I write for the Diplomat magazine occasionally, and they just interviewed me on the collapse of the recent high-level inter-Korean talks. This is a re-print of that interview. It might seem ridiculous to non-Koreans, but Koreans take rank and status pretty seriously (because Korea is such hierarchical culture IMO). So a break-down over who out-ranks who (which is what happened) is not too extraordinary given the shared cultural context. Here’s that interview:
Regular readers know that I write now-and-again for the Diplomat web-magazine. This post is a re-print of my June column. Abenomics is still dominating Korean business news, and I continue to be amazed at how few people want to admit that Japan’s revival is really good for democracy in Asia and the prevention of Chinese regional primacy.
As I discuss below, no less than the SK finance minister (pic) actually said Abenomics is more dangerous to SK than the NK missile program. Wait…what??? Did you know the mic was on? Does anyone genuinely believe that the worst totalitarianism in history gets a pass when the Bank of Japan prints a lot of cheap money? Come on. Are Korean officials so deeply bought by the chaebol that they actually have to say stuff like that? Honestly if Minister Hyun really believes that (I doubt that though, see below), he should probably resign. This is just a travesty, hugely embarrassing – so if this post reads a little rant-ish, that’s why.
Before President Park’s inauguration, the Korea Times asked me to participate in a forum of ‘foreign experts’ (don’t laugh too hard) on her incipient presidency. We were asked to make one direct suggestion for the new president. Here is the section at the KT website. I know several of the authors, and some of the op-eds are pretty good (too many are shameless pandering though). Unfortunately, my accepted submission was not published in this section, published after the inauguration, and edited far too heavily. (They never told me why; maybe this.)
Anyway, below is the original version of the op-ed, where I basically argue that Korean democracy is becoming a Seoul-based oligarchy of wealthy, similarly-schooled, intermarrying business and political elites – basically the dark side of Kangnam style. Someone in Korean politics needs to turn this around, or under-40s in this country are going to ‘drop out’ Timothy Leary-style. There’s a quiet crisis of youth alienation brewing, but no one in ‘Kangnam world’ seems to care.
So President Lee has been out of office for a bit now, and the retrospection will begin soon. And while he left with really low approval ratings, I always thought that was pretty unfair. I am pretty sure history will be kinder to him than the SK public was during his tenure. Particularly the growing critique on the South Korea left that current President Park Geun-Hye’s many staffing gaffes means she is out of her depth also suggests that LMB was at least ready and professionalized enough for the responsibilities of the office. The essay below is a longer version of an op-ed I wrote for the JoongAng Daily.
In passing, I should say that yes, I am aware that this is the sort of column that drives folks like Glenn Greenwald, whom I really admire, up the wall. If you’re convinced, like my students, that I’m a conservative pretending to be a moderate, here’s your evidence. Call it shameless right-wing hackery, sycophantic shilling for the powerful, craven attention-seeking, but it’s also true: Lee Myung Bak was a lot better than most Koreans give him credit for and is probably Korea’s best president in its democratic history.
A few weeks ago in the JoongAng Daily, I co-authored the following editorial. (My co-author is one of my finest students, who can be found here on Twitter.) The temperature is rising in Korea on Abenomics. The government is coming out strongly against it, but I still think the basic arguments we present below are undamaged.
In brief, Abenomics is important because Japan is the world’s third largest economy and therefore systemically (i.e., globally) important (Korea is not; it’s too small). So Japan’s reflation is about a lot more than just Japan; it impacts the region and the globe. Also, the Korean won is ridiculously undervalued and the Bank of Korea has itself gimmicked the won exchange rate a lot in the past, so it’s not exactly fair for Korea (or China, who is even worse) to complain. Finally, in the medium-term, a functioning Japan is far more in Korea’s interest than Korea’s nationalist japanophia will allow anyone here to admit. That is a shame. I’ve argued this a lot, but no one listens.
So bring on the K-hate-mail, but please do recall that I have already rejected Abe the nationalist. Koreans are absolutely right about the comfort-women and Yasukuni. But Abenomics is not about history; it is a last-ditch, throw-everything-including-the-kitchen-sink effort to get Japan on its feet again so that it can prevent Chinese primacy in Asia. Keep your eye on the big picture of South Korea’s interest, and a few lost sales of Samsung TVs to Canadians pale in comparison.
Just to avoid referencing Abe again – he’s become such a lightning rod in Korea – the picture is Hiruhiko Kuroda, the (awesome) governor of the Japanese central bank. (Someone form the Bank of Japan really ought to be put in charge of the IMF one day soon.) I’d like to think Kuroda’s hand reference in the pic means he wants to dectuple the Japanese money supply. Hah! – ‘Just wait a year, PM Abe, and I will chop down every tree in Japan and print so much cheap yen, that we’ll wallpaper our houses with it!’ Think of Kuroda as the flip side of Paul Volcker. If Japan’s economy weren’t such a mess, it’d actually be kinda funny. But honestly, let’s all – Koreans included – hope Abenomics works.
I am pleased to say that the following essay was printed simultaneously in this week’s Korean and Japanese editions of Newsweek. It think it is critical for both sides to think about the issues I present, and it is pitched to both communities as American allies, no matter how sharp their disagreements.
In brief, I argue that – contrary to the conventional wisdom that US alliances in Asia tamp down conflict by re-assuring everyone that they need not arms-race against each other – US alliances may in fact be freezing those conflicts in place by reducing the incentives of all parties to solve them. The US reassures Asian states not just against each other, but also against their own reckless nationalist rhetoric and racially toxic historiographies. I think the Liancourt Rocks fight is a particularly good example of this ‘moral hazard’ mechanic, as is the recent comment by no less than the South Korean foreign minister (!) that Abenomics’ threat to Korean export competitiveness is a greater danger to SK than North Korea’s nuclear program. That kind of preposterous, reckless myopia can only be explained by taking the US security umbrella for granted. (Or how about SK officers’ golfing during last month’s nuclear crisis?)
I realize the argument will be somewhat controversial, even to Americans given that we are ‘pivoting’ to Asia, but I think it needs to be said and genuinely researched. As with my other Newsweek pieces, there are no hyperlinks because this was intended for print:
Daryl Morini, an IR PhD candidate at the University of Queensland whom I know, has put together an interesting global survey for undergraduate and graduate students of international relations. It looks pretty thorough and might make a pretty interesting student couter-point to the Teaching and Research in International Politics (TRIP) report on scholars’ attitudes. Eventually the goal is an article on our students’ attitudes toward the discipline; here is the full write-up of the project at e-IR. So far as I know, nothing like this has been done before (please comment if that is incorrect), so this strikes me as the interesting sort of student work we should support. Daryl’s also made an interesting effort to use Twitter as a simulation tool in IR, so I am happy to pitch this survey for him. Please take a look; Daryl may be contacted here.
PS: That pic is dead-on accurate.
Newsweek Japan asked me to contribute an essay on Korean foreign policy for a special issue on current Northeast Asian tension. I also wrote the introductory essay for this special issue. There is one essay each on Japan, China, and Korea; mine is the Korean one. So this is a nice laymen’s review without too much fatiguing jargon. This was originally published in January, so this translation is late, but the points still hold.
In brief I argue that Korea’s foreign policy is driven by its geography. Korea is a middle power surrounded by three great powers, plus the most orwellian state in history. That position really, really sucks. The US alliance helps buttress Korea sovereignty in that tight neighborhood, but China’s rise is unbalancing everything, especially calculations for unification. Once again, there are no hyperlinks, because it was intended for print. Here we go:
“On December 19, Korea elected a new president, Park Geun-Hye. Park comes from the conservative New Frontier Party. The current president, Lee Myung-Bak, is also a conservative. Park will be inaugurated in late February. Her campaign presented her as more ‘dovish’ on foreign policy than Lee, but she represents greater continuity than her opponent, particularly regarding North Korea.
Korea’s foreign policy is heavily-driven by its geography. It is an encircled middle power that has frequently struggled to defend its autonomy against its much larger neighbors. And since World War II, it has faced the most orwellian country in history in a harsh stand-off that dominates Korean foreign policy. An opening of North Korea, leading to eventual reunification, is the central policy issue of every Korean administration. Beyond that, Korea’s central relations are with the United States, China, and Japan. All three structure Korea’s neighborhood and will significantly influence unification.
If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know I try to avoid the details of the Korea-Japan tussle. It gets so emotional so fast. Like most Americans, I want Japan and Korea to reconcile so they can work together on the larger, more important issues of North Korea and China. I don’t take a position on the Dokdo/Takeshima flap. I refuse to call the Sea of Japan the ‘East Sea’ (do you want to re-name the Korea Strait too?). When Koreans push me about the war, I try to deflect the issue. It is really not appropriate for outsiders, especially Americans, to weigh in on the details of Asian disputes. We can’t be an umpire to local fights, and our intervention would be seen as illegitimate by the losing party anyway. This is also the USG’s position: we have no position other than that we want all the parties to work out the disagreements without coercion or force. That’s the right attitude IMO.
Newsweek Japan asked me to write an introductory essay for its January 16 special issue on tension in Northeast Asia (cover story to the left). I should have put this up 4 months ago, but I forgot and the arguments are still valid. Anyway, here is the link in Japanese, but I thought it would be useful to publish the original, untranslated version as well. (If you actually want the Japanese language version, email me for it please.)
The essay argues that Northeast Asia has benefited enormously from an ‘Asian peace’ in the last 35 years. All the remarkable growth in China and South Korea (as well as India and Southeast Asia) would not have happened without it. So fighting over some empty rocks (Liancourt Rocks, Pinnacle Islands) is a terrible idea. And for political scientists, the current Sino-Japanese tension is a good test of the hypothesis that economic interdependence brings peace. It’s fascinating to watch China especially try to figure out just how much economic gain to forego in pushing Japan over the Pinnacle Islands.
This was intended for their print edition, so there are no hyperlinks included in the text. Here we go:
“1979 was an important year in modern East Asia. It captures two of the region’s most important trends. It was the year of both the last serious military conflict between two East Asian countries – a Sino-Vietnamese border war – and the start of China’s capitalist modernization under Deng Xiaoping. These moments usefully frame the following thirty-four years: much of Asia has gotten substantially wealthier, and no major conflicts have broken out to upset that upward economic swing. This magnificent regional achievement has catapulted Asia, particularly East Asia, into the center of world politics.
Here is my original essay on the NK crisis, where I called NK ‘the boy who cried wolf’: no one believes their war-mongering rhetoric anymore, because they say outrageous stuff all the time that they never follow-up on. That piece enjoyed good traffic at the Diplomat, where it was originally posted. So I wrote a response to the comments made both there and at Reddit. That response was originally posted at the Chinese Policy Institute Blog of the University of Nottingham and at e-IR. I re-post it here for convenience. I would like to thank John Sullivan of Nottingham and Max Nurnus of e-IR for soliciting me.
Rather than respond individually – some of those guys at Reddit are just off-the-wall – I thought I would provide some general follow-up to certain critiques that showed up regularly.
1. You’re just an arm-chair general, air-head liberal, cloistered academic hack, and so on.
I was surprised that the essay was taken by some as ‘liberal’ or ‘blind to the NK threat’ and so on. I am actually fairly hawkish on NK. I think the Sunshine Policy failed and should not be tried again unless NK makes real concessions it did not last time. I also think the Six Party Talks were a gimmick to allow NK to play China, the US, SK, Japan, and Russia off against each other. For example, Kim Jong Il mentioned in the context of those talks that NK could be an ally of the US against China, and a lot of people think NK built nuclear weapons to prevent Chinese political domination even as NK becomes its economic colony.
The following was originally published at the Diplomat here.
So it increasingly looks like the inter-Korean Kaesong industrial zone is closed for good. (The Wikipedia write-up is a pretty good quick history of it if you don’t know the basics.)
The zone was set-up during the Sunshine Policy period (1998-2007). It was to do 3 things: 1) Lead to some liberal-capitalist spill-over in the North, 2) Expose regular North Koreans (the workers in the area) to regular South Koreans (the managers and staff), and 3) Generally provide some inter-Korean cooperation that might hopefully reduce larger tensions. A resort area in North Korea (Mt. Kumgang) was also opened along these lines in the Sunshine period. Broadly the idea was along the lines of liberal explanations for the Soviet Union’s changes in the 1980s: the Helsinki Accords and CSCE opened the USSR to the outside world, and the inflowing liberalism slowly changed attitudes that eventually helped wind-down the Cold War. Unfortunately, none of this seems to working in the NK case.
The North Korea flap seems to be calming down, so here I reprint my original essay for the Diplomat a few weeks ago on the crisis. I’d like to thank Diplomat Editor Harry Kazianas for inviting my submission. And yes, that is a picture of me heading off to the Pyongyang Casino last summer, and I am happy to say I won $60 at blackjack against the Chinese dealer. Apparently my gambling problem is ‘pivoting’ to Asia too.
North Korea is a constant enigma, a point made apparent once again in the current crisis. Analysts of every stripe have mispredicted its behavior and longevity for decades, and this time around, it is again very unclear what exactly they want. So rather than make any predictions that will turn out to be laughably wrong next month, here are some observations that help narrow range.
1. Goaded into Conflict?
The North Koreans are experts at bluster. The previous president of South Korea was so disliked, that he was portrayed as a rat being decapitated in the Pyongyang newspapers. So when the North started saying outrageous stuff this time around, the first response of analysts everywhere was cynicism. And in the South Korean media, although it is front-page news, the commentary borders on ridicule. No one believes they mean it. A Korean friend of mine spoke for a lot of South Koreans, I believe, when he said to me that he almost wished NK would pull some stunt so that SK would finally give the NK the beating it richly deserves after so many decades of provocation.
If you belong to the American Political Science Association, you probably got the email announcing the last-minute closure of the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute because of the Coburn (left) amendment removing political science funding from the National Science Foundation (US). Undergraduate programming like this is obviously pretty vulnerable. It doesn’t have the cachet of high-profile, ‘big think’ research. But it does obviously endanger the discipline in the long-term by cutting into our future replacements (almost certainly one purpose of the amendment). It would be no surprise if some of this summer’s bright students got turned off our discipline because of these shenanigans, or missed a seminar or session this summer that might have helped them nail-down a good research question and so on. In brief, this cut is the real deal after years of GOP threats to our discipline, and that sucks.
So my prediction that the North Koreans would launch a test missile on the ‘Day of the Sun’ – that would be Kim Il Sung’s birthday for you imperialist running-dogs yet lacking in proper ideological orientation – was wrong. Hmm. The North Koreans sure are good at keeping us guessing. Maybe they’re dragging this thing out, because they’re enjoying the time in the limelight. My friend Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post, ‘North Korea’s gone viral,’ and they gotta be lovin’ it. When else do we listen to them otherwise? (Here’s a collection of some of the NK humor.)
I still think there will be a missile launch, but I remain pretty positive there won’t be much escalation. I sketched an escalation path a few days ago. But despite being the most likely possible path to a conflict, I still don’t think it is in fact likely. Some comments, both on that post and privately made some good further points why escalation is unlikely.
A few days ago, I predicted there would be no war, probably because I’m lazy and predicting the future will be the same as the present is an easy way to protect my credibility. However, I also noted that NK could get entrapped by its own belligerent rhetoric and be forced to escalate even if it doesn’t want to. I think this is why Kaesong was closed, for example.
I also noted how sanguine South Koreans are about NK, but foolishly, I didn’t really think about the Japanese. Then came the story about a mistweet by the city of Yokohama that apparently created local panic.The Japanese seem far more nervous about this than South Koreans, and NK did launch a missile once over Japan. The Japanese have also been talking a lot tougher, and Abe is clearly a hawk on NK. So here is the most likely escalation pathway I can see, despite my firm conviction the North Koreans do not want a war, because they will lose badly and quickly, and then face the executioner in Southern prisons:
I know what you’re thinking, I’m being a show-off area specialist, Asian language names can be hard for anglophones (and vice versa), and who cares about KIS anyway, because this crisis is about Kim Jong Un? All of that is true of course, especially the first one, but come on…
Richardson isn’t just any old hack like me on North Korea. (Here’s my take on the crisis.) He has been a regular point man for the US on NK for more than a decade and markets himself as such on the talk-shows. And if you study NK in even the most basic way (here’s a good place to start), you know who KIS is. He’s everywhere. He founded the state in 1948 and ruled it until 1994 as his own personal fiefdom. The whole country is built around his personality cult. The regime even started calling its ideology ‘Kimilsungism,’ giving up the fictions of Marxism, communism, etc. KJU has called NK ‘KIS country’ and explicitly models himself after KIS in his clothing, hairstyle, and girth. Statues of KIS are everywhere, and Richardson has been there apparently eight times. I went there just once, and I’ve got my propaganda down pat about the Great Korean Leader, Comrade KIS’ heroic construction of socialism in our style under the revolutionary guidance of the Korean People’s Army defending the peasant and workers against the bourgeois imperialist Yankee Colony..… (I could keep going like that for a few more sentences if you like).
While that is true, I did get up that piece on the Diplomat. It summarizes my thinking on this current crisis-that’s-not-really-a-crisis and got me promptly accused of being an air-head liberal in the comments. Lovely. I was also pleased to respond to Kim Jong Un’s threat that I should leave the country. And I managed not to explode laughing when a reporter asked me point blank on live TV if Kim Jong Un was ‘just bonkers.’ Was itching to say yes to that one actually. Good times… Never waste a missile crisis, right?
Anyway, here’s my good friend Dave Kang agreeing with yesterday’s guest post query on whether the cable and satellite news services are overhyping this thing. Regular readers will know that Dave is my good friend, and a far better Korea/Asia hand than I’ll ever be. A professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California and director of its Korean Studies Institute, you really should be reading him if you aren’t already. Here is his Amazon page; here and here are his previous guest posts on this site.
The non-crisis on the Korean Peninsula
In a poll released by Donga Ilbo last week, 4.5 percent of South Koreans think North Korea means to start a war.
In contrast, a CNN poll reveals that 51 percent of Americans think the latest round of name-calling will only end in war, and 41 percent think North Korea is an “immediate threat” to the U.S.
So – either South Koreans are incredibly naïve, or Americans over-reacting. Hmmm…I wonder which it is.
A few comments:
Reading the entire statements by the KCNA would actually give a fairly clear view of North Korea’s position. Most North Korean statements are reported in the Western press with the first clause missing. That is, almost all North Korean rhetoric is of the form “IF you attack us first, we will hit you back.” (Incidentally, that’s what we’re telling the North Koreans, too). If you can ignore the hilarious Communist-style rhetoric about capitalist running dogs and the like, the situation is actually quite stable, because despite their bluster, the North Korean rhetoric is also cast almost entirely in deterrent terms. For example, although widely reported as a threat to preemptively attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons, the full quote from the KCNA April 4 reads: “We will take second and third countermeasures of greater intensity against the reckless hostilities of the United States and all the other enemies… Now that the U.S. imperialists seek to attack the DPRK with nuclear weapons, it will counter them with diversified precision nuclear strike means of Korean style…The army and people of the DPRK have everything including lighter and smaller nukes unlike what they had in the past.” Clearly intended to deter, clearly saying that North Korea will respond if attacked first.
Second – why are we playing this game? North Korean rhetoric should be ignored as the empty threats that they are. Perhaps there could be one or two mild statements from the U.S. reminding North Korea that we can crush them like a grape whenever want. But after that, why are we allowing North Korea to set the tone? Why do we let them make us react? I may be missing something here about this all being an indirect show of force for China, or something clever like that, but still. This is getting ridiculous.
Third, I remain mystified why this is a crisis. I was quite surprised a few weeks ago when everybody got upset. After all, North Korea is only talking – they haven’t actually done anything yet. There has been no attack on the U.S., not even engage in a skirmish over the NLL. So why are we reacting this way now?
Finally, you can never, ever, go wrong being a pessimistic realist. [This is really good theoretical insight, because it allows realism to be nearly unfalsifiable yet sound ‘clear-eyed’ - REK] I.e., “I don’t know, the situation looks dangerous…power is all that matters in international relations…things can get really bad, nuclear war is just one hair-trigger, slight miscalculation away.” You could be 100% wrong, but nobody will ever accuse you of being naïve. But I want to point out that while it’s important to be careful around the peninsula, deterrence has been extraordinarily stable for the past sixty years. Why? Because we believe what they say – that they will fight back and destroy Seoul; and I am quite sure they believe us when we say we will fight back and end the regime. Far from being one mistake away from the 2nd Korean War, we have experienced numerous shooting incidents in which people died but no all-out war occurred….
I’m going to put something on the Diplomat about this preposterous faux-crisis in a few days, and I’ll re-post that here. In the meantime, go here for the many posts I’ve written about North Korea beforehand. And go here for my recent TV appearances where I ague that a war is really unlikely, because North Korea will lose unequivocally, and its elites will wind up in SK jails and then before the hangman like Saddam. (SK still has capital punishment.)
Given my fatigue with NK, I am happy to invite a guest-post on North Korea from John Corrado. John’s a Korea studies graduate student at Seoul National University. Here is his website, on issues similar to those I cover here. And I do like his basic observation that the news media can get carried away with all the talk about nuclear war in Korea. You’ve probably noticed a point I will develop in the Diplomat: the cleavage between the analyst community and the international media regarding the current peninsular crisis. The analysts say it’s a lot of bluster, while reporters react rather incredulously when we say that. Maybe they know something we don’t; in their own way, reporters are closer to decision-makers than we are. But I also have the sense that all this media coverage is one of the things NK wants from this faux-crisis. No would care one bit about crappy, backward, dysfunctional little NK (it is; I’ve been there) if they didn’t make endless trouble. No one likes to be ignored and consigned to the kiddie table, so NK pulls these shenanigans just so we’ll all pay attention. *sigh* It’s all so inane… Anyway, here’s that guest-post. REK
Back when I was at Ohio State University in graduate school, I was solicited by a friend to write for a start-up journal in political science. The journal didn’t survive, but my essay at the time was on the surge debate. Given that I’ve been talking about Iraq for the last month here, I thought I’d put this up; it’s not available elsewhere anymore. This is the unaltered text from the spring 2007. I feel like I did pretty well actually. I still agree with most of what I wrote 6 years ago in the midst of the war’s worst days:
“One Last Chance in Iraq for a Sustainable War on Terror
The sense that the United States is losing the war (or more precisely, the peace) in Iraq is palpable. The cable news networks are filled with images of burning cars and markets. The Bush administration seems almost paralyzed – reciting only bromides about freedom and democracy as the long-predicted post-sovereignty civil war seems already to have begun. New York Times pundits like Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman increasing see a negotiated, half-and-half, ‘at-least-its-better-than-Saddam’ outcome as the most likely scenario. Centrist/liberal supporters of the war, like the Economist and the New Republic are publishing a flurry of criticism that we are ‘losing the peace’ despite having won the war. Even conservatives like the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard, stalwart defenders of the war, have backed away from higher hopes of a democratic, liberal Iraq which the President outlined.
But the growing Iraqi withdrawal debate is wrong-headed. The pullout mooted by such diverse figures as Senator Charles Hagel, Jon Stewart, and Cindy Sheehan would be catastrophic, and our growing national fantasy with its imminence is hazardous. It creates an unreal expectation that ignores the probable post-withdrawal bloodbath, emboldens the insurgents to hang tough, gives false comfort to military families especially, and tempts the Democrats to abdicate responsible policy input for cheap political shots.