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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My Newsweek Japan Cover story: The Sewol Sinking and the Modernization of Korea

Sewol Japan Cover

The following is a story I wrote for Newsweek Japan this week on the sinking of the ferry Sewol in Korea in May. Here is the Japanese version.

Sewol has a been a terrible national tragedy, and that callous, incompetent captain should almost certainly get life imprisonment for hundreds of cases of negligent homicide. But there was more than just that. A series of bureaucratic failures led to the sinking. Bad seamanship may be been the spark, but a lot of poor regulation and corruption laid the groundwork for the sinking to become a major catastrophe.

If Park is serious about cracking down on corruption post-Sewol, it could be a big deal. I am skeptical myself; she leads a traditionalist, not reformist, coalition, and she has not governed as a innovator. But the costs of corruption in Korea – its 46 score from Transparency International – are now clear. Let’s hope she really tries.

Here’s the full version of this argument:

“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 250 are confirmed dead, with several dozen still missing. The Sewol was enoute from Incheon port on the Yellow Sea, south to Jeju Island in the Korea Strait.

The emergency response to the sinking was badly botched. The captain initially told all the passengers to stay in their rooms and not exit to the deck. Retrospectively, the captain has argued that the water was too cold to abandon ship. But later he and the crew were among the first to escape. It is not clear if the ‘abandon ship’ order was ever given, or if it was properly transmitted. Many of the bodies recovered were found in passenger rooms. President Park Geun Hye called the captain’s actions “akin to murder;” he and the entire crew have since been arrested. Worse, only two of the lifeboats on the ship activated properly, and the coast guard response was confused. The initial call for assistance went to far away Jeju; only later did local coast guard get an alert. In fact, one of the initial calls for help came from a student passenger calling a national emergency hotline.

My last Lowy February Essay – Review of Park Geun-Hye’s first Year as Korean President

My comments to Al Jazeera on Park Geun-Hye’s first year in office


Last week at the Lowy Institute, I posted some comments on Park Geun-Hye’s first year in office as Korean president. Below is a longer re-up. In short, I think she has been ok. She’s basically done nothing on domestic policy to change the Korean status quo which so punishes schoolchildren, women, SMEs, and consumers. So much for the idea that a female president would be Korean an easier place for women.

The ‘474 plan’ is typical Korean industrial policy with its rigid planning and strict guidelines and bureaucratic guidance – all of which rejects the basic unpredictability and flexibility of market economics. It’s yet another example of the creativity-killing developmentalism that still treats Korea like a second-world economy in the 1970s. In the US, the Tea Party would call 474 communism. And if she really believes she can get per capita GDP up to $40,000, she’s in a dream-world.

On foreign policy, she’s managed North Korea well enough. And that is good enough for any Korean president. But she’s really dropped the ball on Japan. She’s been unable or unwilling to stop the tit-for-tat downward spiral. If I had to guess, I would say it’s because he father so obviously loved Japan, right down to his own samurai sword, that she has to go overboard the other way. Abe is creepy, but the Korean media doesn’t help and Park’s done little to guide the conversation in a healthier way.

Here’s that essay:

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Obama’s State of the Union once again Demonstrates that the US doesn’t really Care that much about Asia


This graphic is a word-cloud of the president’s state of the union address last week. I am not even sure the word ‘Asia’ is in there.

The following is a local re-up of a piece I originally wrote for the Lowy Institute, where I now blog twice a month. Basically, I argue a theme regular readers here will have heard before – that the ‘pivot’ to Asia is mostly an elite project in the US and that most Americans don’t really care about Asia that much. If I say ‘China’ to my friends in the US, the first thing they think of is cheap stuff in Walmart. So whenever anyone tells me that Asia ‘needs’ the US, or that we’re ‘ceding’ Asia to China, or even Russia (oh, please), because we missed the ASEAN Regional Forum or whatever, I just roll my eyes. Without the American consumer Asian economies would collapse, and, Red Dawn fantasies aside, no Asian state is a security threat to the US (barring the infinitesimally small likelihood of Chinese nuclear strike on the US homeland).

What that means is that the only Americans who think that the US needs Asia are those who support US global hegemony and therefore cannot differentiate among US core interests – such as basic stability in Canada and the Caribbean basin, or a secure oil flow from the Persian Gulf – and US choices to be involved in places like Iraq or South Korea. The pivot to Asia, much like NATO 20 years after the Cold War, is a choice, not a necessity. That doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t ‘pivot’ – indeed, I think it is a good idea myself – but it must also be admitted that retrenchment from many of these commitments would not obviously harm US security, even if many allies would not like it. Neocons and think-tanker far too often elide this crucial distinction. Is Asia important? Does it matter? Yes, sure. Does the US need Asia? No – unless you believe the US and its globe-spanning hegemony are identical (hint: they aren’t). US allies interests are not always synonymous with America’s and if we don’t see that, we invite free-riding, chain-ganged conflicts, and a gargantuan national security state.

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Book Review: “North Korea in Transition”: Oh Wait, it’s Not in Transition…

51KSPBHlncLIn volume 86/4 of the journal Pacific Affairs, I reviewed an essay compilation on North Korea called North Korea in Transition: Politics, Economy, and Society. This was published last year by the Council on Foreign Relations, edited by well-known North Korea-watchers Kyung-Ae Park and Scott Snyder. My book review is, unfortunately, not available electronically from the PA website; it’s only in the journal’s print version. So I thought I would put it up here for some wider circulation.

I know book reviews bore everyone, so I tried to make this interesting by focusing on trends in NK, not just summarizing the constituent essays. It’s a great introduction to North Korea with lots of big names. I learned a lot from it. But I had to object to the title, likely chosen by an ill-informed editor looking for something catchy. North Korea is not in transition. If anything, we should be focusing on how remarkably stable it is. No matter what happens to the Kim regime – famine, de-industrialization, ‘factionalism,’ Chinese take-over of the economy, Dennis Rodman and his tats – nothing seems to bring down the clan or even shake it. Its astonishing ability to not change is what we should be our focus.

Here’s that review:

This useful book is a state-of-the-art treatment of North Korea (NK) for non-academics and is likely to be read widely in think-tank and policy circles. Its authors include some of the finest analysts of NK in English. Laymen will find the book appealing, because the essays, while well-informed, do not overwhelm with jargon. There is some heavy going, but one need not be a social scientist to grasp most of it. The book also ranges widely, covering issues like ideology, economic (mal)adaptation, the monarchy, and foreign relations. All these traits make it a solid introduction to the NK tangle.

That said, the book is not light. The essays are rich, and scholars will also find new ideas and themes that merit sustained social scientific analysis. For example, David Kang suggests that status-seeking is a major element of NK foreign policy behavior. This is a clever insight, and one that characterizes South Korean foreign policy too. Other researchers could formally develop and test such ideas. Specifically, academics in East Asian area studies, comparative and international politics, and, perhaps, economics, will find this book an appealing fount of all manner of hypotheses and conjectures deserving full-out research.

The book is structured around four sections: NK domestic politics, economics, culture, and foreign relations. I found the first section the most gripping, because NK’s internal politics are so opaque. These authors take the regime ideology seriously and explain it in detail. Readers accustomed to thinking of NK ideology as just a fig-leaf for a nasty dictatorship (a common response in my own discipline, international relations), will find the elaboration challenging and enlightening. Conversely, I left the section thinking that if NK elites and people really believe their own propaganda, that makes the inter-Korean stand-off that much more ideologically intense and unification that much more psychologically challenging.

In an intriguing suggestion, the book also hints that Kim Jong Un may need his own ideology. Kim Il Sung had juche; Kim Jong Il had songun. Does KJU need his own personal language of power, given that NK is hyperpersonalistic, neopatrimonial monarchy? This too is a rich question deserving research. A few contributors hint that ‘neo-juche’ may be such an effort. It may aim to reduce the wide reach of the KPA, which songun elevated but has also clearly become a massive economic parasite. If KJU is to place NK on a course of long-term sustainability – instead of the current ad hoc lurching from crisis to crisis with reliance on foreign economic hand-outs – then ideally a KJU ideology would thread the needle of some engagement with the global economy and legitimacy for the fait accompli of partial internal marketization, while nonetheless maintaining enough political-ideological distinctiveness to justify NK’s continuing existence as a separate, poorer Korean state. Indeed to my mind, this dilemma is NK’s central, existential problem: how does NK justify its existence despite the Cold War’s conclusion, German unity, a catastrophically failed economic model – especially in comparison to the South, and fifteen years of post-famine information penetration which has given North Koreans knowledge of life on the other side? I think the book would have been enriched by treating this explicitly.

Clearly NK can ruthlessly hang on through calamity; its collapse has been relentlessly over-predicted. And it can hype its nuclear weapons – ‘the life of the nation,’ KJU said in March 2013 – to deter foreign meddling. But that does not mean NK is stable or secure, or has a genuine strategy to become a ‘strong and prosperous nation.’ That SK presents an obvious and alluring alternative right next door, only worsens this dilemma. Should the Chinese ever finally fatigue of bailing out NK and covering for its antics, NK could easily return to the social chaos of the late 1990s. And the section on NK economics makes this clear. The data presented on just how dysfunctional NK’s economy is, are genuinely disturbing. A colleague once called NK ‘Turkmenistan without oil’ at a conference, and the descent into kleptocracy both at home and abroad is frightening. Another frequently undeveloped theme in NK studies is its post-Cold War mutation into a corrupt gangster state.

The cultural section too brings new information and arguments that Pyongyang kremlinologists overfocused on high politics will enjoy. There is much recent speculation that the flood of information about the outside world that partial marketization has brought will change NK hearts and minds. Indeed, it is often suggested this is the only way NK will change – through bottom-up social evolution and changing expectations – because the regime itself seems unusually close-knit in its support for Kim family royalism.

Finally, the discussion NK’s diplomacy tells the familiar but necessary story of the remarkably frustrating effort by outside powers to push NK into international norms. Indeed, NK is case study of how a small power in tough neighborhood can play its hand remarkably well and avoid domination by much larger rivals. KIS was a master of this, as the essays demonstrate. But NK’s continuing provocations, as well as the now-enormous gap between North and South, make it increasingly hard for NK to ‘weave’ among its neighbors. Per Kang, NK simply lacks the credibility that SK has and is increasingly reliant solely on China for diplomatic and economic cover. NK would prefer to play the Six Parties off against each other, but those days are fading. As with economics, NK desperately needs a new diplomatic strategy to flourish going forward. Mudding through with grudging Chinese aid is clearly risky.

And this raises my only serious criticism of the book: it is not actually clear that NK is in transition. Clearly it should be. It is hopelessly isolated internationally and economically an ‘Upper Volta with nuclear weapons.’ But NK is remarkably consistent. The Kims are still with us. The regime shows no genuine interest in unity. Economic reforms have been facile. The tyranny of gulags, repression, and indoctrination are still in place. That NK hangs on without transitioning is in fact its great puzzle to us.”