About Robert E Kelly

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

Is the Park Geun Hye Scandal is Paralyzing Government in South Korea?


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This is the English-language version of an article I published with Newsweek Japan last week.

Is anyone else, among readers living in Korea, amazed at how the coverage of this is now essentially non-stop? If you turn on any of the cable news stations here now, it’s Park Geun Hye all day all the time.

My big concern is that she stays on, perhaps surviving an impeachment vote or somehow or other lurching on into the spring next year, while facing regular demonstrations. How much longer will those protests say so peaceful? To date, they have been remarkably non-violent. But civil unrest is not hard to imagine if a hugely unpopular president stays in office for months and months with an approval rating around 4%. Even Park seemed to realize this when she gave that kinda-sorta resignation speech last Wednesday.

And the answer to the post title question is yes, in case you haven’t figure that out yet. Let’s just hope the Norks don’t pull some hijink while the ROKG is frozen like this. God forbid we have some executive-vs-legislative battle over who leads the response.

My previous writing on this scandal is here.

The full essay follows the jump.

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Trump Post-Mortem: My 5 Take-Aways from Trump’s Surprise Victory


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This is the English-language version of an article I just published with Newsweek Japan on Trump’s victory. I know there have been a million of these sorts of diagnostic analyses since he won, so this will be my only one. I will get back to East Asia politics next week.

I guess what worries me the most is how Trump toyed with proto-fascist themes, even if he himself doesn’t believe any of it. As I write in the main essay below: “He flirted heavily with race nationalism, illiberalism (attacking the media; winking to the alt-right), anti-democracy (refusal to recognize defeat; insisting the election system is ‘rigged’), and a cult of personality. That is awfully close to a fascist package.” Trump has now demonstrated that there is a constituency for hard-right strong man politics in the US. He ran as an openly misogynistic, racist, cultish candidate, and millions of Americans just didn’t care and voted for him anyway. This is the most important, and terrifying, revelation of the last 18 months. 

No, I am not in hysterics that America is about to collapse. We’ve survived a lot worse in 230 years. I am pretty sure we can survive the Trump administration. He and his family will be epically corrupt, but that won’t bring down the Constitution. There is far too much hyperventilating on the left right now.

But if Trump, or more likely Steven Bannon, can put his stamp on the GOP, the American political landscape will change forever. The Reaganite GOP is disappearing, and in its place will rise a National Front-like nationalist-populist party if Bannon has his way. The US has never seen a blood-and-soil European rightist party. We may look back on Trump as a right-wing turning point even greater than the Goldwater or Reagan presidential campaigns.

The full essay follows the jump.

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The South Korean Presidential Scandal Unique for its Sheer Weirdness


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This post is a local re-post of an article I wrote for The Diplomat earlier this month on the the Korean presidential scandal.

Honestly, the whole thing is so bizarre that I am at a loss for words. And the more information comes out, the weird it becomes. The only analogy I can think of for the extraordinary influence Choi Soon-Sil had over Park Geun Hye is Rasputin. I know that seems pretty extreme, but the more you read about it, the more that’s what it sounds like. Choi may have influenced areas as wide as Park’s North Korea policy and her wardrobe. There are even rumors that Choi’s gigilo was on the gravy train too. Yes, really; it’s that weird.

Anyway, Park’s presidency is now over, even if she manages to hang onto the office. She will get nothing ever again from the legislature. She will retain some authority of foreign and defense policy, but even that will be hemmed in. If she does anything controversial, she’ll be hammered for it. So good thing THAAD went through before this all exploded.

Can’t say I have a lot of sympathy for PGH. She ruled as an aloof aristocrat, and she treated the Korean media terribly. I think that’s why there is so little sympathy out there. If she had remembered she was a democratic president instead of a monarch, she might have had a reservoir of public good will to draw on. Alas, a lot Koreans think this is her come-uppance.

My full treatment of the scandal comes after the jump.

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Who I Voted for and Why, II: Clinton, bc Trump is Grossly Unqualified


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Cleon, demagogue of Athens during the Peloponnesian War and the archetype of democratic demagogue feared by conservatives like Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle.

The following essay is a re-print of an op-ed I just wrote for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blogline.

Conservatives who plan to vote for Trump might want to consider for a moment just how much Trump violates the basic principles capital-C Conservatism cherishes: order; paced, digestible change; caution/pragmatism;  stability and moderation in leadership; robust institutions. It is hard to imagine Burke, Buckley, Kirk, Disraeli, and other Conservatives reading Trump as anything other than the type of demagogue political philosophy has long warned can be spawned by democracies in tumult. Just go read Thucydides if you don’t believe me.

I say this one inclined to such Conservatism. I worked for the GOP on/off throughout the 1990s. I am hardly a liberal, even if I am an academic. But if you can’t see the demagogic potential in Trump – the likelihood that he’ll use the law to pursue his enemies or enrich his family; his demonization of out-groups; his belligerent, apocalyptic tone – then you just haven’t been paying attention. Trump just proved that there is a potential for something like authoritarian, maybe even fascist, politics in the US, and that should scare the hell out of all of us.

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Who I Voted for & Why, I: Clinton, bc Trump is a Threat to US Democracy


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In the interest of ‘pundit accountability,’ I will post my thoughts about the upcoming US presidential election this week. It is a pretty open-and-shut affair this year. As Foreign Policy put it in an unprecedented presidential endorsement: “A Donald Trump presidency is among the greatest threats facing America, and the Republican standard-bearer is the worst major-party candidate for the job in U.S. history.” Yup.

The following op-ed is the English language re-print of my anti-Trump essay for today’s issue of Newsweek Japan. I’d like to thank my editor at Newsweek for allowing me to wander out of my area of northeast Asia to write about the US election. Normally, I wouldn’t do this, but this is not a normal election. Donald Trump represents an unparalleled threat to US democracy. He must be defeated, and I hope this op-ed helps that outcome in however small a way.

Finally, I don’t write this as partisan hackery. I am a registered Republican and have been my whole life. I worked for a Republican congressman, voted against Bill Clinton twice, gave money to a GOP candidate as late as 2002. I even interned for John Boehner way back in college. My ballot this year was split as I voted Republican in some Ohio races. I suppose I could have voted for Rubio. But not Trump. My god. He’s a terror. He’s not really a Republican as we thought of them at all until recently; he’s more like Marine Le Pen than anyone we know from the tradition of American politics. You think Nixon’s abuse of power was bad, just wait till Trump gets his hands on the Justice Department. 

The essay is after the jump.

If Trumpian Duterte Really Bandwagons with China, It won’t End Well


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This is the English-language version of a story I just wrote for Newsweek Japan on Philippine President Duterte’s strange new flirtation with China.

The big question I suppose is whether Duterte actually follows through. He has already shown himself to be a ‘trumpian’ nutball character, talking about killing millions of drug-dealers and users while praising Hitler. Previous associates have claimed him to be erratic and difficult. Sound familiar?

And just as I figure Trump would not follow through on his outlandish promises, like stealing Iraq’s oil, or retrenching from Asia, because it would be too hard – fighting all the interest groups in Washington, Congress, DoD, and so on – so I figure Duterte may just be spouting off. When he collides with the reality that no one in Asia trusts China, that his own people don’t want to give up Scarborough Shoal, this his own military is terrified of cutting links with the US to line up with China, I imagine his ‘pivot’ to China will be hard to pull off.

But let’s say he does take the Phils out of the US Asian alliance network. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he comes to rue that decision. China has no allies; it has purely transactional relationships with places like N Korea, Pakistan, or Myanmar. Beijing would screw them over in a heartbeat if it was in its strategic interests. So I have little doubt that Beijing will come knocking again in the future, asking Manila to surrender all claims to the Spratlys too, or to ‘permit’ China to operate in its airspace. If you think a state run as a nasty authoritarian oligarchy at home, is suddenly going to be a liberal abroad, disappointment is coming.

The full essay follows the jump.

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The THAAD Debate is now Wildly Overwrought and Exaggerated


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This a local re-posting of an essay I just wrote this week for The National Interest here. That pic is mine, taken next to the US embassy in Seoul.

Basically, I’m amazed at how unhinged the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense debate has become in South Korea. The South Korea left is really digging in its heels and turning this into a huge issue. ‘Activists’ have shaven their head and and thrown eggs at officials supporting deployment. Opposition lawmakers even went to Beijing, which strongly opposes the deployment, to ‘apologize.’ The National Assembly, now with a leftist majority, wants a vote on THAAD, and this might even become a presidential election year.

I honestly don’t understand this at all. All THAAD does is raise South Korea’s missile defense roof by about 100 kms. That’s it. SK already has lower tier missile defense, and THAAD’s radar adds nothing that the US doesn’t already have (contrary to China’s assertions, which the Chinese know but won’t admit). Yet the South Korea left and China (cynically) are treating this like the apocalypse, as some massive re-orientation of the northeast Asian strategic landscape. It’s not.

This is not intended to seem partisan. I actually agree with the SK left on a lot of domestic issues, such as better regulation of the chaebol, press freedom, protests rights, the SK right’s creepy mccarthyism. But on North Korea, I just don’t get the SK left at all, and running off to China over THAAD looked like craven appeasement of a bully. Appalling flunkeyism.

Anyway, read after the jump about why THAAD only buys SK a little more time to figure out to response to NK missilization. It’s hardly a revolution.