My Lowy Post on the Sewol Sinking, the Captain’s Trial, and the Long Overdue Focus on Corruption in Korea


This will be my last post on the sinking of the Sewol ferry, unless the trial reveals blockbuster new information. The essay below is the longer version of a piece originally printed here for the Lowy Institute.

I actually doubt the trial will tell us much that is new. We know why the ship foundered (covered below). The most important information that could come now is why the captain and crew abandoned ship so early. They had told the passengers to stay in place, so did they not realize that they were leaving hundreds of people to drown? Korean maritime law requires crew to help passengers. Did they not see the massive dereliction of duty in abandoning hundreds of people below decks on a sinking ship? Wow. That’s pretty d— obtuse. In fact, that is probably criminal.

At the very least, they might have just said ‘run for your lives’ on the speakers. Instead, the passengers dutifully followed orders – until it was too late. That is where so much of the anger comes from. Many of the drowned were healthy young teenagers, who easily might have escaped. Instead they died in place, because the captain told them to stay. This is why people are talking about the death penalty. What possible excuse is there for not just telling people to get out anyway they can? That would have required all of 5-10 seconds on the PA system. I don’t get that at all.

Here is that essay:

“On April 16 this year, the South Korean passenger ferry Sewol capsized off the southwest coast of Korea. The ferry carried 476 people; at the time of this writing almost 300 are confirmed dead, with several dozen still missing. The Sewol was en route from Incheon port on the Yellow Sea, south to Jeju Island in the Korea Strait. Jeju is a popular island vacation destination in Korea. Well over 300 of the passengers, and the majority of the fatalities, were high school students on vacation.

Overlapping Bureaucratic Failures Cause Disaster

The cause of the sinking is not yet fully known. Apparently around 8:45 am, the ship made a sharp starboard turn. Why is unclear; initial theories suggesting a struck reef, or swerving to avoid one, have proven wrong. The turn lead to a sharp list, worsened by poorly secured cargo that came loose, far too much cargo weight, and too little ballast. As a result, the ship was top-heavy and hard to steer. Some reports have suggested the previous crewmembers had noted the instability of the ship. Others have suggested that the cargo weight may have been almost four times the recommended limit. Hence much of the investigative focus has been on safety rules and if they were followed.

Continue reading

My Newsweek Japan Cover story: The Sewol Sinking and the Modernization of Korea


Sewol Japan Cover

The following is a story I wrote for Newsweek Japan this week on the sinking of the ferry Sewol in Korea in May. Here is the Japanese version.

Sewol has a been a terrible national tragedy, and that callous, incompetent captain should almost certainly get life imprisonment for hundreds of cases of negligent homicide. But there was more than just that. A series of bureaucratic failures led to the sinking. Bad seamanship may be been the spark, but a lot of poor regulation and corruption laid the groundwork for the sinking to become a major catastrophe.

If Park is serious about cracking down on corruption post-Sewol, it could be a big deal. I am skeptical myself; she leads a traditionalist, not reformist, coalition, and she has not governed as a innovator. But the costs of corruption in Korea – its 46 score from Transparency International – are now clear. Let’s hope she really tries.

Here’s the full version of this argument:

“On April 16 this year, the South Korean passenger ferry Sewol capsized off the southwest coast of Korea. The ferry carried 476 people; at the time of this writing almost 250 are confirmed dead, with several dozen still missing. The Sewol was enoute from Incheon port on the Yellow Sea, south to Jeju Island in the Korea Strait.

The emergency response to the sinking was badly botched. The captain initially told all the passengers to stay in their rooms and not exit to the deck. Retrospectively, the captain has argued that the water was too cold to abandon ship. But later he and the crew were among the first to escape. It is not clear if the ‘abandon ship’ order was ever given, or if it was properly transmitted. Many of the bodies recovered were found in passenger rooms. President Park Geun Hye called the captain’s actions “akin to murder;” he and the entire crew have since been arrested. Worse, only two of the lifeboats on the ship activated properly, and the coast guard response was confused. The initial call for assistance went to far away Jeju; only later did local coast guard get an alert. In fact, one of the initial calls for help came from a student passenger calling a national emergency hotline.

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:

Continue reading

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


140128_sotu_2014_word_cloud_605_605

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.

Continue reading

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 October Diplomat Essay: Was Syria a Bridge-Too-Far for Untrammeled Executive War-Powers? (yes)


Jump to 1:13: That’s best question asked during the GOP debates last year

This is my monthly essay for the Diplomat web-magazine. The original can be found here. I will say upfront that I am not a lawyer, but a political scientist, so I am aware that the legal argument about presidential war powers independent of Congress is fierce. But that interests me less than the absolute (or moral or philosophical) argument for unconstrained presidentialism on the use of force. That is, whether or not presidential unilateralism in the use of force is ‘constitutional,’ as the lawyers would say, is something a dodge. That does not mean it’s right. The Constitution is not perfect and has been amended for things like slavery, women’s enfranchisement, and Prohibition. So ultimately the president should justify ignoring Congress in war-time by some argument consonant with liberal democratic values, rather than an ex cathedra appeal to authority. And I don’t really think it is possible to coherently argue that presidential free-lancing with minimal Congressional oversight and consent is good for democracy. In fact, that strikes me as self-evident, which is why I love that Ron Paul quote in the video (1:13 mark) above. The essay follows the jump and is written in an op-ed style.

Continue reading

Walter Russell Mead Defends, Badly, the NSF cuts to Political Science


NSF

I originally put this on Duck of Minerva, an IR theory blog where I also write. But it’s worth putting here too as the US government shuts down over Tea Party intransigence.

I’ve defended Mead before on this site. I think he is a bright conservative who stands out in a sea of Fox News ideological bleh, like NewsMax or Drudge. He has a far better sense of the importance of religion in many people’s lives than academics do, and he has a good feel for western classical history that adds historical depth to a lot of his blogging. I read him regularly, where I recently stumbled on this defense of the coming NSF cuts in political science. Money quote:

Political scientists should know better: university faculties ultimately depend on taxpayers and their representatives for many of the resources they need for their work. This fact of life is truer than ever when health care and other costs are forcing discretionary spending down. Funding for political science is just another budget line item that needs to be justified. Writing obscure articles for peer-reviewed journals that nobody, not even other people in your discipline, will read is not the best way to do that.

And here’s another thought: making departments in social sciences and other disciplines more welcoming to political conservatives and—horrors!—seriously religious people may help build that bipartisan support without which federal funds will be increasingly hard to get.

Continue reading

My ‘Diplomat’ Essay on whether these Youth Protests will Spread to Asia’s Democracies


Brazil

Here is a re-post of my July contribution to the Diplomat web magazine. It expands on a brief observation I made a few weeks ago – that a lot Asian democracies have the same characteristics that seem to have driven people into the streets in Brazil and Turkey.

Here is the best critical response I’ve gotten so far. In brief, it argues that my conditions for the revolts are so widely drawn, that arguably lots of states could see these kinds of revolts. That is a good point. And many of the commenters that the Diplomat said something similar – that Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand should also have been included in my piece as possibilities. I singled out India, the Philippines, and South Korea. I’m not a big expert in the area of modernization and contestation, so thoughtful comments would be great. Here we go:

Continue reading

My ‘Korea Times’ Op-Ed on what Korea Needs from its New Prez: Liberalization


ParkBefore 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.

Continue reading

Admit it: South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak Was Pretty Good


PD*26038004

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.

Continue reading

My ‘Newsweek Japan’ Cover Story on the post-1979 ‘Asian Peace’ & Economic Miracle


Newsweek 3rd coverNewsweek 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.

Continue reading

Final Iraq Post – from the Archives: My 2007 Essay in Support of the Iraq Surge


iraq_multiple_fatality_bombings_by_type

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.

Continue reading

Iraq 10 Years Later (3): Why the Neocon Theory behind the War Failed


gulf_war_poster1

My first post on the Iraq War asked if academic IR had any responsibility to slow the march to war.

The second tried to formulate what the   neoconservative theory of the war was, because many of us, in retrospect of a conflict gone so badly, desperately want to un-remember that there really was a logic to the war, that it was at least somewhat intellectually defensible, and that a lot of us believed it. We may want to retroactively exculpate ourselves by suggesting it was just W the cowboy acting ridiculous, or a neocon hijacking of the policy process, or Halliburton oil imperialism, and all the other reasons so popular on the left. And some of that is true of course.

But it ducks the crucial point that the war was popular until it flew wildly off-the-rails, which in turn revealed the staggering incompetence of the Bush administration to act on the neocon logic the country had embraced by March 2003. In short, I argued that the Iraq invasion was not about WMD, preemption, or democracy, although that rationale was played up in the wake of the failure to find WMD. The real neocon goal was to scare the daylights out of the Arabs and their elites by punching one of their worst regimes in the face, thereby showing what was coming to rest of the region unless it cleaned up its act, i.e., crack down on salafism and liberalize so as to defuse the cultural extremism that lead to 9/11. (Read Ajami saying in January 2003 that the war is ‘to modernize the Arabs;’ that’s about as a good a pre-war summary of this logic as you’ll get.)

So what went wrong?

Continue reading

My Comments to al Jazeera TV on Park GH’s Inauguration as SK Prez


 

Despite the fact that Donald Rumsfeld supposedly wanted to bomb al Jazeera during the Iraq War as a jihadi propaganda machine, I have to say I find it a pretty good news source. It’s got a great documentary hustle that lazy incumbents like CNN don’t, and its Middle East coverage is far more balanced and fair than most Americans think.

Anyway, the vid is my quick thoughts on Park Geun Hye’s inauguration as South Korea’s new president. The quick sum: she can’t follow through on making Korea ‘happier’ unless she takes on the vested interests, especially the chaebol, central to her political coalition. I don’t think she can do that, and, honestly, I’m not even sure she wants to. So I would not expect anything big at home in her term; the right, the elderly, and business in Korea like the status quo, and they’re the ones that put her in office. And certainly, the social democratic policies of ‘economic democratization’ kicked around last year won’t happen meaningfully. That’s my prediction at least. I’ll have more in a few days when my contribution to a foreign ‘Korea analyst’ forum on PGH is published in the Korea Times.

For my previous TV appearances, go here.

USC-CSIS Conference on Korean Unification (2): ‘One Country, Two Systems’ will not happen


CSIS Korea ProjectHere is part one of this post. The following will make more sense if you start there.

I noted that I am participating, today in Seoul (attend if you can), in a USC-CSIS project on Korean unification. This is the final ‘phase’ of their Korea Project on unification.

I thought I would post my thoughts on the USC-CSIS Phase II report (available here) which provided all sorts of suggestions for reconstruction. It’s required reading if your area is Korea and NK, but I actually disagree with a fair number of the analogies to Iraq and Afghanistan. I think Germany is a better model for what will happen here, and I think a ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement like in greater China is nearly impossible given the extraordinary deep ideological divide, which is also existentially necessary for NK to demonstrate why it must be a seperate, poorer Korean state. So it’s either implosion or stalemate.

Anyway, the rest of my thoughts are after the jump. Having read the CSIS report is not a prerequisite to understanding my arguments, but it would help.

Continue reading

USC/CSIS Conference on Korean Unification (1): it will cost WAY more than people think


Cha_Challenges__110The University of Southern California Korean Studies Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies are running a joint Korea Project: Planning for the Long Term (pic to the left). CSIS will hold the last of three conferences in this project at the Asan Institute on January 21st next week. If you are in Seoul, you should go. The agenda looks pretty good. (Contact the Asan Institute.) I’d like to thank USC and CSIS for soliciting my participation..

The January 21 conference is actually the last meeting of the Project. The first meeting asked Korea area experts to look at unification; the second meeting asked functional experts to do the same. This upcoming third meeting will look at regional impacts from unification. I will comment on papers from Russia and Japan. I will put up my thoughts on those papers after the Phase III conference, but for now, I thought I would post my comments on the Phase II conference (by the functional experts).

Basically I argue that  Germany is a better model for what will happen here than either the occupations of Iraq or Afghanistan, or LDCs in transition. Also I don’t buy for one second that NK will enter into a meaningful ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement like in greater China. DPRK change meaningful enough to permit a federation would be so far-reaching, that it would inevitably raise the question why the DPRK  exists at all. Ideological change is an existential threat to the regime: why be a poorer version of SK if you’re in a federation with SK? why not just join up? This is the logic that undid the GDR. So it’s either implosion or stalemate IMO.

Here is the final CSIS report on Phase II (a must-read if you want to research unification); my gloss on that follows the jump. (Here is the much shorter Phase I report.)

Continue reading

Korean Foreign Policy Year in Review 2012: So Many Grievances… (UPDATED in response)


dodko

(I updated/lengthened the last section, after the jump, to respond to some of the criticisms made.)

Daniel Tudor, the Korean correspondent of the Economist (full disclosure: we are friends), just wrote a book on South Korea where he argues that Korea, despite all its success, is a discontented society. This is exactly right. (Here is a good review of the book.) Despite growing rapidly in just a generation, and capturing some global profile with things like ‘Gangnam Style’ or well-known products like Samsung gizmos, Koreans continue to have wildly unrealistic expectations of global interest in their small, linguistically unique (and difficult to learn) country culturally similar to enormous China. This generates constant geopolitical disappointment, per Tudor, and outsized sensitivities over foreign criticism – e.g., the widespread urban legend here that no Korean has yet won a Nobel Prize, because the committee is staffed by anti-Korean racists, or read this.

Four events in 2012 really seemed to capture the chip on the national shoulder, which ideally would serve to recommend a little modesty instead of yet more nationalistic grievance (but that won’t happen):

The Olympics: Some KOC official said on TV that Korea needs to ‘improve its Olympic diplomacy’ (whatever that means), even though it won a huge haul of medals for a country so small. India has more than 1 in 7 of the people on the planet, while Korea has .007%, but I guess the fifth highest pull of golds and ninth highest overall was a conspiracy of the Anti-Korean Olympics or  something. What is it with the endless chip on the shoulder? As Evan Ramstad put it, Korean officials once again had to come off sounding arriviste and aggrieved, rather than balanced and modern:

“Even so, a government sports official could be counted upon to again declare that South Korea was at last among the world’s great nations instead of recognizing that it has been there for awhile now. Second Vice Culture Minister Kim Yong-hwan was quoted in local media saying the performance in London meant that South Korea could “join the ranks of advanced nations in terms of sports and culture” and “has leapt into a higher level not only in the field of sports but also in culture and arts.”

And we had to spoil the Olympics too, with tiresome Dokdo posturing too (pic above).  That the placard violated the apolitical Olympic spirit is obvoious, but no major Korean figure came forward to denounce that action. *Sigh*

Continue reading

My ‘Newsweek Japan’ Cover Story on the Agenda for Korea’s Next Prez


Newsweek cover 2

Newsweek Japan asked me for a long-form essay on the challenges facing the new Korean president-elect for its December 26, 2012 issue (cover story to the left). 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 was actually written up before the outcome (a Park Geun-Hye victory) was known, but the argument still applies. In brief, I argue that Korea is drifting leftward. The young in Korea want chaebol reform and less political elitism at home, and abroad they want a foreign policy both less hawkish on North Korea and less influenced by the United States. In fact, if Korea weren’t aging so extremely fast, this agenda would have won. But Korea’s demography is now so skewed that ‘missing’ youth voters due to Korea’s super-low birthrate probably cost Moon Jae-In the election. (Not surprisingly, the Korean news is already reporting on youth action against against free bus fair for the elderly, because they ‘stole’ the election.) Nevertheless, the generational split is real, and the right would be foolish to govern against future voters’ wishes in the name of aging voters who will naturally pass away. Hence my prediction that Park will govern as a centrist not a conservative.

Regular readers of this blog will see themes I have emphasized before. This was intended for their print edition, so there are no hyperlinks included in the text. Here we go:

“On December 19, South Korea will have its sixth democratic election since the end of military rule in 1987. The main candidates are Park Geun-Hye of the conservative New Frontier Party and Moon Jae-In of the liberal Democratic United Party. Park is expected to win, as Moon has run a poorly organized campaign and the Korean left has split. Ahn Chul-Soo, a popular reformist liberal candidate, dropped out late in the race and only weakly endorsed Moon, while a far-left party, the Unified Progressives, has stayed in the race. All this will fragment the left’s vote, likely throwing the election to Park.

Continue reading

My ‘Foreign Affairs’ Piece on the Korean Election – Longer, Fuller Version


Election pics 008

This pic is from the TV election coverage on the Korean version of CNN. That would be the two main candidates (the liberal Moon Jae-In on the left, and conservative Park Geun-Hye, who won, on the right) as dancing electronic cartoon avatars. Yes, they do look like boogying Nintendo Miis, and yes, they are the most bizarre, hysterical election graphics I have ever seen. Who says political science is boring?

So Foreign Affairs solicited me for a ‘snapshot’ essay on the Korean election. Here is the link, but I also thought it might be useful to post my first draft which is fuller:

“South Korea’s next presidential election will occur on December 19. The main candidates are Park Geun-Hye of the conservative New Frontier (Sae Nuri) party and Moon Jae-In of the liberal Democratic United Party (DUP). A third, unaffiliated liberal candidate, Ahn Chul-Soo, dropped out in late November. Ahn had no clear party identification, which was part of his attraction, although he was broadly center-left. A former hi-tech entrepreneur and professor, he was popular with the young who feel alienated by the closed, oligarchic character of Korean politics and for much of the year, he outpolled Moon. Because he and Moon were splitting the anti-Park liberal vote, they tried to merge their campaigns. But Ahn’s hasty, somewhat bitter withdrawal speech implied that old-style, backroom politics by the DUP had pushed him out. Post-withdrawal polls showed Park picked up around one-fifth of Ahn voters, a very strong showing.

Continue reading

5 Fox News Myths about the Fiscal Cliff – and no more ‘Cliff’ Metaphors either, please! stop!


11-30-12-stewart-sg-cropped-proto-custom_2

Does anyone else find Fox News strangely appealing to watch? For some reason I watch it all the time. As ideology that is inadvertently entertaining, interwoven with a veneer of ‘news,’ it’s a freaky, terrifying wonder to behold. It is vastly more interesting – maybe because it’s akin to experiencing an alternate reality –  than it’s-so-bland-what’s-the-point-anymore CNN. Watching Fox is like watching yourself becoming dumber, all while being shamelessly entertained by gorgeous teleprompter-readers and militant American nationalism. It’s like the news + ‘Call of Duty’ + ‘Baywatch.’

As a news station it is, of course, preposterous. Its presentations are astonishingly partisan. Even after 15 years, I am amazed at what Hannity, O’Reilly, etc. can get away with (try here or here in just the last few weeks). It does very little investigative/reportorial work itself. It generally repackages what other outlets have produced or presents lengthy ‘Crossfire’-style opinionating, which is not really journalism. And it’s Michael Bay-style presentations, particularly its graphics and swooping necklines, make the news look like an action movie, not like, you know, the news.

Continue reading