My ‘Introduction to North Korea’ Essay for Al Jazeera Center for Studies


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The pic is me and my NK guide in front of one of the many ubiquitous statues of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang.

Besides running a TV network, Al Jazeera also has something called the ‘Al Jazeera Center for Studies.’ I know what you thinking; it’s the same thing I said – study of what? Judging by the looks of it, the Center provides introductory country and regional snapshots of places around the world to an Arab audience. This is very laudatory to my mind. The problems with Arab education have been well-documented, so I am happy to see this and participate in it. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Al Jazeera is a lot better than many people think, especially compared to CNN, much less Fox. It’s reputation as ‘terrorist TV’ isn’t really deserved.

So they reached out to me to provide a primer on NK. Here it is on their site, and it is reposted below the jump. I think they called me because I have occasionally been on the network as a talking head. And yes, in the interest of full disclosure, I was paid to provide this essay – not that I can think of any apparent conflicts of interest between Arab cable TV and North Korea.

They only gave me 2000 words, so I emphasize the permanent legitimacy crisis of NK after the end of the Cold War and the near-implosion of the 1990s; the semi-theocratic Kim family cult; and the patronage of China that keeps this ramshackle jalopy on the road. Please keep that tight word-limit in mind in your comments/criticisms. There is so much one could choose to emphasize, but I would be curious to see if you think this is fair. Also, this is meant for laymen, particularly in the Arab world, for whom this stuff is pretty foreign, I would imagine. So the detail is limited compared to the knowledge base of the likely readership of this blog. Still, I feel pretty god that I covered a lot of ground in short space. Here it is:

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My November Diplomat Essay: China & Russia are Not Displacing the US bc of the Syria Deal


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This is a re-up of my monthly column for The Diplomat for November. Here is the original. I must say I don’t find the comments to be particularly helpful over there, so please give me your thoughts.

My primary argument is that the media is far too shallow in judging “US decline” on passing issues of minor relevance to the lineaments of American power. Remember two months ago, when Obama ‘had’ to act in Syria, even against Congress? That his very presidency was in peril, that American would be perceived as weak and lacking credibility? And now, no one is talking about that. Or then there was the idea that Obama missing APEC amounted to handing Asia to a bullying one-party state with a bad human rights record and no allies ‘rising China’? Good grief. Enough alarmism. Only the vanity of elites who think the very fate of the world hangs on their choices would lead one to believe that some missed meetings and airstrikes will change the balance of power. It won’t.

Always remember that Asian states need the US a lot more than the US needs them. US regional allies need us to hold back China, and even China needs us to buy all their exports and provide a savings safe haven. Sure, we benefit from cheap Asian exports and lending, but that’s a lot less important. The relationship is very asymmetric, and those who tell you otherwise are trying to cover the weakness of many Asian states and their desperation for US attention with bravado that America ‘needs’ Asia. That’s bunk. As I have been trying to argue on this blog for awhile, if they don’t want us in Asia, it’s no big deal for US security, and it’s an economic blow far worse for them than it is for us. And this is getting even more asymmetric as the US becomes energy independent because of fracking – so have fun fixing the Middle East, China! The US Founders identified the luxury of US distance from Eurasia long ago, so forgot all these hyperventilating Asian columnists (Kishore Mahbubani being the most obvious) who resent that America can be a lot more insouciant about Asia than vice versa. *natch Smile

Here’s that essay:

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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.

Agree with Heinlein’s ‘Citizens vs. Civilians’? then this US Military History is for you: Book Review


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I was asked by a participating member of the H-Diplo/ISSF network to review The American Culture of War. Here is the original link to my review, but it’s off in some far corner of the internet, so I thought I’d repost it here. In brief, I found the book a pretty disturbing rehearsal of right-wing tropes about the military in a democracy, especially from an academic, and there’s no way I’d ever use it with undergrads as Routledge suggests. The underlying moral driver is the ‘chicken hawk’ principle – that those without military experience are not morally qualified to lead DoD and should otherwise defer to uniformed military. At one point the author actually says that, because the US Army ‘distrusts’ Congress, the Army should ‘guide’ Congress. Yikes. Do Americans (and the author) really need to be told civilian authority runs the other way, and that that’s in the Constitution? I find that sort of military elitism democratically terrifying and reflective of the post-9/11 militarization of America that is now the single most important reason, IMO, to end the war on terror.

I would just add the following update: Both the book and review were written before Petraeus’ resignation, but it should come as no surprise that the text lionizes Petraeus. It is therefore a pleasing schadenfreude for the frightening post-9/11 military hero-worship of the US right to be taken down a notch. Here we go:

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


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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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My ‘JoongAng Daily’ Op-Ed: Don’t Fear Abenomics, Korea


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A few weeks ago in the JoongAng Daily, I co-authored the following editorial. (My co-author is one of my finest students, who can be found here on Twitter.) The temperature is rising in Korea on Abenomics. The government is coming out strongly against it, but I still think the basic arguments we present below are undamaged.

In brief, Abenomics is important because Japan is the world’s third largest economy and therefore systemically (i.e., globally) important (Korea is not; it’s too small). So Japan’s reflation is about a lot more than just Japan; it impacts the region and the globe. Also, the Korean won is ridiculously undervalued and the Bank of Korea has itself gimmicked the won exchange rate a lot in the past, so it’s not exactly fair for Korea (or China, who is even worse) to complain. Finally, in the medium-term, a functioning Japan is far more in Korea’s interest than Korea’s nationalist japanophia will allow anyone here to admit. That is a shame. I’ve argued this a lot, but no one listens.

So bring on the K-hate-mail, but please do recall that I have already rejected Abe the nationalist. Koreans are absolutely right about the comfort-women and Yasukuni. But Abenomics is not about history; it is a last-ditch, throw-everything-including-the-kitchen-sink effort to get Japan on its feet again so that it can prevent Chinese primacy in Asia. Keep your eye on the big picture of South Korea’s interest, and a few lost sales of Samsung TVs to Canadians pale in comparison.

Just to avoid referencing Abe again – he’s become such a lightning rod in Korea – the picture is Hiruhiko Kuroda, the (awesome) governor of the Japanese central bank. (Someone form the Bank of Japan really ought to be put in charge of the IMF one day soon.) I’d like to think Kuroda’s hand reference in the pic means he wants to dectuple the Japanese money supply. Hah! – ‘Just wait a year, PM Abe, and I will chop down every tree in Japan and print so much cheap yen, that we’ll wallpaper our houses with it!’ Think of Kuroda as the flip side of Paul Volcker. If Japan’s economy weren’t such a mess, it’d actually be kinda funny. But honestly, let’s all – Koreans included – hope Abenomics works.

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I’m Done Defending Abe: the Japanese Right is getting Genuinely Creepy


protesting-comfort-women-by-bloggerswithoutbordersIf 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.

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