About Robert E Kelly

I am a professor of political science at Pusan National University. I write mostly on international relations in East Asia.

It’s the 50th Anniversary of Japan-Korea Normalization, and Abe Conceded…Nothing


Sometimes Japan just brings these troubles on itself…

Anyone who’s read this blog for awhile knows that I get a fair amount of flak from Korean nationalists who tell me that I should stop pointing out how South Korea manipulates Japan and history for its own domestic purposes – no one denies it, mind you, they’re just furious when I point it out – or that I am too friendly to Japan, and so on.

So this post is for you.

I am well-aware that Japan flim-flams, obfuscates, denies and all that. I have said that for years. And last Monday, the 50th anniversary of Korea-Japan diplomatic normalization was a big chance for Abe to re-set the board. He blew it. Maybe we’ll get luckier with the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War next month. There will be global attention on Abe then.

The essay below the jump was originally posted here at the Lowy Interpreter earlier this week.

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The MERS Panic and the Now Painfully Obvious Need to Clean-Up the Korean Regulatory State


2015.6.23号(6/16発売)

I wrote a story about the South Korean MERS panic for this week’s Newsweek Japan (available here). Basically, I make the same argument as my friend Se-Woong Koo from Korea Expose (which you really need to start reading). The panic shows just how much South Korea needs to get its act together on public safety and competence in government.

It is ironic that when Park entered office, the biggest fear was ideological – that she might imitate her father’s harsh governing style, or that her term would trench warfare between conservatives and progressives over her father’s legacy. Now – after NIS, the nuclear materials scandal, Sewol, the staffing circus, MERS, and so on – the questions are far more elementary – do Park Geun-Hye and her closest aides just have the basic technocratic skills/focus/interest to run a modern complex country and bureaucracy? I would be surprised if her approval rating breaks 50% again before her term ends. It’s once again around 30%, as it was after Sewol. Competence is almost certain to be main line of critique from the opposition in next year’s parliamentary election.

For previous essays on this topic, go here, here, and here. The full essay follows the jump.

Abe, the US, and ‘Korea Fatigue’: How Interested is the US in the Korean ‘History Issue’?


That is Wendy Sherman in Korea before the flap over her ‘history’ remarks.

The following essay was originally posted here, at the Lowy Institute.

The idea for this essay came from watching Abe’s successful trip to the US last month and just how much the Korean media wigged out that that was some major set-back for Korea. There were even calls at the time that the Korean foreign minister should resign, as if some how MoFA could have stopped Abe and Obama from sharing a glass of wine or whatever, and that that was some kind of cataclysm for Korea. Really? Jesus. Get some perspective.

Anyway, all the hullaballoo just reinforced that South Korea has an unhealthy obsession with Japan and an ‘enemy image’ of it that really doesn’t fly when you live next to the likes of North Korea, China, and Russia. Are Korea’s historical grievances with Japan legitimate? Yes, they are. Does Abe’s coalition have creepy righties in the shadows? Also, yes. But when you are more willing to talk to the modern day version of Big Brother (Kim Jong Un), than the elected leader of a liberal democracy with a 70-year history of good global citizenship, then something is wrong.

Anyway, I already got lots of hate-mail on this (try here and here if you want to troll me), so please spare me your ‘you-hate-Korea-and-don’t-what-you’re-talking-about’ and ‘Japanese-colonialism-was-good-for-Korea’ emails. I just delete them anyway.

Enjoy. …or maybe not. I don’t really care anymore…

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Why ‘Women Cross the DMZ’ Was a Bad Idea: The Threat of Moral Equivalence


Gloria Steinem is in the middle with the sunglasses and yellow sash. To her left is Christine Ahn, the primary organizer.

I have to say that I am amazed at how controversial this ‘march’ across the Korean DMZ became. My essay below speculates on why this obscure event – which will almost certainly change nothing, because the geopolitical split between the Koreas is now deeply baked-in – nonetheless provoked a huge fight among Korea-watchers for the last month.

The march got coverage on CNN, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and a whole host of other places. A lot of the relevant links are in my essay below, but here are a few more, so you can make your own mind:

the ‘Women Cross DMZ’ website (watch the introductory video by Ahn on the homepage)

Christine Ahn and Gloria Steinem on Twitter 

Josh Stanton, arguably the march’s most vociferous critic

I also thought this recently published critique was a good one. The author writes, “ironically, the symbolic crossing has provoked a stark division between its few supporters and many more detractors.” That is my impression too. While march supporters were passionate, the backlash (of which my essay below is a part) struck me as greater and quite widespread.

Now Ahn says they are going to try again next year, so I guess we can we argue about this every year now. Hoorah!

The essay below the jump was first published here, for the Lowy Institute.

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Why did Kim Jong-Un Suddenly Bail on his Moscow Trip? B/c NK’s ‘Policy Process’ is more like a Factional Mosh-Pit


Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping watch the parade in Moscow.

You don’t see Kim Jong Un in there do you?

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute a few weeks ago on why Kim Jong UN of North Korea suddenly decided not to go to Moscow.

Everyone wants to know why Kim Jong-Un decided, out of the blue, not to got to Moscow for the WWII Victory Day celebration despite months of it being talked up. So here’s my theory – North Korea policy process isn’t a process at all. It’s more like a mosh-pit of competing interest groups and factions trying to control major decisions like this. So randomness, like sudden cancellation of this visit or the UN Secretary-General visit this week, is just built-in. Even if North Korea wanted to be less erratic and more predictable, it probably couldn’t be, because of the way it is governed.

The rest of the argument follows the jump.

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North Korea with SLBMs Scares the Hell Out of Everybody


Kim Jong Un North Korea

Am I the only one who is amazed at how good North Korea seems to be at developing new military technology? They got to nukes despite all sorts of international efforts to block them. They’ve got an apparently pretty successful missile program. They beat South Korea to drones last year. And now they’ve got submarines, and ones that can launch missiles to boot! Wow. We seem to consistently underestimate the Norks – probably because everyone loathes them so much that we keep telling ourselves that the place is falling apart and will implode any day now. Alas, it doesn’t look like it.

I wrote the following essay, below the jump, for the Lowy Institute a few days ago on the SLBM test. My primary fear is that all these nuclear and missile advances raise the temptation for South Korea to preemptively strike before the Northern program really gets out of control in the next decade with hundreds of warheads and missiles. The Israelis did that in Iraq and Syria, and I could see the South Koreans mulling it too.

Increasingly it is impossible to see how this ends well. Where are we going? What is the exit from a North Korea seriously threatening the entire region? Jees…

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Note to Congressional Republicans: Please Don’t Send One of Your Iran Letters to China


Does anyone wonder what it would be like it neoconservatives brought their unique blend of bluster, recklessness, and belligerence to Asia? I kept thinking about that in the wake of that wildly irresponsible Iran letter from the Senate GOP last month. As Jonathan Chait notes, that letter was the perfect metaphor for neoconservative rashness, poor planning, maximal belligerence, and relentless nationalist self-congratulation. And this will be the tone of the GOP primary (again) too.

Now try to imagine how that would have gone down if we had sent that letter to China. Yikes! I hope these guys stay focused on the Middle East where their free-lancing recklessness and belligerence have manageable costs. But please, please keep these people away from Asia, where they know even less than in the Gulf and the costs are much higher. Scary.

The following was originally written for the Lowy Institute, here.