Catastrophic Success: The Korean Conundrum

Catastrophic Success: A humorous term describing an ironic situation where one unexpectedly achieves all of his or her unlikely objectives. 

The cynical humor of the term “catastrophic success” is not typically found in reference to international relations, but on June 12th, the President of the United States of America is hoping against hope to achieve exactly that in his meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Indeed, Mr. Trump will become the first person in his position to meet with a North Korean leader. Though the White House is presenting the meeting as a historic “summit” between world leaders, there are a number of reasons why none of Mr. Trump’s predecessors ever attempted such a meeting. The stakes are high and the many risks are well known…except one: Any success short of the catastrophic variety may actually do more harm than good in the long run.

The Non-Summit

Any discussion of the so-called “summit” between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump should begin with a review of why Korea was divided in the first place. On 8 August 1945, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan in what was both a show of Allied unity and an opportunistic power grab. Recognizing the strategic importance of the Korean Peninsula, America and the Soviets – and their Korean counterparts – invaded the Japanese stronghold from both the north and south and met roughly in the middle near what is now known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Following Japan’s surrender, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to sponsor an election to determine the future leadership of an independent Korea. Though United Nations General Assembly Resolution 112 captured this intent, Cold War tensions escalated to the point where the North Korean contender, Kim Il Sung, refused to hold an election and repudiated the victory of Syngman Rhee in the south.

Following the July 1948 election, the United Nations quickly declared Rhee the legitimate president of all of Korea[1], to which the Soviets responded by declaring Kim Il Sung Prime Minister of the north. This is an important point. The UN recognized the government in Seoul as the only legitimate government on the Peninsula in 1948 while the Soviets only declared Kim’s sovereignty north of the DMZ. The result is history. Within two years, Soviet-sponsored North Korean troops poured over the border. The eventual military stalemate crystallized the division of the Peninsula at the DMZ and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was born. When the smoke cleared, 36,000 American, 230,000 South Korean, and 3200 other Allied troops lay dead along with 600,000 South Korean civilians in a war fought specifically to deny the aspirations of an illegitimate pretender to the throne of Korea. Kim Jong Un has simply never been a head of state.

Korean Conundrum

Kim’s illegitimacy and the resultant suffering it caused is the reason no sitting US President has ever agreed to meet a North Korean leader or even to hold bilateral talks with DPRK. To recognize Kim as a head of state would legitimize the division of the Peninsula and invalidate the sacrifices made by UN forces from 1950 until today. Though this makes President Trump’s “summit” with Kim Jong Un deeply troubling, it is true we will need to move beyond the past in order to achieve peace. However, the negative effects of Trump’s approach are not just symbolic, they may actually make peace less likely. Depending on which Trump statement about the “summit” one believes, its objectives include the very worthy goals of denuclearizing the Peninsula and reaching a negotiated end to the Korean war. Even if those goals were achievable – doubtful at best because they involve numerous stakeholders – they are even less likely now that Trump has unwisely elevated Kim to head of state.

North Korean envoy gives Trump a big letter.
The Trump-Kim “summit” featured some bizarre diplomatic twists. Photo credit: https://abcnews.go.com/International/kim-jong-uns-extra-large-letter-trump-sparks/story?id=55607815

The question of leadership is the very reason for the Korean War and resolving it is critical to any future hope for an agreement. Where before there was only one legitimate head of state, there are now arguably, two. The original post-war question of who should rule Korea is now complicated immensely by the fact that the United States has abandoned any clarity on who it supports for the task. Elections will not settle the matter because, like his grandfather, Kim Jong Un knows he cannot win and will not participate. Unlike his grandfather however, he has nuclear weapons to ensure all the stakeholders consider his opinion.

The likely outcome of the ill-conceived and rushed Singapore “summit” is that Korea will be left with a more difficult road to peace; a brutal dynastic dictator with increased negotiating power to legitimize his nuclear arsenal; and a South Korean government that has now has lost its claim to sovereignty over the rest of the Peninsula. As we watch – with a mixture of hope and trepidation – the bizarre Trump foreign policy play out in the city-state, let us hope for catastrophic success because anything less may be simply…catastrophic.

[1] More precisely, the UN declared Rhee the legitimate president of those areas that held elections verifiable by the UN; i.e. the South, but also stated his government was the only legitimate governing body on the Peninsula and demanded its authority be extended to the entire country.


Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He also wrote this analysis of the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, an event that should, but is not, factoring into the willingness to engage Kim Jong Un diplomatically.

Tearing Down the Walls

In a speech marking the first year of his administration, President Donald Trump reemphasized a message he communicated many times during his campaign: that “open borders” promote the proliferation of drugs, weapons, and gangs. As distasteful as that message is, he might be right. Central America serves as a chokepoint for much of the drugs manufactured in the south. The region’s unique geography focuses the intense violence and vast sums of money required to control the drug trade and aims it squarely at markets in the United States. With many governments in the region still developing after the upheavals of the Cold War, Central America’s political geography is just as important as the physical. Corruption, poverty, and weak institutions provide the fertilizer for growth of the ultimate symptom of the regional disease: organized crime gangs known locally as “Maras.”

For Trump and his supporters, construction of a border wall seems like a common sense defense but the problem is more complex than bad people that want to cross the border. The Maras represent only one aspect of a complex regional problem that doesn’t lend itself to national solutions and certainly not to simple ones. So much so that President Trump’s politicization of border security reveals the weaknesses in his simplistic and unilateral solution: success requires the cooperation and assistance of regional partners. In some cases, these are countries the President recently referred to in derogatory terms. The subsequent cacophony of protests from around the world and the resignation of at least one US Ambassador (Ambassador John Feeley in Panama) indicate President Trump’s approach may enjoy limited success.

Highway to the USA

The Central American corridor has long been a direct path to the United States for gangs like the Maras. In the 1980s, they emerged in poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles, California. At that time, many Central American countries, particularly Guatemala and El Salvador, were suffering violent civil wars that displaced thousands of people to American cities. The traumatized and largely uneducated victims of those wars found shelter for their fragile new lives in poor expatriate communities there but it was not perfect; the perpetrators understood the utility of violence and organization and they lived among their victims in America.

When peace began to take hold in Central America in the 1990s, many of the combatant “guerilla” groups demobilized, expecting to inherit a place in peaceful societies that respect human rights. However, they faced an unbalanced political and economic environment with big social differences and poverty that inhibited structural change. As a result, former guerillas and gang members living in the United States found themselves unable to assimilate in their home countries. The problem was not a small one. With an estimated 100,000 gang members in the three small countries that make up the “Northern Triangle” alone, prison systems were beyond their capacity to serve as a deterrent. Today in El Salvador, the prisons are at 320% their capacity and are now simply a base of operations for the Maras.

NUMBER OF GANG MEMBERS

Country Members Source
Guatemala 32,000 UNODC (2011 statistics)
El Salvador 60,000 Ministry of Justice and Public Safety
Honduras 36,000 USAID

With all the advantages of a peaceful sanctuary, the gangs began to strengthen. Groups like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Barrio 18, and the Batos Locos expanded their criminal networks and learned to survive as international outlaws. They established codes with tattoos, sign language, specific words, and proprietary clothing. They established a division of labor and territory and used violence to consolidate their control. By late 2016, the murder rate attributed to MS-13 in El Salvador approached 20 per day prompting more than one government to declare war against them.

Mara Gang signs
Example of corporal codes used by gangs -signs and tattoos-. Photo credit:  https://www.republica.com/2013/06/18/interior-teme-la-implantacion-en-espana-de-las-maras-centroamericanas/

Transnational Trouble

Though there is no internationally recognized definition of “transnational organized crime,” the United Nations does define “organized criminal groups” as:

“A group of three or more persons that was not randomly formed; existing for a period of time; acting in concert with the aim of committing at least one crime punishable by at least four years’ incarceration; in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit”.

The Maras certainly fit this definition, but existing tools of international law enforcement lack the muscle to address the sheer scale and intensity of gang violence leaving governments around the world struggling with whether to treat this as a criminal or terrorist problem. Recognizing this, and perhaps capitalizing on the Trump Administration’s own war on MS-13, Guatemala declared the Maras to be international terrorist organizations in January 2018, a move likely to win wide support from outside Central America. Salvadoran Maras for example, operate as far afield as Argentina, Canada, Mexico, Spain, and Italy where they actually established a capital in Milan, one of the most important cities in Europe and home to the largest concentration of Salvadorans outside the Americas. In 2016, the Buenos Aires Minister of Security, Cristian Ritondo, declared the presence of Maras there after dismantling a gang of drug traffickers connected to MS-13.

Labeling the Maras as terrorists seems a bit of a stretch given how they are organized and recruited. Social dynamics, not politics, fuel the Maras in Central America where some 45% of gang members come from a violent family background, 91% have illiterate parents, and 70% have experienced abuse or abandonment. Alcoholism and drug addiction are commonplace and for some, the gangs are their only real source of support, love, and loyalty. Maras are organized in neighborhood “clicas”, making it very hard for gang members to leave. Those that do wish to separate from the gangs face the twin stigmas of disloyalty and dishonor but also the structural realities of having to relocate. Those that manage to leave face a life full of harsh judgment, social isolation, and fear.

These young gang members are the foot soldiers of their organizations, executing most of their operations and falling into a paramilitary structure as depicted below. Their tactics include extortion of vulnerable individuals and small businesses by the threat of violence against them or their families. The young Maras also manage drug distribution on land, accounting for 59% of the overall trade.

STRUCTURE OF A “MARA” OR GANG

Mara Gang Structure
Source Credit: https://calhoun.nps.edu/bitstream/handle/10945/11121/bruneauMay05.pdf;sequence=3

Whether the Maras are criminals or terrorists or a hybrid of the two, governments agree they present a transnational challenge. Fueled as they are by regional social issues, the Maras are therefore very difficult to control. Dealing with the threat posed by these groups requires governments to change their perspectives in terms of strategy, security, and power. Enforcement requires police with the intelligence capacity to gather information on Mara smuggling routes, weaponry, membership, specific mechanisms for moving money, and the type of people that protect them. Intelligence sharing mechanisms with neighboring governments are paramount in order to combat cross-border crimes. Additionally, corrupt politicians that secretly support the Maras for personal gain must also be prosecuted. Though walls like the one President Trump wants to build will keep some people out of the United States, it’s exactly the wrong approach for this complex problem. Success depends instead on the creation of international partnerships, information sharing, and reduction of social anxieties that drive members into a life of crime. Mr. Trump, tear down these walls.


Ligia Lee Guandique is a political analyst living in Guatemala City, Guatemala. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a Master’s degree in Political Science from Latin American institutions. Ligia has worked with human rights-based NGOs and recently published this excellent piece on immigration issues.

Master of Puppets: Pulling the Strings in Turkey

On the night of July 15th 2016, Turkish Military Forces moved swiftly in the streets of both Ankara and Istanbul. What appeared to be a security operation slowly took the shape of a coup d’état as military units occupied key locations in the country’s two largest cities. Despite a history of successful coups by the Turkish military, this coup started to fail as soon as it began. Revolutionary units suffered from a lack of leadership and their seizure of critical infrastructure in and around the capital was haphazard at best. Most importantly, the coup failed to make any credible attempt to kill or capture President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the strongman leader of the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the lynchpin between success and failure. Despite dramatic scenes from around the country, loyalist forces were firmly back in control before sunrise and were pointing the finger of blame at a shadowy organization known by its Turkish acronym, FETÖ, the Fethullah Gülen Organization.

Erdogan’s apparent success emboldened him the following day. His security services had performed brilliantly. They were one step ahead of the coup at every turn and were already rounding up FETÖ members within the state. Despite 300 dead and more than 2100 wounded, Erdogan and AKP appeared to be in a strengthening political position and were consolidating authoritarian power across all the institutions of the Turkish government. Still, the situation remained complicated. The remaining military leadership did not have an amiable relationship with the AKP, a party whose Islamic leanings conflict with the military’s secular legacy. Erdogan the authoritarian will have to reconcile that relationship with the AKP’s devout Islamic voting base; a base that once looked to Fethullah Gülen for direction.

Stroke & Counterstroke

In 2002, Erdogan’s AKP swept the Turkish general election with an overwhelming majority. The victory was a shocking turn of events in a nation that traditionally embraced a secular order underpinned by vast military power. The secret of AKP’s success at the time was social mobilization in support of a more politically Islamic Turkey. In this endeavor, Erdogan received direct support from FETÖ media outlets and schools that enjoyed great popularity amongst Islamic voters. Though for years Erdogan benefitted politically from the relationship with FETÖ, it pitted him against the secular nationalist leadership of the military. Inspired by the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the “Kemalists” in the military were growing alarmed at the Islamization of Turkish politics led by the AKP and guided by Fethullah Gülen. Pressure mounted until 2012 when judges associated with Gülen convicted 322 military officers of plotting to overthrow the government. The failure of the plot, known locally as “Sledgehammer”, defanged the military and set its Kemalist leadership against Gülen for what the military believed was a political move against the legacy of Ataturk.

Turkey Power
The relationship between Erdogan and the military is increasingly complicated, but the coup allowed him to clean out the ranks of dissenters. Photo credit: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2016-05-30/turkeys-next-military-coup.

The relationship between the AKP and FETÖ dissolved shortly thereafter when Gülen criticized Erdogan over the handling of the 2013 Gezi Park protests; upheavals that supported freedom of the press while maligning the government for encroaching on Turkish secularism. Accusing Gülenists of running a parallel state, Erdogan expelled them from law enforcement and the judiciary. In turn, Gülen’s religiously-minded supporters viewed Erodgan’s actions as an attack on their organization and the Islamic path they sought for Turkey. Over time, as Gülen’s opposition to Erdogan’s growing power intensified, the Kemalists began to sense an opportunity to take their revenge.

Turkey Unveiled

After years of souring relations between AKP and the Gülenists, the National Security Council declared FETÖ a threat to national security in 2014; a partial victory for the Kemalists but one that did not regain them control of the military or the government. That would not happen until 2016 when Gülenists within the military sought the help of the remaining Kemalists to overthrow Erdogan and AKP. The move was not without merit. The Kemalists had already suffered at the hands of AKP and were increasingly uncomfortable with the ongoing erosion of secularism and consolidation of power by Erdogan but they calculated revenge was ultimately more beneficial than collaboration. Initially pledging their support for the coup, the Kemalists stepped aside at a critical moment, betrayed FETÖ, and declared themselves in full support of Erdogan’s government. The subsequent failure we all witnessed on television was therefore less of a success for Erdogan than it was a victory for the Kemalists. In one night, they regained control of the military and drove the wedge between AKP and its Islamic base a little deeper.

Recognizing the new reality, Erdogan changed his stripes from a one-time supporter of political Islam to an authoritarian nationalist; a position supported (for now) by the military but rejected by AKP’s traditional base. How long he can maintain this tenuous political charade will depend on his success in wielding the tools of authoritarianism; specifically, his relationship with the military and suppression of freedom of the press. The simultaneous and often conflicting vilification of FETÖ, the Kurds, and Daesh, continue to fuel police and military operations like Operation Olive Branch in Syria that serve to expand Erdogan’s power and keep his Kemalist allies busy.

Despite the outward appearance, Erdogan and AKP are without a political anchor and dangerously dependent upon the Kemalists they once betrayed. While western governments and media continue to operate on the assumption of Erdogan’s strength since the failed coup, it is likely the real master of puppets is wearing a military uniform, and he has yet to pull all his available strings.


Nuno FelixNuno Felix is a former non-commissioned officer with Portuguese Army Special Operations Forces. He is a sniper and special reconnaissance expert and is currently working as a consultant to top executives in the financial sector.

…Access, experience, language skills, and knowledge…Worldwide