About Robert E Kelly

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

Waiting for China re: N Korea is like Waiting for Godot – My JoongAng Daily op-ed


China-North-Korea

I published an op-ed in the JoongAng Daily today, which this post re-prints.

Basically my argument is that China will increasingly be singled out and globally embarrassed for enabling North Korea if the post-comfort women deal cooperation between South Korea, Japan, and the US holds. If the democracies can work as a team on North Korea – finally! – and if we drop Russia from our regional analyses – as we should because Russia plays no role other than occasional spoiler regarding North Korea – then the game basically boils down to China on one side and the democracies (SK, Japan, and the US) on the other, meaning China stands out globally as North Korea’s protector.

All the Chinese obfuscation of the Six Party Talks or ‘regional solutions’ is falling away. It is now painfully obvious that China alone now is what is keeping North Korea afloat, allowing it to escape the worst pressures of all the sanctions piling up, and arguably even preventing it from collapsing by providing so much informal aid to North Korea. And by aid, I don’t just mean direct shipments of rice and fuel; I also mean the access to the outside world that allows Pyongyang to get luxury goods, use dollars, traffic its illicit production, and so on.

So let’s keep the democracies working together in a common front on NK. That is huge progress, and it shines a very clear spotlight on China now as NK’s last, only enabler. The sheer embarrassment of that is bound to impact prestige-conscious Chinese elites going forward.

On this issue of Chinese attitudes towards North Korea, Leif-Eric Easley, a friend from Ewha University in Seoul, just published a nice academic article on this. If I read Leif right, he’s even more pessimistic that China will change on North Korea than I am.

My full op-ed follows the jump.

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The ‘Missilization’ of Conflict in Northeast Asia


2016.4.12号(4/ 5発売)

Earlier this month, I wrote a short op-ed for Newsweek Japan (issue cover to the left) on missiles and conflict Northeast Asia. I reprint that essay below in its English original.

My editor first wanted me to write something on North Korea’s latest tests. But everyone writes about that, and all the talk of missiles and missile defense up here got me thinking about the larger issue that drones, missiles, and other cheap air platforms increasingly look to me like the wave of the future.

Today’s (failed) North Korean missile test just reinforces the argument of this essay –  that any future conflict out here will involve a lot more unmanned airpower than people think. So yes, the big US bases out here are important, and politicians will continue to extol ‘the troops’ in order to get re-elected. But swarming drones, missiles, robot planes, and so on, guided by space-based C2ISR, is probably a lot cheaper and effective. (Read this on how much unconventional airpower would be involved in a conflict with China, and this on ‘swarming.’) The full essay follows the jump.

My Predictions and Expectations for the Upcoming South Korean Parliamentary Elections: The Left will get Hammered


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This is a re-post of something I wrote a few days ago for the Lowy Institute. I thought it would be helpful to put some predictions out there, with a logic for why I made them.

That map to the left is the last South Korean parliamentary election’s distribution of seats. Red and blue are conservative parties. Yellow and purple are left-wing. Gray is independent. The reason red (the Saenuri Party) looks so dominant is because rural Korea is empty. So the parliamentary districts in the countryside are very big in order to capture the necessary number of voters. You can see this in the US as well, where the geographic expanse of urban congressional seats is much smaller than rural ones.

In brief, my prediction is that Ahn Chul Soo’s upstart left-wing party will throw lots of seats (10-30?) to the right by fragmenting the left-wing vote. 82% of the National Assembly’s seats are won by plurality voting. So all the right has to do is stick together under one roof, and they win while the left fragments its votes. The Diplomat interviewed me on this, and I said the same: Ahn doesn’t want to admit that he is sucking away votes from the main left-wing (Minjoo) party. So Ahn is the Jesse Ventura of South Korean politics, a vague, apolitical who-knows-what-he-believes purposefully damaging the larger effort of the left for his own egomania. (To be fair, parties to the left of Minjoo – typically pro-North Korean – also have a record of pointlessly splitting the left’s vote.)

The full essay follows the jump, but you probably shouldn’t listen to me anyway. My wife, naturally, won’t have any of this and will vote for Ahn, because he’s new… or something… I just don’t get the Korean liberal voter…

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No, South Korea does Not Need Nuclear Weapons – bc They’ll Never Use Them


This essay is a reprint of a long-form piece I published recently with The Diplomat. It is a response to the growing debate inside South Korea after the recent Northern nuclear and missile tests.

I am actually pretty sympathetic to South Korea’s desire to go nuclear. With North Korea breathing down their neck, and projections that it might have dozens, if not hundreds, of nuclear weapons and missiles in the next decade, including hydrogen bombs, it is pretty easy to see why Seoul would like to counter that. And that same logic applies to Japan. When analysts say this will spark a nuclear arms in race in northeast Asia, I say, so what? 1) NK, and China because of its enabling behavior, have already started that race. Japan and South Korea would just be catching up. 2) The real problem is not nuclear technology, but who wields it. I have little fear that sable democracies with civilian control of their militaries will manage these weapons well.

So why not build nukes? Because they’ll never be used. Why not? Because in any contingency where North Korea actually used a nuclear weapon, the entire world, including China and Russia, would immediately assent to the DPRK’s final destruction. South Korea and the United States would invade North Korea forthwith and eventually win. Therefore, any nuclear strike on North Korea by the South (or the US) would suddenly become unified (South) Korea’s responsibility to clean up. Better to have a post-war, post-nuclear environment with fewer blast zones, even if that means, bizarrely, not launching against NK even if it launched against SK. I know that sounds weird and awful, but just read the whole piece to get the argument. Unified Korea (ie, SK) would have to clean up all the blast zones on the peninsula – both north and south – so it actually makes sense not to nuke North Korea, but to just defeat it conventionally.

So there is little upside to SK going nuclear. But there will be predictable downsides: bad press globally, NK crowing that their program is now justified and legitimate, China saying N and S Korea are now morally equivalent. As unsatisfying psychologically as it may to not respond in kind to the fatiguing, obnoxious Don Corleone of Korea, it is best to stick to the US alliance and plans for a conventional victory.

The full essay follows the jump.

Will the Comfort Women Deal between Korea and Japan Hold? I’m Skeptical


This is a re-post of an essay I just wrote for the Lowy Institute.

Japan and South Korea clinched a deal in late December over the comfort women. It is pretty controversial in Korea, and the Japanese are now insisting that the deal means the issue should never be brought up again ever. Given how deeply Koreans care about this – I can’t begin to list the huge number of student papers, conference papers, journal and newspaper articles, TV programs, emails, and what all I have read/seen over the years on this – I am very skeptical that an intergovernmental deal will suddenly close down an issue that attracts so much civil society and journalistic attention, not to mention helps shape South Korea’s anti-Japanist political identity.

Luckily for President Park Geun-Hye, the North Korean tests and bad weather of the last month distracted attention and made street protests difficult. In the coming year, I think the big tests of the deal’s ‘stickiness’ are the April parliamentary elections, and the moving the statue (pic above) from in front of the Japanese embassy. If the left doesn’t use this as a wedge issue, and if students and activists don’t human-shield the statue or attack the crane, then perhaps Koreans really are ready to move on. But I am very skeptical that an issue which has been built-up in K national consciousness for 25 years can suddenly be switched off by secretive, high-level deal among a bunch of bureaucrats. I don’t buy it…

The full Lowy essay on my skepticism follows the jump

My Op-Ed for the Busan Ilbo on the Paris Attacks: Korea should Not Overreact like the West did


This is a re-print, in English, of an editorial I wrote last month in the Busan Daily newspaper. Here is that Korean version.

BI contacted me, because I teach a course on terrorism at Pusan National University. As far as I can tell, it is one of the only such courses in Korea. So when the global reaction to Paris arrived in Korea, they asked me for a few thoughts. The most important point is: Don’t go bananas.

After the Paris attack, the Korean government is talking seriously about passing counter-terrorism (CT) laws and developing a domestic CT capability. This is wise, but there is a lot for Korea to learn from all the mistakes the West has made in the GWOT. By now it is pretty widely accepted that the US wildly over-reacted to the 9/11. The Iraq war especially helped create a helluva lot more terrorists than we were facing before, and ISIS would not exist without the invasion. Remember:

1. Modern democratic societies are pretty safe.

2. Some domestic crime and violence is part of the cost we pay for freedom and our open societies.

3. Flipping out about Muslims in our countries does no good; they’ll just turtle, rather than helping the security services.

So the big post-9/11 lesson from the West for Korea on jihadist terrorism: Keep it all in perspective. You are far more likely to be killed by lightning or your HDTV falling off the wall than a jihadi.

The full essay follows the jump:

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5 Interpretations of N Korea: Communist, Rogue, Fascist, neo-Confucian, or Gangster?


This is a re-post of an essay I just wrote for the Lowy Institute, available here. And yes, that Godfather pic is meant to imply that I accept the last of the interpretative frameworks suggested: North Korea as a gangster racket.

The more time I spend in this field, the more I see analysts get into really sharp debates over just what North Korea ‘really’ is. The best way to de-legitimize your opponent in this area is to say you don’t understand the ‘real’ North Korea, or know what they ‘truly’ want. This can get pretty intense. And it does not help that we know so little about how North Korea is governed.

As I have listened to these fights over the years, it strikes me that there are roughly 5 major interpretations or schools. And these approaches are politicized too, not just intellectual frameworks, because they have direct implications for how South Korea and the US should respond to North Korea. For example, if you think North Korea is a rogue state gremlin ripping at the fabric of US hegemony, you are more likely to endorse tough action than if you accept leftist interpretations that US-led isolation of North Korea is what makes North Korea so dangerous.

The 5 basic interpretations are:

1. Traditionalist Conservative: North Korea as a cold war stalinist state

2. Neoconservative: NK as dangerous, unpredictable rouge state

3. Fascist: NK as a racist, national security barracks state

4. Leftist: NK as ‘Korean’ (rather than socialist or fascist), neo-Confucian,or post-colonial

5. Gangster: NK as a massive shake-down racket; mafia have overthrown the government

The full essay follows the jump.

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