About Robert E Kelly

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

North Korea’s Goals are Limited: It couldn’t Absorb S Korea even if it Won a War


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This is a local re-posting of an article I wrote for The National Interest last week.

Basically, I am continuing to bush back on all this insane talk that we are on the verge of a conflict, can’t live with a nuclear North Korea, and are imminently threatened with a North Korean nuclear strike. None of that is true, and all the alarmism from the bomb-them-now ultras is just making this all worse.

So to keep the wingers happy, here is a worst case scenario, in which North Korea somehow levers the US out of the region AND defeats South Korea on the battlefield. This is already so unlikely that the ultras should be somewhat embarrassed we have to game this out, but fine, whatevs. And what happens after the supposedly long-sought unification under the Kims? The implosion of North Korea, because there is no way it could manage a hugely expensive, widely resisted, easily corrupted occupation even bigger than US post-Civil War Reconstruction. So forget it. Unification would blow-up the North’s extremely unique and rigid system. They don’t want it. (What they do want is a pseudo-confederation that gets South Korea paying their bills semi-permanently without actually having to change politically, but that’s for another column.)

The essay follows the jump…

North Korea 2017: What Did We Learn? That We Can’t Bluster/Threaten Them into De-Nuclearization


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Sorry for the long hiatus. The holidays were pretty busy and exhausting.

This is a local re-post of something I wrote The National Interest late last year. I like these end-of-the-year retrospectives and predictions. So here is a look back at all the craziness around North Korea in 2017.

The most obvious new element is an American president talking to the world’s most dangerous state like a petulant man-child. Honestly, Trump just made everything worse, and his rhetoric almost certainly convinced the Kimist elite that going for nukes was wise.

The other big thing I think is how the debate over responding to North Korea is increasingly cutting out the doves. North Korea with nuclear weapons is such a scary prospect that it is side-lining engagers and powering the hawks in the debate. Increasingly the debate is an intra-mural one among the hawks, between moderates (where I’d put myself), who are wary of strikes and at least open to talks even though we know the Norks will gimmick them, and ultras like Trump or Nikki Haley who genuinely seem to want to strike. The real question in the US debate now is whether the moderate hawks, with an assist from the doves, can restrain the ultras from attacking North Korea this year.

The full essay follows the jump…

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Korea 2017 Year in Review: The Presidential Impeachment was Actually the Biggest Story


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This is a local rep-post of a piece I just wrote for the Lowy Institute. I like these sort of retrospective, end-of-the-year pieces.

Basically I argue that the impeachment of former President Park Geun Hye was the biggest story of the year. Yes, Trump sucks up all the oxygen in the room, but who even knows if he means all his threats? But completing a full impeachment cycle is a pretty rare event in the history of democracy. And the Koreans did it with no violence or civic rupture. That is pretty impressive. But yes, I did then list North Korea and Trump as otherwise the big stories of the year.

The full essay follows the jump:

2017 was a rollercoaster year on the Korean peninsula. The South Koreans impeached their president. The North Koreans tested dozens of rockets, including intercontinental ballistic missiles. The American president threatened war repeatedly, possible nuclear war, against the North. And some random dorky foreigner in Korea got famous, because his cute little kids wandered into the frame while he was on TV. Honestly, why didn’t they fire that guy? It was quite a year.

For all the bluster and threats of war, I would nonetheless rate the impeachment of the South Korean president as the most important event. North Korean war scares are, as disturbing as it is to say it, pretty common, while a completed democratic impeachment is actually quite rare.

1. The Impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-Hye

With several months of distance from the upheaval of the winter protests against Park, the impeachment trial, the new election, and all the attendant drama, it is now pretty clear that Park Geun-Hye’s circle was grossly corrupt, and that she, by extension, did not really deserve to remain in office. There are diehards who are convinced it was a ‘communist’ conspiracy. The South Korean right is disturbingly comfortable with mccarthyite attacks on liberal opponents, and there is an Alex Jones-style conspiracy fringe here. But it is otherwise pretty widely accepted that Park’s confidant, Choi Soon-Sil, grossly abused her access to the president and had far too much influence over Park.

Choi was often compared to Rasputin. Choi’s father had a quasi-religious influence over Park since her youth, and Choi seemed to ‘inherit’ that. Choi in turn abused it, particularly on Park’s ascension to the presidency, enriching both herself and her cronies. It was undeniable sleazy and embarrassing, and as more and more details came out, Park’s approval rating fell to an astonishing 6% at one point. Has any chief executive in a modern democracy ever fallen that low?

There is much debate about whether Park herself knew about all the corruption. But like Ronald Reagan’s ignorance defense during the Iran-Contra affair, this too represents a gross dereliction of duty. President Park was either blithely unaware of what was happening right under her nose among her closest companions and staff, or covered it up, Nixon-style.

Eight months out now from all the controversy, my own sense is the former, while most of the Koreans I know seem to think the former. Park, it strikes me, was more incompetent than dastardly. Her behavior throughout her presidency suggested she was constantly overwhelmed by the scope of her office. On missile defense, North Korea policy, or the sinking of the Sewol ferry, she was adrift, and the rumors from her staff regarding her (low) intelligence were harsh. We will likely never know.

2. North Korean Missile Tests.

North Korea conducted twenty separate missile provocations in 2017, involving dozens of missiles, from short-range Scud-style launches to full-blown ICBMs designed to strike the continental United States. This was the fastest test tempo ever. For all Donald Trump’s pettiness, his ‘rocket man’ nickname for Kim Jong Un is not wrong.

One of these tests overflew Japan, prompting the commencement of civil air defense drills. (Although in a society whose median age is 47, they likely will not work well given the 8 minute warning time the Japanese will have.) Others have sought to demonstrate a capability to strike the United States. November 29’s test seems to have been accepted as that breakthrough.

Much of the debate over the weapons turns on whether the North intends to use them offensively. It is widely accepted that nuclear weapons give North Korea a potent shield against US-led regime-change against Pyongyang. After the Western removals of Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Moammar Kadaffi, that is an understandable goal, however regrettable for us. There is a defense and deterrence logic here which all can grasp.

We may dislike it, but it is in fact quite rational for a state like North Korea to pursue these weapons. It is poor and backward. It is loathed by much of the world as a freakish cold war relic. It is surrounded by enemies, or frenemies like China eager to exploit it instrumentally, but it has no real friends. When international relations theorist Ken Waltz spoke of ‘internal balancing,’ North Korean nuking up against such a tough neighborhood despite its poverty is exactly what he had in mind. Friendless, encircled, dysfunctional, and poor, North Korea is, in Victor Cha’s words, the ‘impossible state.’ In such circumstances, nuclear weapons are in fact an excellent choice. Not only for security, but they can be proliferated for cash and used as gangsterish shake-down instruments as well.

Hawkish fears of North Korean aggression in the vein of the old saw that ‘nuclear weapons make the world safe for World War II’ strike me as over-wrought. Even if North Korea could successfully ‘de-couple’ the US from South Korea, it could likely still not defeat South Korea. The terrible health of that recent defector, who was a relatively privileged border card, is suggestive. And even if the North somehow managed to win, it would struggle enormously to occupy and integrate a modern state of free people twice its size into its ossified framework.

3. Trump’s Fire and Fury

Throughout the year, Trump’s erratic and explosive commentary raised tension in ways not seen before. No previous American president had ever threatened to ‘totally destroy North Korea’ or threw around casual war threats – the ‘armada, ‘fire and fury.’ Trump, in his impatience to distinguish himself from his predecessor, claimed ‘strategic patience’ to be over. All this created a momentum to strike North Korea – enough that South Korean President Moon Jae-In felt it necessary to publicly declare to the National Assembly, just days before Trump’s arrival, that no war could take place against North Korea with the South’s assent.

And curiously, Trump blinked. When he also spoke to the National Assembly, he forsook the best chance he had to lay out a case for war to the South Korean government and public. Instead he fell back on bromides about South Korea’s self-evident moral superiority and the need for ‘maximum pressure.’ In fact, there is little difference between that and strategic patience – alliances, deterrence and defense, missile defense, sanctions, etc. Similarly, after the November 29 ICBM test in which North Korea triumphantly declared it could strike the US, Trump said little more than ‘we’ll take care of it,’ likely because he know realizes that no one believes his bizarre threats anymore and that war in the region would be a catastrophe laid at his feet.

South Korea came through these multiple challenges remarkably well. It completed a full impeachment cycle without violence or civil upheaval. Few democracies have ever done that. It similarly held the line on the North’s bullying despite a new liberal president whom conservatives relentlessly criticize as too dovish. And for all the anxiety about Donald Trump’s warmongering – or it just reality TV star blather? – the US president finally seems to have realized what South Koreans and the analyst community have known for years: There is no obvious solution to North Korea; if there were, it would have been tried long ago; and war is a terrible option. Now if only they could find a way get rid of that hack BBC Dad guy…

Is Trump Baiting Kim Jong Un?


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This is a local re-post of something I wrote a few weeks ago for The National Interest. It pivots off of the argument I made last month as well, that this is the weirdest North Korean crisis ever. Not necessarily the most dangerous – the ax-murder incident might still be at the top – but rather the strangest. And you thought Dennis Rodman was the weirdest low the North Korean debate could hit. How wrong you were.

The reason of course is Trump’s mad ad-libbing over these last months, and his downright bizarre commentary in general about east Asia. It’s worth remembering that his frightening comments like ‘fire and fury’ and ‘totally destroy’ were just thrown out off the cuff with no vetting by Trumps’ natsec team. So we’re backing into a war because Trump does not how to take direction from experts. John Kelly tried to ground him and Trump, like some petulant teenager, won’t have it – purposefully ignores his staff recommendations just to spite them. Surreal…

The full essay follows the jump.

Annihilation without Representation: Do S Korea & Japan have a Veto over Action against N Korea?


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest this month. The TNI editors gave it the very helpful title, “The True Danger of the North Korea Crisis: It Could Cost American Its Allies.” That is exactly right. If the US strikes North Korea without getting the consent of South Korea and Japan, they will exit the alliance. Why stay when your ally jeopardizes potentially millions of your citizens and doesn’t even get your permission? And this would have a huge demonstration effect on other US allies too. Now you know that Trump thinks you’re expendable. Why would you stay?

So to me, that is the big question going forward: Will Trump even bother to call the South Koreans and Japanese before he strikes? He couldn’t be bothered to appoint an ambassador to South Korea, and presidenting is pretty hard. So hey, why bother? Fox and Friends is on…

The full essay is below the jump:

Trump, Naturally, is Making this the Weirdest North Korea Crisis Ever


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This is a re-post of something I wrote for the Lowy Institute this month. In short, Trump is not only making this rolling semi-crisis more dangerous, but weirder too. US presidents don’t talk like vengeful Old Testament prophets, ratings-seeking reality TV stars, or children taunting their siblings, but I guess they do now. *sigh*

I spoke at the New Yorker Festival of Ideas last week on North Korea. I said then that if Trump would simply get off Twitter, there would be a noticeable step down in the tension our here. By extension, I mean he should stop ad-libbing scary, off-the-cuff remarks like the ‘calm before the storm.’ I did the best I could to explain these sorts of remarks here, but honestly, I wonder if he really even grasps the scale of his office. Today’s preposterous comment on the US nuclear stockpile suggests he doesn’t.

My full essay on how Trump is changing this NK crisis from the usual pattern is below the jump.

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Get Real: We’re Not Going to ‘Totally Destroy’ North Korea. We’re Going to Manage It


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This is a local re-post of an essay I published earlier this month at The National Interest.

President Trump’s outlandish UN speech was yet another national embarrassment, and his threat to ‘totally destroy’ another country verges on a war crime. And it’s not in our interest to do that anyway, so let’s start thinking practically about how we’re going to manage this mess.

My TNI essay below argues that we need to try to manage North Korea, rather than seek some final solution, because North Korea is persistent whether we like it or not, and because it is a nuclear weapons state whether we like it or not. That sucks. But I don’t see what other choice we have. Bombing North Korea is a terrible idea for reasons I’ve been saying all year on this website. Talking to North Korea and getting a real deal that they’ll stick to, like JCPOA, would great. But they flim-flam us so much, and so many hawks in the US and South Korea are unwilling to negotiate seriously with the North (remember that Congressional Republicans helped undercut the Agreed Framework; it wasn’t just Nork cheating which undid it), that I doubt talks will go anywhere. So we’re left muddling through. Did I say already that this sucks?

So what does ‘management’ mean? Recognizing that we can’t sole every problem as we want and that bad stuff we just have to live with, like NK nuclear weapons. They are lots of smaller things we can do – sanctions, going after NK money in Chinese banks, missile defense, pruning NK’s diplomatic/money-raising global network, continuing to bang away on China to take this more seriously, and so on. So please, can President Trump and Nicki Haley stop talking like Dr. Strangelove so that the rest of us can get back to the problem of what we can realistically do about North Korea?

The full essay follows the jump:

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