Park Geun-Hye’s Trip to that Bombastic Chinese Military Parade Was Actually a Good Idea

South Korean President Park Geun-hye (2nd from L) talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin (3rd from L) as they, along with Chinese President Xi Jinping (far R), stand to review a massive military parade marking the 70th anniversary of China`s victory over Japan in World War II at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015, (Yonhap)

I know what your thinking: there’s the president of a democracy standing next to three dictators, one of whom insists on dressing like Mao, watching Chinese soldiers goose-step like fascists. Yikes! I agree that the optics are terrible. (Quick quiz: who’s the ‘president for life’ in blue on the left? Here.)

But Park is flattering China like this is for a purpose – to isolate North Korea. So stop all your nattering about her clothes at this event (yes, I’ve heard that); that she is Xi’s ‘girlfriend;’ that she’s a ‘sinophile;’ that she’s drifting from the US or turned her back on her friends or democracy or whatever. None of that is true. All of that is speculative.

Instead, she’s hustling hard – 6 trips to China in 3 years – to convince China that South Korea is not an enemy and that China can therefore give up the North Korean buffer. How many times have you heard American analysts, in an attempt to get China to do more on North Korea, say, ‘the road to Pyongyang runs through Beijing’? Well, here are the South Koreans taking that to heart. If you think she’s dissing the US alliance, recall that the whole purpose of the US-SK alliance is North Korea. The US alliance is not an end in itself, no matter what neocons think.

China is North Korea’s last trap-door to escape the obvious inefficiencies of its economy. Without China, the perks of running North Korea – the cars, yachts, booze, trips to Hong Kong, girls, foreign education for your kids, and all the rest – disappear. Cut that Chinese umbilical cord, and North Korean resources will diminish dramatically. As the budget steadily shrinks, regime elites will turn on each other over a diminishing pie. The Songun bargain (my term) – struck by Kim Jong Il to keep the system rolling after the Cold War, in which the KPA generals do not overthrow the Kims in exchange for the cushy lifestyle – would collapse, because the lifestyle is impossible without some access to the outside world. And the only place North Korean elites can park their money, traffick their meth and missile parts, import skiing equipment (yes, really), and all the rest, is China.

If you can finally cut off North Korea from the world – no more hidden pipelines – then I’d bet the regime would collapse within a decade from elite infighting over the small domestic, not very cushy resource pie leftover (no more Hennessey!). After the jump is a reprint of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute making this argument at length.

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The Iran Deal Cannot be a Template for a North Korea Deal if NK doesn’t Want to Deal

This is a rather tardy re-post of something I wrote for the Diplomat in the wake of the Iran deal in late July.

I still think my basic argument is correct. North Korea is far more isolated than Iran, so it needs the weapons a lot more. It also spent a far larger proportionate share of GDP to develop those weapons. So there’s no way they’d give them up without impossible concessions like the withdrawal of USFK or the end of multiparty elections in South Korea.

I do think the Americans, and especially South Koreans, would be open to dealing. But the Norks aren’t. The South Koreans especially just want to find modus vivendi with North Korea so that they can forget about it. But being ignored as the backward, nut-ball, third-world hellhole that it is, is exactly what the Norks don’t want. They crave the prestige of global attention, because otherwise they’re just a nuclear version of Zimbabwe or Turkmenistan. And how could the heroic Baekdu bloodline preside over a dump no one cares about?

So forget any deals. Provocative, nuke-adulating North Korea is here to stay. The full essay follows the jump.

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Guest Post – Dave Kang: International Relations Scholarship Underutilizes Asia for the Same Old Western Cases (WWI & Cuba Forever!)

This is a guest post from my friend David C. Kang of the University of Southern California. Dave is a political scientist and runs the Korean Studies Institute there. He is way better at East Asia than I’ll ever be, so stop wasting your time on this blog and get to his author page to start reading his books.

Dave and I were just at the Korea Foundation’s big conference on Korean studies in the 70 years since liberation from Japan. There he made a number of the points below, which I broadly agree with. In short, western IR says Asia is really important – China, North Korea, the pivot, and so on – but still use the same western cases in its writing. Dave has some nice data on this below. I made similar points a few years ago. I think the basic problem is that we still aren’t learning the languages or coming here early in our careers. How many of you studied French and did your junior year abroad in Europe? So when IR actually gets into the casework, its WWI, WWII, and the Cuban Missile Crisis all the time.

Dave’s comments follow the jump.

Thoughts on the ‘Abe Statement’ on the 70th Anniversary WWII’s End: A Missed Opportunity

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave his big speech on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II last Friday. There has been a torrent of comment, much of pretty positive. Jennifer Lind made the good points that a speech like this would have been remarkable by almost any other head of state/government, and that no other imperialists in Asia’s past are lining up to apologize (ouch). So, I agree, it is pretty remarkable compared to the usual nationalist bluster we expect from heads of state and government on such occasions (think Putin the thug).

But it still ducked a lot, and it pretty clearly played up the very wrong, very revisionist WWII ‘victim narrative’ in Japan. That is, that Japan was a victim in the war, because of the atom bomb drop, and/or that its people were dragged into the war by a gang of militarists who didn’t represent the nation. Those interpretations are generous to say the least. Pretty hard to square kamikaze raids and ritual suicide with that.

The following comments were originally written for the Nelson Report. I thank Chris for soliciting me.

Part IV of Me and Van Jackson Debating South Korea’s Role in the South China Sea: N Korea Comes First

Kim Jong Un

This is a cross-post of an essay originally written for the Lowy Institute this week, available here.

This essay is the last round of a 2-month long debate between me and Van Jackson of Georgetown. Van wrote at the Diplomat; I wrote at the Interpreter. Here is part 1 (Van), part 2 (me), and part 3 (Van again). Van is a friend and way smarter than me. You should read his stuff.

Basically, I argue that if South Korea gets involved in the South China Sea flap, opposing China, then China will resume its relationship with North Korea. Right now that relationship is the coldest it has ever been. That is awesome. We really, really want this. The day China cuts off North Korea is the day the countdown to North Korea’s implosion begins.

Van argues South Korea could help get better Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. Mathematically, that is true; every little bit helps. But that help is small and the gains of a Sino-North Korean split are huge. Even if that split won’t happen soon, there is no way North Korea will collapse without it. So we have to do everything we can to groom Beijing’s alienation from Pyongyang. SK keeping quiet on the SCS, even when it agrees with the anti-Chinese coalition down there, is a necessary, albeit minor, cost.

Anyway, it’s a good debate. Judge for yourself after the jump.

How Japan Manages to Hang Tough in History Debates with Korea & China


This is a cross-post of an essay that went up today at the Lowy Interpreter.

I was wondering why it is that Japan seems to be able to duck-and-weave on thorny East Asian history questions, when these are settled in just about the rest of the world? Even the Japanese left admits the nasty stuff the Empire did, so how is it the right hangs on in denial?

Some of it, to be sure, is domestic politics. The uyoku dentai certainly keep up the pressure on Abe & co. to give up nothing. And my own experience with them on Twitter has lead me to block them a lot, because they’re so visceral and racist: ‘Koreans are immoral’ and so on. But they’re no more than a few hundred thousand people at most, out out 126 million Japanese total.

The IR academic in me instinctively looks to foreign pressures, and here one can really see how the Chinese Communist Party’s appalling history toward its own people conveniently lets the Empire off the hook. The CCP will lose a ‘who was worse to the Chinese people than who’ contest with the Empire. Similarly, the ROK’s instrumentalization of the relationship with Japan for national identity-building purposes allows the Japanese right to stonewall, the logic being ‘Korea will never stop demanding apologies, so there’s no point engaging them anyway.’ As usual, it’s a tangle.

The essay follows the jump:

Separating China from North Korea is Worth South Korea’s Silence on the South China Sea

South China Sea

I got this map from here. Very useful. The article below was originally published at the Lowy Institute last week, here.

In short, I don’t mind too much that the Koreans aren’t engaged on the South China Sea freedom of navigation dispute, because keeping their mouths shut and schmoozing the Chinese is necessary to get China to finally cut North Korea loose, which in turn is the only way North Korea will ever collapse. This is why I have never thought much of the criticisms that President Park Geun-Hye is a ‘sinophile.’ If you were South Korea, you would be too. If you lived next to giant China, and they were permanently bailing out your mortal enemy, then sucking up to them (within limits) is a good idea. I am not a big fan of PGH, but she has really gotten the Beijing-Pyongyang nexus right that her predecessors did not. Let her keep flattering Xi Jinping.

So you say that SK is a US ally and they’re getting a free-ride on the US, and therefore they should be involved in the SCS. Fair enough, but think a few steps further out. Getting China to dump Pyongyang is way more valuable than a little more weight on the scales in the SCS. SK can’t add much there, but openly throwing in with the US and Japan on the SCS would push Beijing back to Pyongyang when PGH’s schmoozing and flattering of Xi Jinping has done so much to push them apart. That’s hugely valuable.

Remember that NK will not collapse until China cuts it off, and that NK’s collapse is vastly more valuable to everyone – US included – than one more minor voice in the SCS flap.

The full essay follows the jump.