About Robert E Kelly

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

70th Anniversary of the Korean War: North Korea isn’t Going Anywhere; It’s Pretty Stable (Unfortunately)


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This is a re-post of my contribution to The National Interest’s recent essay round-up on the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. (My essay here; the full symposium here.)

My argument, in brief, is that North Korea is actually quite stable. Hence the answer to the symposium question – would Korea be re-unified by 2025 – is a resounding ‘no.’ Here is a brief Twitter thread which summarizes my argument.

North Korea faces little pressure internally – Kim has consolidated power quite nicely; elites are quiescent; there’s never been a popular revolt – and externally – China is unwilling to cut NK off; nukes give NK deterrence against regime change. The sanctions are tough, but Northern elites have been pushing the costs of them onto their population for decades. They won’t bring down or substantially change the DRPK system.

So we are stuck. We can try to negotiate, and we should, but the last few years’ flailing shows how hard that is. The stalemate is quite persistent.

The full essay follows the jump:

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The Floyd Protests: The South Korean Police are Far Less Belligerent than US Departments


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This is a local repost of an essay I wrote for The National Interest. Like everyone else, watching the brutality of the US police in the last few weeks has been genuinely shocking. So this essay discusses how a police force with a reputation for brutality during a previous dictatorship came a long way.

This is based on this original tweet thread.

The short version is that the South Korean police haven’t gone through the militarization the US police has. And South Korean police don’t face a heavily armed citizenry, so they don’t need to engage in an arms race against their own people. The result is a disarmed, de-escalatory police culture, which, as an American accustomed to the stormtrooper look and pose of US cops, I find just fantastic. Interactions with the police here are far less fraught and intimidating.

The full essay follows the jump:

South Korea’s Very Limited Re-Opening


1217405840This is a local repost of an essay I wrote last week for The National Interest

I wrote it in response to growing interest in the US in ‘re-opening.’ South Korea is further along the corona timeline than the West, and it dealt with corona very well. So if there is any economy ready to re-open, you would think that it is South Korea’s. Except that that is not really happening.

It’s true that restaurants are re-opened, that you can eat in them in proximity without a mask, and that masking generally is declining a bit. But not much. And most things are still closed – schools, concerts, museums, aquariums, marathons, whatever. And the government here is not talking about mass opening at all like the US discussion, especially on the right. In fact, it’s the opposite. The South Korean government keeps saying this will be a long slog, at least for the rest of the year.

The full essay follows the jump:

South Korea has been widely praised for its handling of the corona virus. As a democracy, it labors under constraints a dictatorship like China, for example, does not. South Korea nevertheless managed to beat down the virus’ spread to under ten new cases a day this week, and without the kind of social revolt brewing in the United States now.

As everywhere else, there is pressure to re-open. Everyone is bored and frustrated at home. Businesses are struggling. Families are frazzled at having the kids at home all day every day. People are putting on weight, because they are watching too much TV and over-eating. All the same sort of complaints accumulating on social media in Western countries exist here too. It’s exhausting.

Indeed, ‘corona fatigue’ set in earlier here. Korea’s clampdown began in mid-March, and one can already see the edges fraying. I see fewer masks on the subways. The lines to pick up government-distributed masks are shorter. Bars and restaurants are filling, where people are sitting in proximity and not wearing masks. Panic buying has stopped (although to be fair, there was never really much). The economic costs of the lockdown are now discussed more frequently on TV (although not nearly as vociferously as on Trumpist media in the US).

All this – the apparent success of the anti-virus campaign, the spiraling economic costs, the social unhappiness at being locked indoors all day – has brought the government to experiment with some loosening. Religious buildings have re-opened, although the government has insisted on strict distancing which will likely be hard for the Christian churches particularly given their design. Schools have also been given leeway to re-open, although the implementation of that varies widely. For example, my son’s kindergarten has re-opened almost completely; my daughter’s elementary school is closed completely; and my university is open for staff and required exams. Food establishments seem to be pushing hardest. Restaurants and bars particularly seem to be operating in a pre-corona fashion, probably as much out of desperation for business as belief that the worst has passed.

It is important for Western readers hoping for a return to normalcy not to overrate these moves. South Korea is indeed a useful canary in the coal mine for other democracies in this struggle. It too is a democracy whose anti-viral moves constrained by civil liberties; it has handled the virus very well; and it has struggled with it longer than the West. So it is further along than many other countries and is certainly a better model than non-democracies like Singapore.

But South Korea’s corona ‘re-opening’ is still quite limited. The South Korean government, for example, does not even use such language, as that suggests a far greater return to pre-corona times than it is permitting. There were also warnings almost immediately from South Korean health officials that any re-opening would permit a resurgence of the virus. The Korean CDC is talking about a lock-down of varying intensity for a year – with re-clamp-downs possible if clusters pop up – until a vaccine is found.

This is very different from the American discourse, particularly on the Trumpist right where sympathetic media such as Fox News are hinting that normality could return within in a month or less. Republican governors are now even admitting that their states could see a spike of fatalities as they re-open. The US conservative debate is now increasingly blunt that the economic costs, and the consequent human costs, of the lock-down are exceeding the direct human costs of the virus.

There is nothing like this in South Korea. The response here is far more technocratic. The South Korean president does not give daily briefings. He has given a few pep talks now and then, but nothing with the level of politics and sensationalism characteristic of the US President Donald Trump’s daily briefings. Instead the prime minister speaks a few times a week in a fairly bland tone. But mostly scientists and bureaucrats, such as the head of the KCDC, have been the public face of the South Korean government regarding corona.

Nor has the government contradicted the epidemiologists or sought to dispute their expertise or suggestions. No politician is arguing that the lock-down should be relieved for political reasons, and in the legislative election last week, a re-opening of the economy was not an issue. The South Korean public seems resigned to a fairly long slog and a re-opening in very small steps.

There will be much future discussion about why the stark contrast in the US and South Korean responses, given the plaudits South Korean has received. Some of it will inevitably redound on Trump himself. Trump is up for re-election, and he is itching, for fairly obvious reasons, to restart the economy. An economy racked by plague, contraction, and unemployment will likely cost him the election.

But there is another issue too – cultural memory. South Koreans have been through these sorts of lockdowns before – for SARS and MERS. There is a reservoir of collective patience which does not exist in the West which has not seen something like this since the Spanish Flu of 1918. Trump is not just channeling his own desire to ‘re-open’ but that of a large chunk of the American population in disbelief that the world changed so rapidly.

Controlling Corona Meant South Korea’s Election was Not Dominated by It


Commentary: Coronavirus? Not a problem for South Korea elections ...

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute a few days ago about the recent South Korean legislative election.

This was written before the vote, so it is not a commentary on the results. My concern here instead was to illustrate that democracies can in fact run elections during this pandemic without some Wisconsin-style choice of vote-and-risk-corona or stay-home-and-forego-your-franchise. That was absurd, and the GOP’s disturbing willingness to make voting hard during a pandemic is an embarrassment bordering on authoritarianism. Here are some pics from when my wife went to vote; you can see that it was not some kind of death-trap.

For my thoughts on the results, try this and this. Basically, the right got buried and really needs to figure out what it stand for going forward besides anti-communism. Also, I am uncomfortable that this is yet another missed opportunity for a national referendum on President Moon Jae-In’s outreach to North Korea. Obviously, corona was unanticipated, but it pushed off the agenda the most important, revolutionary policy of the Moon government. That is unfortunate.

The full essay follows the jump:

A Quick 5-Point Summary of My Thinking on Corona in South Korea, Plus Links


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There has been way too much sensationalism about corona, so firstly, go wash your hands, drink a beer, and relax.

I was traveling for the holidays for awhile, so this is my first blog-post in awhile. Sorry.

My basic take on corona in South Korea is:

a) It is not a national catastrophe, and the foreign media has been too sensationalistic (CNN particularly). Yes, it is uncomfortable and disruptive, but it is not bringing down the state, creating panic on the streets, an apocalypse scenario like you’ve seen in zombie movies, and so on.

b) The big retrospective error will be understood as the SK president’s decision not to ban Chinese travelers. In fact, Moon Jae In still has not done that, which I find totally inexplicable beyond obvious political pressure from China not to do it

c) The disease’s spread is due in part to SK’s basic liberalism. The liberal state cannot coerce people to stay in their homes, take intrusive physical exams, throw them into camps, and so on (barring some really extreme national emergency which corona is not yet).

d) The South Koreans are actually doing a pretty admirable job in dealing with this. The population is broadly complying, and voluntarily so, with the government’s recommendations. There is no rioting, panic-buying, xenophobic explosions, and so on. As an American who was raised on the Reaganite idea that the government can’t do anything right, it is pretty damn impressive to see the deep capacity of the South Korean state and the cooperativeness of South Korean society once fully mobilized. I really doubt Americans will respond with the calm and discipline you see here.

e) The real Korean corona threat is an outbreak in North Korea. The government there is an incompetent mess when it comes to social services, and medicine is primitive for most of the country. So you know what Pyongyang will do with infected people – throw them into concentration camps to die with almost no assistance. It will be a tragedy which none of us will see.

Here is my recent writing:

1. What’s the Corona Outbreak in South Korea Like, update 1

2. What’s the Corona Outbreak in South Korea Like, update 2

3. What the US Should Learn from South Korea’s Experience with Corona

4. Corona in North Korea

5. South Korea’s China-Corona Dilemma

6. South Korea can’t just Lock Up Corona Infectees

Trump and Moon are the most Dovish Presidents Ever on N Korea, and Kim will Still Give Them Nothing


This is a repost of an essay I wrote earlier this month for The National Interest. My argument is that Kim Jong Un is passing up his best chance for a deal for years, maybe decades, to come. Both Moon and Trump are extremely unusual, and favorable, counterparties for the North.

Most South Korean and US presidents have been either hawkish or very hawkish on North. Doves haven been rare – two SK presidents between 1998 and 2008. But neither of them ever went as far or talked as détente-ish as Moon does. Similarly, Trump is a huge outlier for US presidents on North Korea. He has made a far greater and more personal outreach effort than ever before.

And that these two dovish presidencies currently overlap is unique. This is a fantastic alignment for North Korea and almost certainly won’t last. If Pyongyang really wants a deal, this is the time to go for it.

Instead, they have played Trump for a fool – getting the legitimating photo-ops with POTUS while giving up nothing – and been surprisingly cold toward Moon’s repeated outreach. As so often, it’s their way or no way at all.

Expect hawks to cite this behavior in a few years to justify a much tougher line on NK. The missed opportunity between 2018 and 2020 will be seen on the right and center as proof that NK doesn’t want a deal, even under very favorable circumstances.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Failing North Korea Talks Once Again Suggest Starting Small


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This is re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a few weeks ago. The argument is one I have made repeatedly – that big-bang, all-or-nothing deals with North Korea are unlikely – because of low trust on both sides – and they represent far too large a leap to take given North Korean cheating in the past. We should scale back our efforts to smaller, cumulative steps which are actually doable. Think where would be now if we had done this for the last 18 months instead of gambling again and again on a huge breakthrough while not making any actual progress.

The problem is that the US and South Korean presidents both want a big-bang deal for domestic political reasons unrelated to the substance of denuclearization talks with the North. Trump wants a Nobel Peace Prize to stave off impeachment and get himself re-elected. He will sign anything because he doesn’t actually care about the deal’s contents. Also, and perhaps as important, Trump is lazy. He doesn’t want to negotiate in depth and detail with NK because he doesn’t know enough to do that and doesn’t want to learn.

SK President Moon wants a big-bang deal because he has pinned his whole presidency to détente with North Korea. All his domestic policies are contentious and are being overwhelmed by the North Korea issue which is absorbing all Moon’s time and energy. NK has a way of overwhelming SK presidents’ time in office, and Moon has worsened that normal time-suck by jumping in with both feet (and getting nothing).

In short, the North won’t go for a big, one-shot deal just because Moon and Trump are desperate at home. If we really want progress, we need to start with small, manageable, transparent swaps. These should involve a limited series of steps on both sides over a limited period of time. This would make post-hoc evaluation easier: after such a swap, we could do an after-action analysis and decide what the next swap should be. With each step, we could enlarge cooperation, building organically and credibly on previous steps. Needless to say, this will take a long time. But it is far more likely to actually work than hoping that NK will suddenly – after 50 years developing nukes – agree to trade them away. They won’t. That should be pretty obvious at this point.

The full essay follows the jump:

Trump’s Impeachment is Good for US Foreign Policy


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This essay is a local re-post of my essay for the Lowy Institute for this month.

In brief, I argue that Trump, for all his bluster and chaos, has not actually moved the US foreign policy consensus that much. So if he is impeached, we’ll likely get a ‘snap-back’ to more traditional liberal internationalist positions. That would broadly be a good thing, but for the over-interventionism of the traditional foreign policy community. Trump’s departure would mean the end of idiocy like undercutting the World Trade Organization or the Universal Postal Union, attacking US allies, throwing friends like the Kurds under the bus, and cozying up to dictators like Kim Jong Un.

Trump is too uninformed, impulsive, and erratic to represent any kind of meaningful critique of foreign policy liberalism. Some of his supporters try, but it’s most been in vain. There’s no coherent Trump Doctrine, just whatever suits his fancy or serves his political purposes at the time. Nor has Trump created an alternative foreign policy community to the current one. As POTUS, Trump is hugely influential in that community, but he’s leaving no lasting mark because he’s too incoherent and, well, dumb. So if he’s impeached, it’s back to what was, because there is no serious Trumpian alternative.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Does Trump Want to Withdraw from South Korea if He’s Re-Elected?


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote this month for The National Interest.

I keep hearing this idea on the lecture and conference circuit in East Asia – that Trump wants to withdraw from South Korea and a second term would open that possibility.

The big problems for Trump, if he really wants to do this, are 1) US bureaucratic resistance, and 2) his own laziness and incompetence. That is, much of official Washington would oppose a SK retrenchment. Just as it did Jimmy Carter’s late 1970s effort to withdraw from South Korea.

But Trump is POTUS in a highly presidentialized system. He might be able to win the battle Carter lost, but Trump would have to really work at it – get on the phone, have face-to-face confrontations with the military, use the bully pulpit against the pundit network who would oppose this. But Trump is so lazy, and so uncomfortable with personal confrontation – this is why he fires people over Twitter – that I doubt he has the focus to push this.

Curiously though, Trump might find a sort-of ally in SK President Moon Jae-In. The SK left has long had an ambiguous relationship with USFK as ‘neo-imperialists’ bullying the ROKG. I doubt Moon’s leftist coalition would push back much if Trump tried to do this.

The full essay is after the jump:

Trump’s August was so Outlandish and Awful that He is Unfit to Remain President


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This is a local re-post of my monthly essay for the Lowy Institute for September.

In brief, I argue that Trump crossed a rubicon in August. He is now clearly unfit to be president. His behavior in August was so unhinged and inappropriate, that a 25th Amendment removal is now warranted. A white collar professional in any similar position of institutional authority – at a bank, school, hospital, military or government agency, etc. – would be removed for Trump’s August meltdown. So should Trump.

This will not happen of course. Republicans in Trump’s cabinet and in Congress clearly know he is unfit. Leaks like Rex Tillerson’s “he’s a f* moron” are common. But Trump voters’ bond to Trump is akin to a personality cult and they actually seem to approve of the chaos he has unleashed. So Washington Republicans won’t act. But still it is worth noting that they should. And why Trump voters have endorsed ‘burn it all’ is just beyond me. An ideological preference for Trump – however toxic and racist – is at least understandable. But what is the value is simply wrecking American governance?

So not only should the president probably be impeached for the obstruction findings of the Mueller Report, he should also be removed via the 25th Amendment for psychological unfitness. Never thought I’d that sentence. Wow.

The full essay follows the jump.

GOP Post-Iraq Foreign Policy Incoherence: Still Making Belligerent, Aggressive Threats, but Unwilling to Follow Through


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote a few weeks ago for the Lowy Institute. The argument is right there in the title: the GOP wants to keep talking like hyper-belligerent, threats-against-everyone neocons or Jacksonian America Firsters, but GOP voters don’t want anymore wars. So Trump’s rhetoric comes off hollow: he’s threatened war on North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Iran. But his voters are very opposed to more wars now. That is one of the ways Trump beat his GOP rivals. He denounced stupid wars. But GOP rhetoric hasn’t caught up to the base’s shift, and Trump is such a blowhard that he can’t help but make outlandish threats.

The result is that the GOP now sanctions everyone. It looks tough about avoids war. But in reality, GOP foreign policy looks increasingly incoherent. All threats and no follow through makes the US look like a paper tiger or just confused.

The full essay follows the jump:

Without Strategic Change, a Korean Peace Treaty would be a Formality


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This is a repost of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a couple weeks ago. The gist of it is that there a lot more hurdles to a Korean War peace treaty than many people realize. That is why it hasn’t happened yet even though it seems pretty intuitive, if not obvious, given that the war has been de facto over sine 1953.

The two big reasons are:

1. A peace treaty potentially undercuts the legal ground for the UN/US structure in South Korea. This, most have long thought, is a big reason the North wants it. If there is formal peace in Korea, what is the US military still doing there? The South Korean left might accept this logic, but the right will not. This is why SK President Moon Jae-In can’t get this idea past his own people. There is not enough consensus for it.

2. A peace treaty may well violate the South Korean constitution, which denies North Korea’s existence. Moon may not even be allowed to sign such a document, which is pointless without SK participation. Worse though is that a peace treaty formalizes and locks-in the division of Korea indefinitely. Again, the South Korean right and SK youth may not mind that, but I don’t think that is enough for the South to formally surrender unification on Southern terms. That woo would be another huge political fight.

The full essay follows the jump:

Trump’s Third Pandering, Legitimizing, Normalizing Photo-Op Summit with Kim Jong Un: Trump is Getting Played


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This is a local re-post of an essay I recently wrote for The National Interest about the DMZ summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un. In short, it was a joke, another media stunt of the kind Trump is so good at. But now that everyone – Trump, Kim, Moon – have gotten their vanity picks for the history books and domestic legitimation/re-election needs, can we actually get back to, you know, the actual point of all this – a US-North Korean deal?

This is now the third of these made-for-TV, substance-free summit. Kim wins the optics and legitimation benefits just by showing up. He doesn’t have to do anything; he wins just by coming and smiling for the cameras. Trump on the other hand needs a deal to look like the meeting was worth it, because meeting Kim grants Trump no prestige, as it does vice versa for Kim. In fact, Trump looks at this point like he’s getting played, because he’s not getting anything despite three meetings so far, with a White House event possibly to come. Once again, it looks like Trump is just winging it, which is an asinine way to conduct foreign policy, especially for a superpower.

All that matters is what deal comes from all this and we still have no idea what they will be. It’s fashionable to say we’re making ‘progress,’ but are we? I’d say we’re just drifting.

The essay follows the jump:

More on Whether the US will Make Commensurate Concessions to North Korea to get a Nuclear Deal? How about Buying the Program?


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote a couple weeks ago for The National Interest. It is an extension of this first essay.

That original essay explored why the US will have to make concessions to North Korea if it wants a nuclear deal. The North Koreans aren’t stupid, and CVID is tantamount to unilateral disarmament for nothing. So if we really want them to give up at least some of the nukes and missiles – they won’t give up all – then we have to give them something of commensurate value. That seems pretty obvious at this point, no matter how much official Washington won’t even discuss counter-concessions.

I see two things we can give them: a) a boatload of money, or b) the retrenchment of US strategic assets from South Korea. Or we can give them nothing and try to adapt to a nuclear North Korea. I would rank these choices as: buy them (bad); live with nuclear missilized NK, ie, accept the new status quo (worse); swap them for a tangible US regional strategic assets like bases or airwings (worst).

So this essay argues why buying out as much of their program as we can is better than nothing or giving up local assets. The last is a particularly terrible idea, because once we leave, we’ll never come back. That’s what happened after the US left the Philippines in the 1980s. Even if we said we could flow back into Korea easily, the actual removal of US hard, tangible assets, like the bases in the pic above, would basically be decoupling/abandonment in all but name. It would dramatically soften the alliance.

So, for as ugly as it sounds to pay them off like its blackmail – and the Kims are nothing if not gangsters – that strikes me as better than the two alternatives.

The full essay follows the jump:

Will the US Make Commensurate Concessions to North Korea to get a Nuclear Deal? (Probably Not)


Image result for US concessionsThis is a local re-post of an essay I just wrote for The National Interest. My argument is basically that the North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons unless it gets something very large and very tangible in return. This strikes me as common sense. Nuclear weapons are really valuable to any state, and given how much North Korea is loathed around the world, nukes are even more valuable for its elites to hold regime-change at bay. So they aren’t just going to give them up from Trump’s coastal condos, vague security guarantees, or something other vague future benefit the US might cheat on, as we did during the Agreed Framework and to Kaddaffi.

So we should stop saying CVID, especially demanding it upfront for basically nothing. The North Koreans aren’t stupid. They’ll never make that deal. Instead, we need to have a serious US debate – which isn’t happening – about what commensurate to NK nukes we’d be willing to give up: US airpower in Korea, a shrinkage of USFK, closing bases, and so on. It we don’t want to give up something that valuable – and I don’t want to either – then we can either A) accept the new status quo of a nuclear missilized NK, or B) try to buy the program.

The full essay follows the jump.

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Would Unified Korea Keep the North’s Nuclear Weapons? Perhaps to Pursue a Neutralist Foreign Policy


Image result for north korea nuclear weaponsThis is a local re-print of an essay I published at The National Interest a few weeks ago.

The basic idea is that a unified Korea, even one unified under Southern leadership, has much stronger incentives to keep the North’s nukes than most people seem to think.

Generally, everyone seems to think that a UROK (united Republic of Korea) will give up its weapons to the American or, maybe, the Chinese. Or maybe destroy them. But keeping them would be a great way to keep a UROK out of the looming great power contention in northeast Asia between the US, China, Japan, and Russia.

If you are tiny Korea – the shrimp among whales – you want to stay out of the way when these big boys fight. That will be tough given Korea’s geography right in the middle, but nukes would be a really great way nonetheless to insist.

Also, nukes are a great way to defend sovereignty generally against all interlopers, even if there is no regional hot war. Even after France became friends with Germany after WWII, it still built nukes to make sure Germany never invaded it again. A UROK would almost certainly think the same way about its neighbors given their history kicking Korea around and manipulating it.

I am not sure. A UROK still allied to the US would come under a lot of pressure to denuclearize. But the probability of retention is way higher than most people think.

The full essay is after the break.

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Trump’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ with China: Huntington’s Model doesn’t even work in East Asia


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This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a week ago.

Basically my argument is that even if you are a hawk on China and see it as an emerging competitor or even threat to the US, the clash of civilizations framework is a weak analytical model by which to understand Sino-US tension.

The big problem is that Huntington builds his civilizations everywhere else in the world around religion, but in East Asia he can’t, because that would make China and Japan – who are intense competitors – allies in a Confucian civilization. Making Japan and China allies would be ridiculous, so Huntington can’t use Confucianism as a civilization, even thought that so obviously fits his model for East Asia. Hence, Huntington falls back on national labels, identifying separate ‘Sinic’ and ‘Nipponic’ civilizations. This ad hoc prop-up of the theory undercuts Huntington’s whole point of arguing that national distinctions are giving way to civilizational ones and that therefore we should think of future conflicts as between civilizations, not nation-states. Well, apparently East Asia didn’t make that shift; conflict here is still nationalized. So

There are other issues I bring up as well, but that’s the main problem. Please read the essay after the jump…

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There is Actually a Strategic Logic behind the China Trade War; Trump just doesn’t Understand or Care


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This is a re-post of an essay I wrote earlier this month for The National Interest. Basically, I have been amazed in the media discussion of the Sino-US trade war at how little effort there’s been to explain why it might be a good idea – namely, if you accept that China is a serious medium- and long-term threat to the United States.

Now you don’t have to agree that China will, in fact, become  that threat. Scholars like Dave Kang don’t think so. If not, then the trade war is just a foolish distortion of the comparative advantage benefits both sides reap from trade. It is then strictly an economics question, where Trump is indulging foolish protectionist instincts which woefully misunderstand that a US trade deficit is not a a problem to worry about.

But if you do think China is a looming competitor, if not a serious threat, then the logic of scaling back China trade is pretty obvious – the political benefits of slowing China’s rise outweigh the economic benefits of its cheap imports and T-bill purchases.

This line of argument would actually be pretty persuasive to a lot of people. I think there is a growing consensus in the natsec community that China is a real threat. Hence Trump could find new allies for his controversial trade war policies. But he never makes this pitch – I presume because he is too obtuse to actually understand this argument. Just in his Wisconsin speech again yesterday, he instead made the same ridiculous argument that the US trade deficit with China is China ‘ripping us off.’ Whatever…

The full essay follows the jump.

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If South Korea Wants a Cold War with Japan, Trump Won’t Stop It


shutterstock_1042795348This is a re-post of an essay I wrote a few weeks ago for the Lowy Institute. I am also happy to say that I was translated into Japanese, here.

So everyone knows that South Korea and Japan are having another spat – this time over compensation of Korean forced labor during the Imperial period. Korean courts have opened the door for lawsuits, while Japan continues to insist that all such claims were resolved at the time of normalization treaty. Korean officials I’ve talked with tell me that there is nothing the government can do. This is coming from the courts. I find that highly unlikely given the extreme presidentialization of the South Korean constitutional order and regular POTROK flouting of checks-and-balances.

But my concern here is that the  South Korean push on Japan on yet another issue will not lead to pushback. Trump doesn’t care about this stuff. He’s racist, dislikes allies, and gets most animated when telling them to pay more. SK conservatives, who have traditionally slowed the march to a precipice with Japan, are out of power. And Abe is burned out on this issue (‘Korea fatigue’).

So if the South Korean left genuinely wants a breach with Japan, and a slide into a cold war over Dokdo/Takeshima, Sea of Japan/East Sea, comfort women, labor reparations, and so on, then they’ll get it this time. This is very worrisome, but also a ‘useful’ social science natural experiment moment: we will learn just how far the South Korean left is willing to go on Japan, because the traditional brakes are not there this time.

The full essay follows the jump…

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Hanoi Fallout (3): Moon Jae-In is Now Leading Détente with N Korea – and He Needs Clearer Domestic Political Support for It


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This is a local re-post of an article I wrote for The National Interest a few weeks ago.

Basically, Moon Jae-In is now in charge of détente with North Korea. Trump is too checked out, too lazy, and too ill-informed to run this thing properly. Trump blew Hanoi because he got outwitted by his own staff (Bolton), because Trump doesn’t know anything about the issues, so he didn’t know how to push back on Bolton, or even realize he was being manipulated by him. So it’s up to Moon now.

But Moon lacks a national coalition in South Korea to push through a major change in relations with North Korea. South Korean conservatives are sliding into paranoid delusions that Moon is being manipulated by the North. The Liberty Korea Party is totally cut out of this process and furious. The big three newspapers in South Korea are all center-right, and all are skittish if not hostile to Moon’s initiatives.

Moon is running this from his left-liberal base, but it’s not big enough. He won with only 41% of the vote. If he does not get at least some conservative buy-in on a new relationship with North Korea, the right will destroy ‘Moonshine’ when it next re-takes the POTROK, just as it destroyed ‘Sunshine’ in 2008.

The full essay follows the jump:

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