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Asia Unbound

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Presidential Inbox: U.S. Policy in Northeast Asia

by Sheila A. Smith
U.S. President Barack Obama attends the East Asia Summit plenary session in Phnom Penh alongside then Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao U.S. President Barack Obama attends the East Asia Summit plenary session in Phnom Penh alongside then Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao November 20, 2012 (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters).

President Obama,

As you consider America’s foreign policy challenges, I would urge you to pay particular attention to Northeast Asia. I believe U.S. policy will be tested in this part of Asia, and that our maritime commitments in particular will require clear and committed action. There are leadership transitions there too that deserve some of your personal engagement in building trust.

Let me suggest three areas where I think significant policy attention is warranted. Read more »

The Underground Railroad from North Korea to Freedom

by Scott A. Snyder
Kim Han-mi watches her mother being dragged by Chinese policemen when her family attempted to enter into the Japanese Consulate in order to seek asylum in Shenyang. (Kyodo/courtesy Reuters) Kim Han-mi watches her mother being dragged by Chinese policemen when her family attempted to enter into the Japanese Consulate in order to seek asylum in Shenyang. (Kyodo/courtesy Reuters)

Former deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal Melanie Kirkpatrick has written a compelling book describing the tortuous path North Koreans must undertake across China to freedom in South Korea and other countries in the West. The book captures the multiple paths that desperate North Koreans have taken upon their departure from North Korea through China and other countries to safety in South Korea and the West. It champions the sacrifices of a range of dedicated individuals outside North Korea who have risked their lives to assist North Koreans in their road to freedom and to provide information back to North Korea about the outside world. And it savages the policies of governments including China, the United States, and South Korea’s progressive administrations for turning a blind eye to the suffering of North Koreans who are victims of an uncompromising totalitarian political system. Read more »

Why ASEAN Will Stay Weak

by Joshua Kurlantzick
U.S. secretary of state Clinton delivers remarks during a meeting at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. U.S. secretary of state Clinton delivers remarks during a meeting at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta (Jim Watson/Courtesy Reuters).

In her visit to Asia this week, including her trip to Jakarta on Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has not only highlighted the renewed American focus on Southeast Asia, especially regarding the South China Sea, but also highlighted the rising importance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), by visiting the organization’s headquarters, or secretariat, in Jakarta. At a bilateral meeting with ASEAN’s secretary-general, Clinton remarked, “We [the United States] have an interest in strengthening ASEAN’s ability to address regional challenges in an effective, comprehensive way.” Read more »

Hillary Clinton Goes to Laos

by Joshua Kurlantzick
U.S. Secretary of State Clinton talks to a disabled boy at the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise visitor center in Vientiane. U.S. Secretary of State Clinton talks to a disabled boy at the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise visitor center in Vientiane (Phoonsab Thevongsa/Courtesy Reuters).

Vientiane, capital of Laos, is one of the quietest cities I have ever been to, though it has more of a nightlife these days than it did when I first started going, in 1999, and the whole town seemed to shut down at around 6 p.m., save a few open-air bars by the Mekong River where people could go and have snacks of grilled chicken and sticky rice and tall bottles of Beer Lao on ice. Still, the visit this week of Hillary Clinton was one of the biggest events for the Lao capital in years, equivalent to ASEAN meetings and the Southeast Asia Games. Read more »

North Korea and Kim Jong-il: The Myanmar Element

by Joshua Kurlantzick
North Korea's Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun (4th R) visits the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar July 29, 2010.

North Korea's Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun (4th R) visits the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar July 29, 2010 (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters).

Over the past five years, as North Korea’s few friends and allies in the world dwindled, and the international community cracked down on its proliferation activities, Myanmar has apparently become much more important to Pyongyang strategically. From virtually no relationship at all ten years ago, now the two pariah nations have regular high-level military-military dialogues, including some of the senior-most members of the former Myanmar military regime. As The Irrawaddy reported several years ago:

In November 2008, a Burmese military delegation led by Gen Shwe Mann flew secretly to North Korea and met the army-in-chief, Gen Kim Kyok-sik. They agreed terms of cooperation on several military initiatives, including radar and jamming units, air defense systems, and a computer-controlled command center. The delegation also visited North Korean SCUD missile factories which are located in the tunnels. The two countries signed an agreement that North Korea will help in the construction of military facilities for missiles, aircraft and war ships.

That’s far from all. Read more »

When Will Secretary Clinton Visit Pyongyang?

by Scott A. Snyder
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates brief reporters at the Truce Village in Panmunjom, South Korea, on July 21, 2010 (Courtesy State Department).

U.S. secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton and former U.S. secretary of defense Robert M. Gates brief reporters at the Truce Village in Panmunjom, South Korea, on July 21, 2010 (Courtesy State Department).

Secretary Hillary Clinton’s historic visit to Myanmar, the first by a U.S. secretary of state in over fifty years, has stimulated speculation among journalists (including at the end of her interview with the BBC in Rangoon) regarding the circumstances under which she might visit North Korea. The conditions in Myanmar also suggest some likely benchmarks for what it would take for the secretary of state to visit Pyongyang: an embrace of nascent economic and political reforms (including the possible release of some political prisoners); a return to the denuclearization commitments embodied in the September 2005 Six Party Joint Statement; and a South Korean political leader with the credibility to champion U.S. engagement so as to protect the administration from conservative congressional criticism. Read more »

Immediate Steps for the United States on Myanmar

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (R) and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hold hands as they speak after meeting at Suu Kyi's residence in Yangon December 2, 2011.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (R) and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hold hands as they speak after meeting at Suu Kyi's residence in Yangon December 2, 2011 (Saul Loeb/Courtesy Reuters).

In my new CFR Policy Innovation Memorandum, I outline a strategy for U.S. policy called conditional normalization, in which Washington would significantly boost its relationship with Myanmar provided the reforms in that country continue apace. This proposal is significantly farther than the Obama administration is willing to go at this point. On her trip to Myanmar, Hillary Clinton offered the Burmese government a few small carrots: The U.S. will allow Myanmar to join the Lower Mekong Initiative, which is a forum including Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the United States designed to discuss water issues and cooperation along the Mekong.  According to the Los Angeles Times, Clinton also “proposed that the United States and Myanmar work jointly to recover the remains of 600 U.S. soldiers who died in the country during World War II.” In addition, the United States will now no longer block potential IMF and World Bank aid efforts in Myanmar.

Although these are small steps, the administration should build on the Clinton visit by taking the following measures in the near term:

  1. First, the United States should begin the joint recovery initiative as quickly as possible. In other countries such as Laos that long had poor relations with the United States, joint recovery and demining programs were very useful in fostering people-to-people relationships, getting local government officials to see a more positive side of the United States, and breaking ground for larger efforts. Read more »

Judging Hillary Clinton’s Visit to Burma

by Joshua Kurlantzick
U.S. Secretary of State Clinton will be the first American Secretary of State to travel to Burma in over half a century.

U.S. Secretary of State Clinton will be the first American Secretary of State to travel to Burma in over half a century (Romeo Ranoco/Courtesy Reuters).

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will begin a visit to Burma, the first trip to the country by such a high-level American official in some fifty years. In a previous blog post I outlined several indicators to focus on in examining how quickly and successfully Burma’s reforms are moving.

Although the United States is not the most important player in Burma, compared to regional powers like China and India, the Burmese government clearly is hoping for warmer relations with the United States, for a variety of reasons – strategic balance, a real desire for reform, greater investment, and others. In judging the secretary of state’s trip, it’s important to consider whether she has achieved the following aims – aims that, if successful, would demonstrate significant American influence in the country: Read more »

Watching Before Moving Further on Burma

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi shakes hands with people outside the National League for Democracy (NLD) head office after a meeting in Yangon November 18, 2011.

Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi shakes hands with people outside the National League for Democracy (NLD) head office after a meeting in Yangon November 18, 2011 (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters).

With the announcement that Secretary of State Clinton will be traveling to Burma in early December, the first visit by such a high-level U.S. official in five decades, U.S.-Burma relations are actually moving so rapidly that it is hard to keep up with the change — something I never thought I would find myself writing about Burma. But in anticipation of the visit, it’s important to critically examine how to proceed from here. The government of new president Thein Sein already has presided over more opening than any Burmese government in at least two decades, but the administration should be watching these key markers to see that reform is continuing to progress: Read more »

Hillary Clinton to Myanmar

by Joshua Kurlantzick
U.S. President Barack Obama announces that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Myanmar, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Bali.

U.S. President Barack Obama announces that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Myanmar, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Bali (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters).

In what is surely the biggest news in U.S.-Myanmar relations in fifty years, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has announced that she will be traveling to Myanmar next month. On the same day, Aung San Suu Kyi announced she will be re-entering politics, setting the stage for her and her party, the National League for Democracy, to contest the next elections, which are believed to be coming in 2015. As the New York Times reported, “The twin events underscored the remarkable and sudden pace of change in Myanmar, which has stunned observers inside and outside the country.”

Clinton’s trip, though it caps off a year of serious reforms in Myanmar, is still something of a gamble. The new president, Thein Sein, does indeed seem to be a reformer, and possibly Myanmar’s de Klerk or Gorbachev. He has presided over an opening of the media environment, privatization of many companies,  a relaxation on political parties, a new dialogue with Suu Kyi, the freeing of significant numbers of Burma’s thousands of political prisoners,and a push to convince exiles who have fled the country to return. Still, many doubts remain about how much power Thein Sein himself wields, and whether the generals who formally retired after the elections last November will allow reform to continue.

In a piece last week for The New Republic, I outlined these challenges.

Read more »