About Robert E Kelly

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

Can S Korean President Moon Sell a Deal with North Korea to the Hawks, in the US and South Korea?


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This is a local re-post of an op-ed I wrote earlier this month for the Lowy Institute. Basically, I am wondering if Moon can get a deal with North Korea by South Korea’s  conservatives, especially in the press. I am skeptical.

It is worth noting in this regard that Moon and the Blue House have said almost nothing publicly about the talks with Kim Jong Un, specifically what the agenda might be or what proposals POTROK might make. Does anyone else find that vaguely alarming? Given all the big talk about settling the big issues of Korean, shouldn’t POTROK be floating some ideas out there for the public and analyst community to chew over? And Moon talked so much about improved transparency in government as a candidate.

It is worth remembering that when SK President Park Geun Hye negotiated the comfort women deal in a blackhole like this, she faced punishing public criticism when the deal was finally released. Moon will face the same backlash if he gives away a lot with little to no public input or warning. This is all very curious. I wish we knew a lot more about what Moon and Trump are considering offering up – USFK, the alliance itself, aid, sanctions relief, recognition? Everyone is guessing, because these two democratic governments aren’t telling anyone anything. Grr.

So below the jump are some ideas on how to get a deal passed Seoul conservatives who are increasingly suspicious of this whole thing.

Cancel the Trump-Kim Summit – because you don’t really think Trump is up to this, do you? (Don’t Lie)


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This is a local re-post of something I wrote for The National Interest earlier this month. This essay expands on what I have been saying on Twitter for last two weeks since Trump – or rather foreign envoys speaking on behalf of the US president (WTH?!) – agreed to the summit. Namely, that Donald Trump is woefully, obviously, embarrassingly unqualified to go head-to-head with Kim Jong Un in a serious bargaining environment

Normally it would not make much difference that Trump himself is clueless about Korea, because staff work would comprise most of the summit effort. But with only 8 weeks before the summit, much of the burden of negotiating falls on Trump himself. And since it is a summit, presumably the the really big issues between the US and NK are on the tables – nukes, a peace treaty, recognition, etc. Does anyone really believe a reality TV star who doesn’t read, watches five hours of TV a day, and relies more on family and friends than technical staff is qualified to negotiate these sorts of questions in just 8 weeks? Wake up, everybody.

To be sure, the summit will likely just be a bust, with Trump skylarking about how he’d like to build a Trump Tower in Pyongyang as Kim gives a long-winded speech about US ‘war crimes.’ But it might also go badly wrong as Trump veers wildly off-course and trades away US forces here for some weak-tea de-nuclearization deal the Norks will cheat on. Honestly, I am amazed the South Korea government thought it a good idea to put Trump – the guy who just 3 weeks ago gave this insane speech – in a room with Kim. What is going on?

The full essay follows the jump.

An Agenda for the N Korea Talks: If They Balk at CVID, What if We Start with Nuclear Safety?


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This is a local re-post of an idea I floated at The National Interest after the Pyeongchang Olympics. My working assumption is that NK doesn’t really want to de-nuclearize. Yes, they are saying this stuff to get the talks rolling, but after 40 years of effort and enormous sacrifice, it’s highly unlikely they’ll just trade them away in the upcoming summits. Or if they did put the nukes on the table, the concessions they would demand would be so outrageous, that neither we nor the ROKs would go for them.

We can hope of course, but a full de-nuclearization outcome would likely only come after years of concessions and counter-concessions building toward some kind of final status agreement. It’s almost certainly not going to just fall out of the sky in the next 2 months.

So how about starting with nuclear safety? It’s topically in the nuclear space, so it keeps discussion hovering around our main concern. But it also avoids an early stalemate of de-nuking in exchange for concessions we’ll never give, which would then halt the summits before they even get going. Talking nuclear safety also cuts to a problem of genuine concern – that NK likely manages its nuclear materials pretty sloppily, raising the possibility of a Chernobyl-style incident. I’d bet Homer Simpson could get that nuclear safety inspector job at Yongbyon.

Anyone have any thoughts on this? The full essay follows the jump:

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Trump is Moving the Overton Window on Striking North Korea to the Right


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute last month. Basically Trump is shifting the entire debate on responding to North Korea to the right.

Broadly, I would say there a two camps – hawks and doves – within the Korea analyst community. And each of those has a nested sub-division – moderates and ultras. The dove ultras are basically pro-Pyongyang. There aren’t too many of these folks left, no matter how mccarthyite the South Korean right gets. Then come the moderate doves who want engagement and the Sunshine Policy. On the right, the moderate hawks (I put myself here) are skeptical of engagement but accept trying, focusing more on sanctions and China. And the hawk ultras want to bomb the North.

Trump’s big impact on North Korea debate is to legitimize the hawk ultras and push the entire conversation their way, in the process writing the doves out of the conversation entirely debate. I have half-in-jest referred to this as the ‘Kelly Rule’ on Twitter. The American debate is increasingly a contest between bombers ultras, like John Bolton yesterday in the WSJ, vs panicked moderate doves and hawks forming a united front to prevent a war.

In social science language, Trump is pulling the Overton window toward strikes, making them more likely generally, even if they don’t happen this year. Trump is normalizing or legitimizing discussions of (the hugely risky) use of force against North Korea.

The full essay follows the jump…

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More on Why I Don’t Think the North Koreans will Carry Real Costs/Risk for Unification


Korea tensions1This is a local repost of something I wrote for the Lowy Institute in January. It is sort of a sequel to my last post. Across these two posts, my point is to argue that North Korea is basically a status quo state and won’t carry serious costs for unification.

I got a lot of heat on Twitter for suggesting this. Hawks were displeased. Josh Stanton particularly had a smart comeback.

So let me try again. Yes, ideally the North Koreans want national unity. In fact, maximally, they may even want socialism. But that’s not what matters. What we care about is what they will sacrifice for, not their ideal wants. We’re looking for satisficing, not maximizing, behavior here.

So what are the North Koreans sacrificing for? Where are they carrying costs and taking risks? A couple obvious areas: 1. Nukes. 2. Luxury imports. Neither of these really advance a unification agenda. Nukes are a defensive weapon in practice, because of their extraordinary deterrent value. And all the counterfeiting, money in Chinese banks, and general sanctions-busting is either to smuggle in luxuries for elites or to promote the nuclear missile program. What North Korea is not doing is launching war-risking strategic provocations, no matter how much crazy stuff they say. (Why we listen much to North Korea when they lie and exaggerate so much never ceases to amaze me.)

Like all other states, they firstly want to survive, and they are in a pretty hostile neighborhood. Before we get carried away that nukes have empowered them to overrun the peninsula, let’s start with what we can prove: the elite their wants to hang on – because they don’t want to die on the run or in South Korean jails – and prosper – hence all the sanctions-running and criminality.

However I do agree with Josh, that the nukes open up a lot of opportunities to blackmail South Korea, bully it into semi-permanent subsidization of the North, and otherwise try to cow it. But that is not unification. It’s subsidization – endless, condition-less South Korean cash is what they want. Not unity.

The full essay follows the jump…

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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