create a superficially unified public, rallying behind the government; distract from domestic problems; and to bolster support for aggressive foreign policies.

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

“Japan’s Maritime Disputes”: Review of the Chatham House Event

Event details

“Japan’s Maritime Disputes”
Chatham House
Talk by Professor Tom Berger, International Relations at the University of Boston
Open to the public, on the record (Chatham House rule not in effect)


Prof. Berger opened by stating the US-Japanese relations are having a “schizophrenic moment”—that the American pivot is sincere and it’s a productive time for trade and security, but there is a harsh ideological clash, and Abe and Obama “are not natural soul mates”. He goes on to say that a combination of geostrategical changes and geocultural changes are lend themselves to this, the ideal environment to develop the US-Japanese alliance wherein the tension commands attention but remains a manageable problem (for now).

The geostrategic situation has shifted from hegemonic American air/maritime power and Japanese isolation but potential for great power status to a new regional balance where China is rising as America declines, and where Japan no longer fears an American-led war by entrapment but where America fears being pulled into territorial squabbles.

The principle geocultural change is a “rising tide of nationalism”, though Prof. Berger was keen to point out that the “hydraulic model” employed by journalists is reductive. Abe is not an old-style (imperial) militarist, and Japan’s not too nationalistic; rather it’s not nationalistic enough. Nationalism and unity allowed Japan to rise until World War II, and its 20th century defeat was institutionalized, militarily and morally, and reinforced by the Japanese left. Since the 1950s Japan has sought to rediscover its unity: constitutional changes were made imbuing the education system with nationalism, and military policy was altered to allow Japan to become more independent (and by extension less dependent on the US). Abe’s support then comes from: perceived Chinese aggression on the Senkakus and the resulting sense of threat; and “Abenomics” (economic reform). That is, the conservatives supporting Abe are not ideological nationalists but pragmatists.

This geocultural shift toward nationalism is also present in South Korea and China, as these countries come into their increased strength. Both states have anti-Japanese sentiments and South Korea in particular can’t politically continue to ignore Japan’s imperial war crimes, but likewise both China and the ROK have set aside political concerns in favor of pragmatism, especially in trading.

During the Q&A Prof. Berger was asked about the nuclear issue, Japanese domestic politics, and the motivations behind the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. He finished by remarking that nationalism in Japan is taboo and therefore seductive, and it’s more likely to fuel anti-Korean sentiment via kimchi boycotts than militarization.

Prof. Tom Berger speaking at Chatham House, June 12, 2014 | Image: Morgan Potts
Prof. Tom Berger speaking at Chatham House, June 12, 2014 | Image: Morgan Potts


Pardoning Prof. Berger’s casual ableism (“schizophrenic moment”), the talk was compelling. Berger acknowledged the plurality of Japanese perspectives and implicitly noted that it is from plurality and competing voices that states arrive at their “national interest” which directs policy.

However it also seemed fundamentally contradictory: is Japan experiencing a “rising tide of nationalism” under Abe, reflected in the Senkaku dispute and desire to lessen security dependence on America? Or rather is Japan not nationalistic, putting aside ideology and nationalism for pragmatism?

I would suggest that Japan is in fact nationalistic in its foreign policy, especially regarding the island dispute: if Japan (and China, it takes two after all) were pragmatic instead of nationalistic, the two states would table the issue of sovereignty and agree to jointly develop the resources within the EEZ of the Senkaku/Diaoyus, much as China and Vietnam have come to a fishing agreement in the Tonkin Gulf. Instead, the two nations exploit the dispute over otherwise meaningless barren rocks for their nationalistic effect on domestic populations—if this continues, Abe might rediscover Japanese unity after all.

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.

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.

“Escape From North Korea” Panel Discussion



I’m very excited to be speaking at the Dare To Think event this Wednesday at the London School of Economics. The keynote speaker is North Korean defector Park Jihyun, and the panel will include noted academics Heonik Kwon (Cambridge), Dr. Ramon Pacheco Pardo (KCL), Dr. James Hore (SOAS), and myself. My talk will be on Pyongyang’s (Non-static) Perspective of Beijing, highlighting the subtle differences in the North Korean attitude toward China as time passes, seen most apparently in the execution of Jang Song-taek.

Details of the event can be found here.

Tongsin | 통신 no. 01

Over at Sino-NK I’ve initiated Tongsin | 통신 (“news agency”): source data on the DPRK’s state media coverage of China and the Sino-DPRK relationship. The first issue examines the months October–December 2013, immediately preceding and including the execution of Jang Song-taek. Most interestingly, the North Koreans are adamant in their emphasis of a strong, growing, and independent DPRK economy in the months leading up the Jang purge.

The full PDF can be accessed here: Tongsin | 통신 no. 01