THAAD is Not about Missile Defense anymore; It’s about a Chinese Veto over South Korean Foreign Policy


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This is a local re-post of a piece I wrote at The National Interest a few weeks ago. The graphic here comes straight from the Lockheed Martin webpage on THAAD. There’s so much contradictory information floating around about THAAD, maybe it’s best just go to the website and look for yourself. No, I’m not shilling for LM; I have no relationship. I just thought it would be convenient. And yes, I support the THAAD deployment here.

Anyway, this essay is actually about the politics, specifically that China WAY overplayed its hand against the THAAD deployment in South Korea. Now THAAD isn’t about THAAD anymore. The Chinese have ballooned it into such a huge issue, that it’s now about SK sovereignty and freedom to make national security choices without a Chinese veto. If you want to read why I am wrong, here’s my friend Dave Kang to tell you that I am getting carried away.

I still stand by my prediction though: neither Ahn nor Moon will withdraw THAAD even if they’d want to otherwise, because now it would look like knuckling under to China. Maybe the Justice Party candidate would withdraw it, but she is polling at 3%.

The full essay follows the jump:

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6 Reasons Why We Probably Won’t Bomb North Korea


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This is a local re-post of an article I wrote for The National Interest a few weeks ago.

Even though we are bombing Syria now and Trump wants to look tough and presidential, I do not think we will bomb North Korea. We’ve thought about it for years and always demurred. Trump, for all his bluster, has not changed the long-standing reasons for not attacking, so I still think we won’t do it. Maybe Trump really is erratic and unpredictable, but I’d bet McMaster and Mattis are telling him a lot of the same stuff suggested below – the huge risk of war, Seoul’s vulnerability, trashing of the relationship with China and so on. Are we ready to gamble all that on strikes that might not even work?

The full essay follows the jump:

South Korean Security in the Trump Era


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This is a local re-post of a piece I wrote a few weeks ago for The Korea Times. Basically my concern in the Trump period is, how will Trump and Moon Jae-In, the likely winner of the upcoming May 9 election, get along? Or not?

Trump doesn’t care about Asia, except for trade with China. His security concerns turn on Islam, and he was elected for that in foreign policy. His and Bannon’s clash of civilizations frame only works so-so out here. Huntington’s argument required putting China, Japan, and the Koreas into one Confucian civilization, but it was so obvious that they didn’t get along that Huntington was forced to pretend that Japan was its own civilization. Without this frame, I wonder if Trump the non-reader can figure out an approach?

The other thing which worries me is the burden-sharing fight. If Trump presents the ROKG with a bill like he did Merkel, the SK press will go ballistic. Trump might not care though, so ultimately I suggest that it would likely be a good idea for SK to pay a little more so that the issue can ultimately be dropped.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Tillerson is, Regrettably, Wrong. Strategic Patience is a Good Idea. And It will Happen Anyway


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This is a local re-posting of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a few weeks ago. And Rex Tillerson’s recent comment that  Obama’s ‘strategic patience’ approach to North Korea is over, just highlights my argument. He’s almost certainly wrong, even if he is saying it out of a frustration which most in the analyst community share. We all want to do some kind of game-changer to alter the arc of North Korean behavior, but the non-strategic patience options are all terrible unfortunately.

The Trump people are said to be considering all options, including kinetic choices or meeting with the North Koreans. An internal policy review is occurring. It all sounds very dramatic, but I’ll say for the record that, barring some bizzaro Trumpian meltdown, any major shift is unlikely.

Strategic patience – best understood as containment and deterrence – has more or less been US, South Korean, and Japanese policy toward North Korea for decades. Sure we didn’t call it that, but that’s pretty much what it has been. We’ve had lot of provocations over the years which reasonably warranted counter-strikes, just as we’ve had lots of chances to talk. Neither have worked. So we end up defaulting back to containment and deterrence – waiting for North Korea’s internal contradictions to bring its collapse, and constantly, frustratingly negotiating with the Chinese to cut, or at least constrict, the umbilical which keeps Pyongyang afloat. This is fatiguing and uninspiring, but just about every conceivable policy, barring bombing, has been tried, so I doubt Trump has anything new. Are the Trump really read to risk a major regional conflict?

The full essay follows the jump:

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Kelly Family Press Release on the ‘BBC Dad’ Viral Video


Today, my family and I conducted a select set of interviews, with the BBC for the international audience, with the Wall Street Journal for the American audience, and with the Korean media for the local audience here. Here is our statement on the video incident. Thank you. Robert E. Kelly

“My family and I would like to thank our many well-wishers. We are just a regular family, and raising two young children can be a lot of work. Because of that, it seems that the video has resonated with parents around the world, and we are flattered at the many gentle sentiments about our children. Thank you. We love them very much, and we are happy that our family blooper brought some laughter to so many.

We would also like to thank the British Broadcasting Corporation for its gentle and tactful treatment of the video. We are grateful for their professionalism in handling the exposure of our young children. We especially thank James Menendez, the announcer in the clip, for his kindness during the interview itself.

To the media, we would like to apologize for our reticence. We have been deluged with requests since Friday. We were unsure how to respond, and as the attention accelerated, we became genuinely unnerved. We had no idea how to handle this. We therefore decided to return to the BBC for a follow-up interview for the international audience, to speak with the Wall Street Journal for the US domestic audience, and to hold today’s press conference for the Korean audience. We apologize to the many outlets that seem to find this dissatisfactory. We are doing the best we can. Some have asked for interviews in our home. At this point, we are unready for that. We are hoping to return to normality in the next few days. Perhaps next week if there is still interest.

Finally, we would like to clear up a few of the rumors and controversies around the video:

– Yes, the woman in the video is my wife, Jung-A Kim/김정아, not my nanny.

– The first child to enter is our daughter, Marion Yena Kelly/켈리 매리언 예나, age 4.

– The second is our son, James Yousup Kelly/켈리 제임스 유섭, age 9 months.

– No, Jung-A did not use too much force in removing the children from the room. It is quite apparent from the video that she is frantically trying to salvage the professionalism of the interview. The children were not injured. When Marion speaks in the clip, she says, in Korean, ‘why Mom?’ She is responding in surprise, because we normally do not treat our children this way. Marion’s willingness to comfortably traipse into my home office illustrates her usual ease with her parents.

– No, I was not shoving Marion out of the way. I was trying to slide her behind my chair where there are children’s toys and books, in hopes she would play with them for a few moments until the interview ended.

– Yes, I was wearing pants. I choose not to stand, because I was trying to salvage the interview.

– No, this was not staged.

– Yes, the flat surface to my left was in fact a covered-up air-mattress. Our children like to play and jump on it.

– No, the map was not hung there as a prop. It was a gift and genuinely helps me learn world place names in Korean.

– No, we did not fight about the blooper afterward, nor punish our children. Rather, we were mortified. We assumed that no television network would ever call me again to speak.

– No, Jung-A did not hug the floor, because she was being ‘servile.’ She was trying to stay out of the line of sight of the camera in hopes saving the interview.

– Yes, our floors are hardwood, which is why Jung-A slid into the room. The floor is slippery after mopping, and my wife was wearing socks, not shoes, in the house, as is customary in East Asia.

– We have no comment on the many social analyses of the video. We see this simply as a very public family blooper, nothing more.”

North Korea Survives. Start Hardening South Korea for a Long Contest


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This essay is a local re-post of an essay I wrote last month for The National Interest. Basically this is my sketch of how to deal in the medium- and long-term with North Korea. North Korea is not going to collapse anytime soon. It has some source of strength we don’t fully grasp, and China is willing to bail out North Korea indefinitely. That means South Korea needs to start hunkering down – hardening itself – for a long-term conflict of attrition. There is not magic bullet – barring China pulling the plug, which, honestly, doesn’t look like it is going to happen soon.

So it’s time for South Korea to get more serious about winning the stand-off with North Korea and carrying the costs and inconvenience to do so. On the other hand, if South Korea only continues to manage North Korea, it will still be here in 20 years. If the ROK wants to win this stand-off – not manage, but win – then it needs to do a lot of things it doesn’t want to do, such as spending a lot more on defense, moving the national capital (so that it’s not right on the border, which makes it so vulnerable that South Korea can never hit back when North Korea provokes), consider drafting women (due to precipitous birth-rate decline), nuclear civil defense, and so on. This will be hard.

So far, South Korea has ducked these sorts of dramatic steps in the permanently short-termist expectation that North would just collapse one day, or that it could be bought off and somehow go away. But of course, it won’t. So if South Korea doesn’t still want to be ‘managing’ North Korea in 20 years, it needs to start thinking long-term now. For example, it should have moved its capital 40 years ago, like West Germany did during the Cold War, but it never did. And now North Korea has a massive city hostage it can threaten whenever it like to prevent South Korea from taking any kinetic action, like airstrikes on its missile sites. Yes, it will take a long time to unwind that, to decentralize South Korea, but then, North Korea is not going to collapse. Constantly hoping/expecting it would, and therefore taking no steps to check Seoul’s growth, is exactly the problem. Time to think long-term.

The full essay follows the jump:

What Have We Learned from Kim Jong Nam’s Death? Nothing We Didn’t Already Know


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote this week for the Lowy Institute. I wrote this, because I was getting tired of reading or hearing on TV about how this poor man’s excruciatingly painful death changed things. It did not. Quite the contrary. The assassination, along with the February rocket test, just reconfirmed, for the zillionith time, what we all already know – that North Korea is a lying, brutal, norm-less regime that has no compunction about violating international law (the missile test is prohibited by UN Security Council resolution) or releasing a hugely dangerous toxin (VX) in an open, heavily travelled public place.

So one again, because the US has a new president and South Korea will likely have one soon too, we hear that we must engage North Korea and all that. Honestly, I keep wondering how this is supposed to work after 25 years of failure. What about North Korea has changed that suddenly makes it more likely to take negotiations more seriously? Who cares if the leadership in other countries changes. What matters is NK, and in February, it violated two major international norms – a missile test and an assassination. Yet at the very same time (!), we hear that talks should resume. Really? Isn’t that a glaringly obvious contradiction? The murder some poor guy and shoot a missile toward Japan, and we…reward them with talks? .

But honestly, talks in themselves are a concession to NK given its appalling behavior. So tell me why this time is different? I am not completely hostile to negotiating with NK; I could be talked into it. But there needs to be a compelling, this-time-is-different element.

The full essay follows the jump:

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