PacNet #34 – Why ASEAN should heed the distant tolling of bells

It is hard to know what deft (or otherwise) diplomacy is going on behind the scenes in ASEAN-led architecture in the lead-up to the season of summitry, most importantly the East Asia Summit (EAS). This includes the range of precursor senior officials meetings which often set the conditions for ministerial and leaders-level meetings later in the year. But diplomacy will need to be deft to find a position that at least balances the concerns of all EAS partners with respect to Russia’s participation.

Based on public-facing statements and commentary, right now it appears there is no balance. ASEAN does not seem to have taken action that has imposed costs on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, acknowledged the concerns of other EAS members, or expressed ASEAN condemnation of Russia’s actions.

ASEAN foreign ministers did issue three statements in relation to Ukraine: one calling for restraint and de-escalation on Feb. 26; one calling for a ceasefire on March 3; and one about the killing of civilians and humanitarian access on April 8.

While this was welcome, these statements did not mention Russia. They thus did not challenge Russia’s reprehensible actions.

ASEAN countries also largely supported the UN General Assembly resolution on March 2, which “deplored in the strongest terms” Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and demanded Russia’s immediate, complete, and unconditional withdraw from Ukraine territory (Laos and Vietnam abstained); and on March 24 in relation to the humanitarian consequences of the aggression against Ukraine (Brunei, Laos, and Vietnam abstained). But only the Philippines voted in favour of the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution to suspend Russia on April 7.

ASEAN’s statements and each country’s UN voting record indicates the limits of action for individual ASEAN members and ASEAN as a bloc. Singapore, however, has been the most forward-leaning, applying sanctions against Russia).

Cambodia, as the chair of ASEAN, with Indonesia as chair of the G20, and Thailand as chair of APEC, issued a joint statement on May 4 saying: “we are determined to work with all our partners and stakeholders to ensure a spirit of cooperation.”

Russia no doubt was pleased to see this, stating publicly that the statement represented “an important contribution to strengthening multilateralism, building an atmosphere of cooperation and trust, mutual respect and a reciprocal consideration of interests, not only in the region but also globally.”

While it does not make explicit references to Russia, the trilateral statement indicates that the chairs of these three international groupings will not exclude Russian participation.

Make no mistake, despite the waves of mis- and disinformation and fallacious narratives, Russia’s actions are a breach of international law, both in the principle of its invasion as well as in its ongoing execution—particularly as there are multiple reports detailing violations of the laws of war, and crimes against humanity occurring at the hands of Russian officers and soldiers.

But this is not just a breach of international law. It is also a trampling of the principles that ASEAN purports to hold dear—including sovereignty, non-interference, and the rule of law. These are the principles ASEAN has captured in its own Charter, and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia to which, as a Dialogue Partner of ASEAN, Russia is a party.

ASEAN has constantly voiced (almost in desperate, anxious tones) the need to maintain its centrality in the region’s institutional architecture. But centrality requires credibility. ASEAN risks its credibility by not taking stronger action.

ASEAN’s consensus-based and conservative approach means that it proceeds at the pace of the slowest member and lowest level of comfort to take action. ASEAN consensus is also influenced by the longstanding relations that some ASEAN members have with Russia, including on military sales. Through this approach, ASEAN seeks to maintain the status quo, to avoid confrontation with major powers or having to “choose sides.” That approach, however, constrains ASEAN’s ability to respond with agility to the shifting geostrategic reality and overlooks the threats to its longer-term interests.

Many countries in the region want ASEAN to maintain credibility and relevance, and believe it is important for regional stability. If ASEAN is to do so, it must take a stance against breaches of international law and (for the most part) universally accepted principles. Otherwise, those principles are moot.

Failure to take action is to legitimize and normalize Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. It ignores not only Ukraine’s current plight, but also Russia’s threats to other countries in Europe—including Sweden and Finland, who see the writing on the wall and have shifted their long-standing position about NATO membership.

It is important to recognise ASEAN’s rationale for not wanting to take sides. But this is not about taking sides with any one country. This is about taking the side of principle. It is essential to reinforce regional stability, security, and prosperity.

Expelling Russia from international fora where Moscow participate with Southeast Asian countries would be a step too far for ASEAN. But finding a better balance would be in order. A good start would be an explicit acknowledgement that Russia is the aggressor.

It is time ASEAN stepped up to demonstrate why it has become an integral part of the regional political architecture. Doing so will prove its value as a key platform in shaping and reinforcing norms of behavior.

Patrick O’Connor is the pseudonym of a non-American diplomat and former military officer who has worked on and studied Southeast Asia extensively. He has had several diplomatic postings throughout the Indo-Pacific and in Ukraine.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #33 – China cannot hinder international navigation through Taiwan Strait

During China Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s Regular Press Conference on June 13, he responded to a Bloomberg question concerning the legal status of the Taiwan Strait. Asked about Chinese military officials’ contention that the Taiwan Strait does not constitute “international waters,” he said that Taiwan is “an inalienable part of China’s territory. …According to UNCLOS and Chinese laws, the waters of the Taiwan Strait, extending from both shores toward the middle of the Strait, are divided into several zones including internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, and the Exclusive Economic Zone. China has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait.”

He went on to say that calling the strait international waters is “a false claim” by “certain countries” searching for a pretext for “threatening China’s sovereignty and security.”

However, while the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not use the phrase “international waters” most waters, even territorial seas and exclusive economic zones (EEZs), can be used for international navigation.

Instead, the relevant UNCLOS terms concerning movement through the Taiwan Strait are that it is a “transit passage” through a strait used for “international navigation.”

The Taiwan Strait’s importance as a shipping channels is well-documented: it links major economies such as China, Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asia, India, among others. Maritime traffic on the Strait has also increased drastically in recent years. The Strait’s width is approximately 220 nautical miles at its widest, meaning that for both China and Taiwan, it falls within the 200 nautical miles afforded to all countries for their EEZs. Because the Strait is “used for international navigation between one part of the high seas or an exclusive economic zone and another part of the high seas or an exclusive economic zone,” as defined by Article 37 of UNCLOS, “all ships and aircraft enjoy the right of transit passage, which shall not be impeded.”

Transit passage

Transit Passage is very well-founded in UNCLOS. According to Article 38, it “means the exercise of…the freedom of navigation and overflight solely for the purpose of continuous and expeditious transit of the strait.”

One may observe that this right of transit passage merely repeats all states’ freedom of navigation and overflight within any state’s EEZ (as spelled out in Article 58) as well as in the high seas (according to Article 87).

Thus, the right of all States to navigate and fly over to transit, in this case, the Taiwan Strait, is very well defined in international law, and shall not be impeded by China or any other state.

Long-standing international conventions

In addition, UNCLOS recognizes “the legal regime in straits in which passage is regulated in whole or in part by long-standing international conventions in force specifically relating to such straits” (Article 35).

In the Taiwan Strait, there is a center line called the Davis median line with its origins in the 1954 US-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty. Even though China does not officially recognize the existence of the de facto center line, there has been a tacit understanding on both sides of the strait to respect the unofficial boundary. The line was established in 1954, and through August 2020, there was only four reported Chinese military incursions across the line.

Since September 2020, however, China has sent many airplanes into the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone, presumably crossing the Davis median line many times.

China may be trying to ignore the Davis median line. But its historical value in keeping the peace in the Taiwan Strait for more than half a century should be considered by an UNCLOS tribunal, in case of an eventual dispute in front of an UNCLOS panel, as “long-standing international conventions in force” that should be enforced.

In any event, China cannot do much to legally hinder or impede all States’ right of transit passage through the Taiwan Strait. China should respect the tradition of the median line, and deal with Taiwan Strait issues differently.

Innocent passage

In addition to the right of transit passage with freedom of navigation and overflight through the Strait in the EEZ and high seas, Article 45 says ships of all states also enjoy the right of innocent passage (in other words, is not engaged in prohibited activities) through China’s (and Taiwan’s) territorial sea within the Taiwan Strait.

In other words, China cannot claim the Taiwan Strait as its own waters, be they territorial seas or EEZ, just to hinder international navigation.

Tran Đinh Hoanh () is an international litigator and writer in Washington DC.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #32 – Scholarships in the Pacific Islands are an urgent US national security issue

The April 2022 China-Solomon Islands security agreement has brought the Pacific Islands back into strategic focus for the United States. But far less attention has been dedicated to an area in the Pacific with huge national security implications, and where the United States lags far behind China: scholarships.

As of 2018, China’s government had awarded 1,371 scholarships to students from China’s Pacific partners (Cook Islands, Fiji, Micronesia, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu). China allocates a total of 20-30 scholarships for each of these countries annually (conservatively, around 160 scholarships each year, pre-COVID). This is China’s largest scholarship program in the Pacific, but there’s also the China-Pacific Island Forum (PIF) scholarship, which has provided around 20 full scholarships annually since 2017 (and 10 annually before then), plus scholarships provided by Chinese companies like Huawei and China Harbor Engineering Company.

In the United States, a number of programs bring Pacific Islanders to the United States for vocational training: Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) programs offers training to security and civilian officials, the Pacific Islands Training Initiative focuses on financial management and program performance practices, and there is also the Pacific Islands Leadership Program. However, the only fully funded government scholarship program specifically for Pacific Islanders to study in the United States is the US South Pacific Scholarship. The USSP has been running since 1995, funding 93 Pacific Island scholars total to study in the United States. This past year, there were only three USSP awardees, compared to approximately 160 yearly scholarships awarded to Pacific Islanders by China pre-COVID.

The more Pacific Islanders study at Chinese institutions, the more sympathetic they will be to China when voting in an election or making policy decisions, and at least some of those scholars will ascend to positions of leadership in their country.

How could it be otherwise, given that China will have supported their educational and professional development, and they will have spent several years living there and making personal connections? (Granted, not all Chinese scholarships facilitate this, as some separate Pacific Islander students from Chinese students.) This is how China has built an alumni network in the Pacific Islands orders of magnitude larger than the United States, and if trends continue at their current rate, this “sympathy gap” will only grow wider.

Pacific Islanders do not want to study in China more than in the United States. For the 2021 USSP scholarship, over 300 applicants—more than the yearly total of scholarships that China offers—competed for just three slots. Pacific Islanders want educational, training, and development opportunities in the United States, but there aren’t enough pathways. So, many turn to China instead.

More US scholarships for Pacific Islanders would help the United States exert soft power in the region by, in the words of Joseph Nye, “getting other countries to want what [the United States] wants.” It would also be a way for the United States to invest in the future of the Pacific Islands. If Pacific Islanders can rely on the United States for critical short-term development needs, accepting deals from China will likely be less appealing, especially given the stringent conditions Beijing often attaches to such deals. The need for development assistance, particularly when it comes to climate change, puts many Pacific Island nations in a position where they may have to accept a deal that compromises their sovereignty.

Of course, other US allies in the region, such as New Zealand and Australia, offer plenty of scholarships for Pacific Islanders to help offset the lack of opportunities in the United States. But China has begun to step up its scholarship and vocational training plans in the Pacific. A recent deal includes adding over 2,500 scholarships in the next five years. Not only that, barring COVID restrictions, China hopes to start a new training program for young Pacific Island diplomats this year as part of a capacity-building plan, including seminars on Chinese governance. This should sound alarm bells in the US government. Equally worrying, China has offered scholarships to Pacific Islands military officers too, giving, for instance, a Fijian Naval officer a four-year scholarship to a Chinese University in 2018.

The United States should increase the number of—and funding for—Pacific Islands scholarship and training programs. Whether that means scaling up existing programs or creating new pathways, doing so is in the United States’ national security interests. It is also a win-win for both the United States and the Pacific Islands. The United States can challenge China’s expansion into the Pacific Islands, and the Pacific Islands can receive more of the education and training necessary to build up their local communities. Although the sweeping trade and security deal China proposed with 10 Pacific Island nations faltered in May, providing more scholarship and training programs for the Pacific will remove any temptation for such deals in the future.

Kimery Lynch ( is a Projects Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington DC.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #31 – Should the United States acknowledge mutual vulnerability with China?

The United States and China have never engaged in formal in-depth discussions about nuclear weapons. They have only discussed these issues at the track-2 and track-1.5 levels, i.e., unofficially. Still, during these discussions, Chinese strategists always urged the United States to acknowledge that it is in a mutually vulnerable relationship with China.

The argument Chinese analysts make is that China has a much smaller nuclear arsenal than the United States’ and its modernization program is not intended to attain parity, so a US “vulnerability acknowledgement” would alleviate concerns that Washington aims for “absolute security,” i.e., the ability to negate Beijing’s second-strike capability. They add that such an acknowledgement would create the conditions for stability and thus facilitate an official nuclear dialogue.

Several US analysts have explained that US-China mutual vulnerability is a “fact of life,” despite the asymmetry of nuclear forces. The United States, however, has been reluctant to confirm it, fearing, in part, that doing so might lead Beijing to becoming more aggressive at the conventional and sub-conventional levels, notably in its neighborhood and against US allies.

Should the United States acknowledge mutual vulnerability with China?

The study “US China Mutual Vulnerability—Perspectives on the Debate” recently published in Pacific Forum’s Issues & Insights series addresses that question. Its goal is not to give a yes-or-no answer but to provide a comprehensive examination of the issue to understand the pros and cons of the various policy options.

Relying on contributions by analysts, including former practitioners, from the United States, US allies, and China, the study explores lessons from the Cold War, i.e., if and how the US-Soviet (and then US-Russia) experience is instructive for US-China relations today. It also unpacks the benefits, costs, and risks of the United States acknowledging mutual vulnerability with China. Moreover, it looks at the requirements for the United States to make such an acknowledgement, what Washington should try to get in exchange, and, assuming a decision has been made to do so, what that acknowledgement should say and how it should be made. The study offers the perspectives of analysts from three key US regional allies—Japan, South Korea, and Australia—as well as China.

Four findings stand out from the study:

First, at the most general level, the study confirms that mutual vulnerability is a fundamental question in strategic nuclear relations, especially between major powers. It was the foundation upon which the United States and the Soviet Union organized and managed their strategic relations during the Cold War, and it is a key foundation for US-Russia strategic relations today. So, it is not surprising that mutual vulnerability features prominently in the US-China context today. This issue is here to stay.

Second, and paradoxically, the mutual vulnerability question is often misunderstood. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, a historical review reveals that acknowledging mutual vulnerability is far from straightforward and it is no guarantee of greater stability between its parties, even though it can sometimes help set the stage for, and then facilitate, arms control agreements.

Third, the mutual vulnerability question is not settled in the US-China context, and it is unlikely to be settled soon. US analysts disagree about the value and utility of a US vulnerability acknowledgement. Analysts from allied countries see potential upsides if it strengthened US-China strategic stability, but they worry that the costs and risks might be prohibitive. Aside from “strategic” disagreements and concerns, the deterioration of US-China and US-Russia relations makes it unlikely that the United States will find the political will and capital to opt for such an acknowledgement. Opting for superiority or dominance over China, meanwhile, is unlikely as well because the costs would be astronomical (and the prospects for success bleak).

Fourth, and despite this conclusion, exploring the benefits, costs, and risks of opting for or rejecting mutual vulnerability with China is useful because it forces US analysts to reflect on the type of strategic nuclear relationship that Washington should pursue (and can have) with Beijing. Because it is so fundamental, even if analysts draw very different–and sometimes polar opposite–conclusions, asking the mutual vulnerability question compels the United States to identify, and distinguish between, the realm of the desirable and that of the possible to deal with nuclear China.

What insights can be teased out from these findings?

The first is that states reluctantly acknowledge, let alone accept, that they are mutually vulnerable. Even when they do, they often try to escape that situation either because they worry about new technological developments that will checkmate them, or because they fear that the other party (or parties) might cheat on their commitments not to seek superiority or dominance over them. There is no reason to think that it would be different in the US-China context, especially given that the relationship extends far beyond the sole “strategic nuclear” dimension.

The second insight is that while it is unlikely to be settled any time soon, the mutual vulnerability question will haunt US-China strategic relations and probably gain increasing salience because China’s military power is rising fast. Washington, then, should be clear-eyed about its options: it can embrace mutual vulnerability; reject it and do everything it can to try and escape it; or maintain its current approach, i.e., decide not to decide. Each of these options presents important benefits, costs, and risks; none provides a silver bullet.

The third insight is that the rationale for choosing or rejecting mutual vulnerability is as important as the manner it is made and conveyed. Paying attention to the ways and means, then, is critical. Either way, expectations should be low in the short term: the road after choosing or rejecting mutual vulnerability will be the start of a long process, not the end. The United States should expect questions about why and how to maintain its chosen course of action to remain active.

The fourth insight is that balancing US policy between China and its allies will be challenging regardless of whether the United States chooses or rejects mutual vulnerability. In all circumstances, however, the United States should consult with its allies before deciding its course of action to ensure there is (sufficient) agreement. Doing so will help reduce anxieties and increase the odds that allied capitals will assist when and if they are needed to implement the decision.

The fifth and final insight is that the United States should not lose sight of the bigger picture. Because US-China strategic relations are evolving in an era of nuclear multipolarity, a decision to choose or reject mutual vulnerability will have knock-on effects. At the most general level, acknowledging mutual vulnerability would signal that there is a pathway to nuclear diplomacy, whereas rejecting it (even de facto) would suggest that the focus is more squarely on nuclear deterrence. Other states, notably Russia or North Korea, will notice and possibly adapt their policy and posture.

In a recent speech at the George Washington University, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called China “the most serious long-term challenge to the international order,” adding that it is “one of the most complex and consequential relationships of any that we have in the world today.” Dealing with the mutual vulnerability question, over nuclear weapons and beyond, is at the very center of this problem.

David Santoro ( is President and CEO of the Pacific Forum. He is the editor of US-China Nuclear Relations – The Impact of Strategic Triangles (Lynne Rienner, May 2021). Follow him on Twitter @DavidSantoro1.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #30 – Australia’s election: Quad continuity and climate alignment, with nuclear disagreements

Sworn-in as Australia’s new prime minister, within hours Anthony Albanese was flying to Japan for the summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”).

An accident of timing—the May 24 summit following Australia’s May 21 election—offered the leader of the Australian Labor Party plenty of flying-start symbolism.

Departing Canberra for Tokyo, Albanese said the “message to the world” was that Australia had a new government that would lift policy on climate change, while emphasizing foreign policy continuity and the value of “friendships and long-time alliances.”

The Quad

Labor’s attitude to the Quad today (version 2.0) differs markedly from its rejection of the first version of the Quad.

Back in 2008, the Rudd Labor government walked away from Quad 1.0 because ties with Japan or India could endanger its relationship with China, as Kevin Rudd argued: “Australia would run the risk of being left high and dry as a result of future foreign policy departures in Tokyo or Delhi.”

Labor has gone from negative to positive about the Quad, reflecting the shift from positive to negative in Australia’s view of China. When Quad 2.0 was created in 2017, Labor matched the Liberal-National Coalition government’s enthusiasm for the reborn grouping.

Albanese, a minister in the government that sank Quad 1.0, told the Tokyo summit that his government’s priorities aligned with the Quad agenda: “I acknowledge all that the Quad has achieved. Standing together for a free, open, and resilient Indo-Pacific region. And working together to tackle the biggest challenges of our time, including climate change and the security of our region. My government is committed to working with your countries and we are committed to the Quad.”


Labor’s policy states that it will aim at “maximi[zing] the potential of the important, bipartisan AUKUS agreement.” The language is a nod to the greatest defence achievement of the outgoing prime minister, Scott Morrison—the deal with the US and UK to build an Australian nuclear-powered submarine.

A Canberra jest is that while China was stunned by AUKUS, the most amazed people were in the US Navy. The US Navy line had always been that Australia should not bother asking for a nuclear sub, because the answer would be an emphatic refusal. As China sparked the rebirth of the Quad, so Beijing helped Washington change its mind about sharing submarine technology.

The Biden administration insisted it would go ahead with AUKUS only if Labor gave it solid backing. But Morrison waited four-and-a-half months before informing Labor. During the campaign, Albanese condemned Morrison for seeking political advantage by telling Labor about AUKUS the day before it was announced.

“It is extraordinary that the prime minister broke that faith and trust with our most important ally by not briefing Australian Labor on these issues,” Albanese said.

Morrison replied that he’d maintained full secrecy and did not want to give Labor the chance to leak details of the negotiations.

Now, Labor’s job is to make AUKUS work.

Changed China

Changes in China, and in Australian views toward China, have done their part to ensure bipartisan continuity on the Quad and AUKUS. A shared Labor-Liberal line throughout the campaign, with a three-word expression, was to blame Beijing for the problems in the bilateral relationship: “China has changed.”

The diplomatic icy age is five years old. China has been doing the trade squeeze on Australia for two years. China’s ministers will not take phone calls from Australian ministers, nor respond to ministerial letters.

As he headed for Tokyo, Albanese commented: “The relationship with China will remain a difficult one. … It is China that has changed, not Australia. And Australia should always stand up for our values. And we will in a government that I lead.”

Beijing could use the new government in Canberra as the opportunity for a reset, linking it to the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations in December. First, though, China must reverse the billions of dollars of thinly disguised political trade bans imposed on Australian exports, or as Labor’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong puts it: “Desist from its coercive economic positions.”

The first step from Beijing was a message of congratulations to Albanese from Premier Li Keqiang saying, “The Chinese side is ready to work with the Australian side to review the past, look into the future and uphold the principle of mutual respect and mutual benefit, so as to promote the sound and steady growth of their comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Australia chooses the United States

A Canberra refrain of earlier decades was that Australia didn’t have to choose between China and the US.

No longer. Australia has chosen because of what China has become.

In the election foreign policy debate at the National Press Club, Wong said the no-choice duality was the way John Howard’s government (1996-2007) could balance the principal strategic relationship with the US and the principal economic relationship with China. That no-choice balance was gone, Wong stated: “Clearly, the way in which economic power is being utilized for strategic purposes means that duality, as a model of engagement, is no longer the case. I would make this point, though—we have actually already chosen. We have an alliance that’s over 70 years old, between us and the US, an alliance with deep bipartisan support. So we have already chosen.”

Wong used Madeleine Albright’s phrase, saying the US remained the “indispensible partner” in the reshaping of the region, while Australia must do much more with partners in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

The “we’ve chosen” message from Wong is an echo and an answer to a set of question that nagged at Washington in the first decade of this century: How far would Australia lean towards China?

The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell, says Australia’s response to China’s coercion had resolved US doubts about Canberra: “Frankly, if you’d asked me 10 years ago what country was most likely to start thinking about ‘we have to have a different kind of relationship with China and maybe think differently about the United States,’ it might have been Australia. I think that is completely gone now.”

Banning nuclear weapons

Labor has promised to sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. For Albanese, this is both policy commitment and personal belief. At Labor’s national conference in 2018, Albanese moved the motion to make the treaty party policy.

He recounted how one of his mentors on Labor’s left wing, Tom Uren, had been a prisoner of war on an island close to Nagasaki, and “saw there the second atomic bomb with his own eyes. He came back, having fought for Australia, a fighter for peace and disarmament.”

Albanese said the nuclear ban should be core business for Labor, and is following Labor tradition, campaigning against nuclear weapons while holding tight to the extended deterrence offered by the US alliance, as outlined by the Keating Labor government’s 1994 Defence White Paper:

“The Government does not accept nuclear deterrence as a permanent condition. It is an interim measure until a total ban on nuclear weapons, accompanied by substantial verification provisions, can be achieved. In this interim period, although it is hard to envisage the circumstances in which Australia could be threatened by nuclear weapons, we cannot rule out that possibility. We will continue to rely on the extended deterrence of the US nuclear capability to deter any nuclear threat or attack on Australia. Consequently, we will continue to support the maintenance by the United States of a nuclear capability adequate to ensure that it can deter nuclear threats against allies like Australia.”

In his talks with US President Joe Biden, Albanese can promise that a Labor government will be much closer to the US position on climate change than the previous Liberal-National coalition government.

Instead, the new difference between the two allies will be over nuclear weapon­s.­

Bridging this difference looks an impossible quest. Managing it will involve Australia talking more openly about the extended deterrence bargain. Such a debate will build on what has been a long discussion of Australia’s calculations and commitments in hosting the key US signals intelligence base at Pine Gap.

In adopting the UN treaty, the Albanese government will draw on the alliance approaches used in earlier eras to deal with the United States’ neither-conform-nor-deny nuclear policy; the creation of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone treaty; and the lessons Canberra took when New Zealand crashed out of ANZUS alliance 36 years ago because of its anti-nuclear policy.

The 70-year history of the alliance gives plenty of guidance on using broad agreement to balance individual policy differences.

Graeme Dobell ( is Journalist Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He has been reporting on Australian and international politics, foreign affairs and defense, and the Asia-Pacific since 1975.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #29 – Hints of a new North Korea nuclear strategy

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Japan Times.

For more from this author, visit his recent chapter of Comparative Connections.

Make no mistake: North Korea leader Kim Jong Un truly believes he needs nuclear weapons.

For years, that need reflected a single objective: the protection and maintenance of his regime. A nuclear arsenal was a defensive tool—a deterrent—to ensure that no foreign power would attack his country and end the Cold War division of the Korean Peninsula. Kim’s rationale for possessing nuclear weapons seems to be shifting and his rhetoric and accompanying military developments indicate a new focus—the acquisition of a war-fighting capability.

In the May 9 Japan Times, Gabriel Dominguez argued that North Korea wants nuclear weapons to “offset its weaknesses against the superior conventional military capabilities of the United States and regional allies Japan and South Korea.” I’m inclined to a more ominous explanation. Kim wants nuclear weapons for coercion. It looks as though Kim has resurrected his grandfather’s dream of unifying the whole of Korea under Pyongyang’s flag—and nuclear weapons will assist him in that quest.

Since they began in 2003, an uncomfortable fact has clouded negotiations to get North Korea to give up its nuclear capability: Pyongyang’s commitment to the development and acquisition of a nuclear weapon is absolute, a requisite for regime survival that cannot be bargained away. For all the talk of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization or its subsequent variants, that wasn’t a real option.

Negotiations had two unspoken goals for the United States and like-minded governments. First, talks would buy time so pressures would build and force the collapse of North Korea. Second, they would reveal Pyongyang as unreasonable and intransigent and rally other governments behind a policy that would pressure the North to give up its weapons or collapse.

The regime proved more durable—and lucky—than many anticipated. It survived the negotiations and kept the other five parties in the Six Party Talks from uniting against it and forcing it to make concessions. It exploded its first nuclear device in October 2006, while the talks continued and has conducted five tests since—the last in September 2017. There are reports that a seventh test may occur sometime soon, perhaps in days.

Equally important has been Pyongyang’s determination to hone its delivery systems. It has steadily developed its missiles, lengthening their range, increasing throw weight, and improving mobility, which requires greater accuracy in targeting. Most recently, it is thought to be miniaturizing components, allowing it to send more payloads farther.

This year, North Korea has conducted a record 16 missile tests as of mid-May, including the testing of two intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the US homeland and a guided missile that can reportedly deliver a tactical nuclear weapon. A May 7 test-launch featured a submarine-launched ballistic missile; such missiles are harder to detect, and better-suited to a surprise attack.

The focus on smaller nuclear weapons is particularly worrisome, because it suggests that Kim now thinks he can fight a war with a tactical nuclear weapon.

Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on the North who teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul, has been sounding the alarm. He told the Financial Times that North Korea’s strategy has changed. A program that was initially “purely defensive”—a product of fears that “without nuclear weapons they would be invaded”—is now “clearly overkill from a defensive point of view.” The new capabilities make Lankov “strongly suspect that their ultimate dream is to assert their control over South Korea.”

That was his grandfather’s dream, one that he tried to make real in 1950 with a bloody, ill-fated invasion of the South. Later, Kim Il Sung appears to have accepted co-existence with South Korea after the Cold War, although we’ll never know his actual intent in agreeing to a nuclear deal with Jimmy Carter, a proxy for President Bill Clinton, in 1994. Kim Il Sung died soon after. I’m inclined to believe that his son, Kim Jong Il, knew that reunification was impossible given the balance of forces he inherited and the appalling shape of his country.

Recent statements by Kim Jong Un and other senior officials suggest those grand ambitions have been revived. Kim last month spoke of a “secondary mission” for the country’s nuclear forces, adding that “our nuclear (arsenal) cannot be tied to this one mission of war prevention.”

Gibum Kim, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a government-funded think tank, emailed that development of nonstrategic, low-yield nuclear weapons is consistent with statements from Kim and other officials “that they are working toward ‘diversification,’ ‘miniaturization,’ and ‘lightening.’” He also said that ambition is much longer lived, pointing to a 2016 order of Kim’s to the North Korean military to “convert (their) mode of military counteraction toward the enemies into a pre-emptive attack one in every aspect.”

Paul Choi, a military expert in Seoul, agrees with Gibum and Lankov. “North Korea’s advancing military capabilities and changing nuclear doctrine reflect Kim’s pursuit of a more coercive strategy and posture,” he explained in an email. Pyongyang “seeks to control escalation, if not dictate the terms of conflict (including its termination), and be the dominant force (the product of capabilities, commitment, and threshold of risk).” Especially worrying is Choi’s assessment that tactical nuclear weapons are aimed at being able to prevail in a fight that may include territorial expansion.

External developments have no doubt reinforced Pyongyang’s thinking. Western governments’ concern about Russian nuclear escalation to break the stalemate in Ukraine makes the North Korean pulse quicken. Western restraint and refusal to put boots on the ground as it supports Kyiv seems to underscore the deterrent effect of nuclear threats. But, Choi cautioned, North Korea is also learning “about the formidable challenge of controlling any territory with a resisting population.”

A second external development is the return to power of a conservative president in Seoul. New President Yoon Suk-yeol has promised to prioritize the alliance with the US over inter-Korean relations, which will deprive Pyongyang of a vocal advocate in otherwise skeptical capitals.

A senior member of the presidential transition committee, who worked on foreign affairs and national security, agreed that Kim Jong Un shares his grandfather’s dream of unifying the Peninsula under the North. “Diplomacy and negotiation for denuclearization have always been tools to earn more time and political space to continuously develop nuclear weapons,” the committee member says. “For Pyongyang, military threat is leverage to force the US and the ROK to accept nuclear arms reduction negotiations, a peace treaty, withdrawal of (US forces in Korea) and eventually a socialized Korean peninsula.”

Note, however, that those developments reinforce North Korean thinking. Pyongyang has its own logic and central to that thinking is the necessity of a nuclear capability; recent developments confirm existing beliefs. Or to put it differently, the outside world has limited ability to redirect North Korean policy.

There is no need to hyperventilate, however. Coercion and expansion may be the goals, but they both remain beyond Kim’s grasp. South Korea is not Ukraine. It’s a treaty ally and US commitments, conventional and nuclear, are steadfast. I’ve heard North Korean officials talk about a relationship with the US akin to that of the Soviet Union, which was characterized by nuclear parity. That’s a fantasy. A nuclear threat is not the equivalent of mutually assured destruction.

The North has a long way to go to turn its ambitions into reality. Gibum Kim explained that a test or two (or 16) isn’t enough. North Korea would have to spend lots of money to build the logistical infrastructure for nuclear use and maintenance, train for nuclear use and, “most unimaginable of all,” prepare to delegate authority to field commanders for nuclear use in wartime.

Still, the US, South Korea, and Japan must plan on continued acquisition and sharpening of North Korean nuclear capabilities and prepare to better deter and defend. Yoon has said that he wants to work more closely with Washington and Tokyo to do that, and President Joe Biden is reportedly going to reiterate nuclear assurances to US allies during his trip to the region beginning this week.

The signals must be clear to discourage Kim Jong Un from reviving those dangerous dreams of unification or miscalculating his way into a nuclear conflict.

Brad Glosserman ( is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #28 — Comparative Connections Summary: May 2022

Comparative Connections Summary:
January-April 2022


Ukraine Seizes the Headlines Amid Mounting Concerns About China


International attention during the first trimester of 2022 quite naturally focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, amid heavy (and often breathless) speculation regarding its political, security, and economic implications for Asia in general and China-Taiwan in particular. Largely overlooked (except by us) has been the release of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and the classified versions of the National Defense Strategy (NDS), Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), and Missile Defense Review (MDR). Still missing in the Indo-Pacific Strategy are specifics regarding the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), first unveiled (sans details) by President Biden at last October’s East Asia Summit, which supposedly encompasses the trade and economic dimension of the administration’s Asia policy. Also still missing is the all-encompassing National Security Strategy (NSS), which traditionally precedes these documents. It was reportedly sent back to the drawing board following the Russian attack.



Russian Invasion Accelerates Alliance Review


The US and Japan began the year with a 2+2 meeting, continuing their close coordination on alliance preparedness and regional coalition-building. COVID-19 affected the two allies’ diplomatic schedule, however, as the omicron variant spread quickly in Washington, DC. Once again, an in-person meeting between the secretaries of state and defense and their counterparts, ministers of foreign affairs and defense, had to be moved online. Moreover, resolving the management of COVID by US Forces Japan with Japan’s own protocols was on the agenda. But the US and Japanese governments met another challenge with alacrity: the conclusion of a new Host Nation Support agreement. With an emphasis on alliance resilience, this five-year provision of Japanese support for the US military in Japan handily sidestepped some of the political difficulties that have colored talks in the past.



Putin’s War Further Strains US-China Ties


US-China relations sank to new lows in the opening months of 2022. The year began with a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics by the US and nine other countries that objected to PRC policies against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, with another five countries citing the pandemic as the reason for not sending government representatives. A meeting between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the eve of the Olympics produced a lengthy joint statement that highlighted the depth and breadth of the China-Russia strategic partnership and raised alarm in Washington as well as in European capitals. US-China ties soured further when the Biden administration shared intelligence with Beijing revealing that Moscow planned to invade Ukraine, but instead of seeking to prevent the war, China gave the information to Russia and refused to act. Once war broke out, US officials warned China repeatedly against providing material support to the Russian economy or military. The Chinese refused to criticize Russia, however, and instead blamed the war on the United States. US and Chinese defense chiefs held their first—and long overdue—phone call. At every opportunity, Chinese officials warned the US to stop supporting Taiwan independence. The US sent several senior delegations to Taiwan, approved the sale of $100 million in equipment and services to support the Patriot Air Defense System, and sailed three warships through the Taiwan Strait.


When It Rains, It Pours


Winter/Spring 2022 was a dynamic, clarifying time in US-Korea relations, following repetitiousturbid reporting periods in 2021. South Korea geared up for and held a presidential election, won with a razor-thin margin by conservative Yoon Suk-yeol. His new administration, replacing the progressive government of term-limited Moon Jae-in, promises to place very different accents on the US-South Korea alliance and inter-Korean relations. Washington is relieved to see Yoon assume office, as US senior leadership, policymakers, and alliance managers are comfortable with his foreign and security/defense policy team. Moon and his progressives did plenty to advance the US-South Korea alliance, but their parochial, Peninsula-focused diplomacy was occasionally a source of friction and often seemingly quixotic vis-à-vis North Korea. The Yoon administration is poised to attempt to make the US-South Korea alliance more comprehensive geographically and functionally, although conservative administrations also pose their own idiosyncratic risks to the US-ROK alliance.



Cold-War Era Differences & Indo-Pacific Synergies


2022 started with a surging omicron wave, followed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a global food, energy, and supply shortage crisis that impacted a wide range of sectors. The United States and India worked collaboratively and individually to put out these fires over the first four months of 2022, becoming more aware of synergies to build on and differences to address. In particular, in the first four months of 2022 bilateral ties witnessed success in their joint efforts. The Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership between the US and India was in action through cooperation on vaccines and COVID-19-related supply chain resiliency initiatives. Over the first four months of 2022, India removed several agricultural trade barriers, the US unveiled its Indo-Pacific Strategy, foreign and defense ministers held the 2+2 meeting, and there were several phone conversations and in-person meetings between the two administrations discussing Ukraine, Afghanistan, and other South Asian and Indo-Pacific issues.



Regional Powers Cast Long Shadows: ASEAN Grapples with New Dynamics


In the early months of 2022 the Russian invasion of Ukraine had a major, if indirect, impact on Southeast Asia and its relations with the major powers. Rising commodity prices and added disruptions in global supply chains caused by the invasion threatened to erase economic gains following the damage of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021. ASEAN splintered in its response to the invasion, putting further strain on an institution already buckling under the worsening conflict in Myanmar. A year past the coup in Naypyidaw, the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus Plan has barely moved forward.



Diminished Priority as Ukraine Distracts America


Southeast Asia stopped being China’s high priority as Beijing viewed US initiatives to compete with China in the region as flagging amid preoccupation with the war in Ukraine. Chinese diplomacy added to the reasons Southeast Asian governments generally eschewed support for US-backed sanctions against Russia and carefully avoided major controversy in UN votes on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. A Chinese-Solomon Islands security deal resulted in more US and allied attention to the Pacific Islands than ever before, surpassing rare past instances of concern over interventions by the Soviet Union, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and others in an area usually considered of low strategic importance.



Taiwan and China Seek Lessons from Ukraine as Taiwan’s International Position Strengthens


The year 2022 in cross-Strait relations began quite predictably. Both sides repeated their calls for reconciliation, but in completely incompatible terms. Chinese leaders signaled somewhat obscurely that a new tougher Taiwan policy might be announced at the Chinese Communist Party’s Twentieth Party Congress scheduled for this fall, which could further increase cross-Strait tensions. This predictability was upended by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. China insisted that this international confrontation had no lessons for the purely domestic matter of reunifying Taiwan. Nonetheless, China, Taiwan, and the US have all begun seeking military lessons from the Ukraine War. Taiwan and the US have intensified their discussion as to whether and how aggressively Taiwan should adopt an asymmetric defense relying on the small portable weapons—Javelins, Stingers, and others—that have thus far proven so successful in Ukraine. Diplomatically, the Biden administration has struggled to reassure China that it continues to honor the One-China Policy introduced in the Shanghai Communique 50 years ago even as it signals renewed support for Taiwan’s security. China’s support for Russia has antagonized Europe, Taiwan continues to enjoy success in international diplomacy, and Pacific allies Japan and Australia have become more explicit in their support for cross-Strait stability.



From Moon to Yoon: End of an Era


The first months of 2022 were also the last of Moon Jae-in’s presidency. Inter-Korean relations have been frozen for the past three years, and 2022 saw no change there. In April Moon exchanged letters with Kim Jong Un, whose warm tenor belied the reality on the ground. The North was already testing more and better missiles faster than ever, and tearing down ROK-built facilities at the shuttered Mount Kumgang resort. Days after his billets-doux with Moon, speaking at a military parade, Kim threatened ominously to widen the contexts in which his ever-improving nuclear arsenal might be used.



Beijing Olympic Tensions, North Korea’s Testing Spree, and South Korea’s New Conservative Leadership


The first four months of 2022 marked a turn toward difficult terrain in the China-South Korea relationship, including the challenge of managing conflicting expressions of patriotism during the Beijing Olympics. The Olympics opening ceremonies were attended by National Assembly Speaker Park Byung-seug, South Korea’s second-highest-ranking official by protocol, despite the US imposition of a “diplomatic boycott.” North Korea’s dozen missile tests since January 2022 included a “new” ICBM launch in March ahead of the 110thanniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth and Yoon Suk-yeol’s presidential inauguration. The latest tests drove China-South Korea dialogue, new US sanctions, and reassertions from Beijing that US actions remain the decisive factor in resolving the peninsula problem. Beijing’s hosting of the Olympics and Pyongyang’s commemorations of Kim anniversaries presented opportunities for jointly reaffirming China-North Korea friendship. Despite signs of rebounding economic activity after the resumption of cross-border freight train operations in January, China’s COVID-19 lockdowns remain a source of uncertainty.



The Cold Peace Continues


Intermittent declarations of intent to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the normalization of relations notwithstanding, China-Japan tensions continued unabated. No high-level meetings were held between the two, but rather between each and its respective partners: China with Russia, and Japan with members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as well as separately, with Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. All of the latter had apprehension over Chinese expansionism as their focus. Both the Chinese and Japanese economies sputtered in response to COVID lockdowns and the rising cost of energy but trade relations were robust and expected to increase as the number of new COVID cases declines. However, each side continued to develop its military capabilities, with China continuing to voice irritation with Japan for its obvious, though largely tacit, support for Taiwan’s autonomy.


South Korea’s New President and a Seoul-Tokyo Reset?


What impact will the victory of Yoon Seok-yul in South Korea’s presidential elections have on Seoul-Tokyo relations? During his campaign, Yoon repeatedly emphasized the “strategic importance of normalizing” and improving relations with Japan. It was an open secret that Yoon was Tokyo’s preferred candidate. With his May inauguration, opportunities for a diplomatic reset are on the horizon. Unsurprisingly, however, Japan is responding cautiously to overtures. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio sent his foreign minister to Yoon’s inauguration on May 10, instead of attending himself, especially as he looks to the Upper House election in July. Seoul and Tokyo will probably schedule a long-awaited summit meeting when they begin to move toward addressing the issue of wartime forced laborers. That issue has strained bilateral ties since the South Korean Supreme Court ruled in favor of Korean wartime forced laborers in separate decisions in late 2018, leading to drawn-out legal processes against the court orders. Yoon’s election win has not changed the Japanese position, which maintains that the reparations issue was fully settled by the 1965 normalization treaty.


Ukraine Conflict Déjà vu and China’s Principled Neutrality


Perhaps more than any month in history, February 2022 will come to symbolize how the states of peace and war can flip-flop in a few days, with dire consequences for the global order. On Feb. 21, just one day after the closing ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Russia announced its official recognition of the independence of the two breakaway regions (Donetsk and Luhansk) of Ukraine. Three days later, Russia launched its “special military operation” in Ukraine to end the “total dominance” and “reckless expansion” of the United States on the world stage (in the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov). As the West imposed sanctions on Russia and rushed arms into Ukraine, China carefully navigated between the warring parties with its independent posture of impartiality.


Normative Challenges in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific


Despite the lingering effects of COVID-19 and another change in leadership in Tokyo, Japan and Southeast Asian states continued to strengthen their functional cooperation. To counter the negative impact of the pandemic, Japan continued to donate vaccines to ASEAN member states. Economically, Japan and ASEAN together with other regional states concluded the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in January 2022. Militarily, Japan conducted the Indo-Pacific Deployment 2021 (IPD21) from August to November 2021, which has become a regularized defense deployment. Further, Japan had the very first bilateral Foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting with the Philippines in April 2022. Diplomatically, Japan and ASEAN closely consulted with each other to enhance cooperation for the realization of Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) vision and ASEAN’s “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” (AOIP). However, Japan-Southeast Asia relations now face new normative challenges regarding how their approach to liberal values, such as rule of law and democracy/human rights in the Indo-Pacific region because of the prolonged Myanmar political crisis and the 2022 Russo-Ukraine war.


PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors.

PacNet #27 – What Yoon Suk Yeol’s election means for minority rights in South Korea

Yoon Suk Yeol’s election generated two different kinds of responses: one marked by self-congratulation and another by resignation. Those who subscribed to the former saw the peaceful transfer of power, evident in Yoon’s opponent Lee Jae-myung’s swift concession, as a sign of the country’s democratic health. Those who fell in the latter category found much to be dismayed by Yoon’s victory and the Trumpian politics he symbolized.

Both views contain truths. South Korea did not suffer the kind of contentious aftermath that one saw, for instance, in the United States following the 2016 election. Yet Yoon’s campaign—though perfectly legal—capitalized on the country’s uglier impulses. If this election suggested resilience of South Korea’s democratic institutions, it also revealed the limitations of its democratic culture.

This “democratic ceiling” has important implications for how the country under Yoon’s leadership might treat its under-represented populations, including women and other social minorities. Yoon’s callousness—even if merely rhetorical at this point—is dangerous, because it can fuel a culture of neglect that undercuts the institutional maturity of South Korea’s nascent anti-discrimination regime.

A democratic ceiling

Discrimination against women in South Korea has continued in spite of institutional protections, which suggests problems of enforcement rather than provision. From the Sexual Equality Employment Act (1987), Women’s Development Act (1995), to the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Protection of Victim Act (1997), South Korea has advanced legal mechanisms to promote and protect gender equality. Yet, these laws have had limited impact in ensuring equal treatment of women at work, on which South Korea ranks the lowest among OECD countries; closing gender pay gaps, of which South Korea maintains a striking 31.5%; and curtailing gender-based violence, on which South Korean courts have remained notoriously lenient. Cultural barriers—from the victim’s stigma to the double standards of law enforcement—have undermined institutional mechanisms for addressing gender inequity.

Even so, Yoon has repeatedly stated that structural discrimination based on gender does not exist in South Korea. During the campaign, he made a controversial promise to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, tasked with tackling gendered inequities mentioned above; instead, he accused the officials of treating men as “potential sex criminals.” At the same time, Yoon blamed feminism for the country’s low birth rates, claiming that it “prevents healthy relations between men and women.” Such misogynistic narratives bode ill for a much-needed policy reappraisal on the social and economic status of women in South Korean society.

The situation is even more bleak when it comes to members of the LGBTQ community and migrant workers, for whom there are fewer institutional protections. Besides the Military Criminal Act (1962), which outlaws sexual acts among soldiers regardless of consent, Yoon’s stance on LGBTQ rights has been one of willful silence. Meanwhile, despite the provisions of the Multicultural Families Support Act (2008), migrant workers and their families have little to no concrete recourse when faced with discriminatory treatment. Migrant women—especially foreign-born brides who come to South Korea through brokered marriages—have suffered greatly as a result, with limited social networks and access to redress.

In this context, Yoon’s rhetoric may also impede efforts to further institutionalize anti-discrimination initiatives. So far, he has made only ambiguous commitments to recognizing the right to choose sexual orientation, citing the “social impact” of “denying biologically assigned genders.” Tactless comments can be also found about migrant workers; in one social media post, Yoon pledged to “resolve the issue of foreigners laying their spoon on a dinner table set by Koreans.” These queer-intolerant and ethno-nationalist narratives may exacerbate demands for more exclusive policies among his socially conservative constituents.

To be fair, Yoon has not been dismissive of all minority rights issues. He has made a welcome pledge to implement the North Korean Human Rights Act (2016), which would advance the livelihoods of North Korean refugees. The law seeks, among other things, to secure the safety of defectors and support South Korean civil society organizations working to raise awareness of human rights conditions in the North. Both courses of action could have direct and indirect impacts on the welfare of North Korean refugees in their journey to, and resettlement in, South Korea.

Yet, selective efforts to advance defector rights—disconnected from a broader anti-discrimination agenda—may generate charges of hypocrisy. The plight of North Korean refugees has been the subject of growing policy incoherence as it became increasingly politicized of late. Sadly, as long as it remains a tool of partisan politicking, progress on North Korean refugee policy will likely be superficial and transitory.

A policy reversal?

It is unclear to what extent Yoon’s narratives will bind him to exclusionary policies in practice. What appears more certain is that these narratives have awakened and mobilized previously silent forces that do support such policies and will want Yoon to keep his promises. Unless he is willing to make a dramatic policy reversal—apart from his campaign narratives—the future seems inhospitable for the advancement of minority rights in South Korea.

Eun A Jo ( is Non-resident Korea Foundation Fellow at Pacific Forum and a Ph.D candidate in the Government Department at Cornell University.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #26 – Why South Koreans See Little Difference in Biden’s North Korea Policy

Does the South Korean public see a difference in the American administrations when it comes to North Korea? Our survey data suggests most do not.

Each US president since Bill Clinton has tried to convince North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, and each has failed. As such, the extent to which the South Korean public sees a difference across administrations is unclear, although previous data found that the public strongly opposed the Trump administration’s demand of a fivefold increase in payments from South Korea toward hosting US troops in the country.

We conducted a national web survey in South Korea on March 11-16, administered by Macromill Emrbain, using quota sampling for age, gender, and geographic region. We asked 1,107 respondents: “Which US administration do you think had a better North Korea policy?”

A clear majority (57.45%) believe that the Trump and Biden administrations were about the same concerning North Korea policy. This option was selected the most across supporters of the two largest parties, the progressive Democratic Party (DP) and conservative People Power Party (PPP), but also the smaller parties (the social democratic Justice Party (JP) and the center-right People’s Party (PP)), as well as those with no party preference. Across all groups, respondents were slightly more likely to have chosen the Biden administration over the Trump administration as having a “better” policy, even though Biden has not publicly said much about North Korea. There was no additional question as to why this was chosen, but respondents could be evaluating Biden’s leadership style or personality traits, or weighing Trump’s demands for South Korea to pay a substantially higher cost share, rather than responding to specific North Korea policy.

We also asked respondents to evaluate, on a five-point scale (“strongly oppose” to “strongly support”) how they feel about the presence of American military bases in South Korea. We found 55.83% of respondents supported the presence, compared to 10.84% in opposition. Views of the two administrations, broken down by opinions on the US troop presence, reveal the same pattern as before: a majority (or at least plurality) say that the Trump and Biden administrations were about the same. However, we also find that those more supportive of the US presence are more likely to pick one administration as better than the other. Why this is the case is unclear, though it may reflect greater attention to the United States or interest in security matters.

The results of our data reflect increasing ambivalence about North Korea among the South Korean public. As with previous survey research, our survey found that less than 10% of respondents thought about North Korea frequently. While missile tests and worsening relations between Seoul and Pyongyang may reengage the public temporarily, continued engagement remains a challenge.

The results potentially have implications for President-Elect Yoon Suk-yeol. Yoon’s policy proposals center around policy alignment with the United States, improving relations with Japan and Southeast Asia, bolstering defenses, and stricter enforcement of the North Korean Human Rights Act. Our data suggests that Yoon’s approach could encounter resistance domestically. The election of Yoon suggests a public that wants a departure from the engagement policies of Moon. Yet, the general lack of attention by the public to North Korea suggests that the public will only reengage on North Korea in light of a major breakthrough or if a crisis occurs, such as a resumption of nuclear tests or a military skirmish that results in South Korean deaths. If this is the case, and the public attributes such inter-Korean tensions to Yoon’s policy, a reengaged public may be less supportive of Yoon.

It is also currently unclear whether South Koreans understand the Biden administration’s policy and how it differs from his predecessor, suggesting the need for a clearer articulation of a North Korea policy by an administration focused on other areas such as Ukraine, inflation, and pandemic recovery. Rather, the public may assess the Biden administration not on policy differences, but as a return to a more predictable leadership style. With a new administration in Seoul, such positive evaluations may not continue, especially in the event of increased tensions or dramatic deterioration of security conditions on the peninsula.

Furthermore, Yoon has signaled support for pre-emptive strikes on North Korea under certain circumstances (e.g. signs that a North Korean missile launch towards South Korea is imminent), and it is unclear whether this, or other measures departing from how past Seoul administrations have handled Pyongyang, would receive support from the Biden administration. Increased public support for South Korea to procure nuclear weapons themselves may undermine efforts at a unified stance on North Korea. More broadly, a Biden administration unable to present a distinct North Korea policy, other than some middle ground between Obama and Trump, provides an opportunity for North Korea to exploit differences between the allies. This may lead to both inconsistent policies on deterrence as well as frustration in the Yoon administration as to its ability to strengthen ties with Washington, further encouraging Seoul to act independently of its alliance partner. The Biden administration should use this opportunity to signal its commitment to the US-ROK alliance via a coordinated response to North Korea, while the Yoon administration may wish to dampen expectations that the South Korean public will identify much of a change out of Washington.

Timothy S. Rich ( is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL).

Ian Milden ( is a recent graduate from the Master’s in Public Administration program at Western Kentucky University. He previously graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and History from Western Kentucky University.

Mallory Hardesty ( is an honors undergraduate student researcher at Western Kentucky University majoring in History and Political Science.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #25 – A Black Sea humanitarian food corridor to Odessa

One of the many tragic consequences of the war in Ukraine has been its impact on world food supplies and prices, and since this is a lag effect, it will only become worse over the next few months. David Beasley, former governor of South Carolina and current head of the World Food Program (WFP), has sought to spotlight this looming crisis. On CBS’ 60 Minutes this past week, he noted that Ukraine is a breadbasket that helps feeds some 400 million people globally and called for world leaders to open a sea lane for food from Odessa. Although he avoided suggesting how, it is a timely idea that should be pursued, especially by those countries and organizations most affected.

Ukraine is the world’s largest producer and exporter of sunflower seeds used for edible cooking oil and the fifth-largest exporter of wheat. It also is a significant supplier of corn. The Rome-based WFP buys from Ukraine about half the grain it supplies to the world’s neediest. Ukraine is also among the largest suppliers of foodstuffs to the volatile Middle East, as is Russia. Thus, the stakes involved in a food corridor are not just about protecting people from hardship and starvation, but also maintaining political stability across the Islamic world and beyond.

Since Ukrainian exports are prevented by the Russian blockade, a proposal for a Black Sea humanitarian food corridor seeks to carve out a workable exception for agricultural exports as humanitarian goods. Ironically, as Ukrainians trapped in cities or fleeing in the war-torn eastern part of the country desperately search for food, the storage facilities elsewhere in Ukraine are stuffed to capacity from last year’s bumper harvest that farmers cannot bring to market today.

Some supplies trickle out through ports in Rumania and Bulgaria, but this is an expensive and logistically difficult route and can hardly substitute for the long-established direct route from Odessa. Moreover, Russia has repeatedly been striking at the Zatoka bridge carrying rail tracks over the Dniester Estuary on the coastal route to Rumania south of Odessa.

In the meantime, food prices in the Middle East are reaching record highs. Inventories of Ukrainian supplies exported before the war are now running low, and the outlook for next year would be bleak even in the unlikely event that the war soon ends. With fertilizers, fuels, and manpower in short supply and export markets mostly blocked, there are few incentives for Ukrainian farmers to plant new crops. Moreover, food shocks are reverberating around the world as other agricultural surplus countries are now husbanding supplies to protect domestic customers. For example, rising prices for vegetable oils have caused Indonesia to ban exports of palm oil, of which it is the world’s largest supplier. Droughts in other world food producing areas have also tightened markets. International initiatives to bring more food onto the market are urgently needed.

As a practical measure, Russia’s agreement would be required, just as it is for humanitarian corridors within Ukraine. Commercial shippers and, importantly, their insurers, must be convinced that ships, crews, and cargoes can move safely within a war zone. But since the purpose of Russia’s blockade is to cripple the Ukrainian economy and since high food prices benefit Russian exporters, why should Russia agree?

Russia should be challenged. It is, of course, heavily invested in Syria, where the WFP has forecast food price inflation could reach 100-200% in the coming year. Russia also seeks to cultivate ties elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa, which it needs today more than ever. Enough pressure from these regions may give Vladimir Putin some incentive to accept the humanitarian food corridor concept. If he does, Russian farmers will still enjoy high prices. Moreover, if Russia chooses to resist heightened pressure, it will suffer public relations and diplomatic consequences, providing more evidence of its callousness toward the world in its quest to revive its former empire.

The corridor would require largely symbolic naval escorts from perhaps Turkey, Egypt, or some other Middle East buying countries to assure shippers and insurers that it is for real. Russia would likely insist on inspections to ensure that military supplies were not reaching Ukraine through the route. Russia might also demand a funding mechanism to prevent Ukrainian foreign exchange earnings from going to its military effort. It could negotiate such details forever to give the appearance of cooperation, while in truth preventing agreement. The United Nations or other acceptable sponsoring entity, then, must strongly and visibly advocate the scheme with tight deadlines and efficient safeguards, forthrightly calling out petty delaying tactics.

The humanitarian food corridor should be a priority for developing countries, and it is they, not NATO, who must lead the initiative. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency for many such countries to see the war as a European or East-West conflict distant from their direct interests. Yet aside from the flagrant disregard for UN Charter principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity that help protect smaller nations, international food as well as energy prices are among the many ways the war is relevant to their needs and futures.

A food corridor, of course, would provide no solution to the many other global challenges that Putin’s aggression has caused or aggravated. Small steps, however, can sometimes lead to larger actions. The international community should not just react to Russia. It should proactively and urgently act on proposals that ameliorate the consequences of the conflict and bring it to an early and acceptable conclusion. A food corridor is a proposal worth pursuing.

Charles E. Morrison ( is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. He served as East-West Center president from 1998-2016, and serves for the Pacific Century Institute.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.