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


UC

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 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:

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


20120818_ASM985

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


hagel japan

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 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 Latest Japanese Hate-Mail: Apparently I am a ‘S— Kimchi Propagandist’ Hah!


jpnThis is what happens when you write in the area of Japanese-Korean relations. Pretty much everybody hates you, because you don’t tell them what they want to hear.

The other day I posted how the Korean government leaned on me to alter the nomenclature in my writing – which, at this point, I wouldn’t do if only to oppose the highly inappropriate arm-twisting of academics by the state.

So obviously, I had to get some ken-kan from across the strait. Symmetric loathing of this blog is required!:

From: ——— [shitkimchi1@---------.---]
Sent: Wednesday, November 13, 2013 6:19 PM
To: robertkelly260@hotmail.com
Subject: shameless and failed propagandist !

spread these videos, you failed idiot ! you kimchis are finished…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zPhBFEizzA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLyKJsbw4G4

Needless to say, I didn’t write back.

I can’t access those videos. They are blocked in Korea, but judging from the comments, it’s pretty rank stuff, back to creepy comfort women-denialism and all that.

If I had to guess, that email was a response to this post where I criticized the creepy nationalists in the corners of the Abe coalition denying the comfort women. I don’t think Abe is as bad as Koreans do; there’s been a lot of irresponsible exaggeration in the Korea media, which seems to be finally dawning on the far-too-alarmist Chosun Ilbo. But I do broadly agree with the moral case Korea makes against Japan on the comfort women and Yasukuni. For as much as I think Koreans flies off the handle way too much on Japan, they are generally right on these two core issues. So I guess that makes me a ken-kan failed idiot or something.

I’ve been called a lot of things over the years in the comments and in hate-emails – a Muslim, a Sinophile, a traitor (to America and/or Korea), every variation of idiot you can think, an orientalist, an American imperialist, a racist (but that’s so de rigeur at this point in this area that it’s meaningless now), a mouthpiece of the IMF/USFK/the American national security state, and so on. But I gotta give this guy credit – a ‘kimchi propagandist’ is a pretty creative. Gotta laugh out of that one.

A Little Korean Government Arm-Twisting of my Blog on the ‘Sea of Japan/East Sea’ Spat – How Unintentionally Flattering Actually


sea of japan

 

Did anyone else get this email below? Who wouldn’t be persuaded by some PR firm hack with no idea about East Asia giving suggestions she doesn’t understand by robo-email? Yuck. Maybe I’m reading it the wrong way – maybe getting yelled at by the Korean government about nomenclature means someone actually reads my blog. Hah!

 

“Dear Robert,

I came across your Asian Security Blog and read your post, “Why don’t Korea & Japan Align?”. Because of your interest in current affairs and issues in Asia, our communications firm is reaching out, on behalf of the Korean Consulate General, to inform you about an issue that you and your readers need to know about. 

The Republic of Korea is asking the US government and map publishers to use the name “East Sea” together with the “Sea of Japan” when referring to the body of water located between the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese Archipelago, over which both Japan and Korea have jurisdiction.  This body of water has been called East Sea for over 2,000 years – you can read the historical background here: http://bit.ly/EastSeaMaps

Why is this important and why should this issue matter to your readers?

* When dealing with matters of diplomacy, a name reflects how a country is viewed.

* Support for Korea’s position is gaining momentum among many internationally respected cartographers and the media. National Geographic, Rand McNally, The Economist, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and Le Monde have all begun using both names concurrently.

* Other evidence of growing support for Korea’s position includes a vox populi petition to the White House with more than 100,000 signatures, and a vote at an international organization’s recent conference that denied Japan’s proposal to use only the Sea of Japan name.

Will you consider posting about this on your blog? Links to videos can be found at the bottom of this message, plus you can find additional information here: http://bit.ly/EastSea Please feel free to use any of this information found here in your postings.

Thanks, Robert! If you have any questions or need additional information, please feel free to contact me.

Best,

K—————-
Parter International/Tuvel Communications Team
on behalf of Korean Consulate General in New York
——@tuvel.com
—————————-
Video: The Name, “East Sea” – http://bit.ly/Lu5puJ
Video: The World Map is Changing: Korea’s East Sea – http://bit.ly/JJSYIF

——————

I find this ridiculous. Has anyone noticed how non-descriptive ‘East Sea’ is? At least the ‘Sea of Japan’ actually provides some basic geographic information (ie, a sea near Japan), while the ‘East Sea’ could be any sea east of anything else. To demand that the world use that term insists that the rest of the planet view bodies of water from a Korean perspective, which is a preposterous request. The name itself implies absolutely nothing. This is the US Government’s position also.

Should Israel demand the Arabian Sea be changed? Should Pakistan lobby the world to change the name of the Indian Ocean?  I have no idea if I have used the name ‘East Sea’ or not on my blog, but using an internationally accepted name is standard. I find this faux-controversy a fatiguing Koreanism, just like when Koreans insist on telling foreigners how old they are by their ‘Korean age.’ The ensuing confusion does little but gratify Korean insistence on uniqueness. Please, can we just stick to international standards and avoid self-flattering particularisms no one else cares about? Finally, it’s worth noting that there’s also the ‘Korea Strait.’ Should that be re-named the South Strait or something?Because this whole conversation will inevitably provoke a Japanese move on that name in response. Can’t we just drop this?

My Essay for Newsweek Korea on the Current Korean Strategy Debate in the Media: K Caught b/t the US and China


newsweek-1028_페이지_1 (3)This is a lengthy piece I just wrote for this week’s edition of Newsweek Korea. Here is the link for the Korean version; below is the English translation. The Korean version is unfortunately gated after page 1, so if you want the whole thing in Korean, email for the PDF. That is the edition’s cover to the left.

The short, IR theory version is that: a) S  Korea is a middle power that risks ‘overplaying its hand’ against Japan, as a think-tanker friend put it, because of the ‘moral hazard’ facilitated by the American alliance (as Katzenstein noted, Japan is the US anchor state in Asia, and Koreans can’t change that no matter how much they resent that special relationship); b) the Americans believe in the democratic peace and simply don’t accept that Japan is some kind of proto-fascist state (this is a real breakpoint with the Americans); and c) Korean geography basically traps it in a Waltian ‘balance of threat’ quandary: even though it is small, its proximity means it will get pulled into the Sino-US/Japan stand-off whether it likes it or not. The only possible way out I can think of for Korea is unilateral nuclearization (yikes). Also, my continuing skepticism of the pivot pops up. I still don’t think Americans actually care enough about Asia to really get pulled into a major competition with China. Here’s that essay:

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My Diplomat Interview on North Korea, Syria, and China’s Rise


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Frequent readers know that I am regular contributor to the Diplomat web-magazine. On October 10, Editor James Pach interviewed me, mostly about Northeast Asia. Jim is a great guy, and I think these questions helpfully expand on some ideas I have put on the blog recently, especially my recent piece on reining in US presidential wars powers. The original interview is here.

JP: North Korea has put its troops on high alert, restarted its reactor at Yongbyon and called South Korean President Park Geun-hye an “imbecile.” We’re accustomed to the pendulum of ratcheting up and then easing tensions, but this year Pyongyang seems especially schizophrenic. Is this the new leader Kim Jong-un settling in, or are there other factors at play?

REK: This is a tough question given how opaque North Korean leadership decisions are. My own sense is that this is typical North Korean game playing. I made a similar argument at the Diplomat during the spring war crisis. It is true that Kim Jong Un is likely still finding his way. He is too young and too inexperienced in the old boys networks that run NK to easily step into his father’s shoes. But his period of greatest vulnerability was last year. The regime seems to be settling in around him comfortably – to many people’s surprise – so my sense is that this is the Korean People’s Army going through its usual hijinks to justify its massive and massively expensive role in NK life. I thought this too was the reason for the spring crisis, because NK does not actually want a war which they will lose, badly.

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My July Diplomat Essay: The Korean ‘OPCON’ Soap Opera Rolls on – Hint: just drop it


Thank you for waiting out my summer break. I need summers to get some writing done, but inevitably I didn’t get nearly what I needed to wrapped up. Should you ever hear that argument that college professors slack, because we only teach 2/2 or 3/3, you ought to try writing for these journals. Just read this. That is why we don’t teach 30 hours a week. 

But I am still writing for The Diplomat, a gig I really enjoy. Here is my piece from August on the endless soap opera of the transfer of wartime operational control (‘OPCON’) from the US to the Republic of Korea. (The pic is the US SecDef and SK DefMin.) Why the RoK would even want OPCON back, before unification, is beyond me. It’s a perfect opportunity to buckpass to the superpower security guarantor. And in fact, that is sorta the way the Korean debate is going; they increasingly don’t want it back. Also, it seems pretty clear now that the Koreans aren’t really ready. Too many officers have been playing golf or whatever instead of getting ROKA specs and procedures up to snuff. Anyway, my own sense is to just drop it, because the US and RoK are just going to re-build a version of CFC (Combined Forces Command) that does all the same stuff but is just a little less ‘joint.’ I don’t really see the point then in ending OPCON. If you’re a real mil-tech expert, please tell me in the comments why a new ‘CFC light’ is better than the current arrangement? 

The essay starts after the jump.

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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:

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My ‘Newsweek Korea’ Cover Story: A Defense of Obama’s ‘Strategic Patience’ on North Korea


Newsweek Korea cover 2

Newsweek Korea asked me to participate in a cover story debate on Obama’s strategic patience. A friend of mine wrote against it; I wrote in defense. Here is the Korean language text at the NWK website. Below is my original English language version.

In brief I argue that NK is so hard to pin down, that big strategies never work with it, provoke North Korea into lashing out, and raise impossible expectations on democratic decision-makers. So Obama is acting responsibly, IMO, by not promising more than he can deliver and by not giving a reason for NK to act out.

After 20+ years of negotiating on more or less the same topics, it should be pretty obvious that NK is insistent on not being placed in some box by outsiders. It will not be treated as some technocratic ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ by a conference of experts, like global warming or something. And it will lash out if necessary to remind us of that. Hence, I argue for ‘muddling through,’ and that we should stop expecting our policy-makers to have some great NK strategy that will fix the issue. That’s not gonna happen. We all know that. We just have to wait for China to stop paying NK’s bills. Until then, all the sweeping declarations (‘agreed framework,’ ‘sunshine’,’ the ‘axis of evil,’ the current big idea du jour of ‘trust’) are rather pointless and raise impossible expectations among voters in SK, the US, and Japan. Let’s be a little more honest about what we can expect from North Korea.

Here we go:

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Could the Youth Protests of the EU, Middle East, Turkey, and Brazil Spread to Asia’s Corrupt Democracies?


brazil-confed-cup-protests_jpeg3-1280x960

Jay Ulfelder and I had a Twitter conversation on this question in the last few days (here and here). But Twitter has such limited space, I thought I would break out our discussion on the blog and ask what others thought.

Watching all these riots – driven heavily by youth dissatisfaction, it seems – is making me wonder if this might spread to Asia’s democracies. A lot of the problems these protests are identifying exist in spades in Asia: high-handed, out-of-touch governments; election-proof pseudo-technocracies that act as unaccountable oligarchies; shallow, clique-ish political parties that provide no meaningful transmission belt of citizen preferences; massive government and business corruption; wasteful white-elephant spending to capture global ‘prestige’ while everyday services like health care and education are underfunded; closed political opportunity structures that regularly reward insiders and large corporations with crony connections to the state; wealthy, de-linking elites with 1% lifestyles wildly at variance with the rest of the population… That’s Asia too; there’s more than enough sleaze to go around.

Jay asked which countries might this apply to in Asia. My first thoughts were India, the Philippines, and South Korea among the democracies (given the obvious problems street protests face in non-democracies). Are those countries really governed better than Brazil? I doubt it. Anna Hazare pushed this sort of agenda in India a few years ago, and South Korea, which Asian case I know best, has all those Brazil problems particularly – and probably even worse than in Brazil. I’ve wondered for years why there isn’t more populist anger and protest over the cronyist, Seoul-based chaebol oligarchy that is Korean democracy. (I’m usually told it has something to do with ‘Confucian’ or ‘Asian’ values.)

It’s terribly hard to predict outbreaks of mass street protest of course, but if I’ve identified the broad structural conditions of the current wave correctly, and if protest in one locale seeds it in another (“cascades”), (two huge “if”s to be sure) then Asia’s oligarchic, corrupt democracies are/should be next.

My ‘Diplomat’ Interview: the Inter-Korean Talks Collapsed over a very Korean Hang-up over Rank and Status


korea-talks

I write for the Diplomat magazine occasionally, and they just interviewed me on the collapse of the recent high-level inter-Korean talks. This is a re-print of that interview. It might seem ridiculous to non-Koreans, but Koreans take rank and status pretty seriously (because Korea is such hierarchical culture IMO). So a break-down over who out-ranks who (which is what happened) is not too extraordinary given the shared cultural context. Here’s that interview:

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Abenomics is Not more Dangerous than the North Korean Missile Program


okRegular readers know that I write now-and-again for the Diplomat web-magazine. This post is a re-print of my June column. Abenomics is still dominating Korean business news, and I continue to be amazed at how few people want to admit that Japan’s revival is really good for democracy in Asia and the prevention of Chinese regional primacy.

As I discuss below, no less than the SK finance minister (pic) actually said Abenomics is more dangerous to SK than the NK missile program. Wait…what??? Did you know the mic was on? Does anyone genuinely believe that the worst totalitarianism in history gets a pass when the Bank of Japan prints a lot of cheap money? Come on. Are Korean officials so deeply bought by the chaebol that they actually have to say stuff like that? Honestly if Minister Hyun really believes that (I doubt that though, see below), he should probably resign. This is just a travesty, hugely embarrassing – so if this post reads a little rant-ish, that’s why.

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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.

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