I have always liked these end of the year prediction check-ups, and new year prediction-making exercises. It’s fun, but it also is an important check on irresponsibility in our punditry. Month after month we say this or that is important, or this or that will happen. But later when the current we thought was important turns out not to be, or the ‘revolutionary’ leader we thought would ‘change everything’ turns out to be a bust, we conveniently forget about that and say some other trend is actually what really matters.
This is intellectually pretty shoddy but understandable. No one likes to admit they are wrong. But identifying why causal mechanisms we thought important actually weren’t, is an important way for us to improve our thinking and explain ourselves to readers. The alternative is those neocons who got Iraq really, really wrong, but still come back on TV unchastened. Bleh.
So here is a run-down of the big things I got wrong in 2014 in Asia. In brief, I overestimated the importance of the Sewol in driving reform in Korea, and the depth of the freeze between North Korea and China; I underestimated the importance of the UN report on North Korean human rights, and China’s efforts to build parallel institutions in Asia particularly. This was originally posted at the Lowy Institute last week:
January should be called pundit accountability month. On websites such as this, we make all sorts of predictions and forecasts, or we identify structural trends or leadership changes as critical, and so on. The temptation to choose our ideologically preferred our independent variables, or otherwise retrospectively curve-fit, is strong. So occasionally we should look back at where we blew it and why.
So here are some areas of East Asian security (mostly) where I misread the 2014 trends:
1. Over-rating the Importance of the Sewol ferry sinking in South Korea
This was probably my biggest miscall. On April 16, 2014, the South Korean passenger ferry Sewol foundered off the southwest coast. Almost 300 people died, including many high school students who, horrifically, were told to wait in the ship as it sank. Some are still missing; divers perished in the rescue efforts; and the vice principal of the school from which the young victims came later committed suicide. It was a hugely emotional national catastrophe that rocked the country for months.
Inevitably the crisis turned political, as the corruption that so bedevils Korean industry and regulation, came to light. The ferry had been significantly overloaded and poorly staffed. The response was confused and slow. President Park Geun Hye was accused of indifference. The criticism reached such a crescendo that conservative defenders of the administration started accusing presidential critics of being North Korean sympathizers – a standard mccarthyite fall-back of the South Korean right when it is in major trouble.
At the time, I thought this would finally be the breakthrough needed to crack down on the crony corporatism that so mars the Korean economy. I argued both here and at Newsweek that this was an inflection moment. The victims’ parents and national commentators even began calling for Park to resign. And in three election cycles in 2014, the opposition ran on the catastrophe relentlessly.
Yet to no avail amazingly. The opposition was repeatedly trounced. The regulatory reforms announced by the Park administration are weak, with much organogram reshuffling, but no serious crackdown on the business and regulatory looking-the-other-way which caused the sinking. I must admit to still being baffled (and disappointed) by how quickly this seemed to fade away. My best explanation of the reform drive’s failure is that the country’s conglomerate (chaebol) elites are even more deeply tied to the Korean political class, especially conservatives, than we thought. Awful.
2. Underrating the Importance of the UN Human Rights Report on North Korea
Here is a topic I am happy to be incorrect about. At the time of the Commission of Inquiry’s (COI) report, I argued here that it would not mean much, that we had seen it all before, we all knew already that North Korea was the worst place on earth, and so on. And indeed, for North Korea watchers, the report’s findings were anticipated. There has been a robust defector literature for more than a decade now that has given us a direct and terrifying inside look at North Korea (start here). Perhaps the biggest splash at the time was the COI’s open willingness to compare the North’s gulag system to the Nazi concentration camps.
Happily, my we’ve-heard-this-all-before dismissal was too cynical. In the UN, the report has galvanized an effort to refer Pyongyang, specifically Kim Jong Un, to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Wow. Who would have thought that possible just a year ago? What great progress!
I think my flaw in April was assuming that other countries accepted the information hitherto available. But much of that information came from US and South Korean sources – NGOs, defectors, the governments themselves. For many in the global South, these are apparently highly unreliable sources. The US, especially post-Iraq, is apparently so distrusted, that no one wants to hear yet more US carping about the axis of evil, and South Korea, as a US ally, is assumed to be trafficking in its propaganda. But for many Southern states and LDCs, the UN has unrivalled legitimacy. It is sympathetic to their concerns and treats them more equitably than traditional power politics would suggest. So when the UN told them North Korea was awful, they finally believed it. This is nice example of the legitimacy costs America suffers by ignoring global rules.
3. Underrating China’s Efforts at Building Parallel International Institutions
China’s effort to slowly counter US global hegemony branched into a new area in 2014 – countering US domination of international organizations with its own Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and BRICS Bank. The former appears to challenge the Asian Development Bank and the latter, the World Bank. The next logical step would be an IMF counter, perhaps in a revitalized Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI).
International relations theory actually strongly predicts this sort of behavior. Dominant states are expected to be uncomfortable ceding power and privilege to rising challengers, as the US Congress has indeed been unwilling to countenance IMF and World Bank reform to more properly include China. So new powers may then seek to build their systems.
My skepticism of Chinese efforts here was rooted in the clear failure of the USSR’s parallel structures in the past, and the continuing failure of international organizations in Asia, including CMI, today. Indeed, I was so dismissive that I did not even mention these efforts in my 2014 writing. But recall how badly served the east bloc was by Comecon, or how no Asian state bothered with the CMI when the Great Recession hit. They all scrambled for accords with the US Treasury.
Nevertheless, China seems to be genuinely pushing ahead with this. 2015 could be an important year here if China can get one of Asia’s big democracies (South Korea, Indonesia, Australia) to join the AIIB (but Japan never will). Or if China can build a real parallel to the IMF. I am very skeptical of that, but it is something to watch. The Chinese are quite good at the long game.
4. Who Thought the Sino-North Korean Fallout would get so Bad?
Here is another one I am happy to have been wrong about. But I do not think anyone else saw this coming either. The standard line is that China sees North Korea as a useful buffer against South Korea, Japan, and the US, while North Korea cannot survive without subsidization, so it must eventually placate Beijing. For myself, I still believe that is broadly correct, so I anticipate that North Korea will come around this year. I do not think a permanent Sino-North Korean breach is at hand.
Yet in 2014, South Korean President Park seems to have done a masterful job schmoozing Chinese President Xi Jinping, a gift that eluded Korea’s previous presidents. Park is sometimes accused of ‘sinophilia,’ but I find this a foolish charge. South Korea lives right next door to enormous China, and trying to get along with Beijing is smart politics. Similarly, China holds the key to North Korea because of its economic support, toleration for sanctions-running, and cover at international institutions, like its anticipated ICC veto (point 2 above). If the South is really serious about unification, then wooing China away from North Korea is a necessity. Let’s hope it holds through this year, but I am skeptical.
Bonus: What did I get right?
Not much interesting unfortunately. It is far less interesting to claim credit for prescience, but I broadly think I got the continuing freeze between Japan and South Korea correct, as well as Xi’s tough external nationalism.
The longer I live in Asia, the more deeply skeptical I become that a Japan-Korea rapprochement is possible without a major shift in Japanese conservative politics. This will not happen barring some unforeseen crisis, and Korea will not budge an inch, as Japan’s colonial misdeeds are now central to South Korea’s political identity formation. This is an easy prediction for the future too.
Near the end of his tenure, Wen Jiabao said several times that China need significant reform, but it was not hard to imagine that his successors would choose the easier route of status quo party-led developmentalism at home and tough nationalism abroad. And so they have…