The Korean Right Got Crushed Last Month – Why?


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The following post is the original English language version of a story I wrote for Newsweek Japan (relevant issue to the left) a few weeks ago on the South Korean.

The results of last month’s South Korean National Assembly went sharply against my prediction that the left would get routed. It serves me right for actually making a clear claim; next time I’ll stick to banalities to elide accountability. And I suppose I can take solace in that just about everyone was surprised at how well the Left did, including the left itself.

My logic in the prediction piece was straight out of political science: Duverger’s law predicts that partisan fragmentation – the fracturing of the Korean left’s votes across 3 parties – would throw lot of plurality seats, which are 82% of the National Assembly, to the right. This clearly did not happen. In fact, the new center-left People’s Party drew from the conservative New Frontier party instead of the traditional left-wing Democratic party. This is a huge surprise, and should be a huge red flag that Park Geun-Hye is not a popular president. Indeed, an early lame-ducking of her administration may be the most important outcome of the election.

The full essay follows the jump.

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My Predictions and Expectations for the Upcoming South Korean Parliamentary Elections: The Left will get Hammered


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This is a re-post of something I wrote a few days ago for the Lowy Institute. I thought it would be helpful to put some predictions out there, with a logic for why I made them.

That map to the left is the last South Korean parliamentary election’s distribution of seats. Red and blue are conservative parties. Yellow and purple are left-wing. Gray is independent. The reason red (the Saenuri Party) looks so dominant is because rural Korea is empty. So the parliamentary districts in the countryside are very big in order to capture the necessary number of voters. You can see this in the US as well, where the geographic expanse of urban congressional seats is much smaller than rural ones.

In brief, my prediction is that Ahn Chul Soo’s upstart left-wing party will throw lots of seats (10-30?) to the right by fragmenting the left-wing vote. 82% of the National Assembly’s seats are won by plurality voting. So all the right has to do is stick together under one roof, and they win while the left fragments its votes. The Diplomat interviewed me on this, and I said the same: Ahn doesn’t want to admit that he is sucking away votes from the main left-wing (Minjoo) party. So Ahn is the Jesse Ventura of South Korean politics, a vague, apolitical who-knows-what-he-believes purposefully damaging the larger effort of the left for his own egomania. (To be fair, parties to the left of Minjoo – typically pro-North Korean – also have a record of pointlessly splitting the left’s vote.)

The full essay follows the jump, but you probably shouldn’t listen to me anyway. My wife, naturally, won’t have any of this and will vote for Ahn, because he’s new… or something… I just don’t get the Korean liberal voter…

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My Op-Ed for the Busan Ilbo on the Paris Attacks: Korea should Not Overreact like the West did


This is a re-print, in English, of an editorial I wrote last month in the Busan Daily newspaper. Here is that Korean version.

BI contacted me, because I teach a course on terrorism at Pusan National University. As far as I can tell, it is one of the only such courses in Korea. So when the global reaction to Paris arrived in Korea, they asked me for a few thoughts. The most important point is: Don’t go bananas.

After the Paris attack, the Korean government is talking seriously about passing counter-terrorism (CT) laws and developing a domestic CT capability. This is wise, but there is a lot for Korea to learn from all the mistakes the West has made in the GWOT. By now it is pretty widely accepted that the US wildly over-reacted to the 9/11. The Iraq war especially helped create a helluva lot more terrorists than we were facing before, and ISIS would not exist without the invasion. Remember:

1. Modern democratic societies are pretty safe.

2. Some domestic crime and violence is part of the cost we pay for freedom and our open societies.

3. Flipping out about Muslims in our countries does no good; they’ll just turtle, rather than helping the security services.

So the big post-9/11 lesson from the West for Korea on jihadist terrorism: Keep it all in perspective. You are far more likely to be killed by lightning or your HDTV falling off the wall than a jihadi.

The full essay follows the jump:

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The MERS Panic and the Now Painfully Obvious Need to Clean-Up the Korean Regulatory State


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I wrote a story about the South Korean MERS panic for this week’s Newsweek Japan (available here). Basically, I make the same argument as my friend Se-Woong Koo from Korea Expose (which you really need to start reading). The panic shows just how much South Korea needs to get its act together on public safety and competence in government.

It is ironic that when Park entered office, the biggest fear was ideological – that she might imitate her father’s harsh governing style, or that her term would trench warfare between conservatives and progressives over her father’s legacy. Now – after NIS, the nuclear materials scandal, Sewol, the staffing circus, MERS, and so on – the questions are far more elementary – do Park Geun-Hye and her closest aides just have the basic technocratic skills/focus/interest to run a modern complex country and bureaucracy? I would be surprised if her approval rating breaks 50% again before her term ends. It’s once again around 30%, as it was after Sewol. Competence is almost certain to be main line of critique from the opposition in next year’s parliamentary election.

For previous essays on this topic, go here, here, and here. The full essay follows the jump.

Some Regional Honesty on the 70th Anniversary of the End of the Pacific War? Not a Chance


There will be loads of retrospectives this year. But rather than write yet another ‘what are the lessons of WWII?’ piece, I thought I would write about how current Asian politics is still framed so much by the war. Particularly, I thought it would be useful to point out in all honesty how some of region’s elites actually came to power on the back of the war – even though they’d never, ever admit that. Specifically, Chiang Kai-Shek would have crushed Mao if he hadn’t had to fight the Japanese instead, and the (North) Korean Worker’s Party would never have come to power without the Red Army ‘liberation’ that was legitimized by Japanese occupation. Being honest about this stuff is helpful, if uncomfortable.

This piece was originally written for the Lowy Institute. It starts after the jump:

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Park Geun-Hye’s Presidency is Turning into Status-Quo Maintenance


(For Korean readers, the following essay has been translated here.)

And who can blame her? Things are pretty good for her coalition, if not for a lot of younger and female Koreans. Unemployment is reasonable; debt and deficits are under control; the chaebol, for all their corruption and hubris, do make stuff people want; the much (but mistakenly) worshipped trade surplus is high; the Korean left, no matter how much they campaign on the Sewol sinking, cannot seem to break through; and so on. So why rock the boat?

The essay below the jump, originally published here for the Lowy Interpreter, argues that Park’s presidency is “drifting.” But as I have thought about it since then, I am wondering if maybe ‘drift’ is the wrong word. That is why I put “status quo maintenance” in this blog-post title. That suggests a little more agency than drift, because maybe Park really just doesn’t want to change much. Certainly her coalition, as I argue below, does not. Maybe stasis is the whole point.

I should also say that this essay was not intended as some major, biting critique of Park. A friend of mine at the Wall Street Journal called the essay below ‘scathing,’ and the Korean group who translated this essay and distributed it on Twitter has read the essay as a left-wing critique. But I should say honestly that this was not my intention – another reason I call it ‘status quo maintenance’ here. For Korean readers looking for liberal/leftist critiques, those are not really my politics (try here for the best lefty critiques of modern Korea). Regular readers know that I deeply distrust the SK left on foreign policy (too much excuse-making for the Norks). Also, I thought Lee Myung-Bak, who was to Park’s right, was actually a really good president and I said so in the JoongAng Daily. In short, this is not intended as a partisan shot for the SK left. I try to call them as I see them, and LMB, IMO, was a much better prez than PGH is turning out to be. I am sure that hopelessly confuses my politics, but so be it…

The essay follows the jump:

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My Lowy Post on the Sewol Sinking, the Captain’s Trial, and the Long Overdue Focus on Corruption in Korea


This will be my last post on the sinking of the Sewol ferry, unless the trial reveals blockbuster new information. The essay below is the longer version of a piece originally printed here for the Lowy Institute.

I actually doubt the trial will tell us much that is new. We know why the ship foundered (covered below). The most important information that could come now is why the captain and crew abandoned ship so early. They had told the passengers to stay in place, so did they not realize that they were leaving hundreds of people to drown? Korean maritime law requires crew to help passengers. Did they not see the massive dereliction of duty in abandoning hundreds of people below decks on a sinking ship? Wow. That’s pretty d— obtuse. In fact, that is probably criminal.

At the very least, they might have just said ‘run for your lives’ on the speakers. Instead, the passengers dutifully followed orders – until it was too late. That is where so much of the anger comes from. Many of the drowned were healthy young teenagers, who easily might have escaped. Instead they died in place, because the captain told them to stay. This is why people are talking about the death penalty. What possible excuse is there for not just telling people to get out anyway they can? That would have required all of 5-10 seconds on the PA system. I don’t get that at all.

Here is that essay:

“On April 16 this year, the South Korean passenger ferry Sewol capsized off the southwest coast of Korea. The ferry carried 476 people; at the time of this writing almost 300 are confirmed dead, with several dozen still missing. The Sewol was en route from Incheon port on the Yellow Sea, south to Jeju Island in the Korea Strait. Jeju is a popular island vacation destination in Korea. Well over 300 of the passengers, and the majority of the fatalities, were high school students on vacation.

Overlapping Bureaucratic Failures Cause Disaster

The cause of the sinking is not yet fully known. Apparently around 8:45 am, the ship made a sharp starboard turn. Why is unclear; initial theories suggesting a struck reef, or swerving to avoid one, have proven wrong. The turn lead to a sharp list, worsened by poorly secured cargo that came loose, far too much cargo weight, and too little ballast. As a result, the ship was top-heavy and hard to steer. Some reports have suggested the previous crewmembers had noted the instability of the ship. Others have suggested that the cargo weight may have been almost four times the recommended limit. Hence much of the investigative focus has been on safety rules and if they were followed.

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