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 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 Diplomat on Essay on Xi’s Trip to Korea: SK as a Hole in the Pivot in Exchange for Help w/ NK


This is a re-post of an essay I wrote last week at the Diplomat. I guess South Korea-China relations is a hot topic, because I got a bunch of emails over this – note to grad students.

The quick version is that South Korea really needs China now to get any kind of movement on North Korea, so it kinda has to suck up to Xi. I am of the school that says that North Korea is sliding into an economic colony of China, regardless of how they bluster and blow off nukes. In fact, the reason Pyongyang probably has the nuclear and missile programs is not just to deter the US, but to prevent China’s economic domination from turning into political domination too. So Park will be practically begging Xi to rein in Pyongyang. She has to – which sucks, btw, and shows just how cynically China manipulates the human rights catastrophe that is North Korea to its own callous advantage. Awful.

But Park can offer to restrain/impede the US pivot/containment of China as a quid pro quo for North Korea help. China really needs South Korea in order to prevent the US pivot from becoming full-blown encirclement of China. Because South Korea is so virulently anti-Japanese, it is an important hole in the tightening containment line around China that runs from Japan through Southeast Asia to India. The Koreans don’t want to line up against China, and they really don’t want to line up with Japan. If China is smart, they’ll exploit that. So China is unlikely to really bully South Korea as it has in the South China Sea.

Here’s that essay:

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My Lowy Post on Obama’s Asia Trip – Watch Every Interest Group Instrumentalize it for its Own Purposes


PHOTO: Barack Obama waves as he walks down the stairs from Air Force One at Fiumicino Airport on March 28, 2014 in Rome, Italy.

So Obama is off to Asia this week for a quick trip that is inevitably being over-hyped by every Asia analyst on the planet as some major turning point in the US relationship with Asia. It’s not: below is re-printed my original, ‘watch-elites-manipulate-the-Obama-trip’ comment for the Lowy Institute. The spin will be over-the-top as every Asia pundit races for media exposure. Presidential trips are a great opportunity for the analyst community to posture and hyperventilate about how Obama ‘must’ do this, ‘has’ to do that.

Yawn.

Most of that is bunk. A lot of that is 1) analysts trying to demonstrate their own relevance and self-importance – is it surprising that Asia hands defend the Asia pivot so vociferously? But there is also 2), the unwillingness of a lot of Asia hands and hawks to admit that the US does not actually ‘have’ to do anything in Asia. America has huge freedom to move here, and Asian states – both allies and China – need the US way more than we need them. Where would Asian economies be without the US consumer? And even China might be nervous about a US forces withdrawal given the open balancing behavior that would likely spark in Japan, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines. So ignore all the commentary that the US ‘needs’ Asia; the real story is the opposite and that space which that gives the US to play hard-ball on things like Asian mercantilism and North Korea.

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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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