The Tragedy of Otto Warmbier: Time for a US Travel Ban?


ottowarmbierThis is a local re-post for an essay I just wrote for the Lowy Institute this month (here).

I feel nothing but anguish for this young man and his family. Our prayers go out to them. Given that North Korea almost certainly gave him a hack doctor – because all the good ones are kept for elites – who grossly misdiagnosed him, it is no exaggeration to say that Pyongyang effectively murdered this poor man.

The problem is what to do, and the options are all depressingly familiar. Cable news idiots are a talking about force again, but that’s a terrible idea for reasons well known by now. The big question is whether there should be a travel ban on US citizens going to North Korea. This idea gets raised every time there is a hostage-taking. Given that Warmbier was killed though, it is getting a lot more play this time. For myself, I would not counsel Americans to go now. I went in 2012 when it seemed reasonably safe. Kim Jong Un was new to power, and his habit of snatching Americans had not yet bloomed. But now it seems like this is a state policy almost. Don’t go to North Korea now. It is too risky.

The full essay follows the jump:

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My New York Times Op-Ed: A North Korea “Agenda for SK’s New Leader”


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This is a local re-post of an op-ed I wrote last week for The New York Times.

Basically it is four suggestions to President Moon on dealing with North Korea. They are (mildly) hawkish arguments of the sort I routinely make here, including all my favorite hobby horses – talks are a shell game, move the capital, spend more on defense, bang away at China to cut off North Korea, and start treating Japan like a liberal democratic ally instead of a potential imperialist. Naturally a dovish liberal like Moon will adopt all these. Hooray! I anticipate a Blue House call any day now…

Regular readers have seen all this before, but it’s still pretty cool to get into The New York Times though. I figure this will be the most read thing I ever write, so I rolled out arguments I know well rather than something really new. The full essay follows the jump.

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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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The Iran Deal Cannot be a Template for a North Korea Deal if NK doesn’t Want to Deal


This is a rather tardy re-post of something I wrote for the Diplomat in the wake of the Iran deal in late July.

I still think my basic argument is correct. North Korea is far more isolated than Iran, so it needs the weapons a lot more. It also spent a far larger proportionate share of GDP to develop those weapons. So there’s no way they’d give them up without impossible concessions like the withdrawal of USFK or the end of multiparty elections in South Korea.

I do think the Americans, and especially South Koreans, would be open to dealing. But the Norks aren’t. The South Koreans especially just want to find modus vivendi with North Korea so that they can forget about it. But being ignored as the backward, nut-ball, third-world hellhole that it is, is exactly what the Norks don’t want. They crave the prestige of global attention, because otherwise they’re just a nuclear version of Zimbabwe or Turkmenistan. And how could the heroic Baekdu bloodline preside over a dump no one cares about?

So forget any deals. Provocative, nuke-adulating North Korea is here to stay. The full essay follows the jump.

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