5 Interpretations of N Korea: Communist, Rogue, Fascist, neo-Confucian, or Gangster?

This is a re-post of an essay I just wrote for the Lowy Institute, available here. And yes, that Godfather pic is meant to imply that I accept the last of the interpretative frameworks suggested: North Korea as a gangster racket.

The more time I spend in this field, the more I see analysts get into really sharp debates over just what North Korea ‘really’ is. The best way to de-legitimize your opponent in this area is to say you don’t understand the ‘real’ North Korea, or know what they ‘truly’ want. This can get pretty intense. And it does not help that we know so little about how North Korea is governed.

As I have listened to these fights over the years, it strikes me that there are roughly 5 major interpretations or schools. And these approaches are politicized too, not just intellectual frameworks, because they have direct implications for how South Korea and the US should respond to North Korea. For example, if you think North Korea is a rogue state gremlin ripping at the fabric of US hegemony, you are more likely to endorse tough action than if you accept leftist interpretations that US-led isolation of North Korea is what makes North Korea so dangerous.

The 5 basic interpretations are:

1. Traditionalist Conservative: North Korea as a cold war stalinist state

2. Neoconservative: NK as dangerous, unpredictable rouge state

3. Fascist: NK as a racist, national security barracks state

4. Leftist: NK as ‘Korean’ (rather than socialist or fascist), neo-Confucian,or post-colonial

5. Gangster: NK as a massive shake-down racket; mafia have overthrown the government

The full essay follows the jump.

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East Asia’s History Wars: South Korea and Japan (Yes, once again)


Newsweek Japan ran a story last week on the continuing history disputes in Northeast Asia. I love that cover (left). Here is internet link to that issue.

I was asked to contribute regarding South Korea. My essay, originally in English, is reprinted below. While the essay admits Japan’s many needed changes on this issue – Yasukuni, historical memorialization, etc. –  that stuff was more for the contributor on Japan. I was to focus on the South Korean side.

If you’ve read my work on this before, you’ll note some my regular themes. The debilitating competition with that mendacious, duplicitous regime to the North means that South Korea often feels compelled to try to ‘out-minjok’ the North by going over the top on Japan (read this, for example). The US alliance with Korea and Japan also saps any incentive for either side to compromise; there’s no external pressure to improve ties.

Increasingly though, I am thinking that the Korean NGO sector plays a big role too. By constantly pushing history issues to the front in the relationship with Japan, they insure that these issues effectively frame the relationship with Japan. This means little progress happens, and South Korean politicians are too afraid to take them on. No one wants to look like a friend of Japan in SK politics. There’s no upside to that. But recall that most Korean and Japanese actually want a working relationship – a cold peace, even if a warm peace is impossible, instead of the current cold war.

So increasingly, on the SK side I think (and probably on the Japanese side too), there must be some of kind reckoning with the NGOs. South Korea’s political class is going to have to say at some point that we will only go so far down this road, but no further. This will take some courage on the part of Koreans, to break with spell of unbounded nationalism. But I can’t see the relationship improving without more moderate voices, willing to call out stuff like this.

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On the 70th Anniversary of the North Korean Communist Party, Just How Communist is North Korea?

It was the 70th anniversary of the North Korean communist party – officially, the Korean Workers Party (KWP) – on October 10. The event got lots of press for the usual military bluster, but given that the event ostensibly celebrated a communist party, I thought it a nice opportunity to consider just how ‘communist’ North Korea actually is. If you look at that pic above, it sure looks communist: red everywhere, the iconography, the Mao suit, the Soviet-esque military uniforms (complete with those ridiculously oversized hats), the party symbol, and so on. So the stalinist form is still there.

But three changes since the end of the cold war have turned North Korea into something else:

1. Monarchic Succession, an openly feudal practice

2. The Replacement of Juche by Songun, ie, the flirtation with racism/fascism in the place of socialism as regime ideology

3. The effective Collapse of the Public Distribution System and its (unadmitted) replacement by creeping marketization from below and rampant corruption.

The original post is here at Real Clear Defense. Next month I want to write on other possible interpretive frames for North Korea once one throws out Marxism – is it a mafia state, or a national defense state, for example?

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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.