Free Trade Agreements: Handle with Care

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Just posted a piece on Free Trade Agreements on the fabulous Future Challenges blog!  Click to see more of my pieces on Future Challenges :)


Like many other structural policies, free trade agreements are a tool used by governments to achieve their objectives.

Now tools can be used or misused, and in this case the tool is not being used to its fullest potential. Free Trade Agreements need to be handled with due care if they are to achieve the economic benefits they have the capacity to deliver. Let me explain why.

Free trade is a concept that arouses much opposition around the world but that still seems to be an accepted part of the global economic state of play.

Let’s take the case of Australia.

The terms of the Australia – United States Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) proved much less favourable than expected for Australian companies.

The influential key industries of sugar and beef at best saw only a modest improvement in terms of access.  A survey of exporting companies conducted by the Australian Industry Group in late 2009 indicated that less than half of companies surveyed saw any direct benefits from AUSFTA while almost 80 percent of respondents said the FTA was not very effective in improving export opportunities. As AI Group chief executive, Heather Ridout said at the time:

“The survey shows that FTAs alone do not motivate companies to seek new export opportunities but do provide some advantages to those already exporting to that market.”

The New York Times also shed an interesting light on the agreement, saying that it:

… sends a chilling message to the rest of the world. Even when dealing with an allied nation with similar living standards, the administration, under pressure from the Congress, has opted to continue coddling the sugar lobby, rather than dropping the most indefensible form of protectionism. This will only embolden the case of those around the world who argue that globalisation is a rigged game.

Yet at the end of the day, AUSFTA has neither substantially benefited nor severely disadvantaged Australia.  The huge growth in trade predicted for the United States failed to materialize, but neither did the fears over intellectual property and the PBS.  It is almost a neutral situation.

The AUSFTA was one of the first significant FTAs that Australia entered into, coming into force under much controversy on the first of January 2005.  The Howard government of the day supported by the Center of International Economics heralded it as a major success.  According to CIE modeling, Australia’s annual GDP would increase up to $6 billion in a decade thanks to the agreement.

It was the first of such agreements and Australia has now sealed seven of them with various nations from Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Thailand to the ASEAN bloc.


Signing a Free Trade Agreement in1935 by Wiki Commons. CC C-031017

Could it be that the political role played by Free Trade Agreements is more important than all other considerations? Are they nothing more than just an accurate reflection of the politics of the day?

In this piece by fellow Future Challenges Blogger Aylin Matle, the ‘real’ merits of these agreements are interrogated.  Perhaps, as Alyin mentions, Free Trade Agreements are part of a government’s economic toolkit but also have a subtle but equally important political effect.

On the other hand however, there are examples of when trade triumphs over politics (and vice versa) and perhaps, suggests that the two concepts should not be treated with the same broad brush.

The concept of “free trade” is not in itself inherently bad or negative.  As such, we should switch our focus away from the idea of free trade to the details of the agreements being forged, in an effort to ensure they are as fair and mutually beneficial as possible.

They say that the devil is in the detail and nowhere is that more true.  Each government decides how they will use this increasingly popular tool to further their own policy objectives.  To understand what these objectives are though, we need to take a closer look at the devil in the detail.

Check out the original piece here!

SBS Online: Getting to know our neighbours

Defining ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ has been the subject of some debate since the release of the Federal Government’s White Paper in October last year. But how much do we know about the neighbourhood we are calling our own?

Last month I found myself in the hot and humid Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur with five other ‘cultural exchange’ participants and a diplomatic entourage. I was a guest of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and our mission was to learn as much as we could about this nation’s rich tapestry in one week.

Malaysia is often seen as an exemplary model for Muslim countries around the world; a country with a Muslim government where halal food is abundant and hijab fashion shops sit comfortably next to Chanel and Hermes.

For me, the opportunity to delve beneath the surface was an experience that offered much to reflect on, particularly for a migrant Muslim who calls multicultural Australia home.

Read on...and check out my first piece as a blogger on the SBS Online website! 

I will hopefully now be a regular contributor on a whole random range of issues so watch this space!

The Malaysian Moderation Obsession

Thoughts of a young Aussie on a Malaysia cultural exchange...we made it into the paper! Check out my first reflection on the trip so far here.

The 'Global Movement of Moderation Foundation', or the GMMF for short, is symptomatic of an contradictory obsession with moderation in the Malaysian political sphere.

This contradiction has been demonstrated over the course of the Australia-Malaysia Institute's current program, an initiative pitched as a cultural exchange between the youth of the two nations. The Malaysian Government's Ministry of Foreign Affair's determination to include the GMMF along the way has led to the 'moderation' agenda dictating the terms and language around the program and it is clear that this is coming from the top. Why? What is this all achieving?

A more fundamental question to ask is 'What exactly does it mean to be part of the moderate movement?'

In essence, what does 'moderate' actually mean?

This is a question we have been asking as a group for the last few days and have yet to receive a comprehensive answer. It seems that the concept of 'moderation' is something along the lines of 'the middle path', or more boldly, the opposite of extremism. How such an amorphous concept can be a goal however - especially when so poorly defined - is difficult to understand.

What is concerning is the use of the word 'moderate' when it is a word that quite clearly comes with baggage.

It means various things to various people and as a Muslim, the use of the phrase 'moderate Muslim' is slightly...uncomfortable.

Rather than moderate, some Muslims prefer words such as 'mainstream', if we have to give ourselves a label.

'Moderate Muslims' however, to me seems to just imply a Muslim that is lukewarm, or just 'moderately' interested and engaged in the religion. It makes me think - if I am a 'moderate Muslim', does that mean I am not a 'good Muslim'?

It almost insinuates that it's neither here, nor there. Just a bit, well, meh?

Different Muslims have different preferences, but it should be recognised that the word 'moderate' does have that connotation to many.

So clearly, the use of phrases such as the 'movement of moderation' when that is so poorly defined and in fact insinuates a dilution of [religious] belief is concerning and confusing.

In addition, the second issue of note is the corresponding and contradictory moves in Malaysia to politisice Islam. This has been demonstrated by the tightening of particular laws excessively and against the principles of Islam, an attitude which flies in the face of 'moderation'.

The most recent case is naturally that of banning the use of the word 'Allah' by other religions and various cases in family court that are said to terribly disadvantage women. This disadvantage is due to procedural issues and poor implementation of the law rather than of the word of the law itself.

It would seem that even one of the most outwardly progressive Muslim majority nations in the world suffers from the deep politicisation of religion, evidenced in the adoption of the word 'moderate'. It is a word that the West love, as it is nice and not-extremist-scary. A nation that adopts this position will be internationally favoured.

Domestically however, the opposite is true. Political leaders use the religion to justify their actions in order to try gain the domestic Muslim internal support they desire.

It is an interesting situation indeed...


Politicisation of religion is difficult to fight without true, just, fair education, and that includes proper religious eduation that focuses not on the rituals of a religion but the spirit behind the words.

When Muslims are properly educated themselves as to their rights, responsibilities and duties as good Muslims, the true spirit of Islam - which is like any religion, lauding peace, mercy, forgiveness, et. al. - will shine through.

After all, Muslims are told to walk the 'middle path'...

Ironic, la?


Malaysia's Identity Issues.

Why the sudden interest in Malaysia? As part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Cultural Exchange program, six young Muslims from Australia are partaking in an exchange program in order to deepen cultural understanding. I have the immense honour of being one of the participants of said initiative.

Traveling through Kuala Lumpur over the last couple of days and engaging in deep and meaningful conversations with various Malaysians has been an enlightening experience indeed.

What has emerged from the conversations?

To an outsider, it seems there is an underlying undercurrent of confusion and frustration in the Malaysian population about identity, politics and religion.


It is important to start with the understanding that Malaysia is made up of three main ethnic groups; Malays, Chinese and Indian.

The Malays are the majority, and they are also defined in the nation's constitution as those who are Muslim and speak Bahasa Maleyu.

If you are Malay, you are entitled to many privileges under the 'Bumiputera' policies.

This leads to an interesting dilemma.

1. If a nation is seeking to be truly multicultural, an affirmative action law that racially privileges one over the others makes life difficult for those in the minority (Malays make up just under 60% of the population). What then is a 'Malaysian' exactly?

2. If the criteria to be a Malay includes being a Muslim, how does a nation separate 'Mosque' and 'State'? Does the religion simply become part of an identity of a race rather than a true spiritual practice? How do minorities fit in a society that only 'accepts' one standard version of Islam?

These are the two questions that have been at the root of many of our conversations. It seems clear that the issues are far from resolved, and the results of the recent election raise more questions than they answer.


There is much more to be said and shared, but this is only the beginning of the program, and I am weary of making judgements that may be unfair.

Observationally though, it seems there is an insecurity around the idea of identity, of what it means to be 'Malaysian', both individially for Malaysians and for the nation itself. It is clearly still a country that is journeying through the nation building process.

What is concerning is the politicisation of Islam and the use of the religion for political gain, or on seemingly superficial matters. This is one such example.

What this means for the future of the nation, particularly one where the opposition is a coalition of the PKR, PAS and DAP parties (i.e. Muslim Malays and Chinese Malaysians who are varied) is interesting and unknown.


I will no doubt learn and reflect more as the week goes by. What are your thoughts though, on how Malaysia deals with the issues of identity, as a nation and individually?



'No Advantage': Australia takes a humanitarian step backwards

This article was originally written for the International Political Forum, read the article here.

The Federal Government of Australia has announced changes to its policies that will see Australia take a huge leap backwards in the humanity of its processing of refugees and asylum seekers.

Allow me a moment here for honest disbelief and disappointment in the handling of this unnecessarily controversial issue.

The Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announced that asylum seekers that arrive by boat will no longer be detained in Nauru or Manus (PNG) as the the offshore processing facilities have reached their capacity.  Instead, they will be allocated "temporary bridging visas", meaning they will be allowed to live outside detention centers without the right to work or bring their families to Australia.  The bridging visas will allow for welfare and assistance of up to 89% of unemployment benefits ($270) a week, a sum below the Australian poverty line.  [More after the jump]

The policy is eerily similar to the Howard era's draconian Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) but manages to make matters worse.

Individuals under TPVs were allowed to work and contribute to the community, thus culturally preparing them for the eventual transition to full Australian citizens once their processing was complete.

The policy, quite frankly, is a recipe for disaster.  Introducing potentially thousands of asylum seekers into a community, living in poverty and with no legal way to earn money or improve their standard of living is not only inhumane, it is short sighted and irresponsible.  Charities will be overwhelmed by the demand on their resources, communities can turn into ghettos and by disenfranchising and isolating truly vulnerable individuals, the policy has the potential to become the birthplace of a new underclass.

Asylum seekers and refugees are often eager to work, diligent and dedicated to beginning a new life.  Stripped of their opportunity to do so, where will they turn? How will they properly adapt to their new culture?  Looking internally, why would the community accept them if they don't see them contributing to the community?

There is no doubt that this is a difficult and complex issue with no easy solution.  However, the solution cannot lay in essentially reinvigorating a decade old policy, in flaunting international law and creating inevitable problems for the future of Australia's social fabric.

Michelle Grattan made the following comment, challenging people to come up with better options.

It is easy to find holes in what the government has done this week. But it's another matter to say what policy adjustment would best meet the three criteria of humanity, effectiveness and community acceptability.

I tend to disagree.  Australians (perhaps reluctantly) elected this government to lead the nation, not pander to every whim, ensuring every solution is "acceptable to the community" before it is implemented.  It is their job as leaders and governors of the nation to provide solutions that are in the best interests of the country and its citizens, not simply in the interests of providing short term solutions that may work up until the election date.

Unfortunately however, this isn't how the system seems to work.

The public discussion on this issue has been clouded with political agendas, biased language, emotional manipulation and pure exploitation of fear of the unknown from both sides of the house.  Unfortunately, it seems our very humanity as a responsible nation has been caught in the crossfire.  There is very little public understanding of what will 'stop the boats' - advertisements such as the below are incredibly ineffective.  Where is a potential asylum seeker going to access a computer and the Internet in order to even view the video?  In two months it has had a total of 8.927 views...I think that speaks for itself.

Caption provided: "We're working regionally to stop people smugglers. There's no advantage taking a boat when it's safer, cheaper and just as quick to use orderly migration options." They have got to be kidding. (via)

It is no wonder that Australia is developing a reputation as 'extremely harsh'.

In a time where the nation is attempting to build its reputation in the region and globally through initiatives such as the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper and the seat on the Security Council, this is an embarrassment.  Neighbours such as Indonesia and Malaysia, who deal with much larger numbers, are hardly likely to be impressed - or understanding.

The unfortunate result is that this issue has become unnecessarily politicised and used as a manipulator of the public sentiment by both parties.  Simplistic statements such as "stop the boats" dehumanise individuals and create a political football that completely distorts the true nature of the discussion. 'The conversation has been poisoned' suggests Professor Burnside, and that poison is what feeds the inexorable decent in this debate.

Almost everything that has happened in refugee policy over the past 11 years has been informed and supported by dishonest rhetoric. Specifically, calling boat people “illegals” and “queue-jumpers” is not only false, it is calculated to prejudice the public against a tiny group of weak, vulnerable people who deserve our help, not our hatred. (via)

In the grand scheme of things, these traumatised men, women and children are less than 10% of our annual migration intake and are just looking for a new, peaceful place to call home.

I doubt that they expected that when they eventually arrived in Australia they would be treated worse than our criminals.

Budget implications should be enough to convince your average Australian that there is a better solution.  Detention onshore costs around $150, 000 per person, per year and offshore costs about $500, 000 per person, per year.  Surely, there are better options.

For a fantastic article that looks at a possible alternative, check out Professor Julian Burnside's thoughts.  There are many other humane solutions out there

Lastly, for those who claim that these initiatives stop the boat, Professor James Hathaway (an expert on international refugee law) states:

The whole people-smuggling problem is a false issue. We created the market for human smuggling. If asylum seekers could lawfully come to Australia and make a refugee claim without the need of sneaking in by boat, they would do it.  But we make it illegal and create the market that smugglers thrive on.

We are extremely lucky to live in Australia and call this land home.  Is it too much to show some humanity and share?

China’s Changeover: Next Steps for the Region?

For anyone interested in regional politics: This week China starts its week long congress where they are going to begin the once-in-a-decade leadership transfer process.  Interesting stuff indeed...

So during the congress a new central committee is elected, and they then choose the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest decision making authority in the land.

The congress opened with the outgoing leader, Hu Jintao addressing the congress and stressing that the fight against corruption could ‘prove fatal’ to the party if not won.  It is said that the committees are already known before the congress begins, many decisions being made through “backroom politicking”.  Either way, what is important is what the leadership plans to do…and it definitely seems that holding on to power is one of their objectives (naturally).

The BBC reports a little more here, and says that in Beijing, more than 1.4 million volunteers have been brought in to help out with security for the congress. Wow.

China is the world’s second largest economy currently and is well on its way to becoming the world’s first.  The eyes of the world will be on the communist nation this week more than ever…

What do you think? Where will China’s leadership take it? Their system has clearly worked for what they want to achieve so far…right?

Culture Sh-Sh-Shock! Part I

Well this post has been a long time coming. Having been fortunate enough Alhamdulilah to have spent the last few months travelling, I have come to realise that although I am born in Sudan, my cultural norms and expectations and behaviours are in fact, largely Australian.  Even though my parents brought me up speaking Arabic and sticking largely to Sudanese/Arab norms, having spent some time in Sudan now, there are still a few cultural differences that have, well, shocked me (just a tad ya' know...).

It truly does reinforce the fact that visiting a country and living in a country are completely different things.

That being said though, now having traveled briefly through Asia, there are also a few things that were unexpectedly different and caught me by surprise.  I do love the realisation that others truly do things differently so here are a few things that caught my attention...In this first part of the series I will talk mostly about the more superficial cultural differences I experienced in Asia (superficial only because I was a visitor here and haven't immersed myself in the culture enough to know more), and will continue tomorrow with those I have found in Sudan.

1. Difference in concepts of "Personal Space"

While travelling in Malaysia and Singapore, and even in Sudan, I noticed that there was quite a different concept of the "personal bubble". Perhaps because in Australia I am used to such large spaces with such few people: strangers rarely come too close (unless you hop on a full bus or train) and if they bump into you, people usually apologise.  That same concept doesn't seem to exist everywhere else -- at first when someone bumped into me or stood really close and didn't apologise I felt quite affronted, until I realised that was perhaps the norm...

2. Shop keepers "waiting and watching"

This only happened in Malaysia but it become something that really did frustrate me.  I would enter a shop, greet the shop keeper and begin browsing... only to find the shop keeper standing half a meter away, looking at me expectantly.  I would smile, move away...and she would follow me! Again, this relates to the personal space thing, but I felt quite strangely uncomfortable with someone essentially watching over my shoulder.  It was a strange feeling, almost as if I was concerned about the lady judging my choices or trying to hurry me up... Either way, quite often I would either say to the person (more than once) "I'm ok, I can deal with it from here..." or "I will let you know when I am done..." and if they insisted on just standing there or following me, I thanked them and left the shop. It really did make my retail therapy a little...strange.

3. Difference in height and size in general

Now, I don't think I am an extremely tall or large person per se, I just have ahem "presence" (and as my grandmother likes to say, "large bones").  What this means though is that in places such as Singapore and Malaysia, not only does nothing fit (the largest shoe size in all the shops is two sizes smaller than mine...) but the beds in the hotels are too short!  I honestly laughed when I lay on the bed and found my feet hanging off the end...

4. Different sense of humour

I think this applies to all the places I have traveled... the dry, ironic humour that I am used to (witty repartee as I like to think, haha) doesn't seem to translate as well, either in the South East Asian nations or in Sudan.  I am usually met with confounded looks or a picture of slight offense.  My days of being the joker..well, are quite over.

Oh.  Perhaps everyone in Australia just laughed at my jokes to be polite? One will never know...

5. Food

Suffice to say, I loved it (the extra few kilos on my torso that I left Malaysia with will attest to that). However the idea of rice, noodles and curries (?) for breakfast, lunch and dinner was a little strange at first. Lucky my stomach isn't too fussy!

So these are some of the more day to day (superficial la) differences that I found interesting and unexpected.  Living in Sudan though, some of the cultural differences are a little more difficult to deal with and do hit more close to home..


The Awesomeness of the Aussie High Commission ;)

Alhamdulilah, I have arrived safely back in Sudan after a short-but-informative trip to Malaysia for the Asia Pacific Roundtable, the Australia-ASEAN Emerging Leaders Program (supported by the Aus-Malaysia Institute, ISIS Malaysia, St James Ethics Centre, Asialink, Australia-Thailand Institute (ATI) and the Australia-Indonesia Institute (AII)) and a lunch event with young Malaysian leaders and the Australian High Commission. Woah, a mouthful! Now that the official part is over...

It was a fantastic week, and as some of the previous posts can attest to, I learnt a great deal: much I am still processing.  The Emerging Leaders part of the program gave us (about 20 young people from Australia and ASEAN) an opportunity to present on and discuss issues of import to the region, including illicit migration, regional security and the effect of middle powers.  St James Ethics Center's Dr Simon Longstaff also presented an extremely moving and interesting piece on "the biggest strategic mistake leaders make..." .  I won't give it away but suffice it to say that it has a lot to do with leaders just "looking away" and how often do they do that? Thing Houla -- quite often indeed.

On the last day of my stay, I was fortunate enough Alhamdulilah to be a Guest of Honour at a lunch hosted by the Australian High Commission and an Aussie Muslim Diplomat (which I think it totally awesome).  It was an awesome opportunity to meet the staff of the High Commission and spend some time with young Malaysian leaders.  I shared a little of my life story (haha! the poor audience) and tried to listen to the stories of the people around me.

It was a great opportunity to shift some of the thinking about Australian in Malaysia.  It seems that there is a particular impression (or stereotype let's say), of what Australia as a nation is and represents, and the fact that a Hijabi-wearing-brown-skinned-young-female is up representing Australia...well that challenges a few of those assumptions.

It was also an opportunity to hear about some of the issues that face young people in Malaysia - and interesting, being young and full of ideas is one of them.  Growing up in the Sudanese culture, I think I can relate: the idea that age = wisdom, respecting and listening to your elders and "waiting until it is your turn" is strongly entrenched.  I don't think that within the Sudanese community I am even seen as an "adult" yet! (Not until I get married and have kids anyway) so for young people striving to be involved, this is quite an issue and one that is deeply entrenched in cultural expectations.

Hopefully something that will shift though, as the generational change occurs.

All in all, a fantastic affair and I hope to stay in touch with the fabulous people I met.  Inshallah something comes out of it all!  Kudos to the Aussie High Commission and all the ISIS etc people involved for a truly interesting and thought provoking week.

(Oh and the food was a-maaaaazing. Just sayin').

*Fun Fact* 

Did you know a High Commission is the equivalent of an Embassy, just in a Commonwealth country? I didn't until only recently! You learn something new every day...


Reflections on the APR

So the 26th Asia Pacific Roundtable has come to an end, and so has my first foray into truly international relations at the higher levels. I have learned a great deal over the last two days; a lot that I didn't know about the region, many perspectives that I hadn't thought to consider and even more so about the efficacy, purpose and outcomes of such an event.

Having spent most of the plenary sessions listening intently, attempting to understand not only all that was said but was was being said between the lines certainly was a new (and surprisingly exhausting) experience.  I found myself asking not one or two but quite a number of questions of the various panelists; so much so that when I met new participants I no longer had to introduce myself -- I was "Yassmin, from Australia", who asked all the questions.

I was a little unsure as to whether it would be polite or appropriate to ask so many questions, however at the end of the day it was a way for me -- and I hope the rest of the participants -- to learn about a speaker's perspective on a particular nuance of an issue.  Most of my questions were quite to the point and as such weren't always answered (i.e. asking a highly ranked US Marines official if he thought the rotational deployment in Darwin was worth the ire Australia was receiving from its ASEAN neighbours for one) but asking them allowed me to:

  • Learn to frame my questions in a way that I could clearly articulate to the speakers;
  • Listen closely to sessions to see where I had questions or queries;
  • Open up avenues of discussion that might not have previously been being explored; and
  • Introduce me as an Australian participant to the attendees -- and demonstrating that the "emerging leaders" were taking notice and asking questions.
I also think that sometimes, someone needs to ask the hard (or to an outsider, obvious) questions.
Coming from my engineering background I sometimes (quite often) feel like a flying fish out of water -- i.e. I can survive, but it isn't my natural habitat.  What it does give me though, is an external viewpoint as well as an alternative approach to issues.  Furthermore the fact that I represent an NGO is always quite liberating in such forums...
I think I just need to suck it up and read more...ensuring of course, its relevance. Hehe.
I learnt a lot at the forum and it will take time for me to process.  Suffice to say here were some themes that struck me and others:
  • The topic of the day is clearly the issue of the South China Sea and how it is to be resolved;
  • Australia doesn't seem to factor in any decision making or thought process about the region;
  • India seems happy to remain as a "developing country" and doesn't seem ready to step up to the plate as yet;
  • ASEAN wishes as a bloc to be in the "driver's seat" and "be providers of security instead of consumers of it..." however there is a long way to go before this is even feasible perhaps?
  • North Korea...well, see below;
  • Myanmar has been doing fantastically but rebuilding a nation takes time and the region shouldn't expect all the changes to happen at breakneck speed;
  • Back door diplomacy is really how things happen;
  • The United States, regardless of rhetoric, is interested in the region and sees itself as an important player; and
  • The ASEAN way is probably the method of the day.
That is an initial outpouring of thought, I will come back for further analysis later.

North Korea: The Soprano State?

Day Two of the Asia Pacific Roundtable

I am currently attending my first official Track II diplomacy level conference, and so far it has been an intense and slightly Model UN reminiscent experience.

The last session of the night however, was an amazing presentation by a certain Professor Andrei Lankov.

The guy has a wikipedia page. That, in my book, clearly indicates he is an academic of worth (hehe).

In all seriousness however, it was probably one of the best presentations I have ever attended, let alone on the issue of North Korea.

In his adrenalin fueled, Russian accented speech, Professor Lankov gave us an insight into where North Korea is at, and why he believed that inevitably the nation would collapse.

He started off by emphatically stating:

You may think that the North Korean leaders are irrational and unpredictable.  You couldn't be more wrong.

The North Korean administration he stated, are the world's best Machiavellians.  They are rational, pragmatic and cold minded.

They are in the business of SURVIVAL.

What do we mean by that, you ask?

Well, the North Koreans for decades now, have run a tightly controlled state in which they perpetuate the fantasy that their neighbour, South Korea, is poor, malnourished and beneath them. They are proud of being the North Koreans.

If the North Koreans understand however, that the Kim Jong era has in fact failed economically, that their previously impoverished South Korean cousins are now flourishing and prospering, the Northern state will fall apart.  As such, the administration is in the business of stability.

The Four North Korean Rules of Stability are summarised as such:

1. Do not reform.

If the NK's begin reform, there is the almost inevitable possibility that information from the outside will filter through and the dictatorship will begin to lose control. As such, avoiding reform means avoiding avenues that will lead to loss of control.

2. Kill all dissenters.

So that no one with a single opposing view remains. Until the mid 90's, if an individual dissented, they and their family would be jailed for their disobedience.  The zero tolerance approach is a crucial component of controlling the populace.

3. Keep the nukes.

Talks about disarmament, Lankon cautioned, will never come to fruition because the North Koreans will never give up their nuclear weapons.  Why? Nukes are the dictatorship's currency: they are an effective deterrent and their most effective diplomatic tool.

The Northern Koreans know that as long as they have nuclear capability they will not be invaded: if Libya hadn't given up it's nuclear weapons a decade ago for example, NATO wouldn't have aided the rebels/freedom fighters against Gaddafi. The US, country will attack a country with such a high risk.

Furthermore, the North Koreans use their nuclear program to secure an exorbitant (read millions of tonnes) of free aid and food by promising to freeze their nuclear program, due to the world's desire for disarmament.  Essentially, they are eating their nukes.

4. Control changes from below.

One of the ways that change may happen is from below -- similar to Tunisia.  As long as these changes are kept under control, the risk of change is minimized.


It would seem that the collapse of the North Korean state is inevitable, but that time frame in which that will occur is unknown. If they newer generation of leaders (who are all educated overseas, proud of their country, enamoured by the cases of China and Vietnam) decide to undertake reforms in the next decade or so, Lankov believes they probably won't survive the transition. If they are cautious, emulate the policies of their fathers and forefathers, it is likely they are "just waiting..."

It is amazing to think a nation like North Korea still exists today.  A nation where health care and education are comparatively high due to the socialist method of care, but where owning a tuneable radio can lead to a five year prison sentence... a nation which, if they fail, will produce millions of refugees, the opportunity of kilos of plutonium for sale and procure an extremely costly rebuilding project...all on Australia's (relative) doorstep.

Food for thought.