MS Risk Blog

From Moon to Yoon: changes in South Korea’s Foreign Policy

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As is often the case when there is alternation between progressive and conservative presidents in the South Korean government, the election of conservative candidate Yoon Suk-Yeol will most likely imply substantive changes in the country’s foreign policy. Beyond the domestic challenges, the new Korean administration will find itself in a troubled neighborhood: a North Korea that has intensified its launch of missiles, and a growing tension between its military and strategic ally (Washington) and its largest trading partner (Beijing). The president-elect, who has no experience in either foreign policy or defense, and whose agenda in these areas is based on the concept of “national interest,” is expected to introduce changes on all these issues.  Yoon, a newcomer to South Korean politics after spending the last 27 years of his professional career as a prosecutor, wants to turn his country’s foreign policy around in response to the work of dialogue and outreach carried out by his predecessor, progressive Moon Jae-in, towards his neighbors. A strategy that in his opinion has failed because it has not given the country any revenue. Yoon Suk Yeol is thus expected to apply a hard line on North Korea and balance South Korea’s relations with both the US and China. All of these tasks will have to be done while managing internal problems, including corruption and the pandemic.

Yoon Suk-yeol considers North Korea a serious threat to the security of his country and in his campaign advocated additional deployments of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense system provided by Washington, which already caused in 2016 and 2017 strong political-commercial retaliation by China. The president-elect has also suggested highly controversial measures such as the redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons, rejected by the Pentagon itself, and the possibility of considering a preemptive strike to counter North Korea’s threats. It will be necessary to pay attention to how these positions evolve once he takes office, given the foreseeable development that the North Korean arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and hypersonic missiles will continue to have, which are close to surpassing the South Korean defense systems. Likewise, the next tenant of the Blue House promised to continue with the joint military exercises with the United States, which were suspended from 2018 to 2021 as part of the peace policy of the previous administration with North Korea.

Paradoxically, Yoon has also supported measures of contact with North Korea that go beyond the traditional isolationism of the North Korean regime of the South Korean conservative forces. For example, he has proposed the sending of humanitarian aid without political conditions, the intensification of cultural and educational exchanges, the creation of a trilateral diplomatic office in Panmunjom with representatives of the two Koreas and the United States, and even the holding of a summit with Kim Jong-un. In any case, it will most likely harden the narrative about the North Korean regime, both in relation to the violation of its international commitments and human rights, and will reduce the volume of inter-Korean cooperation. Furthermore, any diplomatic initiative that could be taken up would, at least initially, be more discreet than the summit diplomacy promoted by Moon.

In sum, Kim Sung-han, Yoon’s foreign policy adviser and former deputy foreign minister, summed up Yoon’s strategy toward North Korea in three points in a webinar organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies: (1) reinforcing deterrence against aggressive North Korean actions, including the development of its nuclear and missile programs; (2) tighter enforcement of sanctions, which could target China and strain relations with Beijing; and (3) deepening trilateral cooperation with the US and Japan to pressure Kim Jong-un to return to negotiations on his weapons of mass destruction programs, willing to make significant concessions on them. In this way, it is not only intended to increase South Korea’s security against North Korea, but it is also expected to strengthen ties with the US and Japan, which has important implications for South Korean relations with China.

For South Korea, the rivalry between the US and China places the country in a difficult situation. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations with China in 1992, South Korea has opted for a commercial policy of rapprochement and collaboration with China. Beijing is Seoul’s largest trading partner, receiving approximately a quarter of its total exports of goods and services and being the origin of 22% of Korean imports, creating a clear situation of commercial dependence on the Asian giant. This dependence is aggravated by China’s role as a supplier of essential raw materials for its industrial fabric and South Korean investments in China, whose value is estimated at between 3,000 and 5,000 million dollars between 2010 and 2019.

In this context, China tried to condition the decision of the South Korean government on the installation of the THAAD anti-missile system in 2016 and 2017, applying economic coercion that had a very negative impact on South Korean interests. These examples of coercive diplomacy, coupled with the controversy over the Chinese origin of certain aspects of Korean culture, have had a very pronounced impact on Korean public opinion. Recent opinion surveys show that the vast majority of South Korean citizens perceive China as the country that poses the greatest threat to Korea’s security (71.8%). On the contrary, the perception of Washington in Korean society has remained at the same levels as in recent years, with 93% of Koreans supporting the need to maintain the alliance with the US.

In relation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this alliance is resulting in the imposition, under US leadership, of several rounds of sanctions by South Korea against Russian interests. Predictably, this alignment between Seoul and Washington against Russia will be even greater under Yoon’s presidency. In addition, the Biden Administration has emphasized its ability to be on the European front in the Ukraine war while keeping a close eye on developments in Asia-Pacific, something that was called into question in the early days of the European war and which continues to worry its allies in Asia. The South Korea-US alliance is part of the US security strategy in the region, with troops deployed in the Asian country and a fluid bilateral relationship of information and close contact. President-elect Yoon is expected to be more receptive than Moon to joining the new security platforms being developed by the US in the Indo-Pacific region and strengthening cooperation with Japan.

While handling these two main Foreign Policy priorities, Yoon will have to handle internal problems at the same time. Yoon, an anti-corruption prosecutor for 25 years, obtained prison sentences for corruption for former conservative presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. He has promised to make institutional changes to prevent – not just punish – corruption. Finally, Yoon will have to find a balance between economic recovery after two years of the pandemic and COVID-19 restrictions, a slowdown in exports, rising inflationary pressures (4,1% only in March, highest figure since 2011) and surging property prices.

Update on the Terrorist Activity in Northern Mozambique

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Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province has in recent years succumbed to a prolonged insurgency by Islamist terrorist activity. The region, which borders Tanzania to the north and Malawi to the West boasts some of the largest natural gas reserves in the East of the African continent, after offshore discoveries in 2011 gave the region a global profile for exportation. In recent years, Cabo Delgado has become a target for ISIS-affiliated terrorist networks. The main motivations for these groups, has been to establish a new regime and to take control of the highly lucrative raw materials sourced in that region. In light of the severity of this insurgency, heightened since 2020, many neighbouring African nations and western alliances such as the EU and the US, have sent weapons, consultants and soldiers to aid the Mozambiquan government in protecting civilians, foreign workers and infrastructure from targeted attacks. Attacks in the region have ranged from ‘ISIS’ style beheadings, to mass executions and the forcing of thousands of people from their homes and villages, with often indiscriminate killing, kidnapping, forced marriages and trafficking. This includes prolific sexual war crimes.

The Current situation

By the middle of March, the Mozambique government security forces have, with assistance, managed to halt and restrain a large amount of terrorist activity in Cabo Delgado. This has offered pathways and secure zones for Mozambiquan civilians to return to their villages which were deserted in late 2021 and early 2022. Despite this success, the capability of the main jihadi network (known by several names, including Ahlu al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah (ASJ) and  Ansar al-Sunnah, ISIS– Mozambique and al-Shabaab) to fight in rural areas and use guerrilla tactics, often crossing borders at night, means that official government forces face a continued threat whilst protecting civilians and foreign workers in coastal areas in the north. An area which is the heart of the offshore natural gas industry.

Future Prospects and Projections

The power brokers in Mozambique’s capital Maputo, and their alliances with Rwanda, South Africa and the West, are showing demonstrable inroads into recreating a stable environment in Cabo Delgado. The international military deployments have played a significant role in stemming the insurgency and humanitarian assistance and development aid have also brought some measure of relief to the province. It is our judgement that owing to foreign intervention, the violence in largely populated areas can and will remain stabilised. There is however an ongoing threat from the marginalisation and radicalisation of young men in Cabo Delgado, who view the region as being plundered and disregarded by FRELMO ( Mozambique’s governing party). With many young people in the region viewing FRELIMO as a political elite, there is an ongoing risk of Al Shabaab capitalising on this sense of political and social polarisation. There is a potential for this fragmentation of the social fabric of northern Mozambique to allow for a pathway of young fighters to exacerbate a guerrilla conflict fought mainly rurally to draw the Mozambican forces into a further protracted bush conflict, much like that see in Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia. We judge that this would likely elongate the lead times between March 2022 and any long term and stable peacetime in the region. However, we would assess that as of March 2022, the unified forces of Mozambique and her partners have managed to stabilise Cabo Delgado for the majority of it’s residents. Social cohesion with returning civilians, especially regarding the acceptance of young woman who have been previously kidnapped,  trafficked and/or subjected to sexual violence by militants, poses a societal issue, but not a security risk at this time. All travel to Cabo Delgado ( especially the coastal regions) of north eastern Mozambique should be conducted under strict and disciplined caution.

The Changing Relationship Between the U.S. and Venezuela

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In early March, Venezuela released two U.S. citizens who had been jailed for corruption and terrorism offenses. One is named Gustavo Cárdenas, who is one of a group of six imprisoned oil executives known as the “Citgo 6,” jailed in 2020. The other is Jorge Alberto Fernández, who was arrested last year in Venezuela and accused of terrorism.

Their release appears to signal shifting relations between the Biden administration and President Nicolás Maduro’s. It is seen as a gesture of goodwill by the Venezuelan government, since the U.S. citizens’ release followed shortly after the first visit by the U.S. government to Caracas in many years. Maduro gave comment to state media that the meeting in the capital lasted two hours, without specifying the topics discussed or who the U.S. delegates were. He said that talks would continue, without offering a date. Sources told Reuters that the U.S. delegation was led by Juan Gonzalez, the White House’s top adviser on Latin America, U.S. Ambassador James Story, as well as Roger Carstens, the United States’ presidential special envoy for hostage affairs. The White House said that the purpose of the trip was to discuss a number of issues, including “energy security” and the cases of nine U.S. citizens who are in prison in Venezuela. U.S. diplomats have been working to find energy supplies worldwide that can help compensate for disruption to Russian oil and gas exports caused by sanctions and war in Ukraine.

The visit represents a significant potential shift in U.S. policy toward Venezuela. The U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Caracas back in 2019. It is one of over 50 countries that backed Juan Guaidó when he declared himself President, since the U.S. considers the May 2018 presidential elections which declared Maduro as the winner to have been fraudulent. The Trump Administration imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company (Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., or PdVSA), central bank, and government in 2019 in efforts to force Maduro from power. Now, the Biden administration is allegedly willing to lift these sanctions in order to shore up alternative energy supplies for the U.S. It appears strategy toward Venezuela is changing. Officials have signalled that the Biden administration will continue to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader, but, in a recent interview with America’s Quarterly, White House advisor Gonzalez said the administration is focused on negotiations, rather than on toppling Maduro. He explained, “whereas the previous administration’s theory of change was based on regime collapse, ours is … that only a negotiation will lead to concrete and sustainable change in Venezuela toward democratic order.”

This begs the question, what does this mean for Maduro, Guaidó, for the government and people of Venezuela? Analysts suggest that this thawing of relations with the U.S. is bolstering Maduro. It seems that U.S. efforts to force him from power will lose momentum, and if sanctions are indeed lifted, leverage required to oust Maduro would be lost. Maduro’s government has already been increasing its hold on power in recent months. Though the opposition has seen some success in 2022 with a win in the gubernatorial election for Barinas state in January, this victory is seen as largely symbolic, since Maduro’s side still controls the majority of governorships in the country. The Socialist party has extended its dominance overall in local government, and also now controls Venezuela’s National Assembly. The National Assembly was the last institution in the country that had been in opposition hands. Meanwhile, according to Venezuela polling firm Datanalisis, Guaidó’s popularity has dropped from about 60% three years ago to under 15% by February this year. His movement also faces internal divisions. With the Venezuelan economy showing some signs of improvement and the opposition losing momentum, analysts suggest that Maduro has little incentive to make concessions in talks with the opposition. It appears increasingly likely that Maduro will retain power in the medium term.

China’s balancing act / walking a tightrope

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In a quickly-changing international environment, China has had some intense last weeks. The winter Olympics held in Beijing were closured on 20 February, and the invasion of Ukraine started on 24 February. China now has both an opportunity and a threat for its role as a superpower. Beijing seeks three goals simultaneously: a strategic partnership with Russia, a commitment to longstanding foreign policy principles of territorial integrity and non-interference, and a desire to minimise collateral damage from EU and US sanctions. But China cannot reconcile these three conflicting goals and will either have to ditch one or the other, or uncomfortably change its position under international scrutiny. This situation has encouraged the international community to closely monitor China’s reactions to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, one of its main allies. This brief will analyse the upsides and downsides of this world crisis for China and how the country could navigate the following weeks.

China has benefited from Ukraine’s invasion in four ways: China’s new role as international mediator, US diverting its attention out of the Asia-Pacific theatre, Russia’s dependency, and for internal propaganda. Beijing maintains the balance between its camaraderie with Putin and the fear of sanctions for its economy if it supports an invasion condemned by most countries in the world. China is in a unique position: it has endorsed Russia’s “legitimate security concerns”, due to NATO’s enlargement to the east, but even the head of EU diplomacy, Josep Borrell, acknowledged that China was the best actor to act as mediator. In fact, the Chinese MFA has stated that China was “ready” to take a role in the Ukrainian crisis and act as a mediator to end the war, and that China had already interceded and “provided some advice,” Wang said, citing the conversation between Putin and Xi the day after the invasion began, in which the Chinese President expressed his desire to promote peace talks.

The conflict moreover diverts the attention of the United States and key European powers from the Indo-Pacific region. From a geopolitical perspective, this temporal distraction gives Beijing more of a free hand to deal with its concerns in the region. In addition, China’s influence over Russia has been increased thanks to the invasion: Russia is highly constrained by international sanctions and it is now more dependent than ever on Chinese economic support to lessen the impact of Western sanctions. Moreover, China could offer Russia the use of its CIPS interbank payment system to bypass the SWIFT blockade. Despite these close ties, it is key to remark that trade between Russia and China only makes up to 2% trade volume, while the EU and the US have much larger shares.

Despite these advantages for China, they don’t imply that China would necessarily be happy to support any risky military moves made my Moscow. A final advantage for Beijing is that this war has been portrayed by Chinese state media as yet another example of the West’s failings, portraying the United States and NATO as refusing to respect the sovereign right of other countries, such as China and Russia, to defend their territories. In sum, it has been used as a chance to weaken America’s soft power, tarnish the credibility and appeal of liberal institutions, and discredit the open media inside China.

However, China’s role in the world is being damaged in two ways: economic disruptions and increase in tensions with Taiwan. China’s economy will be directly affected by the war because of grain supplies and the risk to its infrastructure projects in Ukraine. Until 2014, Russia was Kiev’s main and undisputed trading partner. However, the Government decided to abandon its economic dependence on a country with which it had major diplomatic problems. Then came China, which is currently the country to which Ukraine exports the most products. The war could disrupt grain security in the country: China bought more than 8 million tons of barley product from Ukraine in 2021, more than 30% of its total imports, making it an important partner for its supply. In fact, on 6 March President Xi Jinping said that China had to rely on its domestic market for grain security considering the current disruptions. Other products that China imports from Ukraine are iron, and sunflower and corn.

Apart from this grain-supply disruption, the biggest Chinese bet in the war-affected area is not the purchase of its products, but its powerful investment in infrastructure. Xi Jinping’s idea is to create a route that connects Beijing with Madrid in a land route, China with Russia (passing through Afghanistan) and, from Moscow, with Western Europe, passing through Belarus and Poland. However, Ukraine has joined the project at the last minute with a very important role in this project. China’s idea is to strongly reinforce Ukraine’s infrastructure to serve as a parallel route and to be able to reinforce shipments. In this sense, in 2018 China spent 7,000 million dollars on projects of this type in Ukraine, in particular in various expansions and construction of ports in the Black Sea. Three years later, the Ukrainian route has become an equal or more important bet than the Polish one and both governments have intensified their commercial relations. In 2021, the Zelensky government signed an infrastructure agreement by which both executives would actively collaborate on various projects throughout the country. At the signing of this agreement, the Ukrainian President promised that Kiev would be “the bridge to Europe”. For his part, Xi Jinping himself stated that China “supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine”, a statement that the Chinese foreign minister repeated exactly right when the Russian invasion began. The war and the destruction of infrastructures would be a risk for China’s intercontinental project and would mean the loss or the postponement of this lucrative project. Apart from the direct impact on the grain supply and Chinese infrastructure projects, China would also be indirectly affected by the war in the economic sense. An escalation of conflict, whether it is in Ukraine, in North Korea or anywhere else would affect China’s plans for economic growth. China’s economy, already harmed by the government’s zero-tolerance covid policy, could be affected by the war to a certain extent. In 2022 President Xi Jinping will seek a third leadership term, so he has to make sure that his management of the economy is good enough to have legitimacy and be re-elected. A final disadvantage of this war for China are the constant parallelisms with Taiwan made by media and analysts. The war unleashed by Russia has raised concerns in Taiwan, where there have been public displays of support for Ukraine such as “Ukraine Now, Later Taiwan”. Even if a hypothetical long-term military operation is not ruled out, an assault in the near future seems unfeasible. Moreover, a conflict in the Taiwan Strait would have a greater effect on the world’s economy than that of Ukraine, given the great manufacturing and logistics importance of the area, including Taiwan’s great power in semiconductors, keys to the production of automobiles, and computer and electronic equipment. Moreover, China is more exposed internationally than Russia and the reaction of antagonism and nervousness among its neighbours would be stronger. Despite this, Beijing has been building a financial and commercial world parallel to the one led by the United States, which would cushion Western sanctions and make their exports more irreplaceable for the world than those of the Russians. China will adjust and re-adjust its approach towards Russia in the following weeks. For now, Beijing is willing to play “a constructive role” in promoting an agreement to end the war in Ukraine while ensuring that its economy is affected as little as possible.

Will Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine Spell War for an Already Unstable Balkans?

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent shockwaves through Europe and the rest of the world, no more so than in the Balkans, where a slight action can spark ethnic and political war. The region maintains close ties with the U.S. and Europe, and is aligning their judgement on the situation accordingly, condemning Russia, and supporting Ukraine. However, Russia’s influence stretches far and its ally, Serbia, is not participating in sanctions even after condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions.

Serbia is the largest country in the Balkans and holds significant power over the region. That power is now being tested as Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić balances Serbia’s loyalties to Russia with Serbia’s ambition to join the European Union. When Kosovo announced its independence from Serbia in 2008, Putin stood by Serbia in denouncing Kosovo and not recognising the country as a sovereign state. Serbia has also been buying military equipment from Russia including tanks, helicopters, and missiles to counter the arms being sold to Croatia by the U.S., making Serbia a well-equipped Russian ally. What Serbia does with those weapons will decide the fate of the region.

Bosnia and Herzegovina are also at a crucial juncture, the tripartite government is close to falling apart, with pro-Serbian and pro-Russian Republika Srpska president Milorad Dodik sowing the seeds for a fallout of the likes of 1991. The Bosnian Croat arm of the tripartite government has too joined in, albeit on a much less war provoking level, demanding greater representation in national institutions by changing an election law, or they will start the process of forming their own region in Bosnia. If Bosnia breaks apart again it will leave the Muslim Bosnians at the mercy of Croat Bosnians and their ally Croatia, and Serb Bosnians and their ally Serbia. With that much ethnic tension, and Croatia and Serbia being armed by the most powerful nations in the world, we could see a return to the Bosnian war but with much scarier consequences for Europe.

Russia has also provoked Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia by claiming that these countries have been sending mercenaries, sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause, to fight against the separatist rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk region before the conflict broke out and then also to Ukraine during the invasion. These countries denied the accusations, but Putin could spin this in such a way as claiming aggression against Russians in Ukraine. If Putin finds any evidence of foreign troops helping Ukraine against Russia, especially those in the Balkans, it could have massive consequences for the region economically.

Every one of the countries in this region remembers what it was like to have war in Europe, the destruction of their families and homes. Anti-Russian sentiment is at an all-time high everywhere, but the Balkans remains as polarised as ever. Although there is a much greater proportion of people supporting Ukraine, and all but Serbia have implemented sanctions against Russia, there are still those who think the NATO expansion towards Russia is a violation and protests have also been seen that promote Putin and Russia.

These sanctions against Russia will put the Balkan nations in a very difficult situation because of Eastern Europe’s reliance on Russian gas, oil, and food exports. Prices were already high in the Balkans but now it is nearly impossible for people, with some of the lowest average wages in Europe, to afford their necessities. Although currently people are sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause, it will not be long for people to start reeling about their own situations. In these cases, blame will become commonplace, and many will compare their lives with Russian oil and gas against their lives without. Blame will be pointed towards the western countries and then will turn to political struggles and with ethnic tensions already high, it will not be long before the potential for a further escalation in the region to return.

There are already factors in place that could transpire to start another war, like the one we saw in 1991. Serbia is stuck between siding with Russia and its own desires in Europe and it will not be long before Serbia’s loyalties are tested. Bosnia is already struggling to keep itself together, with the invasion of Ukraine and pro/anti-Russia sentiment spreading, it will not be long before the politicians reveal which side they are on and how they will help their own ethnic group. Time will tell how hard the sanctions will affect the Balkans, but as prices of essential supplies skyrocket, so will tensions in one of the most tumultuous regions in Europe, one with a storied history of violence and one that the rest of the world must look to stabilise before it’s too late.