Thursday, 13 May 2021
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By Nick Cranston, B.A, Research Associate, U.K. Defence Forum

Viewpoints has been following the Cambodian-Thai standoff recently as the latest round of a century long dispute involving the Preah Vihear Temple in Preah Vihear Province. This temple, built during the 9th and 10th centuries, has been at the centre of conflict and debate between the two nations goes back to the early 1900s but the ownership dispute has reappeared in recent years Cambodia submitted an application to UNESCO requesting that the site be designated as a World Heritage site after the 46 years of disputes. Thailand contended that the land surrounding the site belonged to them. The Cambodians withdrew the application, and in 2008, after winning support, resubmitted a modified request requesting the designation just for the temple, not surrounding land. The World Court now has ruled that it belongs to Cambodia, was listed as a UN heritage site, angering nationalists in Thailand who still regard it as Thai.

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Recent American and South Korean intelligence reports speculate that North Korea may be preparing for its first nuclear tests since 2009. Satellite images show that North Korea has dug an 800 metre tunnel at its test site at Punggye-ri. Experts believe that the tunnel will be ready for a nuclear test when it reaches 1 kilometre, which South Korea believes may occur in early April.

Adam Dempsey, Research Associate for the UK Defence Forum, has recently undertaken a study of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme. His report outlines the development of Pyongyang's programme and ballistic missile capabilities.

In keeping with many aspects of North Korean life, Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme is shrouded in secrecy and subject to speculation. Official estimates of North Korea's programme are varied and remain primarily reliant on open-source intelligence. To complicate matters, Pyongyang's nuclear missile development may have benefitted from illegal exchanges involving the A.Q. Khan network.

Adam's full report is available here.


By Tom French

The recent shelling by the North Korean People's Army of Yeonpyeong Island and the resultant civilian and military casualties have raised many questions about the possible causes behind, and responses to, this clear act of aggression.


Much like the original outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 the exact cause or 'who fired first' in this incident may never be known. However, it seems that the North Korean shelling began ostensibly in response to an artillery exercise by the South Korean military. Nevertheless, the bombardment is believed by most observers, and crucially, the South Korean leadership, to have been a premeditated act of aggression.

Much like the sinking of the Cheonan on 26 March the incident has provoked a flurry of speculation about the North's motivation behind these highly risky acts of aggression. Some have speculated that the attack could be a response to the recent hosting of the G20 by the South, with the North unwilling to be upstaged by its southern neighbour. Others have argued that the attack could be a result of the recent statements by a US diplomat that Americans would not reward Northern provocations by returning to the six party talks. The often advanced theory of blaming of the incident on 'rogue elements' within the Northern military is also a common theme. No doubt these and the clichés of the North as a 'mad', 'bad' or even 'sad' regime will fill much of the commentary on the incident.

These rather flimsy arguments seem to unravel when confronted by the question: why would the North risk so much over such minor incidents as it would almost certainly be defeated if it came to war? A more credible explanation lies in attempting to assume the perspective of the Kim regime and the choices available to it.

Caught in the midst of a succession crisis, the ailing Kim Jong-il seems to want to ensure the smooth transition of power to his heir apparent Kim Jong-un. A useful tool in this seems to be winning the support of both the military and people through 'victories' over the United States and its South Korean 'puppet'. As noted in B.R. Myers's recent book The Cleanest Race this form of anti American / South Korean propaganda is very common in the North and a the sinking of a southern warship and the bombardment of a military base offer the chance to renew and strengthen this narrative and with it the interconnected Kim dynasty personality cult and central, highly respected position of the military.


The cessation of the bombardment and the apparent absence of any further acts of aggression seem to prove that the North doesn't seek a wider conflict, however the full response of the South is yet to be revealed. As noted in a previous Defence Viewpoints article, three possibilities lay open to the Southern government, sanctions, a blockade of some kind and finally, military action. It seems that the South too does not yet seek an escalation of the incident however the remarks by Southern President Lee Myung-bak that the attack would be met "through action", not just words may hint at a tougher line over the coming days. It seem Southern patience is wearing thin and this coupled with the inevitable public outcry and the clear opportunity the attack provides for a strike against the North's nuclear facilities, (including the recently discovered centrifuges at the Yongbyon nuclear complex) might yet result in a hardening of the South's attitude towards its northern neighbour.

About the author

Tom French is a graduate of Durham University and is currently completing his PhD in Northeast Asian Security from Southampton University.


Editor's note: This is the second installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman will write over the next few weeks as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland. In this series, he will share his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and conclude with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.

By George Friedman

A borderland is a region where history is constant: Everything is in flux. The countries we are visiting on this trip (Turkey, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine and Poland) occupy the borderland between Islam, Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity. Roman Catholic Hapsburg Austria struggled with the Islamic Ottoman Empire for centuries, with the Ottomans extending northwest until a climactic battle in Vienna in 1683. Beginning in the 18th century, Orthodox Russia expanded from the east, through Belarus and Ukraine. For more than two centuries, the belt of countries stretching from the Baltic to the Black seas was the borderland over which three empires fought.

There have been endless permutations here. The Cold War was the last clear-cut confrontation, pitting Russia against a Western Europe backed — and to a great extent dominated — by the United States. This belt of countries was firmly if informally within the Soviet empire. Now they are sovereign again. My interest in the region is to understand more clearly how the next iteration of regional geopolitics will play out. Russia is far more powerful than it was 10 years ago. The European Union is undergoing internal stress and Germany is recalculating its position. The United States is playing an uncertain and complex game. I want to understand how the semicircle of powers, from Turkey to Poland, are thinking about and positioning themselves for the next iteration of the regional game.

I have been accused of thinking like an old Cold warrior. I don't think that's true. The Soviet Union has collapsed, and U.S. influence in Europe has declined. Whatever will come next will not be the Cold War. What I do not expect this to be is a region of perpetual peace. It has never been that before. It will not be that in the future. I want to understand the pattern of conflict that will occur in the future. But for that we need to begin in the past, not with the Cold War, but with World War I.

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By George Friedman and Reva Bhalla

Strange statements are coming out of Cuba these days. Fidel Castro, in the course of a five-hour interview in late August, reportedly told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations that "the Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore."

Once that statement hit the headlines, Castro backtracked. Dressed in military uniform for the first time in four years (which we suspect was his way of signaling that he was not abandoning the revolution), he delivered a rare, 35-minute speech Sept. 3 to students at the University of Havana. In addition to spending several minutes on STRATFOR's Iran analysis, Castro addressed his earlier statement on the Cuban model, saying he was "accurately quoted but misinterpreted" and suggesting that the economic model doesn't work anymore but that the revolution lives on.

Castro, now 84, may be old, but he still seems to have his wits about him. We don't know whether he was grossly misinterpreted by the reporter during the earlier interview, was acknowledging the futility of the Cuban model and/or was dropping hints of a policy shift. Regardless of what he did or did not say, Castro's reported statement on the weakness of the revolution was by no means revolutionary.

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