If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know I try to avoid the details of the Korea-Japan tussle. It gets so emotional so fast. Like most Americans, I want Japan and Korea to reconcile so they can work together on the larger, more important issues of North Korea and China. I don’t take a position on the Dokdo/Takeshima flap. I refuse to call the Sea of Japan the ‘East Sea’ (do you want to re-name the Korea Strait too?). When Koreans push me about the war, I try to deflect the issue. It is really not appropriate for outsiders, especially Americans, to weigh in on the details of Asian disputes. We can’t be an umpire to local fights, and our intervention would be seen as illegitimate by the losing party anyway. This is also the USG’s position: we have no position other than that we want all the parties to work out the disagreements without coercion or force. That’s the right attitude IMO.
Here is my original essay on the NK crisis, where I called NK ‘the boy who cried wolf’: no one believes their war-mongering rhetoric anymore, because they say outrageous stuff all the time that they never follow-up on. That piece enjoyed good traffic at the Diplomat, where it was originally posted. So I wrote a response to the comments made both there and at Reddit. That response was originally posted at the Chinese Policy Institute Blog of the University of Nottingham and at e-IR. I re-post it here for convenience. I would like to thank John Sullivan of Nottingham and Max Nurnus of e-IR for soliciting me.
Rather than respond individually – some of those guys at Reddit are just off-the-wall – I thought I would provide some general follow-up to certain critiques that showed up regularly.
1. You’re just an arm-chair general, air-head liberal, cloistered academic hack, and so on.
I was surprised that the essay was taken by some as ‘liberal’ or ‘blind to the NK threat’ and so on. I am actually fairly hawkish on NK. I think the Sunshine Policy failed and should not be tried again unless NK makes real concessions it did not last time. I also think the Six Party Talks were a gimmick to allow NK to play China, the US, SK, Japan, and Russia off against each other. For example, Kim Jong Il mentioned in the context of those talks that NK could be an ally of the US against China, and a lot of people think NK built nuclear weapons to prevent Chinese political domination even as NK becomes its economic colony.
The North Korea flap seems to be calming down, so here I reprint my original essay for the Diplomat a few weeks ago on the crisis. I’d like to thank Diplomat Editor Harry Kazianas for inviting my submission. And yes, that is a picture of me heading off to the Pyongyang Casino last summer, and I am happy to say I won $60 at blackjack against the Chinese dealer. Apparently my gambling problem is ‘pivoting’ to Asia too.
North Korea is a constant enigma, a point made apparent once again in the current crisis. Analysts of every stripe have mispredicted its behavior and longevity for decades, and this time around, it is again very unclear what exactly they want. So rather than make any predictions that will turn out to be laughably wrong next month, here are some observations that help narrow range.
1. Goaded into Conflict?
The North Koreans are experts at bluster. The previous president of South Korea was so disliked, that he was portrayed as a rat being decapitated in the Pyongyang newspapers. So when the North started saying outrageous stuff this time around, the first response of analysts everywhere was cynicism. And in the South Korean media, although it is front-page news, the commentary borders on ridicule. No one believes they mean it. A Korean friend of mine spoke for a lot of South Koreans, I believe, when he said to me that he almost wished NK would pull some stunt so that SK would finally give the NK the beating it richly deserves after so many decades of provocation.
I know what you’re thinking, I’m being a show-off area specialist, Asian language names can be hard for anglophones (and vice versa), and who cares about KIS anyway, because this crisis is about Kim Jong Un? All of that is true of course, especially the first one, but come on…
Richardson isn’t just any old hack like me on North Korea. (Here’s my take on the crisis.) He has been a regular point man for the US on NK for more than a decade and markets himself as such on the talk-shows. And if you study NK in even the most basic way (here’s a good place to start), you know who KIS is. He’s everywhere. He founded the state in 1948 and ruled it until 1994 as his own personal fiefdom. The whole country is built around his personality cult. The regime even started calling its ideology ‘Kimilsungism,’ giving up the fictions of Marxism, communism, etc. KJU has called NK ‘KIS country’ and explicitly models himself after KIS in his clothing, hairstyle, and girth. Statues of KIS are everywhere, and Richardson has been there apparently eight times. I went there just once, and I’ve got my propaganda down pat about the Great Korean Leader, Comrade KIS’ heroic construction of socialism in our style under the revolutionary guidance of the Korean People’s Army defending the peasant and workers against the bourgeois imperialist Yankee Colony..… (I could keep going like that for a few more sentences if you like).
While that is true, I did get up that piece on the Diplomat. It summarizes my thinking on this current crisis-that’s-not-really-a-crisis and got me promptly accused of being an air-head liberal in the comments. Lovely. I was also pleased to respond to Kim Jong Un’s threat that I should leave the country. And I managed not to explode laughing when a reporter asked me point blank on live TV if Kim Jong Un was ‘just bonkers.’ Was itching to say yes to that one actually. Good times… Never waste a missile crisis, right?
Anyway, here’s my good friend Dave Kang agreeing with yesterday’s guest post query on whether the cable and satellite news services are overhyping this thing. Regular readers will know that Dave is my good friend, and a far better Korea/Asia hand than I’ll ever be. A professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California and director of its Korean Studies Institute, you really should be reading him if you aren’t already. Here is his Amazon page; here and here are his previous guest posts on this site.
The non-crisis on the Korean Peninsula
In a poll released by Donga Ilbo last week, 4.5 percent of South Koreans think North Korea means to start a war.
In contrast, a CNN poll reveals that 51 percent of Americans think the latest round of name-calling will only end in war, and 41 percent think North Korea is an “immediate threat” to the U.S.
So – either South Koreans are incredibly naïve, or Americans over-reacting. Hmmm…I wonder which it is.
A few comments:
Reading the entire statements by the KCNA would actually give a fairly clear view of North Korea’s position. Most North Korean statements are reported in the Western press with the first clause missing. That is, almost all North Korean rhetoric is of the form “IF you attack us first, we will hit you back.” (Incidentally, that’s what we’re telling the North Koreans, too). If you can ignore the hilarious Communist-style rhetoric about capitalist running dogs and the like, the situation is actually quite stable, because despite their bluster, the North Korean rhetoric is also cast almost entirely in deterrent terms. For example, although widely reported as a threat to preemptively attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons, the full quote from the KCNA April 4 reads: “We will take second and third countermeasures of greater intensity against the reckless hostilities of the United States and all the other enemies… Now that the U.S. imperialists seek to attack the DPRK with nuclear weapons, it will counter them with diversified precision nuclear strike means of Korean style…The army and people of the DPRK have everything including lighter and smaller nukes unlike what they had in the past.” Clearly intended to deter, clearly saying that North Korea will respond if attacked first.
Second – why are we playing this game? North Korean rhetoric should be ignored as the empty threats that they are. Perhaps there could be one or two mild statements from the U.S. reminding North Korea that we can crush them like a grape whenever want. But after that, why are we allowing North Korea to set the tone? Why do we let them make us react? I may be missing something here about this all being an indirect show of force for China, or something clever like that, but still. This is getting ridiculous.
Third, I remain mystified why this is a crisis. I was quite surprised a few weeks ago when everybody got upset. After all, North Korea is only talking – they haven’t actually done anything yet. There has been no attack on the U.S., not even engage in a skirmish over the NLL. So why are we reacting this way now?
Finally, you can never, ever, go wrong being a pessimistic realist. [This is really good theoretical insight, because it allows realism to be nearly unfalsifiable yet sound ‘clear-eyed’ - REK] I.e., “I don’t know, the situation looks dangerous…power is all that matters in international relations…things can get really bad, nuclear war is just one hair-trigger, slight miscalculation away.” You could be 100% wrong, but nobody will ever accuse you of being naïve. But I want to point out that while it’s important to be careful around the peninsula, deterrence has been extraordinarily stable for the past sixty years. Why? Because we believe what they say – that they will fight back and destroy Seoul; and I am quite sure they believe us when we say we will fight back and end the regime. Far from being one mistake away from the 2nd Korean War, we have experienced numerous shooting incidents in which people died but no all-out war occurred….
I’m going to put something on the Diplomat about this preposterous faux-crisis in a few days, and I’ll re-post that here. In the meantime, go here for the many posts I’ve written about North Korea beforehand. And go here for my recent TV appearances where I ague that a war is really unlikely, because North Korea will lose unequivocally, and its elites will wind up in SK jails and then before the hangman like Saddam. (SK still has capital punishment.)
Given my fatigue with NK, I am happy to invite a guest-post on North Korea from John Corrado. John’s a Korea studies graduate student at Seoul National University. Here is his website, on issues similar to those I cover here. And I do like his basic observation that the news media can get carried away with all the talk about nuclear war in Korea. You’ve probably noticed a point I will develop in the Diplomat: the cleavage between the analyst community and the international media regarding the current peninsular crisis. The analysts say it’s a lot of bluster, while reporters react rather incredulously when we say that. Maybe they know something we don’t; in their own way, reporters are closer to decision-makers than we are. But I also have the sense that all this media coverage is one of the things NK wants from this faux-crisis. No would care one bit about crappy, backward, dysfunctional little NK (it is; I’ve been there) if they didn’t make endless trouble. No one likes to be ignored and consigned to the kiddie table, so NK pulls these shenanigans just so we’ll all pay attention. *sigh* It’s all so inane… Anyway, here’s that guest-post. REK
Studying North Korea inevitably means people ask me pretty outlandish stuff. People have asked, if the North really believes long hair is bad for socialism, if that goiter on Kim Il Sung’s neck made him crazy, if Kim Jong Il’s platform shoes meant that he liked disco, and if North Korean women are good looking because a food shortage would mean everyone is slim. (I presume that last one is a reaction to obesity epidemic in the US.) So I tried to avoid this latest outbreak of Norko bizarreness with Rodman. But people keep asking me, so here a few thoughts to the effect that: no one should shill for NK – ever.
Call it yet another chapter in the history of clueless foreigners getting lost in and manipulated by North Korea – what Lenin used to call ‘useful idiots,’ knaves from the West who defended the Soviet experiment, blissfully ignorant of the camps. Who knows what to make of that utterly weird photograph of Rodman in bling and Kim Jong Un dressed like Mao. There are so many contradictions in there, it’s not even worth unpacking.
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.
Technically, I am supposed to be on vacation, but I couldn’t miss this.
An international relations theory website I also write for has gotten into an excellent debate with Wired’s Spencer Ackerman on the Empire’s blown opportunity to stamp out the Space Vietcong Rebellion at Hoth. William Westmoreland spent 5 years trying to nail down the VC in set-piece battles where US firepower could be brought decisively to bear and end the Vietnam war. Here was the Emperor’s similar chance, but Darth Vader and Admiral Ozzel blew it (mostly because the Empire’s officer corps was filled with grandstanding self-promoters, as Ackerman rightly points out).
But as the respondents noted, the larger context does a better job explaining why the Empire’s massive advantages seem to fail repeatedly (Yavin 4, Hoth, Bespin, Endor), beyond just the poor tactical leadership at Hoth. The larger strategic context is counterinsurgency, and obviously the Emperor spent too much time cackling in the Senate to watch The Battle of Algiers. So here are the five big structural problems in the background:
1. Trusting the Bloated, Showboating Navy to do Counterinsurgency
Navies are big, blunt instruments with hugely expensive platforms vulnerable to swarming, as at Yavin and Endor, and only useful for large, ‘target-rich’ enemies. They scream national vanity, and they’re terrible for hunting rebels. Why does the Empire need a massive, and massively expensive, fleet after the Clone Wars? Probably because the army was staffed by clones – genetically-designed to be dull-witted – who couldn’t push their bureaucratic interest, while the navy had lots of fully human, showboating egos like Tarkin’s Death Star council.
I break from blogging twice a year, but try to compile a good list of relevant articles I’ve found over the past few months. See you in about a month. Enjoy:
Mixin Pei’s important piece on why China’s rise is overrated. My own sense of this is that Pei will be proven right in the next 10-15 years, but not sooner. China’s demographic, ecological, and corruption caps strike as growing worse, not better.
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.
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.
Newsweek Japan asked me for a long-form essay on Korea’s economy for its December 5, 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 broadly argues that Korea needs to move beyond ‘developmentalism’ toward economic liberalism, as a lot of Asia does in my opinion. 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:
“As Korea’s presidential election moves into the home stretch, the local economic discussion is sharpening. Inequality, demographic collapse, massive concentration of economic weight in a few mega-conglomerates, weak consumer purchasing power, growing trade friction over intellectual property rights, and a chronically under-powered small- and medium-enterprise sector (SME) are among the major problems this outwardly very successful economy must confront. Unfortunately, none of the major candidates are pushing the deep reform needed to fix these underlying issues. As with China’s leadership transition, things seem so good at the moment that elites are wary of rocking the boat; as with the recent American election, tough choices will likely once again be kicked down the road. In Korea’s case, that means moving away from its ‘developmentalist’ growth model before encountering troubles similar to Japan’s.
Each year in September, the Economist holds a conference on the Korea economy (a part of its Bellwether series on Asian economies). They invite me to come, and then I try to write up my thoughts on it in the JoongAng Daily as an op-ed. Each year, unfortunately, we seem to argue about the same things – a proper, untweaked float of the won, and the openness of the Korean economy to foreign products and owners. Here are my thoughts from 2010 and 2011. I was so busy in the last few months on this site with the US election and other stuff, that I didn’t get a chance to reprint the JAI op-ed. But I like it, so here is the link, and here is the text itself:
“Last week the Economist magazine held its annual conference on Korea’s economy. This series is rapidly becoming the most important regular discussion in Korea for Korea’s foreign investors. Last year in these pages, I was critical of the Korean speakers’ response to foreign concerns. This year was an improvement. The finance minister particularly fielded a tough question about foreign investors’ rights in Korea in the wake of the Lone Star debacle. To his credit, he admitted what many already know from that case – that the Korean public is deeply ambivalent about substantial foreign profit-taking and ownership of major Korean assets.
Yesterday, the JoongAng Daily printed an column by me about my trip to NK. Here is the link and column is reprinted after the jump. This condenses my earlier thoughts on my trip and adds some political analysis.
In passing, I should say that I find the JA the best newspaper in Korea – and no, not just because they publish my stuff every couple months (although that helps) .
For readers who don’t know the Korean media scene, the JA is like the Economist in Korea – centrist, neoliberal, intelligently hawkish on foreign policy, sane on social issues. This is why I send my stuff to them. The biggest newspaper in Korea by circulation is to the right, the Chosun Ilbo. The third big paper is to the left, Hankyoreh. I find the Chosun ok, but sometimes it can sound like Fox News, and I dislike its obsessive, Korea’s-status-in-the-world-is-rising!!! nationalism. But the far-too-soft-on-Pyongyang Hankyoreh I frequently find downright disturbing, as it comfortably trafficks in the worst conspiracy theories like poisoned US beef in Korea or a cover-up of the Cheonan sinking. So if you are researching Korea, stick to the JA first, and then CI.
(So yes, my politics are broadly center-right, even though I seem to criticize the US GOP relentlessly on this site. One thing I like about SK is that its conservatives are in fact conservative, not radical, as the Tea Party made the Republicans. Generally speaking, I find the SK right to be responsible and moderate most of the time. That’s so refreshing. Don’t you miss having sane conservatives back home?)
Ok, here’s the op-ed:
I was going to write on the Biden-Ryan debate, but it wasn’t that interesting. Biden came off like that aggressive uncle at Thanksgiving family dinner who takes over the conversation, and Ryan seemed pretty out of his depth on foreign policy. I’d say Biden won, but not by as much as Romney won last week.
So this is just a bits & pieces post instead about the first time I ever spoke on TV (yikes!).
In July, when Vice Marshal Ri Young Ho of the DPRK was sacked, BBC news asked me to speak. I didn’t realize until about 20 minutes beforehand that it would be on TV, and it was 2 am EST. Good grief. So I’m not even wearing a tie, and I sat in my parent’s living room . Good thing they didn’t see the bar behind me!
On August 27, I published an op-ed in Korea’s main and centrist newspaper, the JoongAng Daily. I am happy to say that Real Clear World picked it up too. The long version is here (one) and here (two). Basically I argue that even though America is broke, foreigners are so desperate to hold dollars, that we can still fight long, unnecessary wars and borrow incessantly without a financial crisis. To paraphrase Mel Brooks (sarcastically), ‘it’s good to be the hegemon – you can do whatever the hell you want.’
I try to avoid K-pop on this website, because I find far too many foreigner websites in Korea focus on the silliest, shallowest elements of what is around us – probably because the language is so hard, and so Korean pop culture is the easiest for us to understand. But I keep getting asked, and it is huge hit, so here’s a sociological overreading:
1. Thank god ‘Kangnam Style’ shows a level of irony, self-awareness, humor, and creativity that K-pop normally lacks. That alone is enough to value it, given how shallow, idiotic, and pre-packaged most Korean pop is. K-pop is wasteland IMO. Try this or this, and see how long you before you cringe from the sheer mawkish inanity of it all. Then read this and this (that second one is a little raw), if you still don’t get it. And to their credit, I find most Koreans will admit that K-pop is fairly embarassing non-art if you push them about it. It should also be noted that traditional Korean music is often superb, rich, and authentic; we listen to it at home.
Anyway, none of these carbon-copy ‘k-bands’ like the Wonder Girls or Girls Generation or whatever would ever get considered for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (I’m from Cleveland, so I thought I’d add that little plug). K-pop slavishly copies from the boy-band/girl-band model that began in the US 20 years ago and crossed-over to Japan. The hair, the synched dance-moves, the gratingly cutesy presentations, the insipid teen love-story lyrics, the spontaneity-crushing over-choreography – it’s awful, corporate faux-art. None of them can play an instrument; they are recruited solely because they’re hot, and the music-machine does the rest. Bleh…
Mix Munedo and the Kardashians in the Korean language, and you get K-pop. Korea desperately, desperately needs to de-MTV-ize/de-idol-ize its music scene and get some raging, slovenly, wacked-out desperado-rockers like Meatloaf or Janis Joplin who care about music instead of bling. Instead, it’s hideous, so-repetitive-I-can’t-even-tell-the-difference-anymore synth-pop even Duran Duran would be embarrassed to release, all controlled by corporate hacks with no interest in deviation and who are persistently rumored to sexually exploit their young charges. Like almost everything else in the Korean economy, the music industry desperately needs deconcentration and innovation.
I came late to this controversy, but it merits some quick comment given just how creepy the above vid is.
This ‘report’ was shown in primetime on Korea’s largest TV network, on a holiday when people would likely be home with family (and was then rebroadcast until the explosion of response halted it). While xenophobia is fairly common in the Korean media, this is so nasty – especially at this very late date in the long, tiresome ‘Korean women dating western men’ discussion – that it has gone viral in the expat blog world of Korea. It even got into the Wall Street Journal.
I rarely blog about this sort of thing. As an IR academic, domestic politics and sociology aren’t really my area, and I don’t really see myself as a ‘k-blogger’ or whatever. I don’t like blogging about identity politics in Korea, as I think it is prone to recycled stereotyping that tells us little. And I have broadly argued against our (foreigners) participation in the Korean multiculturalism debate, because it’s their country and they themselves need to decide what they want from us. It’s their choice.
But this is the nastiest race-baiting – primetime, slap-dash unprofessional, on a major network, for a general audience – I’ve seen in my time here. (Full disclosure: my wife is Korean). Casual racism is a widespread problem in Korea, as any foreigner living here can tell you. Wide-eyed kids shamelessly point at you like you are a martian; people stare at your body hair; grade and high schoolers giggle and smirk; the old ladies glare at you on the subway; average folks on their cell phones will pause their conversations to remark, ‘hey, a foreigner just walked by me!,’ as if it’s some kind of major event in their day (presumably they think I can’t understand that, or maybe they don’t care?). It’s all fairly fatiguing (read this for a good example), and that’s for white westerners. I can’t imagine being from Southeast Asia or an LDC here. In fact, Cambodian import brides have been so badly abused, the Cambodian government made it illegal for its citizens to marry Koreans. (This hugely embarrassing and deeply disturbing restriction was scarecely reported by the Korean media.) And when the Korean race hang-up gets wrapped into sex, it breeds genuinely disturbing levels of xenophobia, especially for an OECD/G-20 country that really ought to know better. Hence this vid.
Even tea-partying righties should be pretty shocked at this shameless, exploitative (and wildly inaccurate) manipulation of Americans’ post-9/11 paranoia as a marketing gimmick. And you thought 24 was off the air. Well here’s the video game version, all designed to scare you s—less – for cash. When the Homeland Security Department terrified the country 10 years ago by telling us to buy ducktape and sheetwrap, at least they had public safety goals, however confusedly, in mind. But this pseudodocumentarian ‘they’re-everywhere!-no-one-is-safe!’ crap is just to shill some video game. Bleh.
And Oliver North?! Good lord – the guy violated the appropriations clause, the Logan Act, and who knows how much other statute, and should have been in jail next to Frank Colson. Yet this guy is credible for the (apparently) largest entertainment franchise in the world now? Wow. H/t to Kotaku: “What does this say, then, about the market for a game like Call of Duty? Does Activision really believe its core market is so full of gun-crazy, right-wing types that it feels entirely comfortable employing Oliver North as someone to help sell the game?”