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


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So this month for the Diplomat I wrote a speculative essay on US alliances in Asia – reposted below, original here. I think some people over-read it to mean that the US should leave Asia or that I endorse Chinese regional hegemony or whatever. I don’t. As I say in the piece, I still think the US presence is balance-positive, especially as China is moving from the ‘peaceful rise’ to capacious maritime claims off its east coast. Instead this was to be a thought experiment – an effort to tease out whether US regional alliances have negative impacts, given that almost all the discussion rather blithely assumes the opposite. I think the first possible downside suggested below – that China won’t cut North Korea loose until the US leaves Korea – is particularly strong and unsettling to the conventional wisdom. Ideally, this analysis would encourage thinking on mitigating these unintended side-effects.

Here is that essay. If you follow CSIS’ ‘PacNet’ series (which you should btw), a variant of this will come out there shortly:

“The conventional wisdom on US alliances in Asia, at least in the West, Japan, and Taiwan (but not necessarily in South Korea), is that they are broadly a good thing. One hears this pretty regularly from US officials and the vast network of US think-tanks and foundations like CSIS or AEI and their many doubles in Asia. US alliances, we are told, provide stability. They keep China from dominating the region. They hem in North Korea and defend the powerfully symbolic South Korean experiment in liberal democracy and capitalism. They prevent the nuclearization of South Korea and Japan and a spiraling regional arms race. In short, they re-assure.

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Obama’s State of the Union once again Demonstrates that the US doesn’t really Care that much about Asia


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This graphic is a word-cloud of the president’s state of the union address last week. I am not even sure the word ‘Asia’ is in there.

The following is a local re-up of a piece I originally wrote for the Lowy Institute, where I now blog twice a month. Basically, I argue a theme regular readers here will have heard before – that the ‘pivot’ to Asia is mostly an elite project in the US and that most Americans don’t really care about Asia that much. If I say ‘China’ to my friends in the US, the first thing they think of is cheap stuff in Walmart. So whenever anyone tells me that Asia ‘needs’ the US, or that we’re ‘ceding’ Asia to China, or even Russia (oh, please), because we missed the ASEAN Regional Forum or whatever, I just roll my eyes. Without the American consumer Asian economies would collapse, and, Red Dawn fantasies aside, no Asian state is a security threat to the US (barring the infinitesimally small likelihood of Chinese nuclear strike on the US homeland).

What that means is that the only Americans who think that the US needs Asia are those who support US global hegemony and therefore cannot differentiate among US core interests – such as basic stability in Canada and the Caribbean basin, or a secure oil flow from the Persian Gulf – and US choices to be involved in places like Iraq or South Korea. The pivot to Asia, much like NATO 20 years after the Cold War, is a choice, not a necessity. That doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t ‘pivot’ – indeed, I think it is a good idea myself – but it must also be admitted that retrenchment from many of these commitments would not obviously harm US security, even if many allies would not like it. Neocons and think-tanker far too often elide this crucial distinction. Is Asia important? Does it matter? Yes, sure. Does the US need Asia? No – unless you believe the US and its globe-spanning hegemony are identical (hint: they aren’t). US allies interests are not always synonymous with America’s and if we don’t see that, we invite free-riding, chain-ganged conflicts, and a gargantuan national security state.

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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 December Newsweek Japan Essay: Japan as a Unique Bulwark to Chinese Hegemony in Asia


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I recently joined Newsweek Japan in a more official capacity as a regular contributor. I am pleased to do so, as I increasingly think that Japan is the primary bulwark to Chinese hegemony in Asia. So more and more, my research interest is drifting toward the Sino-Japanese competition as weightier than the inter-Korean competition.

In that vein, I wrote the following story for the current volume of Newsweek Japan. In brief, I argue that only Japan has the strength to really block China’s rise to hegemony in east Asia. Russia is too weak, especially out here. India just can’t seem to get its act together (I used to push India really hard as an obstacle, but it just doesn’t seem up to it.) I am a skeptic of the US pivot, and sheer distance alone means the US need not confront China unless it wants to. The US will never be under a Chinese ‘Monroe Doctrine’ as Asia might be in the future. That leaves Japan as a unique bulwark – a front-line state with the wealth and state/bureaucratic capacity to give China a real run for its money. Indeed, one way to see the current tension is as another round of Sino-Japanese competition for Asian leadership going back to the mid-19th century. (As always, I’d love to hear from the Japan mil-tech guys on all this.)

Elsewhere I have argued that China’s rise to hegemony is unlikely, in part because I think Japan will vigorously balance China. (Indeed, it probably is already.) So this essay is an expansion of that previous argument. The essay follows the jump.

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


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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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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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No More Neocon Faux-Cassandra Posturing: American Defense is not “in Decline”


Two pieces got emailed to me in the last few days that nicely illustrate just how entrenched semi-imperial thinking has become in Washington, how wildly disconnected from the reality of US security our foreign policy community’s threat assessments have become, and the hysteria that greets serious debate on DoD’s size in this post-Great Recession era of high unemployment and large deficits. This, by good-journalist-turned-disturbing-militarist Robert Kaplan, and this, by the ‘Iraq was a victory’ crowd at AEI. Here’s Kaplan:

“The bottom may be starting to fall out of the U.S. defense budget. I do not refer to numbers when I say this. I am not interested in numbers. I am only interested in public support for those numbers…. Actually, we might need a big army for an occupation of part of North Korea… The public, in short, wants protection on the cheap. It may not necessarily be willing to police the world with a big navy and a big air force at least to the degree that it has in the past — that is, unless a clear and demonstrable conventional threat can be identified.”

The rest basically follows the depressing neocon pattern: the (invariably hawkish and hegemony-loving) Washington foreign policy community know America’s interests, while the public is annoyingly ‘isolationist.’ If only they believed in the US globocop, (cue grave headshaking at our ignorance), then we wouldn’t have to write these sanctimonious, tsk-tsk op-eds. The AEI brief is even more predictable: throwaway boilerplate about the need for a strong defense in a world of unpredictable and diverse threats and all that. Got it already. Neocons and DC hawks have been saying that sorta stuff now for so long, that I really don’t even need to read this stuff anymore. And of course, any cuts automatically ‘reduce our readiness,’ the all-time favorite cliché of hawks everywhere as if somehow ‘only’ $680+ billion would leave us unable to defend ourselves. Come on, neocons! I thought you were supposed to be intellectuals. Stop recycling 1990s ‘indispensible nation’ bromides, and try a little harder.

Zack Beauchamp and Daniel Drezner’s correctives are very useful here. But here’s mine:

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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 October Diplomat Essay: Was Syria a Bridge-Too-Far for Untrammeled Executive War-Powers? (yes)


Jump to 1:13: That’s best question asked during the GOP debates last year

This is my monthly essay for the Diplomat web-magazine. The original can be found here. I will say upfront that I am not a lawyer, but a political scientist, so I am aware that the legal argument about presidential war powers independent of Congress is fierce. But that interests me less than the absolute (or moral or philosophical) argument for unconstrained presidentialism on the use of force. That is, whether or not presidential unilateralism in the use of force is ‘constitutional,’ as the lawyers would say, is something a dodge. That does not mean it’s right. The Constitution is not perfect and has been amended for things like slavery, women’s enfranchisement, and Prohibition. So ultimately the president should justify ignoring Congress in war-time by some argument consonant with liberal democratic values, rather than an ex cathedra appeal to authority. And I don’t really think it is possible to coherently argue that presidential free-lancing with minimal Congressional oversight and consent is good for democracy. In fact, that strikes me as self-evident, which is why I love that Ron Paul quote in the video (1:13 mark) above. The essay follows the jump and is written in an op-ed style.

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My September Diplomat Essay: Relax – Chinese Hegemony in Asia is Unlikely


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The following is a re-up of a piece I wrote for the Diplomat last month as part of an informal back-and-forth series with the National Interest this summer on the US pivot to Asia and AirSea Battle. (Here and here are some of the other entries.) That pic, which has got to be the grossest river in all China, is from here.

In brief, I increasingly think that ASB is a mistake, because it’s almost impossible to read it as anything other than hugely provocative from the Chinese point of view, no matter what we say to them about our peaceful intentions. (Read this, and tell me reasonable Chinese wouldn’t flip out.) It’s a classic example of the security dilemma, but as I argue below, I am not really convinced that we actually need this high-tech, super-fearsome-sounding ASB right up in their face. More generally though, the pivot to Asia – a sharpening of American attention on the region, is probably a good idea. China is vastly more influential on American life than Israel or Iran. But the Middle East and Islam activates belligerent American religiosity so much, that I doubt we’ll really be able to pivot. In any case, the essay follows the jump and is written in an op-ed style.

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


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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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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 Joint ‘Newsweek Korea/Japan’ Story: Do US Alliances Create Moral Hazard in Asian Conflicts?


Newsweek Korea coverI am pleased to say that the following essay was printed simultaneously in this week’s Korean and Japanese editions of Newsweek. It think it is critical for both sides to think about the issues I present, and it is pitched to both communities as American allies, no matter how sharp their disagreements.

In brief, I argue that – contrary to the conventional wisdom that US alliances in Asia tamp down conflict by re-assuring everyone that they need not arms-race against each other – US alliances may in fact be freezing those conflicts in place by reducing the incentives of all parties to solve them. The US reassures Asian states not just against each other, but also against their own reckless nationalist rhetoric and racially toxic historiographies. I think the Liancourt Rocks fight is a particularly good example of this ‘moral hazard’ mechanic, as is the recent comment by no less than the South Korean foreign minister (!) that Abenomics’ threat to Korean export competitiveness is a greater danger to SK than North Korea’s nuclear program. That kind of preposterous, reckless myopia can only be explained by taking the US security umbrella for granted. (Or how about SK officers’ golfing during last month’s nuclear crisis?)

I realize the argument will be somewhat controversial, even to Americans given that we are ‘pivoting’ to Asia, but I think it needs to be said and genuinely researched. As with my other Newsweek pieces, there are no hyperlinks because this was intended for print:

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My ‘Newsweek Japan’ Story on Korea’s Regional Foreign Policy: Being an Encircled Middle Power Sucks


Newsweek 3rd coverNewsweek Japan asked me to contribute an essay on Korean foreign policy for a special issue on current Northeast Asian tension. I also wrote the introductory essay for this special issue. There is one essay each on Japan, China, and Korea; mine is the Korean one. So this is a nice laymen’s review without too much fatiguing jargon. This was originally published in January, so this translation is late, but the points still hold.

In brief I argue that Korea’s foreign policy is driven by its geography. Korea is a middle power surrounded by three great powers, plus the most orwellian state in history. That position really, really sucks. The US alliance helps buttress Korea sovereignty in that tight neighborhood, but China’s rise is unbalancing everything, especially calculations for unification. Once again, there are no hyperlinks, because it was intended for print. Here we go:

“On December 19, Korea elected a new president, Park Geun-Hye. Park comes from the conservative New Frontier Party. The current president, Lee Myung-Bak, is also a conservative. Park will be inaugurated in late February. Her campaign presented her as more ‘dovish’ on foreign policy than Lee, but she represents greater continuity than her opponent, particularly regarding North Korea.

Korea’s foreign policy is heavily-driven by its geography. It is an encircled middle power that has frequently struggled to defend its autonomy against its much larger neighbors. And since World War II, it has faced the most orwellian country in history in a harsh stand-off that dominates Korean foreign policy. An opening of North Korea, leading to eventual reunification, is the central policy issue of every Korean administration. Beyond that, Korea’s central relations are with the United States, China, and Japan. All three structure Korea’s neighborhood and will significantly influence unification.

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NKorea Recap (2): NK is an ‘Upper Volta with Nukes’, so Ignore Them


Still my favorite TV interview I have done yet: Jump to the 1:05 mark, and tell me you would not laugh out loud at that awesome question

 

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.

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NK Recap (1): “North Korea is the Boy Who Cried Wolf – There will be No War”


North Korea 2012 131The 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.

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Guest Post, part 2 – Dave Kang: Yes, the Media Coverage of the Korean Crisis is Inflammatory


Kim-Jong-Snickers-249x300Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, two guest posts in a row? Christ, Kelly, you’re lazy as hell. In the midst of the biggest North Korea flap in years, you’re at the bar playing Xbox or something.

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….