About Robert E Kelly

I am a professor of political science at Pusan National University. I write mostly on international relations in East Asia.

My Diplomat Essay for April: Unintended Consequences of US Alliances in Asia


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So this month for the Diplomat I wrote a speculative essay on US alliances in Asia – reposted below, original here. I think some people over-read it to mean that the US should leave Asia or that I endorse Chinese regional hegemony or whatever. I don’t. As I say in the piece, I still think the US presence is balance-positive, especially as China is moving from the ‘peaceful rise’ to capacious maritime claims off its east coast. Instead this was to be a thought experiment – an effort to tease out whether US regional alliances have negative impacts, given that almost all the discussion rather blithely assumes the opposite. I think the first possible downside suggested below – that China won’t cut North Korea loose until the US leaves Korea – is particularly strong and unsettling to the conventional wisdom. Ideally, this analysis would encourage thinking on mitigating these unintended side-effects.

Here is that essay. If you follow CSIS’ ‘PacNet’ series (which you should btw), a variant of this will come out there shortly:

“The conventional wisdom on US alliances in Asia, at least in the West, Japan, and Taiwan (but not necessarily in South Korea), is that they are broadly a good thing. One hears this pretty regularly from US officials and the vast network of US think-tanks and foundations like CSIS or AEI and their many doubles in Asia. US alliances, we are told, provide stability. They keep China from dominating the region. They hem in North Korea and defend the powerfully symbolic South Korean experiment in liberal democracy and capitalism. They prevent the nuclearization of South Korea and Japan and a spiraling regional arms race. In short, they re-assure.

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My Lowy essay for March: Are N Korean outbursts in the Yellow Sea ‘Communication’?


Is this what’s going on in these regular Yellow Sea clashes?

Last week, I wrote an essay for Lowy on why these North Korean outbursts in the Yellow Sea take place so regular – most recently this week. Lowy editor Sam Roggeven suggested the above scene from 13 Days, a film about the Cuban Missile Crisis, as an example my argument. That’s a nice catch I hadn’t thought of. It would be awfully nice if we had better information from North Korea by which by to make these judgments. For my similar, earlier thinking on North Korea crisis behavior, see this on the 2013 spring war crisis.

Here’s that essay:

“Yesterday North Korea conducted artillery exercises in the Yellow Sea (West Sea). Approximately one hundred rounds feel across the border, prompting the South to counter-fire and scramble F-15s to the area. (Here is a useful write-up of the incident.) South Korean residents of local islands were evacuated. No casualties were reported, and the incident seems to have ended.

While unnerving, there is little reason to believe these sorts of incidents will spiral out of control. They are surprisingly regular, and South Koreans have tuned them out to a certain extent. (I live in South Korea and, while I used to respond with alarm, I have now slipped into the apathy I see around me.) I did not even know about it until a foreign journalist asked me if this would lead to a serious conflict. It will not, and the real ‘kremlinological’ question is what, if anything, North Korea is trying to signal with these shootings. I see three possibilities, although it should be admitted that we have little evidence from North Korean decision-making by which to verify the following speculations:

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My March Essay for the Diplomat: 3 Hypotheses for Korea’s ‘Japanobia’ – 1. Genuine; 2. Post-Colonial Score-Settling; 3. RoK Legitimating Ideology


This, I hope, is my last piece on Japan-Korea relations for awhile. I think everyone is getting burned out by this topic. And I am sick of the hate-mail. But at least Obama got Abe and Park into the same room last week. Park look pretty furious, but at least the meeting was progress.

This essay goes into what purpose or function Korea’s resentment of Japan fulfills. Koreans get a little upset when I phrase it this way, but the extreme nature of Korean resentment of Japan tells me there is more going on than just memory and the war. That picture, from here, is a good illustration of just how instrumentalized ‘anti-Japan-ism’ has become for South Korean political identity.

This essay was originally written for the Diplomat this month. As always, when I write on this topic, I just don’t read the comments there anymore, because the hostility is so over-the-top. So if you’re here to tell me I am traitor to your favored cause, don’t worry. I know already. Thanks. Save your vitriol and try to stick to the social science research question I sketch in this essay. The essay follows the jump:

The Contemporary China–Wilhelmine Germany Analogy, part 2: Differences


imagesHere is part one.

This is the second half of my series on the analogy of China today with Germany in 1914. This was originally written for the Lowy Institute in Sydney. China today = Wilhelmine Germany is a pretty common analogy in international relations writing, especially in the op-ed ‘literature’ on China. I thought it deserved a little more deconstruction given how much we use it. Here I argue that there are enough dissimilarities to undercut the predictive value of the analogy.

Once again, I can’t find a good image of Wilhelmine Germany and China. Someone please find me a pic that doesn’t use the modern Germany flag like this one. Here is that post:

“In my previous post, I noted that China today is often analogized to Wilhelmine Germany in the run-up to WWI. This is probably captured most famously in well-known argument observation, ‘will Europe’s past be Asia’s future?’ The basic idea is that intense nationalism, seething historical and territorial grievances, and rapid modernization might plunge Asia into a WWI-style general war, with China as the neo-wilhelmine villain provoking it all. Previously, I argued that there are four shared structural characteristics that drive the China today-Germany 1914 analogy: encirclement by suspicious powers, rapid economic expansion, grievance-driven nationalist ideology, and rapidly expanding military power upsetting the regional balance of power.

But many other, perhaps less hawkish observers, such as Timo Kivimäki, David Kang or Amitav Acahrya, have regularly noted that east Asia has enjoyed a robust peace since 1979, and that realist-hawkish predictions of Chinese aggression have been around since Tiananmen Square yet never come true. Predictions that never pass but are regularly re-warmed by saying that we should just wait a little longer, are theoretically weak and deserve re-evaluation. 1979 was the last time a serious inter-state war – between China and Vietnam – occurred in East Asia. And Kang has argued for awhile that declining military expenditures in East Asia belie the standard western op-ed page narrative of rising Chinese power and fear of it throughout Asia. Asian behavior seems not to support that contention of the ‘China threat’ school.

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My Latest for Lowy: “On the Contemporary China-Wilhelmine Germany Analogy, part 1: Similarities”


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There is so much analogizing of contemporary China to Wilhelmine Germany (here’s yet another one), that I thought a longer treatment would be in order. I wrote this originally for the Lowy Institute, whose blog I write for. I like this post, as I feel like it takes a widely thrown-around, yet poorly elaborated meme and fleshes it out. Part 2 will go up in a week or so. And yes, I know that the German flag in the pic is the modern one of the FRG, not the old black-white-red. But I couldn’t find the two of them together…

Here’s that essay:

“Contemporary China is frequently analogized to pre-1914 Wilhelmine Germany. A host of commentators have made this comparison in the past few years: Walter Russell Mead, Martin Wolf, Edward Luttwak, and Joseph Nye, and a little further afield, Gideon Rachman, and Victor David Hansen. Similarly, it is often suggested in these analogies that East Asia today is like Europe before WWI; one famous formulation has it that ‘Asia’s future will be Europe’s past.’

So in this and my next post, I want to examine the China-Germany analogy in some detail. In brief, I think the comparisons are enticing, particularly because it is hard to find a good analogy of a ‘peaceful rise,’ as China, until recently at least, seemed to be pursuing. That is, we use Germany 1914 as an analogy in part, because we can’t find others that seem to China fit well, and we routinely use analogical reasoning in social science to improve our understanding. But I also think the contrasts are stark enough that the predictive value of the analogy is weak. Ideally, this would be pursued more seriously as a full-blown research paper, so to any graduate students reading, this is a nice IR project with an Asian empirical focus.

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My last Lowy February Essay – Review of Park Geun-Hye’s first Year as Korean President


My comments to Al Jazeera on Park Geun-Hye’s first year in office

 

Last week at the Lowy Institute, I posted some comments on Park Geun-Hye’s first year in office as Korean president. Below is a longer re-up. In short, I think she has been ok. She’s basically done nothing on domestic policy to change the Korean status quo which so punishes schoolchildren, women, SMEs, and consumers. So much for the idea that a female president would be Korean an easier place for women.

The ‘474 plan’ is typical Korean industrial policy with its rigid planning and strict guidelines and bureaucratic guidance – all of which rejects the basic unpredictability and flexibility of market economics. It’s yet another example of the creativity-killing developmentalism that still treats Korea like a second-world economy in the 1970s. In the US, the Tea Party would call 474 communism. And if she really believes she can get per capita GDP up to $40,000, she’s in a dream-world.

On foreign policy, she’s managed North Korea well enough. And that is good enough for any Korean president. But she’s really dropped the ball on Japan. She’s been unable or unwilling to stop the tit-for-tat downward spiral. If I had to guess, I would say it’s because he father so obviously loved Japan, right down to his own samurai sword, that she has to go overboard the other way. Abe is creepy, but the Korean media doesn’t help and Park’s done little to guide the conversation in a healthier way.

Here’s that essay:

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My Lowy Essay on that New Report on North Korean Human Rights: It won’t Change the North – but It will Pressure China


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This is a re-up of a short piece I wrote for the Lowy Institute’s blog on that recent North Korea human rights report from the UN. The more I think about it, the more I think its big impact will be to raise the moral pressure on China to either rein in North Korea or start cutting it off. NK is an embarrassment to China. My Chinese grad students get flustered and sheepish whenever I mention this. I think this moral embarrassment is the best way to push China on this. And once China finally cuts off NK, then we’ll see real change at last. I also thought this analysis piece from Foreign Policy was pretty good.

“This month the United Nations (UN) told us what we all already knew – that North Korea is the world’s worst human rights abuser. Specifically, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the formal name of North Korea) of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a lengthy, well-documented report that North Korean repression, in the words of the Australian chair of the Commission, Michael Kirby, is “strikingly similar” to that of the Nazis. This is a landmark finding, not only for its willingness to call out North Korea explicitly, but for its origin in a multilateral body channeling global public opinion. I see four elements in the coming fall-out from this:

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My February Diplomat Essay: Sketching a Sinic ‘Monroe Doctrine’ in Asia


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The pic is President James Monroe. It comes from the White House website.

The following is a re-up of my monthly column for the Diplomat. Basically, I try to sketch what a Chinese hegemony in east Asia in the coming decades might look like. Increasingly, I think the Monroe Doctrine is a good model. I find it highly unlikely China will occupy or invade anyone, especially in the nuclear age. That strikes me as another hawk fantasy on China, the kind of thing that helps justify huge American defense budgets. But it’s not ridiculous to imagine China trying to carve out a sphere of influence. Indeed, I think it would be surprising if they did not, and that is why everyone is freaking out about the South and East China Seas clashes. Here is that essay:

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Obama’s State of the Union once again Demonstrates that the US doesn’t really Care that much about Asia


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This graphic is a word-cloud of the president’s state of the union address last week. I am not even sure the word ‘Asia’ is in there.

The following is a local re-up of a piece I originally wrote for the Lowy Institute, where I now blog twice a month. Basically, I argue a theme regular readers here will have heard before – that the ‘pivot’ to Asia is mostly an elite project in the US and that most Americans don’t really care about Asia that much. If I say ‘China’ to my friends in the US, the first thing they think of is cheap stuff in Walmart. So whenever anyone tells me that Asia ‘needs’ the US, or that we’re ‘ceding’ Asia to China, or even Russia (oh, please), because we missed the ASEAN Regional Forum or whatever, I just roll my eyes. Without the American consumer Asian economies would collapse, and, Red Dawn fantasies aside, no Asian state is a security threat to the US (barring the infinitesimally small likelihood of Chinese nuclear strike on the US homeland).

What that means is that the only Americans who think that the US needs Asia are those who support US global hegemony and therefore cannot differentiate among US core interests – such as basic stability in Canada and the Caribbean basin, or a secure oil flow from the Persian Gulf – and US choices to be involved in places like Iraq or South Korea. The pivot to Asia, much like NATO 20 years after the Cold War, is a choice, not a necessity. That doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t ‘pivot’ – indeed, I think it is a good idea myself – but it must also be admitted that retrenchment from many of these commitments would not obviously harm US security, even if many allies would not like it. Neocons and think-tanker far too often elide this crucial distinction. Is Asia important? Does it matter? Yes, sure. Does the US need Asia? No – unless you believe the US and its globe-spanning hegemony are identical (hint: they aren’t). US allies interests are not always synonymous with America’s and if we don’t see that, we invite free-riding, chain-ganged conflicts, and a gargantuan national security state.

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My Expanded Lowy Post on Moral Hazard in US Alliances: Explaining Japan-Korea (and Greece-Turkey?)


domhSo this post is a bleg to those of you who know more about alliances than me. I am considering writing up this for an article, so I thought I would ‘crowd-source’ early comments on this. I also wonder if someone elsewhere has already suggested this idea in the vast alliance literature, so please let me know. The motivation is inductive – the deepening tension between Japan and Korea has suggested the addendum to alliance theory I am proposing here. But I wonder if others have said this before.

Put briefly, I don’t think entrapment or abandonment captures the US position between allies in dispute, like Japan and Korea, or Greece and Turkey (perhaps – I know that latter case less well). Instead, each seems to use the US alliance patron to: a) compete with each other, because b) the US alliance relieves external pressures (China and North Korea, and the USSR and chaos in the Balkans and Middle East, respectively) that would otherwise incentivize a rapprochement. These four states are not trying to ‘entrap’ the US so much as leverage it for an intra-alliance squabble, with the shared patron as referee. I’ve not read this theorized elsewhere, so here is an effort to do so.

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My First Post at the Lowy Institute: 3 Non-Predictions for 2014


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So this year, I am writing twice a month for the Lowy Institute – a foreign policy and international relations think-tank in Australia. My work will go on their blog-line, called the Interpreter. My author page with them is here. I’ve had Lowy in my own blog-roll (on the right side of this page) for awhile. It is a good site, particularly if you are interested in Australia. Now Lowy is seeking to break out into East Asian politics more generally. I am happy to participate in that, and I would like to thank the Interpreter editor, Sam Roggeveen, for recruiting me. My first post with them, here, was about two weeks ago. Sam had the clever idea to invert the usual ‘predications for the coming year’ pieces that fill January with predictions of things that won’t happen. My own record of predictions on this site (2010, 2010, 2011) are pretty spotty, so this was a nice challenge.

So here are three things that you think might happen in Eat Asia this year, but won’t:

1. There will be no Sino-Japanese war. Any scuffles will be contained.This was would be so destructive, there’s no way the CCP will let the PLA pursue real escalation.

2. North Korea will not change. That might sound like the safest prediction ever, but actually political science and Korea studies have a long history of arguing that NK is about to collapse. But it won’t.

3. ASEAN will stay useless and over-rated. Western liberals and international organization majors really, REALLY need to stop hyping ASEAN. It’s a joke, and it will stay one. The real story in Asia is its refusal to regionalize/organize, not the incipient regionalization westerners are so desperate to find in every meeting of Asian leaders. And don’t even talk to me about ASEM. These are all talk-shops. East Asia is the land of Hegelian nation-state. Get used to it.

Here’s that full essay:

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Book Review: “North Korea in Transition”: Oh Wait, it’s Not in Transition…


51KSPBHlncLIn volume 86/4 of the journal Pacific Affairs, I reviewed an essay compilation on North Korea called North Korea in Transition: Politics, Economy, and Society. This was published last year by the Council on Foreign Relations, edited by well-known North Korea-watchers Kyung-Ae Park and Scott Snyder. My book review is, unfortunately, not available electronically from the PA website; it’s only in the journal’s print version. So I thought I would put it up here for some wider circulation.

I know book reviews bore everyone, so I tried to make this interesting by focusing on trends in NK, not just summarizing the constituent essays. It’s a great introduction to North Korea with lots of big names. I learned a lot from it. But I had to object to the title, likely chosen by an ill-informed editor looking for something catchy. North Korea is not in transition. If anything, we should be focusing on how remarkably stable it is. No matter what happens to the Kim regime – famine, de-industrialization, ‘factionalism,’ Chinese take-over of the economy, Dennis Rodman and his tats – nothing seems to bring down the clan or even shake it. Its astonishing ability to not change is what we should be our focus.

Here’s that review:

This useful book is a state-of-the-art treatment of North Korea (NK) for non-academics and is likely to be read widely in think-tank and policy circles. Its authors include some of the finest analysts of NK in English. Laymen will find the book appealing, because the essays, while well-informed, do not overwhelm with jargon. There is some heavy going, but one need not be a social scientist to grasp most of it. The book also ranges widely, covering issues like ideology, economic (mal)adaptation, the monarchy, and foreign relations. All these traits make it a solid introduction to the NK tangle.

That said, the book is not light. The essays are rich, and scholars will also find new ideas and themes that merit sustained social scientific analysis. For example, David Kang suggests that status-seeking is a major element of NK foreign policy behavior. This is a clever insight, and one that characterizes South Korean foreign policy too. Other researchers could formally develop and test such ideas. Specifically, academics in East Asian area studies, comparative and international politics, and, perhaps, economics, will find this book an appealing fount of all manner of hypotheses and conjectures deserving full-out research.

The book is structured around four sections: NK domestic politics, economics, culture, and foreign relations. I found the first section the most gripping, because NK’s internal politics are so opaque. These authors take the regime ideology seriously and explain it in detail. Readers accustomed to thinking of NK ideology as just a fig-leaf for a nasty dictatorship (a common response in my own discipline, international relations), will find the elaboration challenging and enlightening. Conversely, I left the section thinking that if NK elites and people really believe their own propaganda, that makes the inter-Korean stand-off that much more ideologically intense and unification that much more psychologically challenging.

In an intriguing suggestion, the book also hints that Kim Jong Un may need his own ideology. Kim Il Sung had juche; Kim Jong Il had songun. Does KJU need his own personal language of power, given that NK is hyperpersonalistic, neopatrimonial monarchy? This too is a rich question deserving research. A few contributors hint that ‘neo-juche’ may be such an effort. It may aim to reduce the wide reach of the KPA, which songun elevated but has also clearly become a massive economic parasite. If KJU is to place NK on a course of long-term sustainability – instead of the current ad hoc lurching from crisis to crisis with reliance on foreign economic hand-outs – then ideally a KJU ideology would thread the needle of some engagement with the global economy and legitimacy for the fait accompli of partial internal marketization, while nonetheless maintaining enough political-ideological distinctiveness to justify NK’s continuing existence as a separate, poorer Korean state. Indeed to my mind, this dilemma is NK’s central, existential problem: how does NK justify its existence despite the Cold War’s conclusion, German unity, a catastrophically failed economic model – especially in comparison to the South, and fifteen years of post-famine information penetration which has given North Koreans knowledge of life on the other side? I think the book would have been enriched by treating this explicitly.

Clearly NK can ruthlessly hang on through calamity; its collapse has been relentlessly over-predicted. And it can hype its nuclear weapons – ‘the life of the nation,’ KJU said in March 2013 – to deter foreign meddling. But that does not mean NK is stable or secure, or has a genuine strategy to become a ‘strong and prosperous nation.’ That SK presents an obvious and alluring alternative right next door, only worsens this dilemma. Should the Chinese ever finally fatigue of bailing out NK and covering for its antics, NK could easily return to the social chaos of the late 1990s. And the section on NK economics makes this clear. The data presented on just how dysfunctional NK’s economy is, are genuinely disturbing. A colleague once called NK ‘Turkmenistan without oil’ at a conference, and the descent into kleptocracy both at home and abroad is frightening. Another frequently undeveloped theme in NK studies is its post-Cold War mutation into a corrupt gangster state.

The cultural section too brings new information and arguments that Pyongyang kremlinologists overfocused on high politics will enjoy. There is much recent speculation that the flood of information about the outside world that partial marketization has brought will change NK hearts and minds. Indeed, it is often suggested this is the only way NK will change – through bottom-up social evolution and changing expectations – because the regime itself seems unusually close-knit in its support for Kim family royalism.

Finally, the discussion NK’s diplomacy tells the familiar but necessary story of the remarkably frustrating effort by outside powers to push NK into international norms. Indeed, NK is case study of how a small power in tough neighborhood can play its hand remarkably well and avoid domination by much larger rivals. KIS was a master of this, as the essays demonstrate. But NK’s continuing provocations, as well as the now-enormous gap between North and South, make it increasingly hard for NK to ‘weave’ among its neighbors. Per Kang, NK simply lacks the credibility that SK has and is increasingly reliant solely on China for diplomatic and economic cover. NK would prefer to play the Six Parties off against each other, but those days are fading. As with economics, NK desperately needs a new diplomatic strategy to flourish going forward. Mudding through with grudging Chinese aid is clearly risky.

And this raises my only serious criticism of the book: it is not actually clear that NK is in transition. Clearly it should be. It is hopelessly isolated internationally and economically an ‘Upper Volta with nuclear weapons.’ But NK is remarkably consistent. The Kims are still with us. The regime shows no genuine interest in unity. Economic reforms have been facile. The tyranny of gulags, repression, and indoctrination are still in place. That NK hangs on without transitioning is in fact its great puzzle to us.”

My January Diplomat Essay: Top 5 Northeast Asian Security Stories in 2013


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I know these exercises in end-of-year top 5s or top 10s can be silly or fanciful. But there is some value to trying prioritization. Part of social science is determining causal weights – which causes are most important among many possibilities. And that is the logic implicitly behind these sorts of turn-of-the-year lists. It’s also fun to try after a long year. So here is mine; I imagine these will seem pretty predictable though.

“It’s that time of year when analysts everywhere throw out predictions of the year to come and retrospectives of the past year. It’s practically impossible to build a fair metric for these things, but it is fun to try. Here I define consequentiality as those events likely to shape future events on large geopolitical questions in northeast Asia, specifically commerce and conflict. Here is one such list from the Financial Times on Asia. Here is mine:

1. The expansion of the Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ)

This strikes me as the most important regional geopolitical event of the year, because it effectively ratifies what many analysts have suspected of coming for a long time – a Sino-Japanese competition over Asia, with the US hovering in the background, tilting toward Japan. This will be the defining competition of Asia for the next several decades, and the trend-lines broadly favor China – Japan and the US are in decline relative to China.

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My December Newsweek Japan Essay: Japan as a Unique Bulwark to Chinese Hegemony in Asia


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I recently joined Newsweek Japan in a more official capacity as a regular contributor. I am pleased to do so, as I increasingly think that Japan is the primary bulwark to Chinese hegemony in Asia. So more and more, my research interest is drifting toward the Sino-Japanese competition as weightier than the inter-Korean competition.

In that vein, I wrote the following story for the current volume of Newsweek Japan. In brief, I argue that only Japan has the strength to really block China’s rise to hegemony in east Asia. Russia is too weak, especially out here. India just can’t seem to get its act together (I used to push India really hard as an obstacle, but it just doesn’t seem up to it.) I am a skeptic of the US pivot, and sheer distance alone means the US need not confront China unless it wants to. The US will never be under a Chinese ‘Monroe Doctrine’ as Asia might be in the future. That leaves Japan as a unique bulwark – a front-line state with the wealth and state/bureaucratic capacity to give China a real run for its money. Indeed, one way to see the current tension is as another round of Sino-Japanese competition for Asian leadership going back to the mid-19th century. (As always, I’d love to hear from the Japan mil-tech guys on all this.)

Elsewhere I have argued that China’s rise to hegemony is unlikely, in part because I think Japan will vigorously balance China. (Indeed, it probably is already.) So this essay is an expansion of that previous argument. The essay follows the jump.

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My December Diplomat Essay: US Alliance with Japan Sparks a Korean Grand Strategy Debate


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This is a re-up of my most recent monthly essay for the Diplomat. The original is here.

The idea here is to explore why Korea is not simply going to line up with the US and Japan against China. A lot of Americans, understandably focused on China in Asia, assume Korea will just join up. I really doubt that. I have been arguing this point for awhile on this site (start here), but Korea is way more alienated from Japan, for all sorts of reasons, than a lot of westerners realize. And it simply does not worry that much about China (no, I don’t understand that either). When I go to the conferences, Americans worry about China, the Japanese really worry…but the Koreans are like, ‘meh…whatever,’ but they get really activated over Dokdo. That dichotomy in response drives just about every American analyst I know up the wall, but it is the way it is. We need to realize that instead of trying to force Korea into the kind of black-and-white, good-guys-vs-bad-guys cold war frame Americans usually insist on in world politics. The essay follows the jump.

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My ‘Introduction to North Korea’ Essay for Al Jazeera Center for Studies


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The pic is me and my NK guide in front of one of the many ubiquitous statues of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang.

Besides running a TV network, Al Jazeera also has something called the ‘Al Jazeera Center for Studies.’ I know what you thinking; it’s the same thing I said – study of what? Judging by the looks of it, the Center provides introductory country and regional snapshots of places around the world to an Arab audience. This is very laudatory to my mind. The problems with Arab education have been well-documented, so I am happy to see this and participate in it. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Al Jazeera is a lot better than many people think, especially compared to CNN, much less Fox. It’s reputation as ‘terrorist TV’ isn’t really deserved.

So they reached out to me to provide a primer on NK. Here it is on their site, and it is reposted below the jump. I think they called me because I have occasionally been on the network as a talking head. And yes, in the interest of full disclosure, I was paid to provide this essay – not that I can think of any apparent conflicts of interest between Arab cable TV and North Korea.

They only gave me 2000 words, so I emphasize the permanent legitimacy crisis of NK after the end of the Cold War and the near-implosion of the 1990s; the semi-theocratic Kim family cult; and the patronage of China that keeps this ramshackle jalopy on the road. Please keep that tight word-limit in mind in your comments/criticisms. There is so much one could choose to emphasize, but I would be curious to see if you think this is fair. Also, this is meant for laymen, particularly in the Arab world, for whom this stuff is pretty foreign, I would imagine. So the detail is limited compared to the knowledge base of the likely readership of this blog. Still, I feel pretty god that I covered a lot of ground in short space. Here it is:

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My Cover Story for Newsweek Japan: The Subtext of S Korea’s Dislike for Japan is Competition with N Korea


cover1203-thumb-200xautoI just published a long essay about Korea’s view of Japan for Newsweek Japan. Please contact me if you would like the Japanese version. Below is the reprint in English.

As so often when I write in this area, I immediately got hate-mail. So please, don’t bother telling how much this website sucks, that I’m a mouthpiece for whomever you dislike, that I am ‘taking sides,’ betraying Korea, and so on. I know Koreans and Japanese read critical analyses of one or the other in zero-sum terms. The essay below is not meant as a ‘Japanese win.’ It is meant to explore why Koreans exaggerate Japan so much. Why do Koreans routinely say things like Japan is run by right-wing fanatics who want to invade Dokdo with samurai? These statements are not only obviously false, they are ridiculous.

I have said before (here, here) that Koreans have legitimate grievances regarding Japan, particularly on Yasukuni and the comfort women. But Koreans don’t stop there; they go over-the-top with things like the Sea of Japan re-naming campaign, claims that Japan wants to invade Korea again, that Japanese behavior in Korea equates with the Holocaust, or that Dodko is worth going to war over – even though a Korean use of force against Japan would almost certainly eventuate a US departure from SK and dramatically reduce Korean security. Other victims of earlier Japanese imperialism don’t talk like this, and I think a lot of well-meaning Japanese, who do recognize what Japan did here, are genuinely baffled by all this.

So the puzzle, to put it in social science terms, is not why Koreans dislike Japan. There are grounds for that. But rather, why do Koreans (specifically the media) exaggerate those grievances so much that even sympathetic outlets (like this blog or American analysts more generally) feel compelled to call out the nonsense? That is actually a really good research question – but for all the hate-mail – if you are writing a PhD in this area.

Here is my primary hypothesis: ‘Japanphobia’ – the over-the-top Korean descriptions of Japan as some unrepentant imperial revanchist – serves S Korean domestic nationalist needs. Specifically Japan functions as a useful ‘other’ for the identity construction problem of a half-country (SK) facing a competitor (NK) that openly proclaims itself the real Korean national state against an imposter (SK). Trapped in  who’s-more-nationalist-than-thou contest with NK, demonizing Japan is way for South Korea to compete with the North for Korean nationalist imagination. The RoK can posture as an instantiation of the minjok by criticizing Japan, which it can’t do by attacking NK, because NK says the same thing. Given that Koreans are more moved by the blood and cultural associations of the Chosun minjok than the dry, corrupt formalism of the RoK, the RoK desperately needs something to give itself some identity. Japan is that something. The RoK can’t connect convincingly with Koreans as the anti-DPRK, because too many South Koreans are ambiguous on NK. So the (post-dictatorial, democratic) RoK is the anti-Japan instead

NK routinely calls SK the ‘Yankee Colony’ to delegitimize it, but beating up on NK is not so easy in SK. A sizeable minority of S Koreans clandestinely sympathize with NK and agree that SK is too Americanized and not Korean enough. And NK cynically, relentlessly manipulates the evocative symbolism of Mt. Paektu to emotionally confuse the South. By contrast, Japan, the former colonialist, brings a convenient, black-and-white ‘moral clarity.’ It’s morally easy to condemn Japan. As a result, Dokdo gets fetishized (instead of now compromised Mt. Paekdu, the much more obvious geographic symbol of Korea) and Japan (not NK) becomes the state against which the RoK defines itself.

The full essay follows the jump. The framing is the recent trip by US Secretary of Defense Hagel to Tokyo and the furious grand strategy debate that touched off in Seoul. If the language seems a little ‘journalist-y,’ that’s because this was edited for readability by Newsweek.

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4 Hypotheses on Why China Suddenly Declared this New Air Defense ID Zone


26071410If you haven’t yet seen the zone’s geography, here it is to the left, complete with its overlap with the Korean and Japanese zones. The most important conflict of course is over Senkaku, but Korea watchers will also note that the Ieodo submerged reef, which Korea claims, is also in the zone. Gotta wonder what the Chinese were thinking by giving Korea and Japan common cause over anything. Foolish.

Dan Drezner asked the question I think pretty much everyone is wondering now: did the PRC really expect the US, Japan, and SK to just accept this out of the blue? Obviously they’re not, and it’s hard to find anyone besides the Fox News of Asia Global Times who thinks they should.

I got called about this by my friend Sam Kim at Bloomberg. Needless to say, all my comments didn’t make into the story, so here is an edit of my email comments with Sam on why the Chinese seemed to just do this out of the blue.

SK/BB: Why are the Chinese doing this?

Me: “I see 4 possible explanations (each is roughly tied to a level of analysis in international relations theory):

1. Belligerence (anarchy, straight-up realism): the Chinese really are picking a fight with Japan. This is the worst possible reason. They may figure that the Hagel visit to Japan a couple months ago has made Japan into an open challenger to China now. And that is kinda true. America is hedging China, ducking and weaving, trying hard to avoid an open confrontation with it. But Japan is increasingly unabashed that is it balancing China directly as a threat. Abe is increasingly willing to call out China openly. So Asia is becoming a serious bipolar contest, and maybe the Chinese are thinking: ‘to hell with it; Abe’s playing tough; we have too also.’ Certainly my Japanese colleagues in this area increasingly talk about China this way.

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Thickening Russia-Korea Ties is a Good Move for South Korea


b00cacd510614f87ea3a79ff18f43d62f9ea1dd2I wrote a quick piece for Newsweek Korea this week on Vladimir Putin’s trip to South Korea. Find the Korean web version here. Below is the translation.

In brief, I argue that a relationship with Russia is good for South Korea. Because SK is both relatively small and encircled, its foreign policy is dominated by just a few states. The problem is that SK can’t/won’t reach out to NK or Japan, so it is basically stuck between the US and China. So pulling in the Russians is a nice way to get SK some room to maneuver in its tight neighborhood. That is sure to annoy the Americans, but if you’re a S Korean, it’s a wise choice. That is the real value of the trip for SK, while for Russia, it bolsters its fading Asian relevance. Also, while I think President Park has really blown it over Japan, this was a smart choice against the Chinese and the Americans – maybe the best thing she’s done on foreign policy yet.

If it seems like I’m emphasizing geopolitics over economics, that’s because I don’t buy this ‘New Silk Road’ bit – where SK and Russian traffic would move through a guaranteed rail/road corridor in NK – for one minute. Does anyone really believe NK will respect transit rights, giving up lucrative shake-down opportunities on the movement of fuel, goods, tourists, and so on? No way. Look at how Pyongyang uses Kaesong for whatever blackmail/hostage-taking purposes it has in mind. NK is a such a black hole for international norms, that SK and Russia might as well connect by a ‘chunnel’ before relying on NK respect for transit rights.

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My November Diplomat Essay: China & Russia are Not Displacing the US bc of the Syria Deal


sep-3-2013-syria-s-leader-assad

This is a re-up of my monthly column for The Diplomat for November. Here is the original. I must say I don’t find the comments to be particularly helpful over there, so please give me your thoughts.

My primary argument is that the media is far too shallow in judging “US decline” on passing issues of minor relevance to the lineaments of American power. Remember two months ago, when Obama ‘had’ to act in Syria, even against Congress? That his very presidency was in peril, that American would be perceived as weak and lacking credibility? And now, no one is talking about that. Or then there was the idea that Obama missing APEC amounted to handing Asia to a bullying one-party state with a bad human rights record and no allies ‘rising China’? Good grief. Enough alarmism. Only the vanity of elites who think the very fate of the world hangs on their choices would lead one to believe that some missed meetings and airstrikes will change the balance of power. It won’t.

Always remember that Asian states need the US a lot more than the US needs them. US regional allies need us to hold back China, and even China needs us to buy all their exports and provide a savings safe haven. Sure, we benefit from cheap Asian exports and lending, but that’s a lot less important. The relationship is very asymmetric, and those who tell you otherwise are trying to cover the weakness of many Asian states and their desperation for US attention with bravado that America ‘needs’ Asia. That’s bunk. As I have been trying to argue on this blog for awhile, if they don’t want us in Asia, it’s no big deal for US security, and it’s an economic blow far worse for them than it is for us. And this is getting even more asymmetric as the US becomes energy independent because of fracking – so have fun fixing the Middle East, China! The US Founders identified the luxury of US distance from Eurasia long ago, so forgot all these hyperventilating Asian columnists (Kishore Mahbubani being the most obvious) who resent that America can be a lot more insouciant about Asia than vice versa. *natch Smile

Here’s that essay:

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