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 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 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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My Lowy Post on Japan’s Pointless, Self-Indulgent WTH? Review of the Kono Statement


This is a re-print of a post for the Lowy Institute on the recent Japanese review of the Kono statement on Imperial military sexual service during the war. (That’s Kono in the picture.)

What the point of the ‘review’ was, I can’t figure out. The GOJ ran the review, predictably found the answer Abe wanted – that Koreans pushed Japan into historical concessions in the 1993 debate – but then Abe said he won’t change the statement anyway.

Wait, what? Why run the review if it serves no purpose? What was the point? Just to prove to us all once again that Japanese conservatives can’t give-up their creepy fascination with the war? That the Japanese old guard still looks at Korea as ‘lucky’ to have been modernized by Japan? Why the hell run the Kono review if you aren’t going to change the statement? It was a total nationalist self-indulgence. Bleh. I like Abe some of the time, especially when he talks about China and economics; but when it comes to the war, he sound like David Irving. Yikes.

Here’s that essay:

“The Korea-Japan dispute over history is back, yet again. The Japanese government this week released a ‘review’ of the drafting of the ‘Kono Statement.’ That statement is the 1993 Japanese admission, by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, that the Imperial military during the Pacific War organized military brothels in which Korean women were often forced to serve. The Japanese euphemisms for this are ‘comfort women’ and ‘comfort stations’; in reality, this was enforced prostitution that inevitably included beatings and other abuse. As the Japanese empire expanded, the practice spread across Asia, including women in Japan’s southeast Asian holdings as well.

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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 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.

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