5 Interpretations of N Korea: Communist, Rogue, Fascist, neo-Confucian, or Gangster?

This is a re-post of an essay I just wrote for the Lowy Institute, available here. And yes, that Godfather pic is meant to imply that I accept the last of the interpretative frameworks suggested: North Korea as a gangster racket.

The more time I spend in this field, the more I see analysts get into really sharp debates over just what North Korea ‘really’ is. The best way to de-legitimize your opponent in this area is to say you don’t understand the ‘real’ North Korea, or know what they ‘truly’ want. This can get pretty intense. And it does not help that we know so little about how North Korea is governed.

As I have listened to these fights over the years, it strikes me that there are roughly 5 major interpretations or schools. And these approaches are politicized too, not just intellectual frameworks, because they have direct implications for how South Korea and the US should respond to North Korea. For example, if you think North Korea is a rogue state gremlin ripping at the fabric of US hegemony, you are more likely to endorse tough action than if you accept leftist interpretations that US-led isolation of North Korea is what makes North Korea so dangerous.

The 5 basic interpretations are:

1. Traditionalist Conservative: North Korea as a cold war stalinist state

2. Neoconservative: NK as dangerous, unpredictable rouge state

3. Fascist: NK as a racist, national security barracks state

4. Leftist: NK as ‘Korean’ (rather than socialist or fascist), neo-Confucian,or post-colonial

5. Gangster: NK as a massive shake-down racket; mafia have overthrown the government

The full essay follows the jump.

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Guest Post – Dave Kang: International Relations Scholarship Underutilizes Asia for the Same Old Western Cases (WWI & Cuba Forever!)

This is a guest post from my friend David C. Kang of the University of Southern California. Dave is a political scientist and runs the Korean Studies Institute there. He is way better at East Asia than I’ll ever be, so stop wasting your time on this blog and get to his author page to start reading his books.

Dave and I were just at the Korea Foundation’s big conference on Korean studies in the 70 years since liberation from Japan. There he made a number of the points below, which I broadly agree with. In short, western IR says Asia is really important – China, North Korea, the pivot, and so on – but still use the same western cases in its writing. Dave has some nice data on this below. I made similar points a few years ago. I think the basic problem is that we still aren’t learning the languages or coming here early in our careers. How many of you studied French and did your junior year abroad in Europe? So when IR actually gets into the casework, its WWI, WWII, and the Cuban Missile Crisis all the time.

Dave’s comments follow the jump.

My Lowy Essay on China Picking 3 Fights in 9 Months: Japan, Phils, Vietnam. WTH?

The essay below is a reprint of something I wrote for the Lowy Institute a few weeks ago (original here). I got into back-and-forth with Brad Glosserman and Hugh White over Chinese foreign policy intentions. I am still not entirely sold on the idea that China is a full-blown revisionist, like Putin, or worse, Wilhelmine Germany. There are other possible explanations.

The map to the left is the so-called “Nine Dash Line,” China’s preposterously capacious maritime claim in the South China Sea. I wonder if it’s even worth noting anymore that UNCLOS can’t be possibly be used to justify this. Everyone knows that now, right? The claim is just nationalism, pure and simple.

What’s really struck me though about China’s maritime claims is how Beijing has really ramped up the tension in just a few months. In the last 9 months, China has picked serious fights with Japan (over its ADIZ), the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, and now Vietnam over that oil rig. That much bullying in such a short period of time, very obviously coincident with Xi Jinping’s ascension, pretty much tells the world that the new Chinese administration is becoming the regional bully we’ve all been fearing for 20 years. This strikes me as unbelievably foolish, as there is a very obvious anti-Chinese containment ring waiting in the wings. A lot of people in the US, Japan, and increasingly Southeast Asia would be happy to see this outcome. My strong sense is that US patience particularly is running out, and that ‘neo-containment’ is around the corner.

So this essay is a last ditch effort to try explain Chinese belligerence as an outcome of Chinese dysfunction. Let’s hope this is right, because if the hawks are right that arguments such as mine are just excuse-making for Chinese belligerence, then I guess we have to contain China. Scary stuff.

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My Newsweek Japan Story on the Sino-Vietnamese Clash in the South China: End of the Peaceful Rise?

Nwk J Vn China

Below is the English version of my essay for the current volume of Newsweek Japan. (Japanese version here.)

Regular readers will know that I have argued for awhile that we (the US) should not provoke China into unnecessary hostilities. I’ve thought for awhile that Hugh White’s idea of a concert in Asia is the most likely to insure peace. If the US insists on giving no ground, then a Sino-US conflict out of sheer misperception is likely. But accommodating China can’t be seen as an invitation to bully the neighborhood – just not so much as to cause a war with America. So it is a fine line to walk, and China certainly isn’t helping. In the last year, it has picked fights with Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines. Like most people, I find this pretty scary, but also somewhat inexplicable. Increasingly, I think the ‘peaceful rise’ days are over (argued below), but this might also be external fallout of a new Chinese administration looking to prove itself to the PLA. I hope I am wrong…

“On May 2, China placed an oil rig inside Vietnam’s offshore exclusive economic zone. This deployment was accompanied by some 80 ships, include armed warships. Vietnam responded by sending out its coast guard. These ships were meet by ramming and water-cannon. This in turn sparked anti-Chinese rioting in Vietnam that has killed dozens and sent Chinese workers fleeing the country. In the last year, China has also tangled over islands in the South China Sea near the Philippines and with Japan over Senkaku.

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My Lowy Essay for May: ‘Stop Fetishizing US ‘Credibility’ and ‘Red-Lines’’


For the Lowy Institute this month, I wrote a response to this preposterously irresponsible and inflammatory Economist cover a few weeks ago. Normally I like the Economist a lot. I agree with their liberal economics and broad support for the advance of liberal democracy. I have written and spoken for the Economist Group and so on. But this cover is just neocon scaremongering. Does no one remember how just 5-10 years ago, everyone wanted American restraint and an end to ‘cowboy diplomacy’? Well that’s what you’ve got in Obama – caution, measured steps, no polarizing grand visions. The Euros even gave him a Nobel for that. But I guess managerialism is just too boring. If POTUS isn’t blustering about the end of history and the global triumph of liberty, then newspaper editors get twitchy and see ‘decline’ everywhere. Sigh…

Anyway, here’s the response essay:

The Economist this week stepped into the widening debate about US credibility provoked by Obama’s caution in the Middle East and (less so) East Asia. And unfortunately, like so many neocons and liberal internationalists, it seems unwilling to learn what should now, post-Iraq, be fairly obvious lessons about hegemonic over-extension and the fetishization of US ‘credibility’: Obama’s restraint and caution are not ‘weakness;’ he is not ‘abandoning’ the allies; constantly analogizing US intervention decisions to Munich or appeasement is pretty facile; constant US intervention erodes the public’s medium-term support for military action, breaks the US fiscus, and ignites local nationalist blowback.

There is already a pretty good response literature on this piece (Sullivan, Beinart, also here and this). I would just add a few points:

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Guest Post – Dave Kang: ‘Military Spending in East Asia is Lower than You Think’

The following is a guest-post by my good friend Dave Kang. Dave teaches international relations at the University of Southern California. If you are working on East Asia, you really should know his stuff; if you don’t, get to it. Below he complements his recent TNI essay with the full flow of charts and graphics. This post is a very important rejoinder to the constant assertion (think Robert Kaplan) that East Asia is on the brink of war and that everyone is freaked out by China. The thing is, East Asian military spending doesn’t actually suggest that at all. Data first everyone…

“In a recent National Interest essay I argued that military expenditures in East Asia do not appear to be excessively high. In this post I’d like to post the figures that informed the TNI essay (for some reason, TNI made me take out all the graphics – isn’t that what the web is for?). The figures are quite vivid, and help explain why I made the fairly straightforward interpretation of the data that China’s neighbors, according to IISS and SIPRI, aren’t balancing it the way everyone says they are.

The standard way in which security scholars measure a country’s militarization is to measure the “defense effort” – i.e., the ratio of defense expenditures to GDP. The defense effort serves as a proxy for domestic politics: the share of its economy that a nation devotes to the military reflects a nation’s priorities, and the trade-offs the country chooses to make. When countries perceive a significant external threat, military priorities take precedence over domestic priorities such as education or social services. In times of relative peace, countries are more willing to devote a greater share of their economy to domestic priorities – perhaps the best example of this was the ephemeral “peace dividend” following the Cold War. Putting Latin America next to East Asia also allows for a much better sense of scale and comparison (Figure 1).

Figure 1: East Asian and Latin American defense spending, 1988-2013 (% of GDP)


Countries: China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia.

Latin America: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela

Source: Information from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), http://www.sipri.org/databases/milex, 2014.

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My Diplomat Essay for May: ‘No, Crimea is Not a Model for Aggression in Asia’

The essay below is a local reprint of my essay for the Diplomat magazine this month.

The motivation was a lot of the panicky response in Asia after the Crimea annexation that something like that might happen in East Asia. I don’t really see that at all, to be honest. Sure Asia is dangerous – that China-Vietnam spat right now  is pretty hairy – but remember that East Asian conflicts are mostly over open, unpopulated sea-spaces whose economic value is minor or unproven. China taking the Paracels or Spratlys is not exactly an Anschluss. Is it bad? Of course. Should China be resisted? Absolutely. But China is not nearly as paranoid and thuggish – at least internationally – as Putin. So yes, if we have to contain China we can. I’ve argued that myself – so please don’t tell me I’m some panda-loving hippy. But we don’t need to rush to cast Crimea as some big lesson for Asia. Rising, prestige-accruing China is not declining, angry Russia, and the local circumstances – most obviously the lack of any Chinese irredentist claims – are pretty different.

Here’s that essay:

“Since the invasion of Crimea, there has been a lot of panicked talk that the annexation is re-defining international relations, violating established international law, throwing the post-WWII/post-Cold War order in Europe into chaos, and so on. Putin has been analogized to Hitler by no less than Hillary Clinton, and both Zbigniew Brzezinski and Madeleine Albright were quick to bring up the specter of the 1938 Munich conference. There has been a steady drum-beat from US conservatives that Obama is weak, appeasing, lacks resolve, and so on.

Some of this is true. Certainly ethnic irredentism smacks of Hitler’s ploy at Munich, but the implication of the ‘Munich analogy’ is that this is but a first step, unseen by weak, appeasing western statesmen, toward future invasions. This is almost certainly not true for Putin. The US and NATO are vastly more powerful than Russia, and without the rest of the old Soviet empire, there is no possible way Putin could launch a second cold war against an expanded NATO. Putin’s thuggery is more a local challenge to the European order and the European Union, a desperation move from panic and paranoia. We should not lose perspective.

So out of hand did this hawkish exaggeration of Crimea become, that a backlash set-in. Micha Zenko noted the obviously hypocrisy of US officials suddenly praising international rules and sovereign non-interference. Fred Kaplan noted how NATO does in fact retain the ability to defend itself. And Fareed Zakaria usefully reminded everyone that the ‘Long Peace’ and gradual decline in war violence are in fact real secular trends not debunked by one event.

This essay is a part of this response literature, but focused on Asia, where there has been a flurry of similarly exaggerated suggestion that Crimea could be a model of local aggression (here, here, and here – or here for the most egregious on Obama’s ‘capitulation’ in Asia). Unsurprisingly, much of this focuses on China, moving to take either the Senkaku/Diayou Islands or a strip of northern North Korea (the latter has been kicked around in the South Korean press). But much of this is hyperbole, some of it rather irresponsible. And a lot of it feels like US neoconservatives and defense hawks using Crimea as a political cudgel against a president they dislike and defense budget cuts they detest. Crimeas are apparently like Pleiku streetcars – wait long enough and you can always circle back to preferred arguments.

But it is far too early and the Crimean situation probably too unique for these conjectures. By way of illustration, consider this ‘what Crimea means for Asia’ piece by my friend Brad Glosserman of the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies. Brad argues:

1. Putin took Crimea, ergo realism is the ‘coin of realm in foreign policy’ and liberal theories on the decline of war are wrong. This is too simple. Crimea is one event; it has resulted in few casualties; it seems likely, in spite of the rigged poll, that a majority of Crimeans would prefer to belong to Russia; it is not at all clear that Russia’s army could sustain a serious occupation of even eastern Ukraine; a full-scale invasion would galvanize NATO overnight, and so on. By contrast, liberal theories of international politics continue to explain a lot – most obviously the very large democratic security community that reaches from eastern Europe all the way west and south to parts of east Asia and Australia. One event does not buck this well-documented trend.

2. ‘National identity matters’ in Asia. But few Asianists said it didn’t. It is well-known that Asian regionalism has broadly failed; that Asian elites and populations are statist and nationalist; that Asia is not going to integrate along EU lines, and so on. Realism does indeed have reasonable analytical purchase in Asia, but that does not mean realism can explain the above mentioned security community very well, or that east Asian statism means conflict. East Asia has been at peace since 1979, but realists and hawks have been predicting war there since the end of the Cold War. The Asian peace may be a ‘cold peace’ but has proven surprisingly durable. These inaccurate predictions should be admitted by those who want to ramp up the pivot and expect a major Sino-US competition.

3. China abstained on the UN Security Council Crimea vote; it is balancing the West with Russia. This is also too fast and a little slippery. China’s behavior on Senkaku is not as aggressive as the conventional wisdom suggests. China is extraordinarily dependent on Western export markets. There is little undisputed evidence that China and Russia are meaningfully working together. China probably abstained at the UN for the same reason everyone else is keeping their powder dry on Crimea: no one really knows what Putin is up to; no one knows how far he intends to push. Crimea was a big surprise to everyone, including to the hawks who are now claiming it is the natural outcome of Obama’s weakness.

4. Crimea could be a template for conflict in Asia, because it too has territorial disputes. This massages the regional differences too much. First, to even call Crimea a ‘model’ of conflict is to accord it far too much significance too soon. (To be fair, Brad does not actually use that term, but much of the Crimea-Asia writing in the last two months pushes in this direction.) Second, Asia’s territorial problems are not irredentism which underlay both the Munich and Crimean annexations. I know of no Chinese irredentist claims in East Asia; no one in China speaks of ‘liberating’ ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, for example. (Taiwan might be considered Chinese irredentism if one really stretches the category, but that has long been a well-known issue.) Curiously, the only serious irredentist possibility in east Asia I can think of is Korean claims on northeast China. Korean history books teach that early Korean kingdoms stretched far north of the Yalu, and China and Korea have fallen into historiographic spats on this. But I know of no serious Korean politicians demanding Chinese territorial concessions there.

5. The move into Crimea means the US should re-double the Asian pivot. In fact, it likely says the opposite – that the US might be looking at a sustained stand-off with the Russians that will pull US resources into eastern Europe. Much of the security writing on East Asia assumes that the US is a source of stability and that Chinese power is a rising threat. This may indeed turn out to be the case, but it is also true that Asia has not had a major inter-state conflict since 1979 (China’s brief invasion of Vietnam). An alternative literature notes that Asian military expenditures are not nearly as high as US hawks would have you think and that Asia is much more stable than we realize. It may be that Asia under a bland, developmentalist Chinese oligarchy is more stable than eastern Europe menaced by a clownish, paranoid, prestige-seeking Putin. Again, we should not judge so rapidly. Particularly, we must be careful not cast China too quickly into the role of the regional villain like Germany 1914 or the USSR 1945. That is not clear yet.

The realist-hawk-neocon take on east Asia may indeed turn out to be right (this is probably the best statement of that case). But it is far too early to jump to large conclusions on Crimea’s ‘demonstration effect’ in Asia. China has a very long and well-known record of defending sovereignty. It is likely that the Chinese are upset with Putin’s open violation with this principle. They likely abstained on the Crimea vote to avoid giving the West a ‘win’, but it would be an extraordinary volte-face in Chinese foreign policy if Beijing were to suddenly endorse the rewrite of borders by force. Senkaku and the South China Sea dispute are not strong counter-evidence either. Both are nearly empty maritime spaces. China’s claims on them are indeed capacious and should be resisted, but they are far less threatening than Crimea, which was the annexation of a developed, populated land-space. Again, Asia’s cold-peace, while cold, may be more stable than we usually think.

So if Crimea encourages US allies in Asia to take their own defense a little more seriously, then so much the better. But there is little evidence to date that China (or anyone else in Asia) has picked up a ‘Crimea model.’ Conversely, there is a lot of evidence that US hawks and neoconservatives deeply dislike Obama, remain strongly committed to US hegemony, and will use events to support that. Let’s go a little more slowly…”