Park Geun-Hye’s Trip to that Bombastic Chinese Military Parade Was Actually a Good Idea

South Korean President Park Geun-hye (2nd from L) talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin (3rd from L) as they, along with Chinese President Xi Jinping (far R), stand to review a massive military parade marking the 70th anniversary of China`s victory over Japan in World War II at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015, (Yonhap)

I know what your thinking: there’s the president of a democracy standing next to three dictators, one of whom insists on dressing like Mao, watching Chinese soldiers goose-step like fascists. Yikes! I agree that the optics are terrible. (Quick quiz: who’s the ‘president for life’ in blue on the left? Here.)

But Park is flattering China like this is for a purpose – to isolate North Korea. So stop all your nattering about her clothes at this event (yes, I’ve heard that); that she is Xi’s ‘girlfriend;’ that she’s a ‘sinophile;’ that she’s drifting from the US or turned her back on her friends or democracy or whatever. None of that is true. All of that is speculative.

Instead, she’s hustling hard – 6 trips to China in 3 years – to convince China that South Korea is not an enemy and that China can therefore give up the North Korean buffer. How many times have you heard American analysts, in an attempt to get China to do more on North Korea, say, ‘the road to Pyongyang runs through Beijing’? Well, here are the South Koreans taking that to heart. If you think she’s dissing the US alliance, recall that the whole purpose of the US-SK alliance is North Korea. The US alliance is not an end in itself, no matter what neocons think.

China is North Korea’s last trap-door to escape the obvious inefficiencies of its economy. Without China, the perks of running North Korea – the cars, yachts, booze, trips to Hong Kong, girls, foreign education for your kids, and all the rest – disappear. Cut that Chinese umbilical cord, and North Korean resources will diminish dramatically. As the budget steadily shrinks, regime elites will turn on each other over a diminishing pie. The Songun bargain (my term) – struck by Kim Jong Il to keep the system rolling after the Cold War, in which the KPA generals do not overthrow the Kims in exchange for the cushy lifestyle – would collapse, because the lifestyle is impossible without some access to the outside world. And the only place North Korean elites can park their money, traffick their meth and missile parts, import skiing equipment (yes, really), and all the rest, is China.

If you can finally cut off North Korea from the world – no more hidden pipelines – then I’d bet the regime would collapse within a decade from elite infighting over the small domestic, not very cushy resource pie leftover (no more Hennessey!). After the jump is a reprint of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute making this argument at length.

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How Japan Manages to Hang Tough in History Debates with Korea & China


This is a cross-post of an essay that went up today at the Lowy Interpreter.

I was wondering why it is that Japan seems to be able to duck-and-weave on thorny East Asian history questions, when these are settled in just about the rest of the world? Even the Japanese left admits the nasty stuff the Empire did, so how is it the right hangs on in denial?

Some of it, to be sure, is domestic politics. The uyoku dentai certainly keep up the pressure on Abe & co. to give up nothing. And my own experience with them on Twitter has lead me to block them a lot, because they’re so visceral and racist: ‘Koreans are immoral’ and so on. But they’re no more than a few hundred thousand people at most, out out 126 million Japanese total.

The IR academic in me instinctively looks to foreign pressures, and here one can really see how the Chinese Communist Party’s appalling history toward its own people conveniently lets the Empire off the hook. The CCP will lose a ‘who was worse to the Chinese people than who’ contest with the Empire. Similarly, the ROK’s instrumentalization of the relationship with Japan for national identity-building purposes allows the Japanese right to stonewall, the logic being ‘Korea will never stop demanding apologies, so there’s no point engaging them anyway.’ As usual, it’s a tangle.

The essay follows the jump:

Separating China from North Korea is Worth South Korea’s Silence on the South China Sea

South China Sea

I got this map from here. Very useful. The article below was originally published at the Lowy Institute last week, here.

In short, I don’t mind too much that the Koreans aren’t engaged on the South China Sea freedom of navigation dispute, because keeping their mouths shut and schmoozing the Chinese is necessary to get China to finally cut North Korea loose, which in turn is the only way North Korea will ever collapse. This is why I have never thought much of the criticisms that President Park Geun-Hye is a ‘sinophile.’ If you were South Korea, you would be too. If you lived next to giant China, and they were permanently bailing out your mortal enemy, then sucking up to them (within limits) is a good idea. I am not a big fan of PGH, but she has really gotten the Beijing-Pyongyang nexus right that her predecessors did not. Let her keep flattering Xi Jinping.

So you say that SK is a US ally and they’re getting a free-ride on the US, and therefore they should be involved in the SCS. Fair enough, but think a few steps further out. Getting China to dump Pyongyang is way more valuable than a little more weight on the scales in the SCS. SK can’t add much there, but openly throwing in with the US and Japan on the SCS would push Beijing back to Pyongyang when PGH’s schmoozing and flattering of Xi Jinping has done so much to push them apart. That’s hugely valuable.

Remember that NK will not collapse until China cuts it off, and that NK’s collapse is vastly more valuable to everyone – US included – than one more minor voice in the SCS flap.

The full essay follows the jump.

Note to Congressional Republicans: Please Don’t Send One of Your Iran Letters to China

Does anyone wonder what it would be like it neoconservatives brought their unique blend of bluster, recklessness, and belligerence to Asia? I kept thinking about that in the wake of that wildly irresponsible Iran letter from the Senate GOP last month. As Jonathan Chait notes, that letter was the perfect metaphor for neoconservative rashness, poor planning, maximal belligerence, and relentless nationalist self-congratulation. And this will be the tone of the GOP primary (again) too.

Now try to imagine how that would have gone down if we had sent that letter to China. Yikes! I hope these guys stay focused on the Middle East where their free-lancing recklessness and belligerence have manageable costs. But please, please keep these people away from Asia, where they know even less than in the Gulf and the costs are much higher. Scary.

The following was originally written for the Lowy Institute, here.

Northeast Asia 2015 Predictions: Another Year of the Repetitive, Uninspiring Status Quo


This is another of my end of year prediction/look-back posts. The others, on 2014, are here and here. This time I want to look forward to 2015, and I’ve got to admit that I see little that inspires confidence. Every state in northeast Asia is run by nationalists and social conservatives who have little interest in overcoming regional foreign policy splits, or altering the bureaucratic, crony corporatist status quo.

So expect another year of the same: loud, angry, status-quo reinforcing foreign policy fights over empty rocks and events 80 years ago; corruption scandals; competitive devaluation and outrageously punitive consumer prices; a rough deal for working women; dirigisme instead of innovation; North Korean shenanigans; and so on. NE Asia really needs visionary leaders – an Adenauer or Mandela – someone to pull the region out of the blind alley of nationalism and crony statism that rewards nationalist elites and punishes everyone else.

The following predictions were originally made in the Diplomat here.

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Looking Back on What Predictions for East Asia 2014 I got Wrong…and a little Right

untitledI have always liked these end of the year prediction check-ups, and new year prediction-making exercises. It’s fun, but it also is an important check on irresponsibility in our punditry. Month after month we say this or that is important, or this or that will happen. But later when the current we thought was important turns out not to be, or the ‘revolutionary’ leader we thought would ‘change everything’ turns out to be a bust, we conveniently forget about that and say some other trend is actually what really matters.

This is intellectually pretty shoddy but understandable. No one likes to admit they are wrong. But identifying why causal mechanisms we thought important actually weren’t, is an important way for us to improve our thinking and explain ourselves to readers. The alternative is those neocons who got Iraq really, really wrong, but still come back on TV unchastened. Bleh.

So here is a run-down of the big things I got wrong in 2014 in Asia. In brief, I overestimated the importance of the Sewol in driving reform in Korea, and the depth of the freeze between North Korea and China; I underestimated the importance of the UN report on North Korean human rights, and China’s efforts to build parallel institutions in Asia particularly. This was originally posted at the Lowy Institute last week:

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My Top 5 List for 2104: 5 Biggest Foreign Policy Events in Korea


This is a follow-up to my previous post – a top 5 list of events for US power in Asia in 2014.

South Korea had a good year. President Park’s cozying up to Beijing is starting to pay off. China-North Korea relations are frosty, which is important progress. Seoul also got OPCON delayed indefinitely, which is great for Southern security, as well as its defense budget (but not so great for the US). And the UN report on North Korea human rights has gotten a lot of traction – way more than I thought – and looks increasingly likely to show-up China and Russia for what they really are out here – shameless, cold-blooded supporters of the worst regime on earth. The more that point is made in public and Moscow and Beijing suffer the embarrassment costs of that support, the better.

The full post comes after the jump; it was originally written for the Lowy Institute:

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