United against North Korea: Is it the really the ‘West’ against the ‘Rest’?

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United against North Korea: Is it the really the ‘West’ against the ‘Rest’?

Max Lin, 1635489, Blog 2, Politics 318


The United Nations recently published its reports on the human rights abuses of North Korea. The report was led by an international panel of judges, and compared the atrocities committed by North Korea as having ‘striking similarities’ to the holocaust. Moreover, there is also the possibility of indicting Kim Jong-Un through the International Criminal Court according to Human Rights Watch. The hermit kingdom has retaliated by telling the United Nations to ‘mind its own business’ and threatened more nuclear tests.

Prima facie, North Korea is becoming increasingly isolated. Traditional allies such as China and Russia cooperated by passing a round of sanctions through the Security Council last year. The only allies of Pyongyang appeared to be rogue states such as Iran, Zimbabwe, and the fledgling opposition groups across the world. Even China in a leaked diplomatic cable conceded that it would in fact support unification under South Korea with certain conditions attached.

Video Courtesy of the Korean Society: Amnesty International’s Frank Jannuzi discusses the release of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) report of North Korean human rights violations. The report follows an extensive year-long review, including testimony by victims of the regime. 


To this end, it appears that North Korea is a basket case of classical realism, frozen in time, as the world becomes more civilised in an imperfect but ever evolving liberal order. In order to examine how true this is, we will evaluate democratic peace theory and liberal institutionalism in relation to North Korea’s recent developments. Knowledge of these theories will be assumed.

This piece wants to present and evaluate  two “paradoxes” in international relations theory, especially in relation to liberalism. They will be explained throughout the blog:

  1.       How international relations theories appear to only work in a vacuum, and require a ‘self-containing loop.’
  2.       What is the relationship and value between realism and liberalism when both are applicable?

Image Courtesy of Business Korea: Park meets Merkel last week. Park is to present on her vision and plan for Korean Unification in Dresden in what was East Germany.

Are the fundamental assumptions of liberalism true when it comes to North Korea?

The basic assumptions of liberalism are a positive view of human nature, rationality and cooperation. This purportedly leads to respect for individual rights, constitutionalism, and free-market economics. Arguably, the primary purpose of international relations theory is to model and predict behaviour of various actors in the international arena. However, this is not merely a scientific empirical enquiry, but nor is it just an a priori enquiry either. What do we mean by this? They are coloured by the choices and intents of actors at any given time.

Consider the following, let us posit that the world is liberal, and North Korea is realist. The liberal world order does not necessarily require the whole world to be liberal, but merely that liberal states (at least of the sort in accordance with Kant) would cooperate with each other and towards perpetual peace. By inference, an apologist for (neo) liberalism would argue that despite a world of anarchy, human nature or the incentives are for states to cooperate or they would not be able to share in the progress and/or wealth of the world. However, even if we accept the first premise, what if the latter is not true? What if neoliberal institutions in fact alienate certain states? The UN enquiry, WTO, and ICC merely seek to reaffirm the world view of North Korea, that it is a victim that must help herself; enshrined in its juche ideology.

Image Courtesy of the BBC: Evolution of the North Korean missile capability, the latest is capable of striking Japan

Thus, this highlights the ‘self-containing loop’ hypothesised earlier. Liberalism and realism appear simultaneously true, or at least contingent on each other. International theories do not only rely on their purported assumptions to inform our reasons for actions, those actions will re-inform those assumptions. The function: A leads to B is only accurate and useful in this case if B is then also a subset of A. The premise that nation states are and ought to cooperative is only true, if the outcome is that North Korea also cooperates. The same logic also applies to realism, North Korea’s provocations may not necessarily result in Statism and self-help, instead it has led to the opposite – more multilateral cooperation and multi-national security arrangements.

Has the world’s approach to North Korea truly been liberal? How do we reconcile this with the perception that it has been? Is it justified?

The United Nations Inquiry is a good example of liberalism. Instead of state actors balancing each other through its military for self-interest, multiple nations are cooperating through multilateral institutions and diplomacy to improve human rights in another country. Liberals could also point to the six-party talks, or even the Sunshine Policy, as examples of using diplomacy to engage with North Korea.

Image Courtesy of BBC: Entrance to the Kaesong Region, a joint industrial park between North Korea and South Korea

However, are these approaches truly liberal? The United Nations inquiry is one where it does not have any teeth, unless backed by the force of states. North Korea has responded simply by ignoring the report, and threatening nuclear retaliation. Moreover, the six party talks have achieved little. Alleged concessions by North Korea to shut down its mothballed reactors can be interpreted as realism where North Korea is merely ‘bargaining’ in exchange for much needed aid, international legitimacy, and consolidating its power base within the state. The Sunshine Policy was met with more aggression from North Korea during the same period; and it could be seen as unification in disguise for self-gain. Even the more recent Dresden Unification speech by Park Geun Hye can be construed as serving the interests of the economy of South Korea. On the final point, there is an interesting distinction between the South Korean ‘state’ and South Korean companies. There is considerable overlap, but whether we regard the former or latter as the primary actor or legitimate stakeholder will also yield different perspectives not dependent solely on actions (beyond the scope of this discussion).

A point could also be made that the collective security arrangement (liberalism) is merely a symptom of realism. The US is merely balancing against China in Asia, and South Korea would pursue nuclear weapons if it were not for the US acting as the guarantor of its state’s security. It appears there that there is a duality of space where both theories are ‘true’.

Image Courtesy of BBC: Joint US-South Korea drills in 2014


This piece highlights three key issues: firstly, that the cause and effect (vis-à-vis assumptions and choice) of international relations theories are not linearly causative nor distinct but interdependent; secondly, that realism and liberalism cannot be considered as ‘best fit’ models independently, they can fit depending on the circumstance and state; and finally, that both theories can even simultaneously hold true given the right conditions (or perspectives), they are not mutually exclusive. Given more scope it would have been good to discuss the moral force of rule-based systems in liberalism and collective action problems.

The Real China: Taiwan’s Cross Strait Agreement and Realism

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The Real China: Taiwan’s Cross Strait Agreement and Realism

Max Lin, 1635489, University of Auckland, 24/03/2014

How do we reconcile Taiwan’s recent parliament occupation to protest the Cross Strait Service Agreement with realism?

With international spotlight on Ukraine and Russia, this blog post would like to turn towards what is happening in Asia, particularly Taiwan (Republic of China). On 18 March 2014, a group of students stormed past police and occupied the Taiwanese parliament. This is the first time in Taiwan’s young democracy that its citizens have occupied its parliament, and the event is still unfolding as this blog is written.


Image courtesy of the Diplomat: Inside Parliament.

More than 200 people, mostly students, occupy Taiwan's parliament building in Taipei on Friday, March 21, to protest the ruling party's push for a trade pact with China.

Image courtesy of CNN: Taiwanese protesters occupying parliament.


What was the nature of these protests? How can we make sense of them using international relations theory? These protesters demand that the Taiwanese government reject a trade deal signed previously between Taiwanese and Chinese government (yet to be ratified by parliament) earlier that year, which many deem as unification by stealth. They claim that the deal would benefit large businesses at the expense of Taiwan’s small and medium sized businesses and would allow China leverage over Taiwan, hence undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty. The protest has both substantive and procedural elements to it, claiming the agreement is both damaging and unconstitutional.

The focus of this blog post will be classical and structural realism: knowledge of the three assumptions and six principles will be assumed.

Is Taiwan or should Taiwan be considered a country, and how does it inform our understanding of realism?

Realism is based on three key premises: statism, survival and self-help. This is not a piece advocating or opposing Taiwan’s moral status as a country, but rather what this ambiguity means for political theory. Statism argues that states are the primary actor, and all other actors and concerns are subsidiary. This question therefore is an a priori enquiry, before any further questions on the applicability of realism can be considered, and thus carries normative weight, and not just the descriptive value of theoretical modelling. For example, when we say ‘Russia is merely reasserting its sovereignty over Crimea’ versus ‘Crimea seceded from Ukraine and ceded sovereignty to Russia in accordance with the will of the people’, we are making different value judgments despite the “act” being the same. The key here is to highlight the nexus and the tension between the purported neutrality and amorality of realism vis-a-vis its prescriptive implications.

Therefore, applying realism and assuming the condition of anarchy, and that power is sought to preserve the state, communists and nationalists who wish for unification, would see Taiwan as a renegade province. Therefore in this case China would merely be reasserting its sovereignty over or exercising jurisdiction and leverage over its own territory (not unlike a fiscal union or federalism over an highly autonomous region, or China’s one country two systems with Hong Kong) – realism would appear to be a non-starter, or at least one where it is only one state consolidating power internally . On the other hand, if Taiwan is deemed a state, it would be a bilateral agreement for mutual gain. The takeaway from this is that, before we can ask why a definitional assumption is or should be applied, we must ask how to apply it.

Taiwan Parliament Occupied by protesters 1st time in History

Image courtesy of CNN: Chinese business cards photographed by protesters after occupying one of the Taiwanese minister’s office.

How does economic cooperation fit into the framework of realism, and how do variables such as sovereignty, treaties and international institutions affect this?

International relations theory often focuses on military conflicts, but how does trade fit into the framework of realism? If we accept the three premises of Statism, survival and self-help and the assumption of anarchy, is trade prima facie an objection against realism and an affirmation of the cooperation and institutions central to liberalism?

Not necessarily. This critique is often made because realism is often associated with mercantilism or economic nationalism. However, that politico-economic relationship need not exist. Consistent with realism, Taiwan could be acting to ‘help’ itself in an ever competitive global market. Moreover, if we take anarchy, self-help and survival to its logical extremism, states would regress into autarkies. This would of course be a misrepresentation. The more nuanced approach would be to consider Taiwan’s trade deal with China as one that is necessary under structural realism, one that might be regrettable, but the trade-off of any sovereignty is required because of the incentives that exist in a world which needs to trade with China. We can see this by other counter-balancing moves by the Taiwanese government, for example recent free trade agreements with New Zealand and Singapore, and efforts to join the TPPA, as well as the fishing agreement reached with Japan in the Senkaku, in an attempt to balance against China’s growing leverage and clout.


Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou speaks during a news conference about protesters' occupation of Taiwan's legislature, at the Presidential Office in Taipei March 23, 2014. REUTERS/Minshen Lin

Image courtesy of Reuters: Ma-Ying-Jeou addresses press on the importance of the Cross Strait Service Trade Agreement.

Of course we could argue that there are other historical and ideological reasons for this trade agreement, for example unification. However that is beyond the scope of this discussion.

Non-state actors, such as corporations and protesters, appear to be influencing state decision-making, how can this be reconciled within our understanding of realism?

To briefly cover this, even if corporations were lobbying the Taiwanese government to sign the trade agreement, the chief beneficiary would still be the Taiwanese state which relies on the activity and scope of these companies to compete with conglomerates such as South Korea’s own chaebol. Accordingly, it is still in the state’s best interest.

Image courtesy of BBC: Citizens barricading themselves against state police.

President Ma-Ying Jeou also spoke publicly about the protest, saying the agreement is too important for Taiwan, thus the actions of protesters appear to be minimised.


This blog explores three theoretical underpinnings of realism in relation to one of Taiwan’s contemporary events: firstly, how do we define the boundaries of realist enquiry, for example what a state is; secondly, what is the relationship between trade and realism; finally, how non-state actors such as corporations and protest movements operate within a realist framework.