American North Korea Policy under the Next President 2: Trump – He will just Drop North Korea


Biden calls North Korean leader a 'thug' but says he'd meet Kim if  denuclearization is agreed - Pacific - Stripes

This is the second part of a series for The National Interest on North Korea policy under the next president. Here is my first essay on Biden and North Korea.

I am of the school that says Trump’s outreach to North Korea was a great big nothingburger. More dovish analysts will tell you that there was a window there for a few years (2018-2019) to forge a deal. I don’t buy that, mostly because of Trump himself – his laziness, disinterest, unwillingness to prepare, and so on.

Instead I think Trump went into this solely for the symbolic imagery and a Nobel Peace Prize. Obama won a Nobel. Trump loathes Obama, so he had to get one too. I think it’s really as simple as that. That’s why there was no deal. The Trump team had not thought through the concessions which would be necessary to strike a deal. The North Koreans were going to ask for way more than just sanctions relief. Trump had nothing greater to offer – and bureaucratic resistance at home would have fought a serious concession like a US drawdown.

So my prediction for Trump and North Korea in a second Trump term is that he will do nothing. Trump has the pictures he wanted. He won’t get a Nobel, and he won’t fight the battles in Washington to offer concessions which NK might actually go for.

The full essay follows the jump:

American North Korea Policy under the Next President 1: Biden–Traditional Washington Hawkishness


North Korea lashes out at Joe Biden - CNN Video

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest recently. They’re running a good symposium on North Korea policy in the next presidential term: how would Trump and Biden differ? This was my submission on a possible Biden victory. My submission Trump is here.

Biden was the easier one to write. Biden is a pretty establishmentarian guy. He respects the foreign policy community. And as Obama’s vice president, we have his foreign policy thinking from that period too.

So it’s not too hard to predict that Biden will revert to a fairly traditional Washington hawkish approach – no more summits or public praising of Kim; working with allies; emphasizing sanctions enforcement and China. If this sounds really unimaginative – the same kind of old-hat you’ve heard from every hawkish North Korea analyst (including me) for decades – then you are right! It is the same old story, but that’s because our options on North Korea are terrible.

For all of Trump’s threats in 2017 and blandishments in 2018-19, he got nothing out of the North Koreans. Neither has SK President Moon Jae-In’s Sunshine Policy redux. So if it’s back to the future with Biden, I am not opposed to that.

The full essay follows the jump:

Trump’s Impeachment is Good for US Foreign Policy


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This essay is a local re-post of my essay for the Lowy Institute for this month.

In brief, I argue that Trump, for all his bluster and chaos, has not actually moved the US foreign policy consensus that much. So if he is impeached, we’ll likely get a ‘snap-back’ to more traditional liberal internationalist positions. That would broadly be a good thing, but for the over-interventionism of the traditional foreign policy community. Trump’s departure would mean the end of idiocy like undercutting the World Trade Organization or the Universal Postal Union, attacking US allies, throwing friends like the Kurds under the bus, and cozying up to dictators like Kim Jong Un.

Trump is too uninformed, impulsive, and erratic to represent any kind of meaningful critique of foreign policy liberalism. Some of his supporters try, but it’s most been in vain. There’s no coherent Trump Doctrine, just whatever suits his fancy or serves his political purposes at the time. Nor has Trump created an alternative foreign policy community to the current one. As POTUS, Trump is hugely influential in that community, but he’s leaving no lasting mark because he’s too incoherent and, well, dumb. So if he’s impeached, it’s back to what was, because there is no serious Trumpian alternative.

The full essay follows the jump:

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GOP Post-Iraq Foreign Policy Incoherence: Still Making Belligerent, Aggressive Threats, but Unwilling to Follow Through


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote a few weeks ago for the Lowy Institute. The argument is right there in the title: the GOP wants to keep talking like hyper-belligerent, threats-against-everyone neocons or Jacksonian America Firsters, but GOP voters don’t want anymore wars. So Trump’s rhetoric comes off hollow: he’s threatened war on North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Iran. But his voters are very opposed to more wars now. That is one of the ways Trump beat his GOP rivals. He denounced stupid wars. But GOP rhetoric hasn’t caught up to the base’s shift, and Trump is such a blowhard that he can’t help but make outlandish threats.

The result is that the GOP now sanctions everyone. It looks tough about avoids war. But in reality, GOP foreign policy looks increasingly incoherent. All threats and no follow through makes the US look like a paper tiger or just confused.

The full essay follows the jump:

Without Strategic Change, a Korean Peace Treaty would be a Formality


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This is a repost of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a couple weeks ago. The gist of it is that there a lot more hurdles to a Korean War peace treaty than many people realize. That is why it hasn’t happened yet even though it seems pretty intuitive, if not obvious, given that the war has been de facto over sine 1953.

The two big reasons are:

1. A peace treaty potentially undercuts the legal ground for the UN/US structure in South Korea. This, most have long thought, is a big reason the North wants it. If there is formal peace in Korea, what is the US military still doing there? The South Korean left might accept this logic, but the right will not. This is why SK President Moon Jae-In can’t get this idea past his own people. There is not enough consensus for it.

2. A peace treaty may well violate the South Korean constitution, which denies North Korea’s existence. Moon may not even be allowed to sign such a document, which is pointless without SK participation. Worse though is that a peace treaty formalizes and locks-in the division of Korea indefinitely. Again, the South Korean right and SK youth may not mind that, but I don’t think that is enough for the South to formally surrender unification on Southern terms. That woo would be another huge political fight.

The full essay follows the jump:

Would Unified Korea Keep the North’s Nuclear Weapons? Perhaps to Pursue a Neutralist Foreign Policy


Image result for north korea nuclear weaponsThis is a local re-print of an essay I published at The National Interest a few weeks ago.

The basic idea is that a unified Korea, even one unified under Southern leadership, has much stronger incentives to keep the North’s nukes than most people seem to think.

Generally, everyone seems to think that a UROK (united Republic of Korea) will give up its weapons to the American or, maybe, the Chinese. Or maybe destroy them. But keeping them would be a great way to keep a UROK out of the looming great power contention in northeast Asia between the US, China, Japan, and Russia.

If you are tiny Korea – the shrimp among whales – you want to stay out of the way when these big boys fight. That will be tough given Korea’s geography right in the middle, but nukes would be a really great way nonetheless to insist.

Also, nukes are a great way to defend sovereignty generally against all interlopers, even if there is no regional hot war. Even after France became friends with Germany after WWII, it still built nukes to make sure Germany never invaded it again. A UROK would almost certainly think the same way about its neighbors given their history kicking Korea around and manipulating it.

I am not sure. A UROK still allied to the US would come under a lot of pressure to denuclearize. But the probability of retention is way higher than most people think.

The full essay is after the break.

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A Korean Deal Based on Flattering Trump as a Useful Idiot will Not Hold


This is a local re-post of a piece I wrote for the Lowy Institute a few weeks ago.

Basically I wrote this in disgust at how Trump is falling all over himself about Kim Jong Un. I do not oppose a deal with North Korea, as my critics keep saying. Rather, I deeply distrust Trump’s motives. He isn’t doing this for peace in Korea or because he cares about the US position in Asia or the well-being of people out here. In fact, he’s not even doing it for the American national interest. He’s doing it because the leaders of North and South Korea are flattering him.

It’s appalling that Trump can’t see this. He hasn’t gotten anything serious out of North Korea, but apparently he loves Kim Jong Un, probably because Kim called him ‘Your Excellency’ in one of his letters. And Moon is playing Trump so badly – Nobel Peace Prize! – it’s embarrassing. Last year Trump was a jerk and called Moon an appeaser of NK. So this year, Moon is the tail wagging the dog. Moon has figured out that he can go around the hawkish US natsec bureaucracy, which distrusts him, and go straight to Trump. Flatter Trump enough, and he’ll agree to anything.

It’s gross, and it won’t hold anyway, because Trump is fickle and stroking his ego is not the same as building institutional support in the US for a deal.

The essay follows 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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Singapore Summit: The Trump Show Goes to North Korea


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote earlier this week for The New York Review of Books.

I haven’t blogged here in awhile, because I am so busy. Last weekend, I went to the Shangri-La Dialogue (reflections here). Today I am flying down to Singapore to provide analysis for BBC for the Trump-Kim summit. Two weeks after that, I am going to the Jeju Peace Forum. So sorry. Also, I am slowly gravitating toward Twitter more for my commentary. Please go there.

This NYRB essay focuses on the extraordinarily chaotic ‘process’ of Trump foreign policy-making applied to the North Korean case. The short version is that there is scarcely a process at all. Trump agreed to the North Korea summit 45 minutes after it was broadly suggested to him by the South Korean government. He has since done none preparation, and Bolton has all but abjured what NSA’s are supposed to do.

So now, we are basically going into this blind. It’s a Trumpian crap-shoot, and no one really knows the outcome will be, because no one knows what Trump will say, or worse what he will give up for his ‘win’ for the fall midterms. Call it this whole mess of reality TV affectations + incompetence + unprofessionalism the ‘Trump Show.

My guess, the summit will be a nothingburger. The strategic and ideological divisions between the two sides are too wide for such a tight timetable, and Trump is way too checked-out from the details of nuclear missiles to seriously bargain the issue. Even Trump is now saying it’s just a ‘get to know each other’ meeting, which is default win for the Norks, because the get the photo-ops. So wait, why are we even doing this now?

In short, we should have cancelled long before, but now it is too late. And Rodman, Gorka, and Hannity are coming too, just to make sure this whole thing is a gonzo Trump Show entertainment-not-reality joke. Whatever…

The full essay follows the jump:

More on Why I Don’t Think the North Koreans will Carry Real Costs/Risk for Unification


Korea tensions1This is a local repost of something I wrote for the Lowy Institute in January. It is sort of a sequel to my last post. Across these two posts, my point is to argue that North Korea is basically a status quo state and won’t carry serious costs for unification.

I got a lot of heat on Twitter for suggesting this. Hawks were displeased. Josh Stanton particularly had a smart comeback.

So let me try again. Yes, ideally the North Koreans want national unity. In fact, maximally, they may even want socialism. But that’s not what matters. What we care about is what they will sacrifice for, not their ideal wants. We’re looking for satisficing, not maximizing, behavior here.

So what are the North Koreans sacrificing for? Where are they carrying costs and taking risks? A couple obvious areas: 1. Nukes. 2. Luxury imports. Neither of these really advance a unification agenda. Nukes are a defensive weapon in practice, because of their extraordinary deterrent value. And all the counterfeiting, money in Chinese banks, and general sanctions-busting is either to smuggle in luxuries for elites or to promote the nuclear missile program. What North Korea is not doing is launching war-risking strategic provocations, no matter how much crazy stuff they say. (Why we listen much to North Korea when they lie and exaggerate so much never ceases to amaze me.)

Like all other states, they firstly want to survive, and they are in a pretty hostile neighborhood. Before we get carried away that nukes have empowered them to overrun the peninsula, let’s start with what we can prove: the elite their wants to hang on – because they don’t want to die on the run or in South Korean jails – and prosper – hence all the sanctions-running and criminality.

However I do agree with Josh, that the nukes open up a lot of opportunities to blackmail South Korea, bully it into semi-permanent subsidization of the North, and otherwise try to cow it. But that is not unification. It’s subsidization – endless, condition-less South Korean cash is what they want. Not unity.

The full essay follows the jump…

North Korea’s Goals are Limited: It couldn’t Absorb S Korea even if it Won a War


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This is a local re-posting of an article I wrote for The National Interest last week.

Basically, I am continuing to bush back on all this insane talk that we are on the verge of a conflict, can’t live with a nuclear North Korea, and are imminently threatened with a North Korean nuclear strike. None of that is true, and all the alarmism from the bomb-them-now ultras is just making this all worse.

So to keep the wingers happy, here is a worst case scenario, in which North Korea somehow levers the US out of the region AND defeats South Korea on the battlefield. This is already so unlikely that the ultras should be somewhat embarrassed we have to game this out, but fine, whatevs. And what happens after the supposedly long-sought unification under the Kims? The implosion of North Korea, because there is no way it could manage a hugely expensive, widely resisted, easily corrupted occupation even bigger than US post-Civil War Reconstruction. So forget it. Unification would blow-up the North’s extremely unique and rigid system. They don’t want it. (What they do want is a pseudo-confederation that gets South Korea paying their bills semi-permanently without actually having to change politically, but that’s for another column.)

The essay follows the jump…

Learning to Live with a Nuclear N Korea: Awful, but Better than the Alternatives


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We live Pakistani nuclear missiles; we can live with North Korean ones too.

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for the New York Daily News a few weeks ago, at the peak of the summer war-scare.

I argue that we can in fact live with a nuclear missilized North Korea. Yes, that sucks. But all this irresponsible talk that we can’t adapt, that nuclear North Korea is an undeterrable, existential threat is just threat-inflating baloney. We’ve learned to live with nuclear missiles in the hands a Muslim state with a serious jihadi problem. Would America prefer this not to be the case? Yes. But is living with a nuclear Pakistan a better choice than bombing it or sending in US special forces to destroy their nukes? Absolutely. Or we would have done it already.

It’s not clear to me why this is so hard for people to absorb. What is it about North Korea that makes people lose their mind and say bonkers s*** about risking a huge regional war?

The full essay follows the jump.

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The North Korea Travel Ban is Probably a Good Idea at this point


This is a repost of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute recently on the travel ban preventing Americans from going to North Korea as of September 1 this year. The picture is the US State Department mailer to this effect from a few days ago on my iPhone.

Basically my argument is that the ban is a good idea at this point given how many foreigners Kim Jong Un seems to be snatching during his reign. The numbers have gone up, and although I went to North Korea as a tourist myself and have recommended it in the past, I no longer do so, especially for Americans. It’s just way too dangerous now.

Otto Warmbier’s death is the last straw, as I figure it was for Tillerson. At the time of his death, I thought a travel ban might well be the next step. I still find it curious that Kim Jong Un did not let Warmbier leave earlier. The tourist trade brings in needed dollars, and Pyongyang is already complaining about the US halt. They easily could have let him go when he fell into a coma and then just pretextually snatched the next idiot US tourist who drank too much to replace Warmbier. But they held onto him to the point where they’re responsible for his death. Pointless. Just shows once again how awful North Korea really is.

My full essay on the travel ban follows the jump:

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US-South Korea Alliance Survived Presidential Partisan Differences Before


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This is a local re-post of an op-ed I wrote this month for The National Interest. There’s been a minor freak-out on the right since Moon Jae In got elected. He’s a communist; he’s gonna sell out SK to Pyongyang; the alliance with America might break. Good grief. Enough with the hyperventilating. Even if he was a communist at heart, he couldn’t govern that way because he only won 41% of the vote. He doesn’t have the political space to govern as some far lefty. And realistically, he’s just a social democrat: he wants to raises taxes, expand the public sector labor force, and clean up the air. That’s hardly a marxist revolution.

I do think that there is a possibility of a real split at the top though. It is easy to see Trump and Moon loathing one another. So this essay notes how previous US and SK presidents of different political beliefs stumbled through. The short version is that there is a lot of depth to the US-SK alliance. So much actually, that it almost makes presidential changes irrelevant, which is not exactly democratic if you think about it. But the point is, that the alliance will likely survive.

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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Cancelling TPP, Protectionism Not Necessary for a Restrained Foreign Policy


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a few weeks ago. Basically I argue that a restrained political and military foreign policy does not imply an isolationist or protectionist economic foreign policy.

This strikes me as an important distinction. There is a lot talk that Trump’s election implies a less interventionist foreign policy, that the white working class doesn’t want to fight neocon wars anymore. I am sympathetic to that. But a greater caution in military choices does not have an economic correlate of withdrawing from free trade, or picking foolish fights with allies. Restraint is neither economic protectionism, nor bashing allies Trump-style. Those tow together are more like isolationism.

As I say on this site regularly, the concern of foreign policy ‘restrainers’ is not to abandon American allies, but to get them to take their own defense more seriously. But I see no reason to extend that to trade. Greater protectionism will simply drive up prices for the white working class at Walmart, while re-shoring a few jobs at most. Recall that it is technology that wiped out smokestack jobs in the Midwest, not China. Worse, protectionism has a powerful long-term negative impact on security. States which seal themselves off start to fall behind technologically. That impacts military tech too, as one can see in the communist states during the Cold War. It is critical for American military pre-eminence that it remain a free-trade economy that regularly absorbs the most recent technologies, no matter how much dislocation they bring, no matter where they come from.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Obama did about as well in E Asia as could be Expected: One Last Defense of Strategic Patience


I know the only thing people want to talk about now is Trump, but here is a parting review of Obama in Asia. I wrote this a few weeks ago for the Lowy Institute. All in all, I’d say he did about as well as you could expect.

Yes, he didn’t prevent North Korea from getting a nuclear weapon and missile, but no one knows how to do that barring kinetic action which is off the table because of South Korea’s ridiculous decision to place its capital, and allow it to flourish, just 30 miles from the border. And no he didn’t slow China’s rise, but no president could do that without kinetic action either. And that’s even crazier than bombing North Korea.

There are no good solutions to our challenges out here, just as there were none to communist power in the 1950s. Hawks calling for ‘toughness’ and ‘leadership’ should remember that rollback was a catastrophe (in the Korean War) that almost ignited WWIII. We then settled for hanging tough’ until communist power imploded, which it did. The contemporary Asian analogue of hanging tough is Obama’s ‘strategic patience.’ Everyone criticized it, but no one has a better option that isn’t hugely risky. So stop complaining about strategic patience until you’ve got a better, genuinely workable idea.

The full essay follows the jump.

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Will Trump Really Pursue Foreign Policy Restraint?


 

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Not if that picture is correct. But he did talk a lot about burden-sharing and allied free-riding during the campaign, so maybe.

This essay is a local reprint of something I wrote for The National Interest shortly after Trump’s election.

Certainly, we can all agree – but for the endlessly belligerent neocons – that America should fight less often. It’s not healthy for the domestic culture nor our democratic liberties. Does Trump care about any of that? Of course. But his white working class support bases can’t like all this conflict, given that they fight out wars.

So here is a case for restraint under the Orange One, after the jump.

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My Take on Trump and Asia for Newsweek Japan: He’s Too Lazy to Push for Real Change, so Don’t Worry


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I write a monthly column for Newsweek Japan, and below is this month’s English original (on pages 36-37 of the edition pictured).

I haven’t written much about Trump, mostly because he says so little of value in my area, nor do I believe that he really means what he says, because he changes so often and puts so little thought into foreign policy.

So my first comment to Asians who ask is: relax, because even if he wins, he isn’t likely to push through some major geopolitical retrenchment, because of the effort that would take in Washington. Nor is he likely to spark a huge trade war with China for the same reason. The bureaucratic resistance would be massive, and I don’t buy it at all that Trump has the tenacity, focus, intelligence, or interest in any policy issue necessary to undo long-standing precedents such as the decades-old US engagement in Asia.

If Obama can’t get us out of the Middle East, do you really believe Trump will take us out of Asia? Forget it. Perhaps it is the teacher in me, but, like Regan, Bush 2, Palin, and Fox before him, Trump’s defining intellectual feature is laziness, and it will take a helluva lot of work to change the US architecture out here. So forget it. Instead, think about what Trump really cares about – his show-boating, made-for-TV image as manly, tough, a winner, and so on.

President Trump will spend all his time and energy chasing whatever the polls say voters want in a desperate effort to stay popular. What he will really use US government power for, where he will show genuine commitment and focus, is in pursuing his media enemies Nixon-style, and enhancing his business interests. In that sense, he will govern like the CPP or Putin – chasing after journalists, feathering his nest, changing laws and regulations that damage his businesses, and so on.

So don’t worry Asia. Trump is too intellectually lazy to learn, too uniformed to understand, and too narcissistic to care. Trump is a threat to the First Amendment and check-and-balances, not the American architecture in Asia.

My essay follows the jump.

My Lowy Essay: “OPCON Reversion is Dead – the 10-Year Soap Opera is Finally Over”


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This is a reprint of an essay first published by the Lowy Institute a week ago.

The reversion of OPCON – operational wartime control of the South Korean military – to South Korea is finally over. After 10 years of endless meetings, papers, op-eds, and power-points, everyone seems to have realized it was a basically a huge mistake (which it was). The US and Korea recently agreed to push it off the 2020s, which is another way of saying it will probably never happen.

The irony is that almost as soon as reversion was agreed to last decade, the South Koreans got cold feet and tried to have it changed back. No one seems to have thought that closing down the Combined Forces Command would mean that Korea would have to do a lot more for its own defense and stop free-riding so much. Once that reality hit by the end of President Roh’s term, ‘US imperialism’ didn’t look so bad after all: it meant Seoul could continue to woefully under-invest in defense. So here we are at last, back to where we started from. And honestly, it is all for the best – if the US is going to stay here.

The essay follows the jump.