Last year in January, I made some predictions about Korea in 2010. It is always useful to look back at how one did. Prediction is very hard, but it is the gold standard of the social sciences. Ultimately, prediction lies behind our claims to expertise.
So here we go:
1. Korea will grow well, having sloughed off the Great Recession with little trouble.
I got this one right. Korea grew about 6% in 2010, and its future projections are quite good. Korea’s exports rolled along – 10 straight months of trade surpluses in 2010 (which isn’t good globally of course, but is good locally). Unemployment and inflation are below 4%. No big banks blew up or otherwise had scandals in 2010; no chaebol presidents got busted for corruption. Capital reserve requirements are good here, and the banks are far less leveraged than western banks. In fact, when I read about all the trouble of the US economy, it sometimes seems like a different world. There is very little indication in Korea’s aggregate numbers – job-loss, exports, poverty, growth, the stock market (KOSPI), etc – that suggest the crisis even happened here. Even NK’s crazier-than-usual antics of last year didn’t bring gloom or capital flight. Well done! Koreas seem to loathe their president, Lee Myung-Bak, but actually I think he deserves huge credit for this. He maneuvered Korea through an economic environment that brutalized many other economies, and he even managed to ram through the US and EU trade deals last year. That’s quite a record – along with keeping Korea’s budget balanced, maintaining those good numbers discussed above, and deterring NK. (NB: the SK left is correct to note that the way Lee pushes through legislation is perilously anti-democratic. His policies are pretty good, but his mildly autocratic tendencies are disturbing.)
2. The Korea-US free trade deal won’t go through.
I got this one wrong, but only partially. The deal was signed in December 2010 (my prediction almost made it!). But it must still be ratified by both legislatures. Conservatives control the Korean National Assembly, so Lee can probably push through the FTA. The new Republicans in Congress should also help Obama get ratification on his side. My thinking last year was that Congressional Democrats would block this, particularly under the weight of the US auto unions. Korean cars are good, and US cars still face high, if informal, cultural prejudice here. Further, Lee and Korea wanted the deal more than the US, because Korea is more a ‘trading state’ than the US is. Korea is far more trade-dependent than the US. So I anticipated more US hesitation (which is what happened).
But no one expected both the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyeong shelling. This raised the need for Obama and the US to signal commitment to SK against Northern aggression. Obama may also have realized that the incoming Republicans of 2011 would make it much easier to get this through. So once the GOP won the 2010 midterms, Obama could accept the FTA. In short, Obama is probably smart enough to know why trade is good, only he couldn’t get it through a more Democratic Congress. While he certainly didn’t want the GOP to win big in 2010, he opportunistically took what he could get in the new environment. The shift to the GOP made it easier, and NK’s behavior made it more necessary.
[In passing, I find that the average Korean is more pro-trade than the average American. Koreans seems far more aware of the importance of trade, probably because they are small. Small states have high ‘comparative disadvantage’ costs when they don’t trade, so the effects of trade are more immediate here. By contrast American students generally seem surprised when they learn how much the US actually imports and exports. I’ve always thought the biggest hurdles to this deal were on the US side, even though the biggest changes will occur in Korea.]
3. North Korea won’t change a bit.
X! – It got worse!
Who would have thought that the worst state in the world could plumb the depths yet further? Somehow the loopy Corleones of Korea – the Kim family gangster-state – became ever more unhinged and dangerous. My original prediction was aimed at those who thought that Kim Jong Il’s trips to China and China’s growing ‘investment’ in NK might somehow hail a Chinese-style liberalization, at least of the economy a little. To be fair, no one expected NK to morph into a ‘normal,’ somewhat well-behaved dictatorship like Syria or Burma. But there was a mild hope that NK, finally, under the weight of economic collapse and the pressure to show results for the 2010 65th anniversary of the (North) Korean Worker’s Party, might open a little. I thought that was far-fetched, so in that sense, my prediction was right. But more importantly, I missed that NK would actually go the other way. Instead of possible better behavior, NK went overboard – provoking two major crisis – the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong – in just 7 months. Wow. Wth is going up on there?!
4. Japan won’t really come around on Korea.
This wasn’t really a Korea prediction, but it is an issue Koreans care about very deeply. This is a negative prediction, and seems like an easy one too, because it just predicts more of the same from a country trapped in stasis. But placed the context of the DPJ’s (pseudo-)revolutionary election victory of late 2009, it still seemed like a somewhat risky prediction at the time. Recall that the DPJ came in saying it would change so much – fixing the ever-sliding economy, improving Japan’s relations with its neighbors, edging away from the US, etc. All that turned out for naught. Some of this was because China seemed to flip out in 2010. China’s 2010 behavior pushed Japan back toward the US in a way the DPJ probably wanted to avoid. But on the other issues, Japan still strikes me as stuck in a terrible historical funk. It can’t seem to get beyond the fact that the glory days of its developmentalist economy (1960s-80s) are over, and that more Asian-style state intervention now just means more debt. Nor can it seem to figure out, despite the DPJ talk, that the rest of Asia is genuinely freaked out by Japan and pays attention to every change in Japan’s defense policy and utterance by defense officials. Worse, every time some disgruntled righty in Japan say the old empire wasn’t so bad after all, the neighbors go into paroxysms on incipient Japanese re-militarization. My own experience with Japanese students tells me that Japanese are just blind to this (although Japanese academics do seem aware). So my sense was that for all the DPJ chatter, there was no real popular interest in a Willy Brandt-style ostpolitik on the history issues. Nor does that seem to have changed in the last year.
My 2011 predictions will follow next week.