“The Curious Love-Hate Relationship between China and North Korea”


The following is a re-up of my monthly post for the Lowy Interpreter for June. The original is here.

The fissure between North Korea and China is widely noted, and Kim Jong Il supposedly told Madeleine Albright when she visited Pyongyang in 2000 that he’d rather have a deal with the US than with China.

That’s somewhat understandable actually. The US is too far away, both geographically and culturally to really dominate North Korea if the two managed to strike a deal. But dealing with China – right next door, bullying, opportunistic – must be tough. There’s nothing Beijing would like more than for North Korea to be like East Germany: a completely dependent, completely controlled satellite. So the North Korean nuclear program is a great idea: even as North Korea becomes an economic semi-colony of China, the nukes can prevent the loss of political sovereignty.

The full essay follows the jump.

Korean Workers’ Party Congress: Getting the KPA under Control?


0524cover-thumb-240xauto

The following essay is the English language original of an essay I wrote for Newsweek Japan this month on the ruling (North) Korean Workers’ Party congress.

The argument I make is that the congress was an effort to revive the party in order to roll back the military. Songun may have kept Kim Jong Il from getting overthrown after the end of the Cold War, death of Kim Il Sung, and end of Soviet subsidies all cast into doubt the ability of North Korea to survive, but the cost was horrific. The military bankrupted the country as it pilfered, and when the famine hit in the late 1990s, there were resources for the regular population, and China had not yet fully stepped into the Soviet role of subsidizer-in-chief. The result was 10% of the population died.

Kim Jong Un couldn’t give a damn about his people, but he must know that military rent-seeking along the lines of songun means North Korea is either permanently dependent on China, with all the constraints on sovereignty that entails, or is permanently on the verge of famine, with all the risk of civil unrest that entails. The only way out is some internal growth, which means limiting the military’s rapacious appetite for the state budget and agricultural production. Hence, bringing back the party. It’s the only possible institutional counterweight to prevent NK from becoming a de facto military oligarchy.

That’s may big-picture interpretation of the congress. Tell me why I am wrong in the comments. The full essay follows the jump.

The Huge, Strange Coalition Opposed to an Obama Apology at Hiroshima


A G-7 meeting will take place on May 26-27 at Ise, Japan. This has prompted some discussion about whether or not President Obama will and/or should apologize for the August 6, 1945 bomb-drop. I figure he won’t for the reasons sketched in this essay: basically no one wants him to. The coalition opposed to an apology is huge. The below essay is a repost of my May essay for the Lowy Institute.

I did not engage the issue much of whether Obama should apologize, which also part of the reason why he won’t. It is not really clear that the bomb-drop was a war-crime deserving of an apology. That is different than pointing out that the bomb-drop may not have actually ended the war as American mythology insists it does. It probably did not actually convince the Japanese to quit. It was the Soviet entry into the war that finally pushed the cabinet to give in. But that does not mean that the bombing was unjustified, because US policy-makers obviously did not know that at the time. So be sure to distinguish between 1) did the bomb cause Japan to give up? (probably not; it was Stalin); 2) was the bomb drop immoral? (probably not, as the war was still going on and there was good reason to believe a shock weapon like this this might finally convince the junta to give up).

There are two good movie versions of all this too: Japan’s Longest Day (which is scarcely known in the West), and Hiroshima. My full Lowy essay follows the jump.

Continue reading

Waiting for China re: N Korea is like Waiting for Godot – My JoongAng Daily op-ed


China-North-Korea

I published an op-ed in the JoongAng Daily today, which this post re-prints.

Basically my argument is that China will increasingly be singled out and globally embarrassed for enabling North Korea if the post-comfort women deal cooperation between South Korea, Japan, and the US holds. If the democracies can work as a team on North Korea – finally! – and if we drop Russia from our regional analyses – as we should because Russia plays no role other than occasional spoiler regarding North Korea – then the game basically boils down to China on one side and the democracies (SK, Japan, and the US) on the other, meaning China stands out globally as North Korea’s protector.

All the Chinese obfuscation of the Six Party Talks or ‘regional solutions’ is falling away. It is now painfully obvious that China alone now is what is keeping North Korea afloat, allowing it to escape the worst pressures of all the sanctions piling up, and arguably even preventing it from collapsing by providing so much informal aid to North Korea. And by aid, I don’t just mean direct shipments of rice and fuel; I also mean the access to the outside world that allows Pyongyang to get luxury goods, use dollars, traffic its illicit production, and so on.

So let’s keep the democracies working together in a common front on NK. That is huge progress, and it shines a very clear spotlight on China now as NK’s last, only enabler. The sheer embarrassment of that is bound to impact prestige-conscious Chinese elites going forward.

On this issue of Chinese attitudes towards North Korea, Leif-Eric Easley, a friend from Ewha University in Seoul, just published a nice academic article on this. If I read Leif right, he’s even more pessimistic that China will change on North Korea than I am.

My full op-ed follows the jump.

Continue reading

The ‘Missilization’ of Conflict in Northeast Asia


2016.4.12号(4/ 5発売)

Earlier this month, I wrote a short op-ed for Newsweek Japan (issue cover to the left) on missiles and conflict Northeast Asia. I reprint that essay below in its English original.

My editor first wanted me to write something on North Korea’s latest tests. But everyone writes about that, and all the talk of missiles and missile defense up here got me thinking about the larger issue that drones, missiles, and other cheap air platforms increasingly look to me like the wave of the future.

Today’s (failed) North Korean missile test just reinforces the argument of this essay –  that any future conflict out here will involve a lot more unmanned airpower than people think. So yes, the big US bases out here are important, and politicians will continue to extol ‘the troops’ in order to get re-elected. But swarming drones, missiles, robot planes, and so on, guided by space-based C2ISR, is probably a lot cheaper and effective. (Read this on how much unconventional airpower would be involved in a conflict with China, and this on ‘swarming.’) The full essay follows the jump.

No, South Korea does Not Need Nuclear Weapons – bc They’ll Never Use Them


This essay is a reprint of a long-form piece I published recently with The Diplomat. It is a response to the growing debate inside South Korea after the recent Northern nuclear and missile tests.

I am actually pretty sympathetic to South Korea’s desire to go nuclear. With North Korea breathing down their neck, and projections that it might have dozens, if not hundreds, of nuclear weapons and missiles in the next decade, including hydrogen bombs, it is pretty easy to see why Seoul would like to counter that. And that same logic applies to Japan. When analysts say this will spark a nuclear arms in race in northeast Asia, I say, so what? 1) NK, and China because of its enabling behavior, have already started that race. Japan and South Korea would just be catching up. 2) The real problem is not nuclear technology, but who wields it. I have little fear that sable democracies with civilian control of their militaries will manage these weapons well.

So why not build nukes? Because they’ll never be used. Why not? Because in any contingency where North Korea actually used a nuclear weapon, the entire world, including China and Russia, would immediately assent to the DPRK’s final destruction. South Korea and the United States would invade North Korea forthwith and eventually win. Therefore, any nuclear strike on North Korea by the South (or the US) would suddenly become unified (South) Korea’s responsibility to clean up. Better to have a post-war, post-nuclear environment with fewer blast zones, even if that means, bizarrely, not launching against NK even if it launched against SK. I know that sounds weird and awful, but just read the whole piece to get the argument. Unified Korea (ie, SK) would have to clean up all the blast zones on the peninsula – both north and south – so it actually makes sense not to nuke North Korea, but to just defeat it conventionally.

So there is little upside to SK going nuclear. But there will be predictable downsides: bad press globally, NK crowing that their program is now justified and legitimate, China saying N and S Korea are now morally equivalent. As unsatisfying psychologically as it may to not respond in kind to the fatiguing, obnoxious Don Corleone of Korea, it is best to stick to the US alliance and plans for a conventional victory.

The full essay follows the jump.

Will the Comfort Women Deal between Korea and Japan Hold? I’m Skeptical


This is a re-post of an essay I just wrote for the Lowy Institute.

Japan and South Korea clinched a deal in late December over the comfort women. It is pretty controversial in Korea, and the Japanese are now insisting that the deal means the issue should never be brought up again ever. Given how deeply Koreans care about this – I can’t begin to list the huge number of student papers, conference papers, journal and newspaper articles, TV programs, emails, and what all I have read/seen over the years on this – I am very skeptical that an intergovernmental deal will suddenly close down an issue that attracts so much civil society and journalistic attention, not to mention helps shape South Korea’s anti-Japanist political identity.

Luckily for President Park Geun-Hye, the North Korean tests and bad weather of the last month distracted attention and made street protests difficult. In the coming year, I think the big tests of the deal’s ‘stickiness’ are the April parliamentary elections, and the moving the statue (pic above) from in front of the Japanese embassy. If the left doesn’t use this as a wedge issue, and if students and activists don’t human-shield the statue or attack the crane, then perhaps Koreans really are ready to move on. But I am very skeptical that an issue which has been built-up in K national consciousness for 25 years can suddenly be switched off by secretive, high-level deal among a bunch of bureaucrats. I don’t buy it…

The full Lowy essay on my skepticism follows the jump