The Floyd Protests: The South Korean Police are Far Less Belligerent than US Departments


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This is a local repost of an essay I wrote for The National Interest. Like everyone else, watching the brutality of the US police in the last few weeks has been genuinely shocking. So this essay discusses how a police force with a reputation for brutality during a previous dictatorship came a long way.

This is based on this original tweet thread.

The short version is that the South Korean police haven’t gone through the militarization the US police has. And South Korean police don’t face a heavily armed citizenry, so they don’t need to engage in an arms race against their own people. The result is a disarmed, de-escalatory police culture, which, as an American accustomed to the stormtrooper look and pose of US cops, I find just fantastic. Interactions with the police here are far less fraught and intimidating.

The full essay follows the jump:

Controlling Corona Meant South Korea’s Election was Not Dominated by It


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This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute a few days ago about the recent South Korean legislative election.

This was written before the vote, so it is not a commentary on the results. My concern here instead was to illustrate that democracies can in fact run elections during this pandemic without some Wisconsin-style choice of vote-and-risk-corona or stay-home-and-forego-your-franchise. That was absurd, and the GOP’s disturbing willingness to make voting hard during a pandemic is an embarrassment bordering on authoritarianism. Here are some pics from when my wife went to vote; you can see that it was not some kind of death-trap.

For my thoughts on the results, try this and this. Basically, the right got buried and really needs to figure out what it stand for going forward besides anti-communism. Also, I am uncomfortable that this is yet another missed opportunity for a national referendum on President Moon Jae-In’s outreach to North Korea. Obviously, corona was unanticipated, but it pushed off the agenda the most important, revolutionary policy of the Moon government. That is unfortunate.

The full essay follows the jump:

Trump’s August was so Outlandish and Awful that He is Unfit to Remain President


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This is a local re-post of my monthly essay for the Lowy Institute for September.

In brief, I argue that Trump crossed a rubicon in August. He is now clearly unfit to be president. His behavior in August was so unhinged and inappropriate, that a 25th Amendment removal is now warranted. A white collar professional in any similar position of institutional authority – at a bank, school, hospital, military or government agency, etc. – would be removed for Trump’s August meltdown. So should Trump.

This will not happen of course. Republicans in Trump’s cabinet and in Congress clearly know he is unfit. Leaks like Rex Tillerson’s “he’s a f* moron” are common. But Trump voters’ bond to Trump is akin to a personality cult and they actually seem to approve of the chaos he has unleashed. So Washington Republicans won’t act. But still it is worth noting that they should. And why Trump voters have endorsed ‘burn it all’ is just beyond me. An ideological preference for Trump – however toxic and racist – is at least understandable. But what is the value is simply wrecking American governance?

So not only should the president probably be impeached for the obstruction findings of the Mueller Report, he should also be removed via the 25th Amendment for psychological unfitness. Never thought I’d that sentence. Wow.

The full essay follows the jump.

The South Korean Right in the Wilderness, part 2: Models for a Reformed Liberty Korea Party


This is a re-post of an op-ed I recently wrote for the Dong-A Daily newspaper. It is follow-up to my post from two weeks ago on the future of the South Korean conservative party.

The post of two weeks ago was a diagnosis of the Liberty Korea Party’s (LKP) ills. I argued that post-Park Geun Hye, the LKP had no real ideology or platform beyond old-style anti-communism. Its devotion to the chaebol is passé and reeks of corruption, and extolling Korea, Inc. yet again is just not enough when issues like terrible air quality, spiraling consumer debt, and ‘Hell Joseon’ are the issues on voters’ minds.

So in this op-ed, I look at some possible models for the LKP to follow as it comes back from the wilderness. The one which strikes me as most likely, unfortunately, is a Trumpist-populist turn. The LKP presidential candidate of 2017 already test-drove this idea, calling himself the ‘Donald Trump of Korea.’ Other models either culturally don’t fit well, like a Christian conservative party, or represent no real change, like copying the LDP of Japan.

Maybe we’ll get lucky and the LKP will come back as pro-market, pro-globlization party ready to open South Korea’s economy and support better corporate governance. But I doubt it. The Trumpian path of racism, damning immigrants and out-groups, and plutocracy is so much easier. The extremely harsh backlash to the Yemenis in Jeju suggests this would be a fruitful path to follow. Too bad…

The full essay follows the jump…

The South Korean Right in the Wilderness, part 1: Modernizing the Liberty Korea Party


This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for the Korean Dong-A Daily newspaper.

So exactly no one in the English-speaking cares much about this topic. Everyone wants to talk about Trump and Kim and North Korean nuclear weapons. I get it.

But I do think it is fascinating thinking about how the South Korean right will come back from the wilderness where it now is. Its last president was so corrupt, she was impeached. The conservative party – the Liberty Korea Party – then got trounced in the presidential election of 2017 and then again the local elections of 2018.

Unfortunately, it is still dominated by dead-enders for the last president, conspiracy theorists, and mccarthyites. So here is my advice for bringing the LKP back from the dead. South Korea, like any other country, needs a robust opposition party, so the LKP’s implosion is not actually a good thing even if you dislike its policies.

The full essay follows the jump…


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My Thoughts on the US Midterm: Voting against Trump to Defend US Institutions and Keep the GOP from becoming the National Front


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This essay is a re-post of a post I wrote for the Lowy Institute before the election explaining my vote against Donald Trump’s Republican party. This post went viral on Twitter; thank you.

One thing I wish I had emphasized more in retrospect is that Trump is turning the GOP into the National Front. I mention that in the essay, but the more I think about Trump’s impact on the Republicans, the more I think the National Front is the right model for where the GOP is going. The NF is a lot like Trump himself: semi-authoritarian, racist, gangsterish, flirting with anti-semitism. No wonder Bannon and Marine LePen get on so well.

I say all this as a deeply disaffected lifelong registered Republican. I voted a straight Democratic ticket this week just because of Trump’s threat to America’s institutions. I figure I will stay a registered Republican for the 2020 primary, to vote against Trump there. But if Trump wins re-election, I see no choice but to register as a Democrat. The GOP will be unrecognizable at that point – basically the American National Front by 2024. I imagine a lot of other center-right natsec types are probably thinking the same. This whole thing is so depressing, because the US actually needs a coherent center-right party as a part of checks-and-balances in a two-party system.

The full essay is after the jump…

Some Late Thoughts on John McCain


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I was on vacation there for awhile, and while I wrote the following after the senator’s death, I did not post it here back then. I know everyone is talking about Kavanaugh and Trump’s ‘very, very large brain’ right now, but I wanted to put this up before it fades.

In short, I think McCain was a reasonably ok senator who was celebrated so heavily mostly as a rebuke to Trump rather than for his actual record in the Senate. No one questions McCain’s patriotism or commitment to America. The real issue was his foreign policy judgment, which quite honestly, became increasingly belligerent and risk-taking, if not openly militaristic, after 9/11. McCain, like Lindsey Graham, Robert Kagan, and too many other neocons, simply refused to learn from the disasters of the Bush administration – and that these disasters opened the door to a charlatan like Trump. But he is obviously head-and-shoulders above Trump, and that matters. RIP.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Trump is Moving the Overton Window on Striking North Korea to the Right


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute last month. Basically Trump is shifting the entire debate on responding to North Korea to the right.

Broadly, I would say there a two camps – hawks and doves – within the Korea analyst community. And each of those has a nested sub-division – moderates and ultras. The dove ultras are basically pro-Pyongyang. There aren’t too many of these folks left, no matter how mccarthyite the South Korean right gets. Then come the moderate doves who want engagement and the Sunshine Policy. On the right, the moderate hawks (I put myself here) are skeptical of engagement but accept trying, focusing more on sanctions and China. And the hawk ultras want to bomb the North.

Trump’s big impact on North Korea debate is to legitimize the hawk ultras and push the entire conversation their way, in the process writing the doves out of the conversation entirely debate. I have half-in-jest referred to this as the ‘Kelly Rule’ on Twitter. The American debate is increasingly a contest between bombers ultras, like John Bolton yesterday in the WSJ, vs panicked moderate doves and hawks forming a united front to prevent a war.

In social science language, Trump is pulling the Overton window toward strikes, making them more likely generally, even if they don’t happen this year. Trump is normalizing or legitimizing discussions of (the hugely risky) use of force against North Korea.

The full essay follows the jump…

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Corruption, not Foreign Affairs, should be Moon Jae-In’s Focus


2890This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Interpreter this month. The pic is former President Park Geun-Hye, who is now in jail.

So am I the only one wondering what Moon Jae-In is doing talking up foreign policy so much? The only reason he got elected is because of corruption. Corruption is so bad in South Korea that it brought down a president. So can we stop complaining about THAAD, wimping out in front of the Chinese, and flim-flamming on North Korea? The most important issue in South Korea right now is clean government. South Korea needs anti-nepotism laws post-haste. And the chaebol, as Choi-gate revealed, are graft champions too, as well as price-inflating oligopolists. So can we finally start talking about anti-trust action?

Yes, foreign policy is more important that domestic policy in South Korea due to the unique threat of North Korea. But it’s corruption that put Moon in office, not lefty nationalist foreign policy. Moon deserved to win, because the SK right is so corrupt and mccarthyite. But Moon shouldn’t over-interpret his victory as some kind of green light to appease NK and China. The need for clean government is why he’s POTROK.

The full essay follows the jump.

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Korea’s Healthily Bland Presidential Race


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This is a re-post of my pre-election prediction piece for the Lowy Institute a few weeks ago.

It’s dated now of course, so you should probably read something else. But, I think I broadly got things right: Korea is a stalemated society. Neither right, left, nor center has a majority. So even though Moon won, he won’t govern far too the left. He does not have the political space to do it. He will be a social democrat, not a socialist.

The left won, but its combined total, 47%, is the same as Moon’s 2012 total. So the left missed a huge chance to cross 50%. Choi-gate was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the left to prove it could win a national majority, which it has never done, and it failed. This is practically a smoking gun that the left cannot win a majority here, that South Korea is a center-right society.

The right ducked a huge bullet by coming in second. Had Ahn beaten the Liberty Korea party, LK might have faded into a largish third party as the People’s Party assumed the role of the head of the opposition. For much of the race, polling suggested this. Hong got very lucky, given the SK right is now a national embarrassment. They stuck with Park way too long into Choi-gate, and then Hong, in wild desperation, started calling himself the ‘Donald Trump of Korea,’ whatever the hell that means. Ech. The SK right’s time in the wilderness is well-deserved.

The center flopped. Ahn has been saying for 7 years that he could be president, and when he finally got the chance, he imploded. His debate performances proved how soft his support was. When he flamed out on TV, his voters fled. The question now is whether Ahn has a future at all in SK politics after such a dismal showing after all the hype. The answer is probably no.

The full essay follows the break:

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South Korea’s Finest Hour: Lessons from the Impeachment of Park Geun-Hye


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute in the wake of the impeachment. My thoughts on the Moon election will come shortly. That is Park behind bars in the photo.

I agree with this analyst from the Washington Post who says South Korea just showed the world how to do democracy. That’s a great way to put it and quite correct. And this is all the more impressive as Western democracy embarrasses itself by veering towards illiberalism and norm-breaking.

Koreans always tell me how great Korea is because of hallyu or hansik, but that’s just fluff talking points. This is what really matters. Well done, South Korea. Now tackle the corruption problem for real so that this doesn’t keep happening.

The full essay follows the jump.

North Korea Survives. Start Hardening South Korea for a Long Contest


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This essay is a local re-post of an essay I wrote last month for The National Interest. Basically this is my sketch of how to deal in the medium- and long-term with North Korea. North Korea is not going to collapse anytime soon. It has some source of strength we don’t fully grasp, and China is willing to bail out North Korea indefinitely. That means South Korea needs to start hunkering down – hardening itself – for a long-term conflict of attrition. There is not magic bullet – barring China pulling the plug, which, honestly, doesn’t look like it is going to happen soon.

So it’s time for South Korea to get more serious about winning the stand-off with North Korea and carrying the costs and inconvenience to do so. On the other hand, if South Korea only continues to manage North Korea, it will still be here in 20 years. If the ROK wants to win this stand-off – not manage, but win – then it needs to do a lot of things it doesn’t want to do, such as spending a lot more on defense, moving the national capital (so that it’s not right on the border, which makes it so vulnerable that South Korea can never hit back when North Korea provokes), consider drafting women (due to precipitous birth-rate decline), nuclear civil defense, and so on. This will be hard.

So far, South Korea has ducked these sorts of dramatic steps in the permanently short-termist expectation that North would just collapse one day, or that it could be bought off and somehow go away. But of course, it won’t. So if South Korea doesn’t still want to be ‘managing’ North Korea in 20 years, it needs to start thinking long-term now. For example, it should have moved its capital 40 years ago, like West Germany did during the Cold War, but it never did. And now North Korea has a massive city hostage it can threaten whenever it like to prevent South Korea from taking any kinetic action, like airstrikes on its missile sites. Yes, it will take a long time to unwind that, to decentralize South Korea, but then, North Korea is not going to collapse. Constantly hoping/expecting it would, and therefore taking no steps to check Seoul’s growth, is exactly the problem. Time to think long-term.

The full essay follows the jump:

Does Secretary of Defense Mattis Speak for President Trump, and Co-President Bannon?


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute earlier this month on US Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ trip to Japan and South Korea. It was your fairly typical meet-the-allies thing, but under Trump nothing is what it seems. In brief my argument is, why would US allies listen to SecDef when the president is this erratic and impressionable? What really matters, especially if Michael Flynn is on the way out, is what Steve Bannon, Trump’s very own Dr. Strangelove, thinks. Creepy. I still can’t believe this guy is POTUS.

The full essay follows the jump:

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The Korean Public Saved Korean Democracy from their own Corrupt Political Class


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This is the English-language version of an article I published this week with Newsweek Japan on ‘Choi-gate.’

This pre-dates the impeachment vote of yesterday, but the basic point still holds: the Korean public just gave the world a lesson in what democracy looks like. In the 8+ years I have lived here, this is its finest hour. Koreans should be proud of themselves for peaceful protests in the millions on behalf of clean and transparent government. It’s all the more impressive given that the US is about to install an authoritarian game-show host as president. Who ever thought the Koreans would teach the Americans what democracy is all about?

Yesterday, I told Bloomberg that corruption is now, very obviously, the most important domestic politics issue in Korea. Yes, it is still trumped by North Korea, but it is now painfully, painfully obvious that Korea needs much cleaner government. In fact, corruption is so bad, I am surprised that there is no Donald Trump figure entering Korean politics. Yet again, the Koreans prove themselves more democratically mature than Americans.

So yes, Korea’s political class is a corrupt, self-serving mess, but its public is not and that is vastly more important. For all their flim-flam about Dokdo, the curative powers of kimchi, the made-up anthropology of a ‘glorious 5000-year history,’ and all the rest, when it came to the big thing – clean, robust democracy – they got it right in a big way. Props to the Koreans.

The essay follows the jump.

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Is the Park Geun Hye Scandal is Paralyzing Government in South Korea?


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This is the English-language version of an article I published with Newsweek Japan last week.

Is anyone else, among readers living in Korea, amazed at how the coverage of this is now essentially non-stop? If you turn on any of the cable news stations here now, it’s Park Geun Hye all day all the time.

My big concern is that she stays on, perhaps surviving an impeachment vote or somehow or other lurching on into the spring next year, while facing regular demonstrations. How much longer will those protests say so peaceful? To date, they have been remarkably non-violent. But civil unrest is not hard to imagine if a hugely unpopular president stays in office for months and months with an approval rating around 4%. Even Park seemed to realize this when she gave that kinda-sorta resignation speech last Wednesday.

And the answer to the post title question is yes, in case you haven’t figure that out yet. Let’s just hope the Norks don’t pull some hijink while the ROKG is frozen like this. God forbid we have some executive-vs-legislative battle over who leads the response.

My previous writing on this scandal is here.

The full essay follows the jump.

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Trump Post-Mortem: My 5 Take-Aways from Trump’s Surprise Victory


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This is the English-language version of an article I just published with Newsweek Japan on Trump’s victory. I know there have been a million of these sorts of diagnostic analyses since he won, so this will be my only one. I will get back to East Asia politics next week.

I guess what worries me the most is how Trump toyed with proto-fascist themes, even if he himself doesn’t believe any of it. As I write in the main essay below: “He flirted heavily with race nationalism, illiberalism (attacking the media; winking to the alt-right), anti-democracy (refusal to recognize defeat; insisting the election system is ‘rigged’), and a cult of personality. That is awfully close to a fascist package.” Trump has now demonstrated that there is a constituency for hard-right strong man politics in the US. He ran as an openly misogynistic, racist, cultish candidate, and millions of Americans just didn’t care and voted for him anyway. This is the most important, and terrifying, revelation of the last 18 months. 

No, I am not in hysterics that America is about to collapse. We’ve survived a lot worse in 230 years. I am pretty sure we can survive the Trump administration. He and his family will be epically corrupt, but that won’t bring down the Constitution. There is far too much hyperventilating on the left right now.

But if Trump, or more likely Steven Bannon, can put his stamp on the GOP, the American political landscape will change forever. The Reaganite GOP is disappearing, and in its place will rise a National Front-like nationalist-populist party if Bannon has his way. The US has never seen a blood-and-soil European rightist party. We may look back on Trump as a right-wing turning point even greater than the Goldwater or Reagan presidential campaigns.

The full essay follows the jump.

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The THAAD Debate is now Wildly Overwrought and Exaggerated


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This a local re-posting of an essay I just wrote this week for The National Interest here. That pic is mine, taken next to the US embassy in Seoul.

Basically, I’m amazed at how unhinged the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense debate has become in South Korea. The South Korea left is really digging in its heels and turning this into a huge issue. ‘Activists’ have shaven their head and and thrown eggs at officials supporting deployment. Opposition lawmakers even went to Beijing, which strongly opposes the deployment, to ‘apologize.’ The National Assembly, now with a leftist majority, wants a vote on THAAD, and this might even become a presidential election year.

I honestly don’t understand this at all. All THAAD does is raise South Korea’s missile defense roof by about 100 kms. That’s it. SK already has lower tier missile defense, and THAAD’s radar adds nothing that the US doesn’t already have (contrary to China’s assertions, which the Chinese know but won’t admit). Yet the South Korea left and China (cynically) are treating this like the apocalypse, as some massive re-orientation of the northeast Asian strategic landscape. It’s not.

This is not intended to seem partisan. I actually agree with the SK left on a lot of domestic issues, such as better regulation of the chaebol, press freedom, protests rights, the SK right’s creepy mccarthyism. But on North Korea, I just don’t get the SK left at all, and running off to China over THAAD looked like craven appeasement of a bully. Appalling flunkeyism.

Anyway, read after the jump about why THAAD only buys SK a little more time to figure out to response to NK missilization. It’s hardly a revolution.

Don’t Fear Trumpism too Much, East Asia – You’re Already Governed by It


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The following is a local re-up of an essay I wrote for The National Interest recently. That essay was edited. The original is below, and I think it is better.  

The text in the picture is Chinese and reads: “Donald J. Trump super fan nation, Full and unconditional support for Donald J. Trump to be elected U.S. president.”

That Trump has sympathizers out here makes sense – even though he bashes the region all the time – because he obviously got a lot of his political ideas from East Asia: Mercantilism, race nationalism, hostility to immigration, huge distrust of Islam, oligopolistic mega-corporations dominated by interlocking family and crony networks, soft authoritarianism, manipulating the state to benefit politically-connected insiders, golf – that’s Trumpism. But it’s also the de facto governing ideology of contemporary Sinic-Confucian East Asia.

I remained convinced that Trump learned about East Asia primarily through the ‘declinist’ school of the 1980s. The popularized version of that argument was Michael Crichton’s 1992 novel Rising Sun. Given that this is Trump we are talking about though, he probably just watched the movie instead. This is why he talks about Japan so much.

What just amazes me is that Trump simultaneously has a 35-year history attacking the East Asian (mostly Japanese) nationalist-developmentalist model while pretty much proposing to bring it to the United States now if he gets elected. Trump is basically acting like what he thinks Japanese businessmen acted like in 1985 – just with an extra thick layer of idiocy and know-nothingness on top . Why does no one else see this? So if you are Japanese, maybe you can be proud in a weird way (lol): Trump thinks he’s you, just turning the tables.

The full essay follows the jump.

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What a Trumpish GOP would Mean for Asia: Reduced Trade & Migration, and More Defense Spending


 

This a re-print of an op-ed I just published with the Lowy Institute.

I’ve argued elsewhere that I don’t think a President Trump would pull the US out of Asia. That would requiring battling a deep Washington consensus of government officials, think-tankers, military, and the rest who strongly support a continued American presence out here. Trump is too lazy and too ill-informed to try that. So don’t worry about that. Nor will Trump win. So don’t freak out yet. 

But I do think Trump has changed the GOP a lot, and that he will have successors. Trump just proved that the median GOP voter doesn’t give a damn about Reaganism. Republican voters are now lower middle class and downscale (whites), and they are not anti-statists who want tax cuts for the rich. Nor are they neocons (it’s their kids that fight the wars), nor are they social conservatives, as their rates of divorce, single parenthood, and substance abuse make clear. What they do want though is a dramatic reduction of immigration in order that the United States remain majority white longer.

In short, Trump has just showed the potential for the US to have a European-style nationalist-rightist party, complete with a whiff of fascism in Trump’s authoritarian posturing.

So my prediction is that: 1) Trump will lose, but 2) post-Trumpers will pop-up and try to use his message to win GOP primaries. This will ignite a serious civil war inside the GOP between the establishment – who are mostly Reaganites like Paul Ryan but who have weak roots among actual GOP voters, as Trump just illustrated – and white nationalist post-Trumpers who actually speak to issues the GOP base cares about. It’s not clear to me who will win, but the post-Trumpers have the votes and the passion.

The full essay follows the jump.

The Comfort Women Deal Six Months On – Where’s the Korean Backlash?


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The following is an op-ed I published in last week’s Newsweek Japan, where I write once a month. My editor asked me to write about how the comfort women deal of last year is getting on, and I have to say that I am surprised just how little we even hear about it anymore. For an issue that the Korean media often treated as central to South Korean identity, it seems to have inexplicably dropped out of the newspapers (which, I strongly suspect, displays how much the Korean government ‘directs’ the media here.)

So the main argument I make advances the one I made a few months ago: that if the Korean left does not fight back against the deal, then the deal achieves a level of national consensus it did not have initially when it was clinched in secret by a conservative government. And now that the left has surprisingly taken the majority in the parliament, this is the first and most important acid test for the deal. If the left doesn’t use its newfound power to go after the deal, then they are tacitly approving it.

Of course, no one in Korea will proactively say that they support the deal, but not acting is a way acting too. If the left, which has done so much to create this issue, does not re-politicize it, then that basically mean a broad, however unspoken, left-right consensus has emerged to take the deal and let the issue slowly disappear. The activist groups and leftist intellectuals, many of whom seem to have built their careers around the comfort women, will never give up. But without political representation, they are just one more voice in South Korea’s cacophonous civil society.

I have to say that I am really surprised that events are running this way. Just about every Korean I know gets really indignant and emotional at the mention of this issue. Yet the political class has dropped like a hot potato. So all these years of sturm und drang are over, just like that? Really? Still not sure why this has happened – American pressure? it was all just an act? everyone is truly terrified of NK and wants Japanese solidarity?

The full essay follows the jump.