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Tensions rise on the Korean peninsula – and they are unlikely to recede any time soon



AAP/EPA/Yonhap

L Gordon Flake, University of Western Australia

After a period of relative quiet, North Korea again commandeered news headlines with the dramatic, if symbolic, demolition of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office in the city of Kaesong, just north of the demilitarised zone.

The office was refurbished at considerable cost to South Korea following the 2018 inter-Korean Summit, and was intended to function as a virtual embassy between the two Koreas. Its destruction was an unmistakable indication of North Korea’s displeasure with its neighbour, and a dramatic end to two years of pageantry and hope.

Tensions between the Koreas have been rising after the north protested the launch of anti-North Korean propaganda-filled balloons and plastic bottles into North Korea by South Korean civic groups. Just three days before the liaison office’s demolition, Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister, specifically threatened its destruction.

North Korea, clearly sensitive to the anti-regime flyers, has abandoned expectations of meaningful sanctions relief or economic benefits from South Korea. It may also be trying to bolster the credentials of Kim Yo-jong, just months after she was speculated to be a potential successor to Kim Jong-un following rumours of his demise.

However, these alone do not fully explain what appears to be a deliberate series of actions intended by North Korea to draw attention by ratcheting up tensions on the peninsula.

To fully comprehend the current situation in North Korea, one must understand developments over the past two years. In late 2017, it appeared increasingly possible there would be some form of conflagration between the United States and North Korea.

This stemmed from a series of North Korean missile and nuclear tests that had, both in their range and demonstrated capability, convinced White House national security planners that North Korea posed an unacceptably high direct risk to the American homeland.

US President Donald Trump openly derided the North Korean leader as “little rocket man”, and threatened “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. It was this that led Kim Beazley and me to warn of the potentially dire consequences.




Read more:
War with North Korea: from unthinkable to unavoidable?


Instead, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, facing the risk of a conflict that could draw the Korean peninsula into war, and an escalatory cycle over which he would have little direct influence, scrambled to diffuse the situation.

Latching onto a few positive elements in Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech, South Korea welcomed a North Korean cheering team led by none other than Kim Yo-jong to attend the 2018 Winter Olympics.

This in turn opened the door to the full-body embrace between the two Korean leaders at the inter-Korean Summit two months later, and the Singapore-based US-North Korean Summit in June 2018.

Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in greet each other at the 2018 inter-Korean summit.
AAP/Reuters/pool

But despite a small number of follow-on meetings, that is where the progress ended.
Trump, always more concerned with theatrics than substance, asserted a North Korean commitment to denuclearisation that was not apparent to anyone outside his administration, and returned home.

The question is, what does North Korea want?

It wants to be accepted and recognised as a nuclear power. It also wants to secure sanctions release and economic benefits, despite having reversed none of the actions or policies that led to the imposition of those sanctions in the first place.

In addition, there is increasing evidence that North Korea has not been immune from the ravages of coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps more importantly, the economic global economic downturn will also have an impact on an already weak North Korean economy.

In this context, North Korea appears to be returning to its tried and true approach of instigating international tensions as a way of forging greater domestic solidarity in the face of ongoing economic privation.

The danger now, as always, is the risk of a North Korean miscalculation, particularly in an uncertain international environment. There is evidence Pyongyang had already dismissed the US, and had no expectations for further progress until after the US elections. This latest act of aggression indicates they have likewise now written off South Korea.

Unfortunately, the longer-term questions surrounding North Korea remain unsolved by the summits with South Korea or the US. It is increasingly apparent that even if we get through 2020 without further incident, we will still be facing a North Korea that is more capable and more dangerous.

If the most recent actions are any indication, it may also be more desperate than it was when we issued a stark warning two years ago.The Conversation

L Gordon Flake, CEO, Perth USAsia Centre, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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How South Korea flattened the coronavirus curve with technology



A sense of normalcy is returning to South Korea but the U.S. lacks the testing capacity and contact tracing system the country relies on.
AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

Michael Ahn, University of Massachusetts Boston

As countries around the world consider how best to reopen their countries, it’s worth considering how South Korea has been able to “flatten the curve” and even hold parliamentary elections without resorting to lockdowns.

After seeing an initial spike in COVID-19 infections in February, South Korea implemented several measures to bring the disease’s spread under control, a progression I’ve followed as a researcher on public policy. South Korea was able to lower the number of new infections from 851 on March 3 to 22 infections as of April 17 and the mortality rate from COVID-19 hovers around 2%.

Several measures contribute to Korea’s success, but two measures were critical in the country’s ability to flatten the curve: extensive testing for the disease and a national system for promptly and effectively tracking people infected with COVID-19.

Testing and triage

From the 2015 MERS outbreak, Korea learned that infection to medical staff sapped the ability to control the virus as infected citizens in hospitals turned them into hotspots for infection. As a result, at the onset of COVID-19 infection, the Korean government ensured that proper personal protective equipment was provided to avoid infection to the medical staff. It also created physically separated testing and treatment sites for health care workers.

Once safe testing and treatment facilities were secured, the government began testing for COVID-19 at massive scale – over 440,000 people – which essentially covered all those with symptoms. People who test positive are quarantined in COVID-19 special units and treated.

South Korea was able to hold a national election on April 15, because it has been successful in containing the spread of COVID-19.
AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

South Korea focuses attention on treating people with severe symptoms and therefore less likelihood of recovery, rather than focusing on people with mild symptoms. This helped lower the mortality rate of COVID-19, as some of the most vulnerable populations with severe symptoms recovered. Countries focusing their effort on treating patients with a greater likelihood of survival may lead to a higher mortality rate as more vulnerable patients perish.

Extensive testing is a crucial step in identifying the state of the infection in the country – where the outbreaks are taking place, who is infected and who is not. This data then becomes a stepping stone for identifying any hotspots of infection in the country and to trace and identify the population that came in contact with those infected.

COVID-19 contact tracing system with roots in MERS

What distinguishes the Korean model in controlling COVID-19 is its ability to trace individuals diagnosed with the disease who may have come into contact with the infected individuals. It’s known as the COVID-19 Smart Management System (SMS).

South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) runs the contact tracing system that uses data from 28 organizations such as National Police Agency, The Credit Finance Association, three smartphone companies, and 22 credit card companies to trace the movement of individuals with COVID-19. This system takes 10 minutes to analyze the movement of the infected individuals. For people who come in contact with an infected person, the KCDC informs the local public health center near the infected citizen’s residence and the health center sends the notification to them. If they test positive, they are hospitalized at the COVID-19 special facilities. Those without symptoms are asked to remain self-quarantined for 14 days.

The legal basis for accessing such personal information was prepared after the 2015 MERS outbreak when the government learned that tracing the movement of infected individuals and people who came in contact with them is crucial. As a safety measure, only epidemic investigators at KCDC can access the location information and once the COVID-19 outbreak is over, the personal information used for the contact tracing will be purged.

Could the US emulate South Korea?

South Korea’s model – relying on rapid testing availability, safe COVID-19 medical facilities and a government-run contact tracing system – helps avoid an authoritarian approach of shutting down an entire city as we have seen in China. A forced lockdown has democratic and human consequences of restricting individual freedom and stockpiling. It may have lasting consequences in the post-COVID-19 world such as the abuse of political power and the threat to freedom through intrusive surveillance.

Currently, the U.S. is considering re-opening the country or states out of concern over the economy. But without effective measures in place to contain the virus, it may lead to exponential growth in infection again.

Epidemiologists have said the key in defeating COVID-19 pandemic is in identifying hotspots of infection and severing the vicious cycle of infection. An effective contact tracing system is a crucial component in this approach and this can be potentially emulated in the U.S.

The U.S. has the necessary technology and data and the government could form a partnership with the relevant entities, such as credit card and telecommunications companies, law enforcement, health care, and other related public and private organizations to create a COVID-19 contact tracing system. With the help of such system, the government could identify the infected population and hotspots, trace and quarantine them for treatment in medical facilities that are, with government’s continued effort, supplied with the necessary PPE.

At the citizen level, the practice of wearing masks and social distancing should be strongly encouraged to prevent infection while the government tries to flatten the curve.

Currently, there is a sense of normalcy returning to South Korea. No cities are under lockdown, the restaurants, churches, bars, gyms and learning institutes are allowed to open if they observe the government quarantine guidelines, trains and buses run on schedule, grocery stores are fully stocked, and the country just successfully held parliamentary elections in mid-April. Citizens wear masks and exercise social distancing at all times which helps preventing further infection. South Korea’s approach to COVID-19 with its focus on technology suggests a possible path for the U.S. in reopening the country without having to subject citizens to the coercive authority of the state and compromise our democratic ideal.

[You need to understand the coronavirus pandemic, and we can help. Read The Conversation’s newsletter.]The Conversation

Michael Ahn, Associate Professor and MPA Graduate Program Director, University of Massachusetts Boston

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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