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American Hopes to Return to Prison Camp in North Korea

Since the Korean War, no American has spent longer in confinement in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea than Kenneth Bae. Yet Bae, released in 2014, wants to go back to see the guards who kept an eye on him in prison. As he told Seattle radio station KUOW on the 19th of this month, “I consider some of them as friends.” 

So is this a particularly bad case of Stockholm Syndrome? 

It’s not. Bae, a missionary, is out to educate the North Korean people, starting with those who kept him under lock and key in particularly harsh conditions.

During his confinement, Bae, a Southern Baptist minister, learned just how isolated North Korea has remained. Jesus Christ? One of his guards had never heard of him before. “Where does Jesus live?” his captor asked. “In China or North Korea?”

China’s Coming Demographic Crash

China’s official Xinhua News Agency reports that Beijing’s obstetrics wards are overflowing. The city, according to the Health and Family Planning Commission, expects  300,000 births this year, an increase of twenty percent or 50,000 over 2015. Xinhua estimates that 22 million babies will be born nationwide in 2016.  

Yet the talk about newborns seems to me a feeble attempt to mask a population crash that looms.  

Effective the beginning of this year, the Chinese central government relaxed the notorious one-child policy to permit two children per couple. The liberalization will increase the birth rate nationwide, but, apart from state media, few think the increase will halt a severe decline in population.

“It’s already too late,” says Yi Fuxian of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a critic of Chinese population policies. “China’s population is aging quickly and will start to shrink soon."

Kim Announces Vague Five-Year Economic Vitalization Plan

In his three-hour speech Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced his plan to vitalize the country’s beleaguered economy. “It is imperative to carry through the five-year strategy for the state economic development from 2016 to 2020,” he said, according to Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s most authoritative newspaper.

Kim’s plan provides no tangible goals or overarching strategies, but the young leader, speaking at the Korean Workers’ Party 7th Congress, seemed to signal he was serious about economic development. His plan is the first since the Third Seven-Year Plan, which ended—two years late—in 1995.

Regardless of the absence of detail, Kim, by emphasizing the economy last week, essentially made himself accountable to a largely impoverished population that values prosperity far more than ideology. As is said these days, the North now has a “money culture.”

Great Power Confrontation in the South China Sea

On Friday in Beijing, Sergey Lavrov and Wang Yi, the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers, presented a united stand against the US on a host of issues in their joint press conference.

Among the topics were Beijing’s territorial claims. “We are of the same view with Minister Lavrov that the disputes around the South China Sea should be settled peacefully through negotiations among the directly involved countries,” declared Wang. “We discussed the situation in the South China Sea,” Lavrov noted. “The Russian stance is invariable—these problems should not be internationalized—none of the external players should try to interfere in their settlement efforts.”

The irony, of course, is that Russia, a non-claimant, was involving itself by telling others not to involve themselves.

The US and Russia are not the only non-South China Sea states believing they have an interest in that contested body of water. India and, more recently, Japan have also made their presence felt, sending ships through what they consider to be a part of the global commons.

China’s ‘Triple Bubble’ Economy Poised to Burst

After a nearly disastrous start to the year in January and February, China’s economy steadied itself in March. Now, the early April indicators suggest a continuation of the uptick.

The China bulls, however, are premature in their projections of a sustained recovery. To the contrary, the economy appears poised to be a default or two away from a world-shaking crash.

When economic indicators look too good to be true, as China’s now do, they signal trouble ahead. There are two principal reasons why the present circumstances are cause for alarm. 

South Korea, US Can’t Wait for Beijing to Approve Missile Defense

On Monday, a South Korean official implored Beijing to understand his government’s desire to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, THAAD as the missile-defense system is known.

“I hope to ask China’s understanding of what Korea is feeling about the North Korean threat,” said Shin Beomchul, director general for policy planning of the Foreign Ministry, to an audience in Washington, D.C. “It is not the usual threat, it is a nuclear threat. That’s very serious. We are now in the live-or-die situation.”

To deal with this existential nuclear threat, the occupant of the Blue House has attempted various approaches during her tenure. President Park Geun-hye began her term with the “trustpolitik” policy of building trust with Pyongyang. When that failed, she started to speak of a unified and democratic Korean state.

China Takes Custody of Taiwan Nationals in Kenya

On Tuesday, Beijing took custody of 37 Taiwan nationals in Kenya and flew them to China. This followed China’s taking of eight other Taiwan citizens from that country on Saturday.

Nairobi said the 45 were "deported," but Minister Hsia Li-yan of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council used the term “rude and savage.” “Savage” may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the apprehension of the individuals, who arrived in China in hoods and handcuffs, appears to have been an “extrajudicial abduction,” as Taipei first termed it. In any event, the incident undercuts the spirit of cooperation embodied in the 2009 Cross-Strait Joint Crime-Fighting and Judicial Mutual Assistance Agreement.

Did Trigger-Happy North Korea Take a Shot at China?

On March 29, North Korea launched a projectile from a location near the port city of Wonsan. The ballistic missile or artillery shell traveled about 125 miles on a northeast path, in other words, toward China, landing near the border.

South Korean Defense Ministry analysts speculate that the North originally planned to fire the projectile out to sea but changed plans and pointed it inland instead due to last-minute problems. That seems highly unlikely, however, because if there were indeed problems they would not risk firing into China.

The NightWatch site maintains that the trajectory was intentional as well as “unprecedented.” In all probability, the North Koreans meant to send a hostile message to Beijing.

Relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seem to deteriorate by the week. They are each other’s only treaty ally, but in recent years ties have evidently eroded. Now, the bilateral relationship has become, in my view, the most fascinating one in the world to watch.

China's Show of Force in Indonesian Waters

China has called on Indonesia to release eight crew members from a fishing boat that was seized in mid-March. The tense standoff could be the result of a new phase of lawlessness in China’s behavior in the South China Sea.

 On the 19th, a Chinese coast guard vessel entered the sovereign waters of Indonesia off one of the Natuna Islands. Just 2.7 miles from shore, the Chinese vessel rammed a Chinese fishing boat, the Kway Fey, to free it as it was being towed by an Indonesian craft. Indonesia had just seized the Kway Fey for illegally fishing in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

 China’s embassy in Jakarta claimed the Chinese craft was in a “traditional Chinese fishing ground,” but there is no such concept either in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Beijing has ratified, or customary international law.

China’s 2016 Military Budget Up Only 7.6%

The biggest surprise to emerge from the highly scripted National People’s Congress annual meeting, which concluded last week in Beijing, was the announcement that the country’s military budget would increase a mere 7.6 percent this year. The figure is well below last year’s announced 10.1 percent jump and is the first single-digit rise since 2010, when the generals and admirals had to live with 7.5 percent.

Undoubtedly, the publicly announced budget does not include all military expenditures, but the percentage change is generally thought to indicate the spending trend line for the People’s Liberation Army.

Missile Defense in the Era of Kim Jong Un

“Our hydrogen bomb is much bigger than the one developed by the Soviet Union,” reported the state-run DPRK Today on Sunday. “If this H-bomb were to be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile and fall on Manhattan in New York City, all the people there would be killed immediately and the city would burn down to ashes.”

North Korea’s threat followed its release on Wednesday of pictures showing Kim Jong Un standing next to what was reported to be a nuclear warhead. Although the object—a shiny sphere that has been compared to a 1970s disco ball—was most likely a mock-up of a weapon in development, it is probably just a matter of years before his technicians build a real one.

China's Capacity to Project Power Is Going Global

Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China is looking to build “some infrastructure facilities and support abilities,” Beijing’s code for military bases, outside China. “I believe that this is not only fair and reasonable but also accords with international practice,” he said.

If Wang sounded defensive, it is because for decades China adamantly insisted it would never maintain such bases outside its borders.

At the moment, however, the Chinese navy is building “support facilities” in Obock in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, which guards the southern entrance to the strategically important Red Sea. The location is generally considered, inside China and elsewhere, as the first of the country’s foreign military bases.

More are on the way as China develops port projects around the Indian Ocean. Take the Chinese-funded Colombo International Container Terminal, for instance. In both September and October 2014, the Sri Lankan government allowed a Chinese submarine and its tender to dock there, which shocked and angered New Delhi.

As Trade Tumbles, China and Russia Inaugurate New Rail Line

On Saturday, China inaugurated a “new freight route” to Russia as a train left Harbin, the capital of northeastern Heilongjiang province, for Yekaterinburg in Russia, 5,889 kilometers away.

The new route will slice 30 days off the previous 40-day journey by land and sea.

Chinese and Russian media celebrated the departure of 47 containers carrying $1.46 million of bicycle parts and other light industrial products, mostly manufactured in southern China.

Beijing and Moscow are trying to keep up appearances, missing no opportunity to publicize economic ties. Many aspects of the relationship between the two capitals are blossoming, but trade is not one of them.

Last year, bilateral commerce between the two giants amounted to a miniscule $64.2 billion, down 27.8 percent from 2014 according to China Customs.

Obama Administration's Secret Overture to North Korea

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that at the turn of the year the Obama administration discussed the initiation of talks with North Korea with the goal of formally ending the Korean War, which was only suspended by a truce, not ended with a treaty, in 1953.

According to the Journal report, the White House dropped the US’s long-standing precondition that the North would have to end its nuclear program before talks could begin. Instead, the administration said that denuclearization would simply be an agenda item in the peace negotiations. The North reportedly rejected Obama’s overture, refusing to permit its nuclear program to even be placed on the agenda. Pyongyang then detonated a nuclear device on January 6, ending the White House’s “diplomatic gambit.”

The paper’s report, if true, indicates the Obama administration was willing to execute another stunning reversal of American policy by essentially accepting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a nuclear state and condoning its violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Could a Missile Defense Plan Turn China on North Korea?

On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry urged Washington to start direct talks with North Korea over its most destructive weapons.

“The focus of the nuclear issue on the peninsula is between the United States and North Korea,” said Hong Lei, ministry spokesman, at the daily news briefing. “We urge the United States and North Korea to sit down and have communications and negotiations, to explore ways to resolve each other’s reasonable concerns and finally reach the goal we all want reached.”

Beijing, with the urging of the Bush administration, had sponsored the so-called Six-Party Talks, which began in 2003. The concept was that progress was possible when the US and all regional stakeholders—China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea—were present in discussions with North Korea.

The White House thought that giving China a leading role would bring out the best in Beijing, which would then use its considerable leverage to “denuclearize” the Kim regime. North Korea and China are each other’s only formal ally.

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