About Robert E Kelly

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

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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