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 Lowy Debate on whether the US should Retrench from South Korea, part 2: No


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This is a re-up of the second part of a couplet I wrote for the Lowy Institute on whether the US should retrench from South Korea. Part one is here; the original Lowy version of part 2 is here. And that pic is me doing what I really went to North Korea for…

My friend Dave Maxwell responded to part one by suggesting that I am not really laying out core US realist or national interests in Korea. Instead I got sidetracked going after liberal internationalists and neocons over the alliance and interventionism. Here is his reply. He says I come down on the side of retrenchment. Hmmm…

First, if you don’t know Dave’s work on Korea, you should. Go follow his blog. He’s way better on Korean security than I am. For example, his piece on a possible insurgency in post-unification north Korea is really valuable. I can’t think of anything else on that topic. Until I had read it, I must admit that I hadn’t really even thought of that scenario.

In response, I guess I would say that I am not sure what direct national interest the US has in ROK security today. I get it that South Korea is a liberal democracy facing off against the worst tyranny ever. But that’s a liberal argument, not a realist one. And I get it that North Korea is horrible, worse-than-1984 state which we should push into the dustbin of history as soon as possible. But that’s also a liberal/humanitarian argument.

I also get it that South Korea is important for the US position in Asia and dealing with/hedging/containing (or whatever it is we’re doing with) China. But that’s more a neocon argument in which US hegemony, instantiated in our global basing network, is an end itself. But if hegemony means allied free-riding (see: NATO) and getting chain-ganged into conflicts with states like North Korea or China, then realists would say hegemony should be scaled back, because it is not serving the national interest. American hegemony is only valuable if it serves the national interest; it is not an end in itself. (Daniel Larison makes this argument a lot.)

Finally, I get it too that a North Korean destruction of South Korea would be a horrible tragedy, a humanitarian nightmare, a boon to autocrats and tyrants everywhere, give new life to the worst regime on earth, and so on. But those reasons are so big and ‘metaphysical’ that they violate the realist demand that the national interest be something direct, tangible, immediate, and so on. It cannot credibly be the purpose of US foreign policy to stop tyranny or humanitarian catastrophes everywhere in the world. However morally attractive, that’s a sisyphean task that means perpetual war by the US all over the planet. This was thrust of Bush’s soaring second inaugural – which just about everyone derided immediately as an impossible flight of crusading fancy.

So, what, exactly, are the US national interests in South Korean security? North Korea is not going to invade the US. The Cold War is over, so South Korea is not a domino about to fall as communism chews its way through the Free World. South Korea doesn’t export anything that the US absolutely has to have, like oil which keeps the US tied to the Persian Gulf no matter how much we want to get out. There’s no anti-American terrorism problem out here.

And I don’t say all this to be testy or contrarian. My own gut-feeling is to keep the US in Korea – probably because I think North Korea is just about the worst place on earth. I am open to being convinced on this, and I kinda want to be. I imagine a lot of people instinctually feel the same way. But that’s not a replacement for clear, obvious need for us to be here. As I said in part one, this is the big hole in the conversation. We’re in the Middle East because of oil and terrorism. We’re in the Caribbean littoral states, because they’re our neighbors, and their problems become our problems. We’re in Japan, because China is a genuine emergent hegemonic challenger to the US. But Korea? I’m not sure. Even the reasons given in this post below are kinda vague, nothing is as crystalline as, say, helping Mexico defeat its super-violent drug cartels so that they don’t penetrate the US.

So give me your best shot. I’m open to it.

The essay follows the jump:

My Lowy Debate on whether US should Retrench from South Korea, part 1: Yes


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This is a re-up of a debate couplet on the US position in South Korea, which I wrote for the Lowy Institute. Part one, the reasons for US retrenchment, is here (and below); part 2, the arguments against a US departure, is here. And that pic is me and my North Korean minder at the North Korea side of the DMZ. Note the KWP pin above his breast pocket.

Whether the US should stay or go is a perennial issue, that surprisingly, doesn’t get discussed much. This is probably because if you really supported a US withdrawal, you would not be taken seriously in much of US or Korean foreign policy establishments. US foreign policy is dominated by a hawkish, interventionist consensus of neocons and liberal internationalists for whom the US positions in Japan and Korea have become ends in themselves as symbols of US hegemony (in neocon-speak, that’s read as: ‘global basing means we’re f****** awesome!’). In tandem, the Korean discussion, for all its lazy anti-Americanism, assumes a permanent American presence to the point of irresponsibility. But all this misses the real hole at the center – the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the North Korean conventional threat (and before you say, ‘heh wait, they could blow up Seoul,’ recall that South Korea easily has the resources to ramp up in a big way; it just doesn’t do it).

The essay starts after the jump:

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My August Diplomat Essay: Can China Legitimate its Would-Be Hegemony?


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This is a re-up of an essay I wrote at the Diplomat a few weeks ago. Basically, I ask if China can find a way to pull its neighbors into a cooperative project in east Asia, or if Chinese hegemony is just going to be a regional despotism. It is increasingly likely that China will resume its place at the top of east Asian pile, as it was before the Opium Wars. This unnerves everyone, but this is probably unstoppable, unless the US and Japan wage some kind of preventive war on China, or unless China’s neighbors work closely to contain it for a lengthy period of time. Neither is likely. Japan might give China a run for its money, if Abe can get Japan moving again, but China is pulling away so fast, that this would be a tough climb (not that Japan shouldn’t try).

So if Chinese regional hegemony seems increasingly likely, how will China govern it? Will it just be an exploitative tyrant like the USSR was in Eastern Europe? Or will it try to tie in the locals to a structure where they have some rights and voice opportunities, like the Roman Empire or the old Chinese tribute system? I predict this will be the big question in Chinese foreign policy in about 20 year, and the signs so far are not encouraging:

My Lowy Post: Relax (again), Japan is Not ‘Re-Militarizing’


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If there is any one trope in Korean and Chinese international relations writing I don’t like, it is the causal, constant, angry insistence on reading Japan as always ‘remilitarizing.’ In just about everything I read by Korean and Chinese authors on northeast Asia this is repeated relentlessly, as a truism, and usually in the worst possible normative light: not only is Japan ‘remilitarizing,’ it also apparently has neo-imperial designs on Asia.

Sorry, Koreans and Chinese, but this is just not true, not at all really. Note for example, that Japan always seems to be in the process of re-militarizing in this manner of writing. It is never actually done doing so; it’s constant and insidious. No matter what Japan does on national security, it always is described as re-militarizing. Apparently Japanese remilitarization has been going on for decades; which is another way of saying it isn’t really happening at all. Note too, that no one ever seems to remark on Japan’s paltry defense spending or systemic dependence on the US military. So this is just silly boilerplate; it’s far more about Korean and Chinese nationalist dislike for Japan than any real empirical trend. But since it gets repeated so often, and seems to be taken for granted by just about everyone in Korea and China, it is worth laying out in some detail why is is bunk.

The essay below the jump is re-post of this essay for the Lowy Institute in Australia.

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My Lowy Post: Relax, Korea is not ‘finlandizing’ for China


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This is the first of two part series (one, two) I wrote for the Lowy Institute last month. I have the feeling that the centenary of WWI this summer has gone to everyone’s head, because I’m reading lots of posts all over the place about WWI and the parallels to the Asia-Pacific. And while there are some, a lot of this is hype. Northeast Asia is actually pretty stable – until Japan decides it has finally had enough of Chinese salami-slicing in the region I suppose. But increasingly, I think there are a lot of hawks out there, especially in the DC think-tanks and the PLA, who really dislike the status quo and hence over-hype small changes like Xi’s trip to South Korea or yet another North Korean provocation. But there’s no need to add to a march to war with threat inflation, which is what I am trying to counter-act here.

The essay follows the jump.

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My Op-Ed for the Korea Times on US-North Korea Relations: in short, They’re Awful


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That picture would be me and the “Great Chosun Leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung” (“위대한 조선 수령 김일성 동지,” as they told us to call him) in the Pyongyang subway. You’ll notice that the gold stature is nicer than the passing metro car (right) from the 1960s. That pretty much tells you what, and how awful, North Korea’s priorities are.

The Korea Times asked me to comment on North Korea’s relationship with the US as a part of its review of North Korea’s foreign relations. The original is here and re-printed below. My main theme is that most Americans are unwilling to accept the legitimacy of North Korea as a real, independent country like any other. Not only is it run as a orwellian gangster fiefdom which the world would loathe anyway, it should also be a part of a Southern-led, unified Korea.

Naturally, this worries the NK elite who in turn are hostile back to us. I suppose we could accept and recognize the permanent existence of North Korea, as the South Korean left would have us do, but I must admit I find normalization intolerable. The idea of coexisting with North Korea strikes me as deeply immoral, even if the cost of that attitude is near-permanent tension. I suppose North Korea is one of few global problems about which I am still a real hawk, but North Korea’s human rights record is so stupendously awful – the recent UN report on human rights in North Korea likened the place to the Nazi Germany for christ’s sake – that I just can’t take that leftist route of recognition.

Here’s that op-ed:

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My July Diplomat Essay: Seoul’s Ban of Uber is a Classic Example of Asian Mercantilism


So this is a blog about Asian security, but regular readers will know that I write a lot about political economy too. And nothing drives me up the wall so much as the endless NTB gimmickry so common in Asian to prevent free-trade outcomes that national elites and entrenched mega-corporations don’t like. If you live in Asia and want to know why everything is so outrageously expensive, or why you can’t get technologies/products your friends take for granted in the West, here it is: endless crony protection, tariff or otherwise, to block imports that are superior and/or bring price competition. If the US has had too much deregulation, Asia desperately, desperately needs it. Romney for president of Korea!

The case of Seoul City banning the car-sharing app Uber is a classic example of everything wrong with Asian mercantilism: xenophobia, competition-quashing, monopoly rent protection, reverse engineering someone else’s idea, shameless nationalist demagoguery of a successful foreign enterprise, hypocritical rejection of free-trade ideals by a country that runs a regular trade surplus, open violation of free-trade norms despite recently signing multiple FTAs, and so on.

So below is a reprint of my recent essay for the Diplomat on this disgrace.

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