About Robert E Kelly

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

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.

Enough Dithering, South Korea. It’s Time to Deploy THAAD Missile Defense


The debate on missile defense in South Korea is accelerating. Increasingly it looks like there will be some kind of stationing of ‘Terminal High Altitude Area Defense’ (THAAD, pictured). This is almost certainly a good thing, because North Korea’s programs keep going and going; no one would really trust Pyongyang to adhere to a deal at this point anymore anyway; and North Korea is not in a nuclear rule-system, like the IAEA or NPT, so we really have no idea what’s happening in much detail. Remember that their HEU program was kept hidden pretty well and then suddenly revealed.

Given all this uncertainty, and North Korea’s established history of lying, especially about its nuclear program, missile defense strikes me as a no-brainer. It is clearly a defensive weapon too, so it does not add to South Korea’s ability to offensively strike North Korea. The North won’t really be able to credibly criticize the system as a ‘tool of imperialism’ or something (although they will certainly say that anyway). Also, in passing for IR theorists, I’d say this debate nicely illustrates both the security dilemma and the offense-defense balance debate.

The full essay follows the jump; it was first published in The Diplomat here earlier this month.

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Some Regional Honesty on the 70th Anniversary of the End of the Pacific War? Not a Chance


There will be loads of retrospectives this year. But rather than write yet another ‘what are the lessons of WWII?’ piece, I thought I would write about how current Asian politics is still framed so much by the war. Particularly, I thought it would be useful to point out in all honesty how some of region’s elites actually came to power on the back of the war – even though they’d never, ever admit that. Specifically, Chiang Kai-Shek would have crushed Mao if he hadn’t had to fight the Japanese instead, and the (North) Korean Worker’s Party would never have come to power without the Red Army ‘liberation’ that was legitimized by Japanese occupation. Being honest about this stuff is helpful, if uncomfortable.

This piece was originally written for the Lowy Institute. It starts after the jump:

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No, ‘American Sniper’ is Not the greatest American War Movie; it’s actually quite Conventional


Watching Fox News has always been a weird attraction. The hysteria, the persecution-complex, the frightening belligerence, the Obama conspiracy theories – what’s not to love? While I was home over Christmas, I saw more than my usual share, and the non-stop adulation coverage of American Sniper was really noticeable.

At last, the Iraq war movie neocons had been waiting for! Faith, family, nationalism, shooting foreigners (lots of foreigners actually) without much remorse, no tough questions about why the war was fought. It was a ‘Jacksonian’s’ dream, and predictably Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, and the rest swooned for it. And I say that not as some carping lefty, but as someone who supported the war far too long after it was clear that it was a messy failure.

That the right lionized the movie hardly disqualifies it of course. And it is a good film. But the meme emerged that this was somehow the greatest US war movie ever. That’s not even close to true. American Sniper is actually quite conventional. So now that the hype is fading, here is a run-through of the all-too-familiar aspects of the movie.

The review follows the jump and was first published at the Lowy Institute (here).

PS: The best American war movie ever made is almost certainly Apocalypse Now, and the worst is The Green Berets.

Park Geun-Hye’s Presidency is Turning into Status-Quo Maintenance


(For Korean readers, the following essay has been translated here.)

And who can blame her? Things are pretty good for her coalition, if not for a lot of younger and female Koreans. Unemployment is reasonable; debt and deficits are under control; the chaebol, for all their corruption and hubris, do make stuff people want; the much (but mistakenly) worshipped trade surplus is high; the Korean left, no matter how much they campaign on the Sewol sinking, cannot seem to break through; and so on. So why rock the boat?

The essay below the jump, originally published here for the Lowy Interpreter, argues that Park’s presidency is “drifting.” But as I have thought about it since then, I am wondering if maybe ‘drift’ is the wrong word. That is why I put “status quo maintenance” in this blog-post title. That suggests a little more agency than drift, because maybe Park really just doesn’t want to change much. Certainly her coalition, as I argue below, does not. Maybe stasis is the whole point.

I should also say that this essay was not intended as some major, biting critique of Park. A friend of mine at the Wall Street Journal called the essay below ‘scathing,’ and the Korean group who translated this essay and distributed it on Twitter has read the essay as a left-wing critique. But I should say honestly that this was not my intention – another reason I call it ‘status quo maintenance’ here. For Korean readers looking for liberal/leftist critiques, those are not really my politics (try here for the best lefty critiques of modern Korea). Regular readers know that I deeply distrust the SK left on foreign policy (too much excuse-making for the Norks). Also, I thought Lee Myung-Bak, who was to Park’s right, was actually a really good president and I said so in the JoongAng Daily. In short, this is not intended as a partisan shot for the SK left. I try to call them as I see them, and LMB, IMO, was a much better prez than PGH is turning out to be. I am sure that hopelessly confuses my politics, but so be it…

The essay follows the jump:

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