Wednesday, January 30, 2013

America's Pacific Maginot Line Advantage in the Pacific

     Following the first World War, the war-weary state of France looked for a way to contain the defeated German state from pursuing a future military  offensive campaign  against it.  The final decision made by the French government was to invest in what was called the Maginot Line.  The defensive structure stretched for hundreds of miles across the French-German border, and was equipped with the most advanced artillery, anti-tank weaponry, turrets, and logistical capabilities that were available at the time.  The decision making process behind the process was simple: To make the border impenetrable from a German offensive.  The costs behind the construction and maintenance of the project would in today's monetary values run the total cost of the line to well over  6 billion dollars. 

While highly expensive, the French government felt that if the finished line would protect its borders against a German attack, then the investment would be justified.  However, as most history buffs are aware, the line was a massive failure.  While the Maginot Line has been confirmed by historians as being a viable defensive structure,the line only ran the length of the German border, and left its northern border with Belgium vulnerable.  While the French believed that the geographic terrain of the Ardennes Forest would be impossible for German tank divisions to maneuver through, they discovered in 1940 that they made a fatal error in assumption, as the German army stormed through the Belgian lowlands, flanked allied reinforcements that were assembled near the Northern of the Maginot Line, then proceeded to move nearly unopposed westward to Paris, forcing the surrender of the French government.  Now, one may ask "what does 1940s European military strategy have to do with present day east Asia?"  It is the argument of this author that if it is the United States government and military asking this question, the answer would be one word:  Plenty.

     As one examines the geographic layout of the East Asian Pacific region, it becomes apparent that China has major military  limitations to unimpeded access to large open areas in the Pacific Ocean.

In what is known as the first island chain, the countries of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines comprise most of the area in this chain.  There are other states that are included in this chain as well such as Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, which each has territory on the island of Borneo, and Vietnam, which occupies a strategic position closest to China's Hainan Province, which is the home to the PLAN's Yulin Naval base (榆林海军基地), which is often referred to as the "tip of the Chinese navy spear".  All of the countries listed have varying levels of concern regarding present and future ambitions of China in the region, in both a military and geopolitical sense, which further complicates China's desire to move from a green to a blue-water navy.  As the primary global force in the region since the end of the Second World War, the United States has created an atmosphere of stability in East Asia, which has allowed many of the above-mentioned states to thrive economically, and all actors in the region have strong reasons to maintain the current state of affairs in the region.  Thus, the United States Navy has two distinct advantages over the PLAN at the current time.  First it holds a geographic advantage that, in effect "box in" the Chinese Navy to a certain extent by limiting the options to which its Naval vessels can move towards the open sea.  Secondly, as previously mentioned, the United States holds a distinct advantage politically over China, due to the fact that many of these states see the United States as the stabilizer in the region, and are wary of what increased Chinese influence in the region may bring.  In essence the United States has a virtual Maginot Line in place in the East Asian region, as long as it utilized properly. 

Yet there are a number of eerie similarities between the French line in the 1930s, and the American Pacific line in 2013.  While the French poured in billions of dollars to ensure that the line had the latest military capabilities to counter any German threat, in the end it was the weak northern link and miscalculations in the geography of the region that allowed for a successful German operation into France.  Japan and South Korea  both have invested billions in modernizing and maintaining what are widely regarded as the two most advanced and capable naval fleets in the region, if not the world.  The United States has supplied  the state of the art  AEGIS combat weapon system that have been implemented into ships from both fleets, which allows for multiple target engagement simultaneously, a technology that matches the PLAN's 052C capabilities.  Both states allow for a solid northern defense of the virtual Pacific line from the American perspective. 

The Philippines in the central area of the line have begun a major overhaul of their naval capacity, including receiving transfers of decommissioned American vessels, including cutters equipped with harpoon anti-ship missiles, and modern over-the-horizon radar systems.  While not on par with their South Korean and Japanese counterparts, Manila has realized that it cannot protect its interests in the Scarborough Shoal area, and recent provocative language and actions by various Chinese military agencies in the area have pushed the Philippines to restructure its naval capabilities.  While this central area of the Pacific line is considerably weaker than the northern area, a mutual defense treaty between the United States and the Philippines, as well as a long history of cooperation and trust between the countries continue to solidify this area in terms of American power projection. 

In the South, Vietnam's recent purchase of six Kilo-class Russian submarines is widely regarded as a "game changer" in terms of its capabilities of area access denial.  Vietnam has long viewed Chinese ambitions in the region with suspicion, and learned of its naval shortcomings against the PLAN in 1988, where a short but intense battle took place over the Johnson South Reef, leaving 70 Vietnamese military personnel dead, while the PLAN only reported suffering one soldier with injury.  Vietnam has also thrown out diplomatic feelers to the United States regarding access to its newly refurbished Cam Ranh Bay, which is known as one of the premier deep water ports in the South China Sea region.

Russian made Kilo-class submarine model purchased by Vietnam, the entire fleet will be delivered to Vietnam by 2016

 With all of the above listed states recently adding significant upgrades to their respective Naval capabilities, it would appear that the American Pacific line is intact.  Washington has strong historical ties with many of the states listed, and conduct regular military exercises with these states.  In the case of Vietnam, all indications seem to point that closer military ties are on the horizon, yet when one looks at a map of the first island chain once more, there appears to be a glaring omission.

Taiwan, the country that a former U.S. ambassador once referred to as "the cork in China's bottle", is increasingly becoming the Ardennes Forest of the American Pacific line. 

While Taiwanese naval capabilities can still be considered modern and formidable, there are glaring weaknesses that could be exploited by an increasingly capable PLAN.  Since 1949, China has made no secret of its final objective of bringing Taiwan "back into the fold of the motherland", as it perceives Taiwan as a part of the People's Republic of China, even though it has not ever had a second of governing authority over the island during the course of its existence. Many of the resources, newly developed military platforms, and planning of the PLA have been done with a military operation towards Taiwan in mind.  Perhaps the primary reason that the backbone of the PLA is based upon development of effective short and medium range ballistic missiles (with over 1,400 based in China's southern provinces) is to allow for a massive crippling strike on the island, forcing a swift surrender.  While Taiwan's Navy continues to be upgraded by domestic development, as well as sporadic purchases from the United States, its naval bases fall well within the umbrella of Chinese missile range, raising the fear that it would not be able to withstand a first-strike attack from the PLA. Much similar to the French Maginot Line, in the case of conflict with Taiwan, Beijing could elect to simply bypass confrontation with the other advanced navies of the region, and if the United States was not able (or chose not to respond with military action) to stop such an attack, push through this defensive line at its weakest point. 

     Although at the present time it is a highly unlikely scenario, how would a Taiwan that was swallowed by China benefit the PRC in terms of naval power projection, and how would this effect the regional states, as well as the United States? Immediately, China would have access to two major deep water ports in Taiwan, Keelung in the north, and Khaosuing in the south.  The cork in the bottle would be taken out, and it would give a major boost to the PLAN's ability to project power in the region. Taiping island would then come under the jurisdiction of the PRC, allowing it a vital airstrip in the South China Sea, a region where it has claimed most of the territory as being sovereign Chinese territory.  The ability to have closer access to these areas could essentially push out weaker claimants, and potentially even cut off vital shipping lanes via naval blockades.  Regional states then could elect to a-) Rapidly increase naval capabilities with increased funding, or b-) increasingly side with a new power player in the region, thus severely reducing American influence in the region.  The PLAN would also have a dangerous proximity to American military bases in Okinawa, as well as a straight path to American installations in Guam.  Once the bottle is opened, it would likely be impossible to close it once more.

     In conclusion, it is a highly unlikely scenario in the short term that China will take overt military action towards Taiwan.  The scenario, however, is not out of the realm of possibility.  A weak link in the Pacific line, however, will open possibilities for the PLAN to expand its reach, and weaken American power projection in the region. Additionally, it does not take a full blown conflict with Taiwan for China to gain access through the Pacific wall.  The lack of routine military maneuvers by a modern Taiwanese navy could mean PLA encroachment into the Taiwan Strait area, weakening the wall, which could be detrimental in a future conflict in the region. There are a number of steps that could be taken to avoid this scenario including American cooperation in Taiwan's long standing quest to acquire a modern submarine fleet.  Anti-submarine warfare has long been  a weakness in the PLAN, and having such a fleet would be a major upgrade for the Taiwanese navy, allowing it to patrol its waters, and lessening a chance of conflict between the countries, as the chance for a successful military blockade against Taiwan would be severely diminished, taking a potential military option off the table for Beijing.  The US could also agree to sell Taiwan the AEGIS radar systems in naval vessels that it sells to Taiwan, allowing Taiwan to reallocate valuable research dollars away from developing their own domestic  system.  Training exercises between the two countries could also allow for valuable communication and logistical cooperation between the two countries that could be vital in a conflict scenario. Although the current navy fielded by Taiwan could be considered formidable and capable, it also must be prepared for myriad scenarios in which tensions with China are once again raised, scenarios that involve China's half-century mindset that Taiwan belongs to them, a problem not faced by other states in the region.  Taiwan has the potential to be considered a major block in the "Pacific Maginot Line" that is vital in maintaining order and stability in the region, unfortunately, it also has the potential to be the Ardennes Forest of a 21st century Pacific conflict.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Part II: Can Taiwan Finally Modernize its Submarine Fleet?

     While Part I of the Taiwanese submarine program focused on the recent history of the attempted acquisition of modern submarines by the Taiwanese government, Part II will attempt to look into Sunday's Congressional delegation visit to Kaohsuing, and what it could signify for the prospects of such a sale finally taking place, in one form or another.

     Last Summer at the Heritage Foundation, a research fellow told me that he told recent delegations from Taiwan's government to "stop wasting political capital on asking the United States for submarines", for the simple reason that it was simply not going to happen.  Surely on the surface of the issue there is reason for this line of thinking.  First, as previously stated, the United States Navy has a submarine fleet that is exclusively nuclear-powered, and does not have an existing manufacturing platform in use that makes diesel-class submarines.

 Secondly, the fear remains with many within the American military and intelligence community that intelligence leaks from any diesel-class submarine design could also potentially expose American nuclear-class submarine technology, and it is not a secret that the primary suspect behind such intelligence gathering would be from Beijing, a country that has prior success in obtaining military secrets from not only Taiwan, but from the United States as well.

 Finally, there is the question of the level of  monetary commitment that Taipei is willing to place in such a project.  A former (and possibly soon to be again) high level State Department official stated to me his skepticism about Taiwan's long term commitment to funding such an expensive project, and he is not alone.  Many members of Congress who have been supportive of Taiwan related legislation in the past have questioned the recent defense budgets of Taiwan under President Ma, which only reached the promised levels of 3.0% GDP once (during Taiwan's last Presidential cycle in which Ma was running for re-election).

     Yet there is room for optimism for those in Taiwan (and in Washington) who wish to see this transaction finally take place.

     Unlike the other major weapons platform purchase attempt by Taipei, the F-16 C/D block sale, the Ma Administration and many members of his Kuomintang party have been unified in their support for such a purchase.  According to the 2012 CRS report, President Ma restated Taiwan's need to buy subs to AIT Chairman Ray Burghardt.  Additionally, Shuai Hua-ming, a key legislator in the Legislative Yuan's Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, spoke in Washington in 2011 and restated Taiwan's needs to procure a new submarine fleet.  President Ma again on Sunday stated that, " badly we need to renew our submarine fleet." This public stance runs counter to the tactic that the administration has dealt with the
F-16 C/D fighter  issue, where it appears that it does not want to run the risk of being humiliated again by submitting an official letter of request (LOR) for the F-16 purchase, and to have Washington either refuse to accept the request, or to eventually have the request denied by President Obama.  President Ma appears to be waiting for signals from Washington that there is a significant likelihood such a request would be approved. In the case of the submarine request, there appears that  something is happening  behind the scenes for President Ma to have made such a public request for a platform that was considered dead and buried for years only weeks ago.

     One can also read the political tea leaves and attempt to decipher who was on this Congressional visit to Taiwan, and why they visited the Naval harbor in Kaohsuing.  The head of the delegation,and Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Ed Royce,  has long been a staunch supporter of Taiwan by supporting a number of bills in Congress related to Taiwan, as well as co-writing a bipartisan letter with Congressman Gerry Connolly last year to President Obama, asking that framework talks resume between the United States and Taiwan on a framework economic agreement between the two countries.  Congressman Royce has also been supportive of bolstering the military capabilities of American allies in the East Asian region.  Last year, Rep. Royce was vocal in his support of sending decommissioned naval vessels to the Philippines, stating on his blog that "...with China pushing limits in Southeast Asia, countries in the region are begging for the U.S. to be more present in their neighborhood." Secondly, it can be assumed that a short visit by a Congressional delegation to an ally would have some form of symbolism in both the statements that would be released, as well as the locations chosen for such a visit.  While this author does not have information as to which side requested the Kaohsuing itinerary, it is highly unlikely that the location was not picked without some symbolic significance.  It can therefore be surmised that the Kaohsuing stop was chosen with something other than random chance.

     In conclusion, the idea that Taiwan would have a realistic opportunity at acquiring modern submarines in the near future was something that most observers of the region would have likely scoffed at merely a week ago. Yet perhaps the stars are aligning for Taiwan to take advantage of a  perfect scenario in which this could in fact become a reality.  From the American side, there is a newly inaugurated 2nd term President that can become bolder in his foreign policy decision making without fear of another election cycle, as well as  cementing his "Asian Pivot" policy by bolstering the military defensive capabilities of a long time regional ally. The President could also have came to the conclusion that refusing high grade defensive weapons to Taiwan in the hopes of currying favor with Beijing does not reap the rewards that are promised.  China offers little support in supporting stronger sanctions against Iranian nuclear development, has only offered words towards North Korea in opposition to their nuclear and missile development, and has become increasingly bellicose in their behavior in the South China Sea territorial disputes with their neighbors, jeopardizing regional stability that American policy has worked so hard to foster and grow with other regional actors.  The Taiwan relationship with the United States has been unique in that it has traditionally been an issue that both Republicans and Democrats in Congress can find a common ground in which they can work together and support.

    As for Taiwan, a President that has increasingly been viewed with suspicion among many Taiwanese as moving "too close too fast" with China could increase his standing with some of these citizens of Taiwan by pulling off a major military platform purchase, showing that he still has Taiwan's security interests in mind.  There is no question that from a security standpoint, Taiwan desperately needs to upgrade its submarine capabilities, as anti-submarine warfare has long been viewed as a chink in the People's Liberation Army Navy's (PLAN) armor.  Either by 3rd party sale, technology transfer/aiding and development, or actual production, the Obama Administration and Congress can make this a reality.  If Beijing elects to react by deeming such a transaction "provocative" and "crossing a red line", so be it, and in the interests of the United States, Taiwan, and east Asian stability, have both countries cross that line together, and let the chips in this grand game of diplomacy  fall where they may.

Taiwan's Quest for a Modern Submarine Fleet..Part I

     This week's visit by a US Congressional Delegation to a Taiwanese naval base in Kaohsiung  has renewed  speculation that Taipei has not given up its desire to acquire new submarines to add to its naval arsenal.  This week the delegation, led by the House chairman on Foreign Affairs, Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA), visited  the Tsoying naval base in the southern port city of Khaosuing, and toured a Taiwanese "guppy class" sea lion (海獅級 -guppy II). The submarine toured is a decommissioned training sub that was produced in the 1940s, and one of only four currently in service for the Taiwanese navy.

     The issue of Taipei's actual level of   interest in committing high levels of capital into the acquisition of new submarines, as well as the reluctance of the United States and other countries to provide the vessels and/or the technology to allow Taiwan to produce them themselves, is a story that has dragged on for over a decade.

   A Congressional Research Service Report compiled by Shirley Kan, and  published in 2012, titled "Taiwan: Major U.S. Arms Sales Since 1990 stated that in 2000, the Pentagon reportedly conducted a classified assessment of Taiwan's naval defense needs titled "Taiwan Naval Modernization", and it was said to have found that Taiwan's navy need a wide array of platform upgrades and modernization, including new submarines.  Shortly following this report in 2001, President Bush approved Taiwan's request for 8 diesel-electric submarines, along with Mark-48 ASW torpedoes and 44 Harpoon submarine-launched anti-ship cruise missiles, as part of a larger arms sale package.

     Following Presidential approval, there were a number of questions that needed to be answered:  Where would the submarines be built? (The American navy is now exclusively comprised of nuclear-class subs, and no longer has an active industry for building diesel-class subs)  Was there a viable risk of classified technology transfer to the PRC as a result of espionage?  And finally, would the Legislative Yuan in Taiwan have the commitment to fund such an expensive project?

     The 2012 CSR states that in December 2002, Secretary of the Navy Gordon England informed Congress that bidding on the submarine contract would be limited to four US companies and the diesel subs would be of U.S. origin.  It appeared at this point that the Pentagon and members of Congress were satisfied with the safeguards (which are not known) Taiwan would implement following the transfer of the finished submarines, protecting sensitive military technology from being transferred to other states, particularly China.


  A roadblock  for the sale came in 2003, when Washington and Taipei found themselves far apart on the actual start-up costs for the program.  The CSR states that the US placed the figure at $333 million, while Taiwan offered $28.5 million.  The Bush Administration looked for other alternatives, such as purchasing decommissioned submarines from third-party nations, Taiwan held firm on their desire for new subs.

     Another issue that hindered a potential sale was that a number of Legislative Yuan members in Taiwan wished to see the new submarines built in Taipei, even though this would raise the total cost of the program an additional $2.5 billion dollars, and raise concerns in Washington about potential sensitive technology leaks during the construction phase.  Finally in 2006, the sale appeared to meet a brick wall, with the CSR stating that papers in Washington circulated stating that the US Navy "failed to effectively implement the diesel sub program for Taiwan, in part to protect the nuclear-powered submarine capability."

     Taiwan then looked at acquiring a new submarine fleet by attempting a new method in which it could first acquire a sub design, then looked to construct the vessel domestically.  While the United States wanted Taiwan to commit to either a "design phase" or a full procurement of submarines, Taiwan would only commit to a "feasibility study", according to the CSR.

     It appeared that the purchase would finally be confirmed in 2008, when Ma Ying-Jeou became President, who had previously stated his support of the project.  Since this time, however, both President Bush, and his successor, President Obama, have failed to notify Congress about the submarine design program.  Even though Taiwan has yet to receive the final American Congressional approval for the purchase, Taipei has still held firm in its desire to eventually acquire what it feels are desperately needed upgrades to its Navy.

Part II: Can Taiwan finally modernize its submarine fleet?



Sunday, January 27, 2013

Taiwan Policy Act of 2013 brought to committee in the United States Congress


   United States Congresswomen Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida proposed the Taiwan Policy Act of 2013 to Congress on Friday.  Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican and former chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, looked to have a vote on a similar bill in 2012 (House Resolution 2918-Taiwan Policy Act of 2011), but was never moved out of committee, as election year politics stalled most new legislation in the house for nearly the entire year.

     The primary purpose of the bill is to strengthen the relationship between Taiwan and the United States by introducing a number of new measures that would enhance military, diplomatic, and economic links between the two countries, as well as supporting the enhancement of Taiwan's "international space".  Although the full text of the bill has not yet been transferred by the government printing office to the Library of Congress for official release, some of the known provisions in the bill include the following:

*Ceasing restrictions that currently limit Taiwanese leaders from meeting high level  officials from the executive level branches of  the United States government

*The authorization of the sale of F-16 C/D block fighter jets to Taiwan 

*The transfer of decommissioned guided missile frigates to Taiwan, a practice that is permitted under the Navy Inactive Ship Program (PMS 333), in which U.S. Navy ships can be transferred to friendly countries.  All ship transfers that include vessels under 20 years old must be approved by Congress.  

*Some form of an extradition treaty between the U.S. and Taiwan 

The following are parts of H.R. 2918 from 2011 that will likely be included in some form:

*Negotiation of a free trade agreement

*Annual Report on defense transfers to Taiwan from the President to Congress stating the decision to approve or deny all Taiwanese weapon sale requests 

*Support for Taiwan's participation in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) 

*Requirement for Senate confirmation of an individual appointed to serve as the director of the American Institute of Taiwan (AIT)

*Allowing the Taipei Economic and Cultural Economic Office (TECRO) to display its national flag on its premises, and to likewise grant the same right to AIT offices in Taiwan.  

     The probability of the bill moving through the Congressional gauntlet in its entirety and being signed into law is highly improbable (currently has a prognosis of the bill having a 10% chance of moving past the congressional committee, and a 2% chance of being signed into law), however the bill can be beneficial for Taiwan in 2 major ways if it does not.

First, there can be a number of aspects of this bill that could be passed separately, as the visa waiver portion of H.R. 2918 did last year.  The inclusion of the F-16 C/D sale could also once again raise the possibility of Congress voting to approve the sale, which is likely needed before an official letter of request (LOR) is sent by Taipei, as the Ma Administration would want some sort of political promise from Washington before a letter is once again sent from Taiwan and rejected, causing embarrassment for the President.

Secondly, if the bill passes committee and voted upon, members of the House would have their votes on record, allowing advocates for strengthening the US-Taiwan relationship to perhaps see which members in Congress share their views, and allow them to perhaps   focus efforts  on advocating future Taiwan relevant legislation to those members.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

China tests its first indigeneously produced heavy transport aircraft

The People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) began test flights of its first domestically produced heavy transporter aircraft, the Y-20.  The aircraft is similar in size to the Russian-made Il-76, which the PLAAF currently utilizes as its primary heavy transport aircraft, although smaller than its U.S. counterpart, the C-17.
(Photo from People's Daily 1/27/13)

The development of the Y-20 is important to the Chinese military for a number of reasons.

 Long range military air transport and power projection 
The Y-20 will give Beijing expanded options in terms of transporting its heavier hardware across the globe if necessary.  The People's Daily, an official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party,  stated today  that the aircraft will "be able to accommodate most large PLA combat and support vehicles, including the Type 99 series tanks, with a capacity to carry up to 66 tons of goods".  This tonnage capacity will also allow Beijing to expand potential aid and rescue operations outside of the East Asian region with a higher rate of efficiency, thus expanding potential "good will missions" to areas that have suffered from recent natural disasters.  In addition, the aircraft could be used to evacuate Chinese nationals from foreign states if a situation arises.

  Potential refueling platform 
The Y-20 platform will likely  be modified in the near future to form an aerial refueling aircraft, which would allow for the PLAAF to conduct extended missions beyond the immediate area of its borders, allowing for sustained missions in conflict areas, including the disputed South China Sea island chains.

 Air assault 
The Y-20 could potentially  fill the role of being a primary mode of  transport for air-assault/parachute insertion operations, in which troops and supplies could be moved in large numbers quickly and in a cost-effective manner.


How to Cope with China and threats of conflict

     My editorial that was published by the Taipei Times challenging the ideas of Scott Bates, President of the Center for National Policy, who on Wednesday restated his "Taiwan 21" plan, in which Taiwan would renounce offensive military measures inside Chinese territory,  even in the event of an attack on Taiwan by the PLA.  Mr. Bates also proposes that Taiwan slash its standing army from 130,000 to 65,000, and reconfigure it to become a "self-defense force", and focus its mission on international aid relief.  The article in its entirety can be found in the link below.

Don't Forget About Us: North Korea's Desire for Relevance

     Over the past week, The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (or North Korea), has once again taken a bellicose tone regarding its nuclear and long range missile program.  Stating on Wednesday that it had no intentions of talks with the United States on halting its nuclear and missile weapons programs, the reclusive country also stated that it would enact "physical countermeasures" against South Korea if it took part in any enforcement of recently UN-approved sanctions in response to the DPRK's missile testing.  The statements do not come as a  surprise, however,  as it has become standard procedure for the North to respond to any actions attempted to reign in its actions with its own unique brand of threats and insults.  The DPRK government has  previously stated that they would turn Seoul into a "sea of fire", and that its weapons program is intended to target the United States. The country also has targeted individuals who publicly denounce DPRK actions with seemingly childish rhetoric.  In response to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's comments regarding the North's  missile test in December, the DPRK responded by stating:

--"Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping"

    While such quips coming from any state's official media outlets should demand some level of attention,  what should the level of concern be for North Korea's most recent statements, and what is behind them?  Judging from its past, they appear to be fueled by two primary motives: consolidation of power and attention.

First, the current Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army Kim Jong-un (he is not the President of the DPRK, as the government hierarchy decided that upon his death in 1994, the country's founder Kim Il-sung would be granted that title for eternity) has been at the helm for little over a year, following the death of Kim Jong-il, his father.  Unlike his father's transition to power, in which Kim Il-Sung had over a decade to shift the power levers in both the government and military apparatuses to allow for Jong-il loyalists to be in place at the time of that transition, the death of Kim Jong-il was rather sudden, and placed the 29-year old Jong-un into power in a rapid fashion.  While many North Korean analysts were hopeful that his exposure to the West through his education in Switzerland, as well as his affinity towards western culture would bring about some liberalization in the country, the primary source of legitimization in the DPRK power structure is to varnish military credentials, thus claiming the right to rule.

      Jong-un, has likely looked to people advising him, such as Jang Song Thaek, who is the husband of his father's younger sister, and Vice Chairman of the National Military Commission, to aid him in the most efficient path of consolidating power in the country.  Historically, in many communist countries, such transitions can take many years, and it is often solidified through garnering the support of the military structure in that country.  In March of 2010, the DPRK launched a torpedo attack on a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors.  Many saw this attack as Kim Jong-il "throwing a bone" to his military structure, in exchange for their support of his transition attempt with Jong-un.  The recent missile tests, as well as the rhetoric accompanying them, appear to be the Jong-un faction further solidifying their anti-American credentials in order to solidify their support within the North Korean military.

     The other likely motive behind such provocative moves is for the North's need to feel relevant in the international scene.  As much of the region's attention has recently shifted towards increased tension between China and Japan over control of the Senkaku islands, The DPRK has looked to divert attention back to its missile and nuclear program.  The country has also toned down its proclamations during an American Presidential cycle, as it did in 2004 and 2008, while it waited to see the outcome, thus what type of Presidential administration it would be dealing with, before resuming its calculated actions.  It should come as no surprise that the most recent statements coming from Pyongyang occurred mere days after President Obama was sworn in for a second term.  What should be surprising to the country, however, is the unusually stern language that was publicly given by Beijing regarding the latest announcements from North Korea dealing with its continued intention to develop its nuclear and missile program.   It is not known if the primary goal of such missile and nuclear testing in North Korea is to bolster the current regime, or to create a dialogue with the United States and its allies with an anticipation of potential carrots to cease such programs, or perhaps a combination of both, yet one aspect of these developments is certain: The DPRK is unrivaled in its ability to keep the international community guessing.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Coming Soon

Warm Oolong Tea will be releasing content soon.   The blog will cover the  most current political, social, and military issues throughout the East Asian region.  Feedback and discussion is welcomed and encouraged.