Tag Archives: Foreign Policy

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.

Bolivarian Devolution: The Venezuelan Crisis

This morning nearly 25,000 Venezuelans will cross the Simon Bolivar bridge into Colombia in search of work and a hot meal. Most will return in the evening with extra food for their families if they are lucky. They make the trip hoping to earn money peddling goods on the street, seeking routine medical care, or standing in line for hours to receive one of the thousands of free meals served daily by churches and non-profit organizations. The bridge, a piece of shared infrastructure by which 80% of trade goods pass between the two countries, has become a humanitarian lifeline for those trying to escape the Venezuelan crisis. Recent surveys suggest 93% of Venezuelans cannot afford to purchase food and hospitals there lack 95% of medical supplies needed to provide basic care. The cost of Venezuela’s failed Bolivarian Revolution, a phrase coined by the late President Hugo Chavez, is being paid by the citizens it promised to protect, and the growing spillover into Colombia threatens to turn a Venezuelan problem into a regional one.

The Bolivarian Revolution began rather inauspiciously in 1992 when then-Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez led an unsuccessful military coup to oust the democratically elected president. Released from prison two years later, Chavez went on to win the 1999 election as a populist fringe candidate under a socialist ideology he called “Chavismo”. In a case of extradinarily bad timing, his anointed successor, a former bus driver-turned-Finance Minister by the name Nicholas Maduro, assumed the presidency following Chavez’s death in 2013. Within a year, the global drop in oil prices triggered an economic crisis in Venezuela, catalyzing the failure of the socialist experiment and intensifying social unrest. President Maduro responded to the resultant popular criticism with a heavy hand, using the military to violently suppress protests and working internally to subvert Venezuela’s democratic institutions.

The situation in Venezuela represents a complete reversal of fortunes from two decades ago. Beginning in the 1970s, nearly four million Colombians fled to Venezuela to escape violence and terror wrought by the drug cartels and the FARC. In 1999, the flow of migrants began to steadily reverse, and 1.5 million people have since left Venezuela for Colombia. Two recent events illustrate the ironic role reversal. On the 15th of August, the FARC officially completed a peaceful disarmament process and was incorporated into the Colombian democratic system as a political party. Then, just three days later, the pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly in Venezuela seized control of the opposition-led Congress, removing yet another democratic impediment to his rule. The move sparked regional outrage, but engendered little surprise as the Venezuelan political apparatus moved one step closer to authoritarianism.

Venezuela Devolution
Thousands of Venezuelans line up every morning to cross the Simon Bolivar Bridge to obtain food and basic necessities on the Colombian side. Photo Credit: http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/article/Thousands-cross-Venezuela-border-to-Colombia-for-8383342.php

Socialist Expropriation and Crime

Venezuela controls some of the world’s largest crude oil reserves, a critical piece in a calculated strategy to safeguard the Chavez regime by distributing wealth. The scheme has been remarkably successful over the last 18 years and is probably the only reason his successor is still in power, but corruption, subjugation of private industry, and ill-fated socialist policies have depleted the nation’s wealth. Upon his election in 1999, Chavez nationalized much of Venezuela’s industry. By 2011 Venezuela was receiving only a $5M share of Latin America’s total $150M in annual foreign investment and the number of private businesses had decreased from 14,000 to roughly 9,000. Oil accounted for 95% of Venezuela’s exports at the time, but the billions of dollars earned in the post-9/11 oil boom have vanished. Most of the money was funneled to political supporters and a large share was invested in strengthening the military.

Four years after Chavez’s death, the question remains whether the military will stay loyal to Maduro, to the Revolution, or abandon them both in favor of the opposition. Maduro’s ability to continue lining the pockets of his generals and politicians dwindles by the day. His support is already weakening in the lower ranks of the military where the effects of the economic crisis are most palpable. Worsening conditions increase the potential for a military uprising against Maduro in favor of a leader more capable of advancing the Chavismo ideology. Considering also the historical influence of Cuba’s Castro regime and ongoing support from Russia and Iran, it stands to reason Chavismo will endure even if Maduro’s political capital dries up.

Command of the lucrative illicit drug trade is also a factor. Throughout the Chavismo era, corrupt politicians profited from the trade by exploiting military and police fealty. The details of their corruption were published almost a decade ago when a seizure of data exposed integrated cocaine distribution networks between Venezuela and the United States. Notably, in 2016 two of Maduro’s nephews were convicted in the US for conspiracy to transport cocaine, suggesting possible ties to the President himself. If indeed Maduro is on the take, the growing scarcity of pay-off funds from other sources raises concern he may lose control over the illicit drug trade, leaving a vacuum that could lead to increased violence, volatility, and regional instability.

All-American Solutions

Despite President Trump’s recent refusal to rule out a “military option” in Venezuela, the United States lacks the domestic and international political capital to impose its will there. Furthermore, his intransigence on immigration and the proposed border wall with Mexico have not earned him additional support in a region where one-third of the population sees American power and influence as a major threat. During a recent Latin American tour, Vice President Mike Pence spent much of his time softening Trump’s message on Venezuela and assuring leaders Washington is open to a wide range of options including economic sanctions. Despite the assurances, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos explicitly rejected the notion of a military response in a joint press conference with Pence, insisting Venezuela’s neighbors must use “other measures to bring about change in the country.” Clearly a more indirect and cooperative approach will be required if the United States wishes to influence the situation in Venezuela.

Venezuelan Crisis
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos addresses the Colombian press during a joint conference with US VP Mike Pence. Despite the positive state of US-Colombia relations, President Santos emphatically rejected the US military option that President Trump mentioned the week prior to the visit. Photo credit: http://www.infobae.com/america/america-latina/2017/08/14/juan-manuel-santos-le-pidio-a-estados-unidos-descartar-una-posible-intervencion-militar-en-venezuela/

Despite President Santos’ strong stance, there is no reason to believe Latin America is capable of responding effectively on its own. Any admonishments of Maduro’s despotism by Venezuela’s neighbors are tempered by their own dogmatic respect for state sovereignty; a common paradox in a region composed of weak states with strong leaders. Additionally, domestic political concerns consume nearly every country in the region. Brazil is embroiled in its own government scandal and focused on economic and political instability. Argentina is still nursing an economic recovery after years of fiscal mismanagement under the Kirchners. Colombia is coming to terms with a difficult peace agreement with FARC revolutionaries and wants to keep growing economically. Chile, despite being an economic growth leader for a decade, has yet to truly find its voice in regional politics and continues to struggle with domestic political impediments. As is characteristic of Latin America, there is a lot of talk, but no coherent regional stance.

Throughout Latin America, citizens are bracing for the political and economic effects of an influx of Venezuelans seeking work, housing, and social assistance. Violent civil war is a concern, as is the resurgence of illicit transnational networks—a trend that had been on the decline in recent years thanks to progress in neighboring Colombia. A US military intervention would most certainly exacerbate existing regional security challenges. The only sustainable solution to this Bolivarian Devolution rests on the ability of Latin American states to look beyond their respective domestic challenges and respond with an uncharacteristic level of regional cohesion. To enable such a response, the United States should pursue collaborative regional solutions focused on mitigating the economic and social impacts of the growing humanitarian crisis.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any  government or private institution.

Major Patrick “TISL” Parrish is the Blogmaster and editor for the Affiliate Network. He is a US Air Force Officer and A-10C Weapons Instructor Pilot with combat tours in Afghanistan and Libya. He is currently serving as an Olmsted Scholar in Santiago, Chile.

Major Kirby “Fuel” Sanford is a US Air Force Officer and F-16 Instructor Pilot with combat experience in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is currently serving as an Olmsted Scholar in Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

Chengdu: Canary in the Coal Mine

Feature Photo: Chengdu Global Center is the largest building in western China. It contains a mall, hotel, conference center, and water park.

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in south-central China, is a lighthearted community. Famous as the home of the Giant Panda conservation program, Chengdu occupies an important place in the heritage of greater China. The attractive and prosperous city is also known for the beauty of its women, the spicy heat of its food, and the self-effacing sense of humor of its inhabitants. They will need it. In many ways, Chengdu is a microcosm of China’s rise and may also serve as a canary in the coal mine should the country’s experiment with capitalism begin to fall apart.

Founded during the warring states period by Lord Kaiming as a capital for his dominion, Chengdu means “Becoming a Capital.” With 15 million inhabitants and 3.87 million cars, the youth there sarcastically refer to it as “Becoming a Carpark.” The city’s traffic is indicative of the transformation that has affected China as a whole. Since the 1980s, an entire generation of rural Chinese has migrated to the cities looking for work in the new economy. Their flight has emptied the countryside, changed family dynamics across China, and forced a residential construction boom like the world has never seen. In Chengdu, the pace of change is so astonishing people joke they sometimes go to work in the morning and get lost on the way home because everything changes so quickly. The joke is not far from the truth.

Growth and Prosperity

The rapid transformation of China from a rural Communist backwater in the 1980s to the economic powerhouse of today is arguably the single greatest human endeavor since the Second World War. Since 1978, an estimated 800 million Chinese people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. China’s adult literacy rate in 2012 was 95.1% and climbing with youth literacy reaching 99.65%. Its infant mortality rate dropped from 4.2% in 1990 to 1.2% in 2012. Life expectancy in 2012 was 75.2 years, up from 69.5 years in 1990. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita increased an average of 9.3% annually from 1990.[1] In the space of a single generation hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens stopped having to worry about survival and became concerned about enjoying life. A Chinese version of the American Dream took hold in which young couples marry for love, own their own homes, and expect to retire comfortably without dependence on their children. This “Chinese Dream” once ignited, cannot be extinguished without calamity, forcing Beijing to seek resources to satisfy its growing industry and appetite for consumption.

China’s political aspirations have risen with its economic power. There is a sense at every level of Chinese society that after centuries of shameful disunity and perceived exploitation by outsiders, it is finally time to reclaim China’s place at the “center of the universe.” An air of inevitability and a disregard for short-term consequences now permeates Beijing’s foreign policy, but China lacks the cool confidence exhibited by Japan or Thailand, the only two Asian nations that were never colonized. Instead, China bullies its neighbors with incomprehensible urgency. Shamelessly and without hesitation, Beijing attempts to divide and conquer in political and economic matters, raising the level of uncertainty in the region and leaving little doubt it will act militarily if required. East and Southeast Asia are regrettably vulnerable to this approach, leaving only the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the US system of alliances to thwart Chinese hegemony in the region. In this way, the US Navy’s 7th Fleet is the ultimate regulator of China’s military, economic, and political aspirations—and this makes Beijing restless.

In response, China’s military expansion is almost as astonishing as its economic growth. Since 1989, the budget of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has increased an average 9.56% per year though some estimates put the figure much higher.[2] China has the luxury of focusing its military efforts against a single paradigm: the United States Military. In pursuit of parity, the PLA has acquired nuclear weapons, carrier and stealth aviation, modern command and control systems, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and special operations capabilities. Some believe the Chinese may actually lead the world in cyber, anti-ship ballistic missile technology, and even quantum computing—a capability that could obviate any attempt at communications security. Though the United States Military is a large and robust rival, China’s drive for parity requires only that it learn from the Pentagon’s successes and avoid its mistakes. Accordingly, Chinese officers miss no opportunities to study America’s weaknesses and develop countermeasures. For them, parity is only a matter of time and persistence, something the Chinese are more comfortable with than Americans are. It is not surprising then that the PLA is not just a military force, it also carries political and economic weight within the Chinese system.

chart
This chart illustrates the rapid but steady rise of China’s military budget.

China’s Future: Unite or Ignite?

Unfortunately, China simply cannot sustain the economic growth required to keep it all going. The problem is dire. Even a moderate reduction in the pace of growth will profoundly affect tens of millions of workers. If a contraction stratifies and unbalances China’s economy, the country’s fractures will begin to re-emerge. Income and quality of life will become a matter of struggle between ethnic groups and geographic regions. China’s coastal cities are extremely important to its economy; those in the interior are less so. Profound cultural differences exist between those from the north and those from the south as well as between east to west. Xinjiang and Tibet already dream of an independent future as do some in Hong Kong and of course Taiwan. Igniting rebellion in these places requires only a spark. More profoundly, if the Chinese economy stagnates, there is simply no way to keep 600 million military aged men busy, unified, and politically obedient without expansion and conquest. Economics may thus force China to decide between conflict at home and conflict abroad.

China’s Communist Party leadership is already preparing for this eventuality. Efforts to control information and stamp out dissent serve to inoculate the country against the centrifugal forces that threaten to spin it apart. The PLA appears to have three principal goals: develop a power projection capability, use that capability to solidify control of energy supply lines, and build positive relationships with the Chinese people through disaster response. China recognizes it will need all these things if it decides to embark on a policy of conflict overseas. Though at the moment Beijing pushes its territorial ambitions incrementally, it openly experiments with hard power solutions in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and elsewhere. Any disruption in the quality of life in Chinese cities like Chengdu may provide an early warning as to whether Beijing will militarize its foreign policy. In the lengthening list of things that Chengdu is becoming, perhaps “canary in the coal mine” is the most significant.

[1] Statistics from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

[2] Figures in constant 2015 US Dollars. Raw data analyzed from the SIPRI database. SIPRI’s data typically exceeds official Chinese government statistics that are believed to be underreported.


Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.