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


hagel japan

This is a re-up of my most recent monthly essay for the Diplomat. The original is here.

The idea here is to explore why Korea is not simply going to line up with the US and Japan against China. A lot of Americans, understandably focused on China in Asia, assume Korea will just join up. I really doubt that. I have been arguing this point for awhile on this site (start here), but Korea is way more alienated from Japan, for all sorts of reasons, than a lot of westerners realize. And it simply does not worry that much about China (no, I don’t understand that either). When I go to the conferences, Americans worry about China, the Japanese really worry…but the Koreans are like, ‘meh…whatever,’ but they get really activated over Dokdo. That dichotomy in response drives just about every American analyst I know up the wall, but it is the way it is. We need to realize that instead of trying to force Korea into the kind of black-and-white, good-guys-vs-bad-guys cold war frame Americans usually insist on in world politics. The essay follows the jump.

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My ‘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 Cover Story for Newsweek Japan: The Subtext of S Korea’s Dislike for Japan is Competition with N Korea


cover1203-thumb-200xautoI just published a long essay about Korea’s view of Japan for Newsweek Japan. Please contact me if you would like the Japanese version. Below is the reprint in English.

As so often when I write in this area, I immediately got hate-mail. So please, don’t bother telling how much this website sucks, that I’m a mouthpiece for whomever you dislike, that I am ‘taking sides,’ betraying Korea, and so on. I know Koreans and Japanese read critical analyses of one or the other in zero-sum terms. The essay below is not meant as a ‘Japanese win.’ It is meant to explore why Koreans exaggerate Japan so much. Why do Koreans routinely say things like Japan is run by right-wing fanatics who want to invade Dokdo with samurai? These statements are not only obviously false, they are ridiculous.

I have said before (here, here) that Koreans have legitimate grievances regarding Japan, particularly on Yasukuni and the comfort women. But Koreans don’t stop there; they go over-the-top with things like the Sea of Japan re-naming campaign, claims that Japan wants to invade Korea again, that Japanese behavior in Korea equates with the Holocaust, or that Dodko is worth going to war over – even though a Korean use of force against Japan would almost certainly eventuate a US departure from SK and dramatically reduce Korean security. Other victims of earlier Japanese imperialism don’t talk like this, and I think a lot of well-meaning Japanese, who do recognize what Japan did here, are genuinely baffled by all this.

So the puzzle, to put it in social science terms, is not why Koreans dislike Japan. There are grounds for that. But rather, why do Koreans (specifically the media) exaggerate those grievances so much that even sympathetic outlets (like this blog or American analysts more generally) feel compelled to call out the nonsense? That is actually a really good research question – but for all the hate-mail – if you are writing a PhD in this area.

Here is my primary hypothesis: ‘Japanphobia’ – the over-the-top Korean descriptions of Japan as some unrepentant imperial revanchist – serves S Korean domestic nationalist needs. Specifically Japan functions as a useful ‘other’ for the identity construction problem of a half-country (SK) facing a competitor (NK) that openly proclaims itself the real Korean national state against an imposter (SK). Trapped in  who’s-more-nationalist-than-thou contest with NK, demonizing Japan is way for South Korea to compete with the North for Korean nationalist imagination. The RoK can posture as an instantiation of the minjok by criticizing Japan, which it can’t do by attacking NK, because NK says the same thing. Given that Koreans are more moved by the blood and cultural associations of the Chosun minjok than the dry, corrupt formalism of the RoK, the RoK desperately needs something to give itself some identity. Japan is that something. The RoK can’t connect convincingly with Koreans as the anti-DPRK, because too many South Koreans are ambiguous on NK. So the (post-dictatorial, democratic) RoK is the anti-Japan instead

NK routinely calls SK the ‘Yankee Colony’ to delegitimize it, but beating up on NK is not so easy in SK. A sizeable minority of S Koreans clandestinely sympathize with NK and agree that SK is too Americanized and not Korean enough. And NK cynically, relentlessly manipulates the evocative symbolism of Mt. Paektu to emotionally confuse the South. By contrast, Japan, the former colonialist, brings a convenient, black-and-white ‘moral clarity.’ It’s morally easy to condemn Japan. As a result, Dokdo gets fetishized (instead of now compromised Mt. Paekdu, the much more obvious geographic symbol of Korea) and Japan (not NK) becomes the state against which the RoK defines itself.

The full essay follows the jump. The framing is the recent trip by US Secretary of Defense Hagel to Tokyo and the furious grand strategy debate that touched off in Seoul. If the language seems a little ‘journalist-y,’ that’s because this was edited for readability by Newsweek.

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4 Hypotheses on Why China Suddenly Declared this New Air Defense ID Zone


26071410If you haven’t yet seen the zone’s geography, here it is to the left, complete with its overlap with the Korean and Japanese zones. The most important conflict of course is over Senkaku, but Korea watchers will also note that the Ieodo submerged reef, which Korea claims, is also in the zone. Gotta wonder what the Chinese were thinking by giving Korea and Japan common cause over anything. Foolish.

Dan Drezner asked the question I think pretty much everyone is wondering now: did the PRC really expect the US, Japan, and SK to just accept this out of the blue? Obviously they’re not, and it’s hard to find anyone besides the Fox News of Asia Global Times who thinks they should.

I got called about this by my friend Sam Kim at Bloomberg. Needless to say, all my comments didn’t make into the story, so here is an edit of my email comments with Sam on why the Chinese seemed to just do this out of the blue.

SK/BB: Why are the Chinese doing this?

Me: “I see 4 possible explanations (each is roughly tied to a level of analysis in international relations theory):

1. Belligerence (anarchy, straight-up realism): the Chinese really are picking a fight with Japan. This is the worst possible reason. They may figure that the Hagel visit to Japan a couple months ago has made Japan into an open challenger to China now. And that is kinda true. America is hedging China, ducking and weaving, trying hard to avoid an open confrontation with it. But Japan is increasingly unabashed that is it balancing China directly as a threat. Abe is increasingly willing to call out China openly. So Asia is becoming a serious bipolar contest, and maybe the Chinese are thinking: ‘to hell with it; Abe’s playing tough; we have too also.’ Certainly my Japanese colleagues in this area increasingly talk about China this way.

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Thickening Russia-Korea Ties is a Good Move for South Korea


b00cacd510614f87ea3a79ff18f43d62f9ea1dd2I wrote a quick piece for Newsweek Korea this week on Vladimir Putin’s trip to South Korea. Find the Korean web version here. Below is the translation.

In brief, I argue that a relationship with Russia is good for South Korea. Because SK is both relatively small and encircled, its foreign policy is dominated by just a few states. The problem is that SK can’t/won’t reach out to NK or Japan, so it is basically stuck between the US and China. So pulling in the Russians is a nice way to get SK some room to maneuver in its tight neighborhood. That is sure to annoy the Americans, but if you’re a S Korean, it’s a wise choice. That is the real value of the trip for SK, while for Russia, it bolsters its fading Asian relevance. Also, while I think President Park has really blown it over Japan, this was a smart choice against the Chinese and the Americans – maybe the best thing she’s done on foreign policy yet.

If it seems like I’m emphasizing geopolitics over economics, that’s because I don’t buy this ‘New Silk Road’ bit – where SK and Russian traffic would move through a guaranteed rail/road corridor in NK – for one minute. Does anyone really believe NK will respect transit rights, giving up lucrative shake-down opportunities on the movement of fuel, goods, tourists, and so on? No way. Look at how Pyongyang uses Kaesong for whatever blackmail/hostage-taking purposes it has in mind. NK is a such a black hole for international norms, that SK and Russia might as well connect by a ‘chunnel’ before relying on NK respect for transit rights.

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My 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.