My Diplomat Essay for April: Unintended Consequences of US Alliances in Asia


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So this month for the Diplomat I wrote a speculative essay on US alliances in Asia – reposted below, original here. I think some people over-read it to mean that the US should leave Asia or that I endorse Chinese regional hegemony or whatever. I don’t. As I say in the piece, I still think the US presence is balance-positive, especially as China is moving from the ‘peaceful rise’ to capacious maritime claims off its east coast. Instead this was to be a thought experiment – an effort to tease out whether US regional alliances have negative impacts, given that almost all the discussion rather blithely assumes the opposite. I think the first possible downside suggested below – that China won’t cut North Korea loose until the US leaves Korea – is particularly strong and unsettling to the conventional wisdom. Ideally, this analysis would encourage thinking on mitigating these unintended side-effects.

Here is that essay. If you follow CSIS’ ‘PacNet’ series (which you should btw), a variant of this will come out there shortly:

“The conventional wisdom on US alliances in Asia, at least in the West, Japan, and Taiwan (but not necessarily in South Korea), is that they are broadly a good thing. One hears this pretty regularly from US officials and the vast network of US think-tanks and foundations like CSIS or AEI and their many doubles in Asia. US alliances, we are told, provide stability. They keep China from dominating the region. They hem in North Korea and defend the powerfully symbolic South Korean experiment in liberal democracy and capitalism. They prevent the nuclearization of South Korea and Japan and a spiraling regional arms race. In short, they re-assure.

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My Lowy essay for March: Are N Korean outbursts in the Yellow Sea ‘Communication’?


Is this what’s going on in these regular Yellow Sea clashes?

Last week, I wrote an essay for Lowy on why these North Korean outbursts in the Yellow Sea take place so regular – most recently this week. Lowy editor Sam Roggeven suggested the above scene from 13 Days, a film about the Cuban Missile Crisis, as an example my argument. That’s a nice catch I hadn’t thought of. It would be awfully nice if we had better information from North Korea by which by to make these judgments. For my similar, earlier thinking on North Korea crisis behavior, see this on the 2013 spring war crisis.

Here’s that essay:

“Yesterday North Korea conducted artillery exercises in the Yellow Sea (West Sea). Approximately one hundred rounds feel across the border, prompting the South to counter-fire and scramble F-15s to the area. (Here is a useful write-up of the incident.) South Korean residents of local islands were evacuated. No casualties were reported, and the incident seems to have ended.

While unnerving, there is little reason to believe these sorts of incidents will spiral out of control. They are surprisingly regular, and South Koreans have tuned them out to a certain extent. (I live in South Korea and, while I used to respond with alarm, I have now slipped into the apathy I see around me.) I did not even know about it until a foreign journalist asked me if this would lead to a serious conflict. It will not, and the real ‘kremlinological’ question is what, if anything, North Korea is trying to signal with these shootings. I see three possibilities, although it should be admitted that we have little evidence from North Korean decision-making by which to verify the following speculations:

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My Lowy Essay on that New Report on North Korean Human Rights: It won’t Change the North – but It will Pressure China


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This is a re-up of a short piece I wrote for the Lowy Institute’s blog on that recent North Korea human rights report from the UN. The more I think about it, the more I think its big impact will be to raise the moral pressure on China to either rein in North Korea or start cutting it off. NK is an embarrassment to China. My Chinese grad students get flustered and sheepish whenever I mention this. I think this moral embarrassment is the best way to push China on this. And once China finally cuts off NK, then we’ll see real change at last. I also thought this analysis piece from Foreign Policy was pretty good.

“This month the United Nations (UN) told us what we all already knew – that North Korea is the world’s worst human rights abuser. Specifically, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the formal name of North Korea) of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a lengthy, well-documented report that North Korean repression, in the words of the Australian chair of the Commission, Michael Kirby, is “strikingly similar” to that of the Nazis. This is a landmark finding, not only for its willingness to call out North Korea explicitly, but for its origin in a multilateral body channeling global public opinion. I see four elements in the coming fall-out from this:

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My First Post at the Lowy Institute: 3 Non-Predictions for 2014


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So this year, I am writing twice a month for the Lowy Institute – a foreign policy and international relations think-tank in Australia. My work will go on their blog-line, called the Interpreter. My author page with them is here. I’ve had Lowy in my own blog-roll (on the right side of this page) for awhile. It is a good site, particularly if you are interested in Australia. Now Lowy is seeking to break out into East Asian politics more generally. I am happy to participate in that, and I would like to thank the Interpreter editor, Sam Roggeveen, for recruiting me. My first post with them, here, was about two weeks ago. Sam had the clever idea to invert the usual ‘predications for the coming year’ pieces that fill January with predictions of things that won’t happen. My own record of predictions on this site (2010, 2010, 2011) are pretty spotty, so this was a nice challenge.

So here are three things that you think might happen in Eat Asia this year, but won’t:

1. There will be no Sino-Japanese war. Any scuffles will be contained.This was would be so destructive, there’s no way the CCP will let the PLA pursue real escalation.

2. North Korea will not change. That might sound like the safest prediction ever, but actually political science and Korea studies have a long history of arguing that NK is about to collapse. But it won’t.

3. ASEAN will stay useless and over-rated. Western liberals and international organization majors really, REALLY need to stop hyping ASEAN. It’s a joke, and it will stay one. The real story in Asia is its refusal to regionalize/organize, not the incipient regionalization westerners are so desperate to find in every meeting of Asian leaders. And don’t even talk to me about ASEM. These are all talk-shops. East Asia is the land of Hegelian nation-state. Get used to it.

Here’s that full essay:

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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.”

My January Diplomat Essay: Top 5 Northeast Asian Security Stories in 2013


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I know these exercises in end-of-year top 5s or top 10s can be silly or fanciful. But there is some value to trying prioritization. Part of social science is determining causal weights – which causes are most important among many possibilities. And that is the logic implicitly behind these sorts of turn-of-the-year lists. It’s also fun to try after a long year. So here is mine; I imagine these will seem pretty predictable though.

“It’s that time of year when analysts everywhere throw out predictions of the year to come and retrospectives of the past year. It’s practically impossible to build a fair metric for these things, but it is fun to try. Here I define consequentiality as those events likely to shape future events on large geopolitical questions in northeast Asia, specifically commerce and conflict. Here is one such list from the Financial Times on Asia. Here is mine:

1. The expansion of the Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ)

This strikes me as the most important regional geopolitical event of the year, because it effectively ratifies what many analysts have suspected of coming for a long time – a Sino-Japanese competition over Asia, with the US hovering in the background, tilting toward Japan. This will be the defining competition of Asia for the next several decades, and the trend-lines broadly favor China – Japan and the US are in decline relative to China.

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My ‘Introduction to North Korea’ Essay for Al Jazeera Center for Studies


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The pic is me and my NK guide in front of one of the many ubiquitous statues of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang.

Besides running a TV network, Al Jazeera also has something called the ‘Al Jazeera Center for Studies.’ I know what you thinking; it’s the same thing I said – study of what? Judging by the looks of it, the Center provides introductory country and regional snapshots of places around the world to an Arab audience. This is very laudatory to my mind. The problems with Arab education have been well-documented, so I am happy to see this and participate in it. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Al Jazeera is a lot better than many people think, especially compared to CNN, much less Fox. It’s reputation as ‘terrorist TV’ isn’t really deserved.

So they reached out to me to provide a primer on NK. Here it is on their site, and it is reposted below the jump. I think they called me because I have occasionally been on the network as a talking head. And yes, in the interest of full disclosure, I was paid to provide this essay – not that I can think of any apparent conflicts of interest between Arab cable TV and North Korea.

They only gave me 2000 words, so I emphasize the permanent legitimacy crisis of NK after the end of the Cold War and the near-implosion of the 1990s; the semi-theocratic Kim family cult; and the patronage of China that keeps this ramshackle jalopy on the road. Please keep that tight word-limit in mind in your comments/criticisms. There is so much one could choose to emphasize, but I would be curious to see if you think this is fair. Also, this is meant for laymen, particularly in the Arab world, for whom this stuff is pretty foreign, I would imagine. So the detail is limited compared to the knowledge base of the likely readership of this blog. Still, I feel pretty god that I covered a lot of ground in short space. Here it is:

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My Cover Story for Newsweek Japan: The Subtext of S Korea’s Dislike for Japan is Competition with N Korea


cover1203-thumb-200xautoI just published a long essay about Korea’s view of Japan for Newsweek Japan. Please contact me if you would like the Japanese version. Below is the reprint in English.

As so often when I write in this area, I immediately got hate-mail. So please, don’t bother telling how much this website sucks, that I’m a mouthpiece for whomever you dislike, that I am ‘taking sides,’ betraying Korea, and so on. I know Koreans and Japanese read critical analyses of one or the other in zero-sum terms. The essay below is not meant as a ‘Japanese win.’ It is meant to explore why Koreans exaggerate Japan so much. Why do Koreans routinely say things like Japan is run by right-wing fanatics who want to invade Dokdo with samurai? These statements are not only obviously false, they are ridiculous.

I have said before (here, here) that Koreans have legitimate grievances regarding Japan, particularly on Yasukuni and the comfort women. But Koreans don’t stop there; they go over-the-top with things like the Sea of Japan re-naming campaign, claims that Japan wants to invade Korea again, that Japanese behavior in Korea equates with the Holocaust, or that Dodko is worth going to war over – even though a Korean use of force against Japan would almost certainly eventuate a US departure from SK and dramatically reduce Korean security. Other victims of earlier Japanese imperialism don’t talk like this, and I think a lot of well-meaning Japanese, who do recognize what Japan did here, are genuinely baffled by all this.

So the puzzle, to put it in social science terms, is not why Koreans dislike Japan. There are grounds for that. But rather, why do Koreans (specifically the media) exaggerate those grievances so much that even sympathetic outlets (like this blog or American analysts more generally) feel compelled to call out the nonsense? That is actually a really good research question – but for all the hate-mail – if you are writing a PhD in this area.

Here is my primary hypothesis: ‘Japanphobia’ – the over-the-top Korean descriptions of Japan as some unrepentant imperial revanchist – serves S Korean domestic nationalist needs. Specifically Japan functions as a useful ‘other’ for the identity construction problem of a half-country (SK) facing a competitor (NK) that openly proclaims itself the real Korean national state against an imposter (SK). Trapped in  who’s-more-nationalist-than-thou contest with NK, demonizing Japan is way for South Korea to compete with the North for Korean nationalist imagination. The RoK can posture as an instantiation of the minjok by criticizing Japan, which it can’t do by attacking NK, because NK says the same thing. Given that Koreans are more moved by the blood and cultural associations of the Chosun minjok than the dry, corrupt formalism of the RoK, the RoK desperately needs something to give itself some identity. Japan is that something. The RoK can’t connect convincingly with Koreans as the anti-DPRK, because too many South Koreans are ambiguous on NK. So the (post-dictatorial, democratic) RoK is the anti-Japan instead

NK routinely calls SK the ‘Yankee Colony’ to delegitimize it, but beating up on NK is not so easy in SK. A sizeable minority of S Koreans clandestinely sympathize with NK and agree that SK is too Americanized and not Korean enough. And NK cynically, relentlessly manipulates the evocative symbolism of Mt. Paektu to emotionally confuse the South. By contrast, Japan, the former colonialist, brings a convenient, black-and-white ‘moral clarity.’ It’s morally easy to condemn Japan. As a result, Dokdo gets fetishized (instead of now compromised Mt. Paekdu, the much more obvious geographic symbol of Korea) and Japan (not NK) becomes the state against which the RoK defines itself.

The full essay follows the jump. The framing is the recent trip by US Secretary of Defense Hagel to Tokyo and the furious grand strategy debate that touched off in Seoul. If the language seems a little ‘journalist-y,’ that’s because this was edited for readability by Newsweek.

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My Diplomat Interview on North Korea, Syria, and China’s Rise


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Frequent readers know that I am regular contributor to the Diplomat web-magazine. On October 10, Editor James Pach interviewed me, mostly about Northeast Asia. Jim is a great guy, and I think these questions helpfully expand on some ideas I have put on the blog recently, especially my recent piece on reining in US presidential wars powers. The original interview is here.

JP: North Korea has put its troops on high alert, restarted its reactor at Yongbyon and called South Korean President Park Geun-hye an “imbecile.” We’re accustomed to the pendulum of ratcheting up and then easing tensions, but this year Pyongyang seems especially schizophrenic. Is this the new leader Kim Jong-un settling in, or are there other factors at play?

REK: This is a tough question given how opaque North Korean leadership decisions are. My own sense is that this is typical North Korean game playing. I made a similar argument at the Diplomat during the spring war crisis. It is true that Kim Jong Un is likely still finding his way. He is too young and too inexperienced in the old boys networks that run NK to easily step into his father’s shoes. But his period of greatest vulnerability was last year. The regime seems to be settling in around him comfortably – to many people’s surprise – so my sense is that this is the Korean People’s Army going through its usual hijinks to justify its massive and massively expensive role in NK life. I thought this too was the reason for the spring crisis, because NK does not actually want a war which they will lose, badly.

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My ‘Newsweek Korea’ Cover Story: A Defense of Obama’s ‘Strategic Patience’ on North Korea


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Newsweek Korea asked me to participate in a cover story debate on Obama’s strategic patience. A friend of mine wrote against it; I wrote in defense. Here is the Korean language text at the NWK website. Below is my original English language version.

In brief I argue that NK is so hard to pin down, that big strategies never work with it, provoke North Korea into lashing out, and raise impossible expectations on democratic decision-makers. So Obama is acting responsibly, IMO, by not promising more than he can deliver and by not giving a reason for NK to act out.

After 20+ years of negotiating on more or less the same topics, it should be pretty obvious that NK is insistent on not being placed in some box by outsiders. It will not be treated as some technocratic ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ by a conference of experts, like global warming or something. And it will lash out if necessary to remind us of that. Hence, I argue for ‘muddling through,’ and that we should stop expecting our policy-makers to have some great NK strategy that will fix the issue. That’s not gonna happen. We all know that. We just have to wait for China to stop paying NK’s bills. Until then, all the sweeping declarations (‘agreed framework,’ ‘sunshine’,’ the ‘axis of evil,’ the current big idea du jour of ‘trust’) are rather pointless and raise impossible expectations among voters in SK, the US, and Japan. Let’s be a little more honest about what we can expect from North Korea.

Here we go:

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My ‘Diplomat’ Interview: the Inter-Korean Talks Collapsed over a very Korean Hang-up over Rank and Status


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I write for the Diplomat magazine occasionally, and they just interviewed me on the collapse of the recent high-level inter-Korean talks. This is a re-print of that interview. It might seem ridiculous to non-Koreans, but Koreans take rank and status pretty seriously (because Korea is such hierarchical culture IMO). So a break-down over who out-ranks who (which is what happened) is not too extraordinary given the shared cultural context. Here’s that interview:

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Abenomics is Not more Dangerous than the North Korean Missile Program


okRegular readers know that I write now-and-again for the Diplomat web-magazine. This post is a re-print of my June column. Abenomics is still dominating Korean business news, and I continue to be amazed at how few people want to admit that Japan’s revival is really good for democracy in Asia and the prevention of Chinese regional primacy.

As I discuss below, no less than the SK finance minister (pic) actually said Abenomics is more dangerous to SK than the NK missile program. Wait…what??? Did you know the mic was on? Does anyone genuinely believe that the worst totalitarianism in history gets a pass when the Bank of Japan prints a lot of cheap money? Come on. Are Korean officials so deeply bought by the chaebol that they actually have to say stuff like that? Honestly if Minister Hyun really believes that (I doubt that though, see below), he should probably resign. This is just a travesty, hugely embarrassing – so if this post reads a little rant-ish, that’s why.

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My ‘Newsweek Japan’ Story on Korea’s Regional Foreign Policy: Being an Encircled Middle Power Sucks


Newsweek 3rd coverNewsweek Japan asked me to contribute an essay on Korean foreign policy for a special issue on current Northeast Asian tension. I also wrote the introductory essay for this special issue. There is one essay each on Japan, China, and Korea; mine is the Korean one. So this is a nice laymen’s review without too much fatiguing jargon. This was originally published in January, so this translation is late, but the points still hold.

In brief I argue that Korea’s foreign policy is driven by its geography. Korea is a middle power surrounded by three great powers, plus the most orwellian state in history. That position really, really sucks. The US alliance helps buttress Korea sovereignty in that tight neighborhood, but China’s rise is unbalancing everything, especially calculations for unification. Once again, there are no hyperlinks, because it was intended for print. Here we go:

“On December 19, Korea elected a new president, Park Geun-Hye. Park comes from the conservative New Frontier Party. The current president, Lee Myung-Bak, is also a conservative. Park will be inaugurated in late February. Her campaign presented her as more ‘dovish’ on foreign policy than Lee, but she represents greater continuity than her opponent, particularly regarding North Korea.

Korea’s foreign policy is heavily-driven by its geography. It is an encircled middle power that has frequently struggled to defend its autonomy against its much larger neighbors. And since World War II, it has faced the most orwellian country in history in a harsh stand-off that dominates Korean foreign policy. An opening of North Korea, leading to eventual reunification, is the central policy issue of every Korean administration. Beyond that, Korea’s central relations are with the United States, China, and Japan. All three structure Korea’s neighborhood and will significantly influence unification.

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My ‘Newsweek Japan’ Cover Story on the post-1979 ‘Asian Peace’ & Economic Miracle


Newsweek 3rd coverNewsweek Japan asked me to write an introductory essay for its January 16 special issue on tension in Northeast Asia (cover story to the left). I should have put this up 4 months ago, but I forgot and the arguments are still valid. Anyway, here is the link in Japanese, but I thought it would be useful to publish the original, untranslated version as well. (If you actually want the Japanese language version, email me for it please.)

The essay argues that Northeast Asia has benefited enormously from an ‘Asian peace’ in the last 35 years. All the remarkable growth in China and South Korea (as well as India and Southeast Asia) would not have happened without it. So fighting over some empty rocks (Liancourt Rocks, Pinnacle Islands) is a terrible idea. And for political scientists, the current Sino-Japanese tension is a good test of the hypothesis that economic interdependence brings peace. It’s fascinating to watch China especially try to figure out just how much economic gain to forego in pushing Japan over the Pinnacle Islands.

This was intended for their print edition, so there are no hyperlinks included in the text. Here we go:

“1979 was an important year in modern East Asia. It captures two of the region’s most important trends. It was the year of both the last serious military conflict between two East Asian countries – a Sino-Vietnamese border war – and the start of China’s capitalist modernization under Deng Xiaoping. These moments usefully frame the following thirty-four years: much of Asia has gotten substantially wealthier, and no major conflicts have broken out to upset that upward economic swing. This magnificent regional achievement has catapulted Asia, particularly East Asia, into the center of world politics.

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NKorea Recap (2): NK is an ‘Upper Volta with Nukes’, so Ignore Them


Still my favorite TV interview I have done yet: Jump to the 1:05 mark, and tell me you would not laugh out loud at that awesome question

 

Here is my original essay on the NK crisis, where I called NK ‘the boy who cried wolf’: no one believes their war-mongering rhetoric anymore, because they say outrageous stuff all the time that they never follow-up on. That piece enjoyed good traffic at the Diplomat, where it was originally posted. So I wrote a response to the comments made both there and at Reddit. That response was originally posted at the Chinese Policy Institute Blog of the University of Nottingham and at e-IR. I re-post it here for convenience. I would like to thank John Sullivan of Nottingham and Max Nurnus of e-IR for soliciting me.

Rather than respond individually – some of those guys at Reddit are just off-the-wall – I thought I would provide some general follow-up to certain critiques that showed up regularly.

1. You’re just an arm-chair general, air-head liberal, cloistered academic hack, and so on.

I was surprised that the essay was taken by some as ‘liberal’ or ‘blind to the NK threat’ and so on. I am actually fairly hawkish on NK. I think the Sunshine Policy failed and should not be tried again unless NK makes real concessions it did not last time. I also think the Six Party Talks were a gimmick to allow NK to play China, the US, SK, Japan, and Russia off against each other. For example, Kim Jong Il mentioned in the context of those talks that NK could be an ally of the US against China, and a lot of people think NK built nuclear weapons to prevent Chinese political domination even as NK becomes its economic colony.

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Was Kaesong a Hole in the Korean Iron Curtain or a Subsidy to the Kim Monarchy?


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The following was originally published at the Diplomat here.

So it increasingly looks like the inter-Korean Kaesong industrial zone is closed for good. (The Wikipedia write-up is a pretty good quick history of it if you don’t know the basics.)

The zone was set-up during the Sunshine Policy period (1998-2007). It was to do 3 things: 1) Lead to some liberal-capitalist spill-over in the North, 2) Expose regular North Koreans (the workers in the area) to regular South Koreans (the managers and staff), and 3) Generally provide some inter-Korean cooperation that might hopefully reduce larger tensions. A resort area in North Korea (Mt. Kumgang) was also opened along these lines in the Sunshine period. Broadly the idea was along the lines of liberal explanations for the Soviet Union’s changes in the 1980s: the Helsinki Accords and CSCE opened the USSR to the outside world, and the inflowing liberalism slowly changed attitudes that eventually helped wind-down the Cold War. Unfortunately, none of this seems to working in the NK case.

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NK Recap (1): “North Korea is the Boy Who Cried Wolf – There will be No War”


North Korea 2012 131The North Korea flap seems to be calming down, so here I reprint my original essay for the Diplomat a few weeks ago on the crisis. I’d like to thank Diplomat Editor Harry Kazianas for inviting my submission. And yes, that is a picture of me heading off to the Pyongyang Casino last summer, and I am happy to say I won $60 at blackjack against the Chinese dealer. Apparently my gambling problem is ‘pivoting’ to Asia too.

North Korea is a constant enigma, a point made apparent once again in the current crisis. Analysts of every stripe have mispredicted its behavior and longevity for decades, and this time around, it is again very unclear what exactly they want. So rather than make any predictions that will turn out to be laughably wrong next month, here are some observations that help narrow range.

1. Goaded into Conflict?

The North Koreans are experts at bluster. The previous president of South Korea was so disliked, that he was portrayed as a rat being decapitated in the Pyongyang newspapers. So when the North started saying outrageous stuff this time around, the first response of analysts everywhere was cynicism. And in the South Korean media, although it is front-page news, the commentary borders on ridicule. No one believes they mean it. A Korean friend of mine spoke for a lot of South Koreans, I believe, when he said to me that he almost wished NK would pull some stunt so that SK would finally give the NK the beating it richly deserves after so many decades of provocation.

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What if US/Japan Try to Shoot Down a North Korean Missile & They Miss?


Is our BMD better today than it was in 1985?…If they take out MTV though, that’d still be ok

 

So my prediction that the North Koreans would launch a  test missile on the ‘Day of the Sun’ – that would be Kim Il Sung’s birthday for you imperialist running-dogs yet lacking in proper ideological orientation – was wrong. Hmm. The North Koreans sure are good at keeping us guessing. Maybe they’re dragging this thing out, because they’re enjoying the time in the limelight. My friend Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post, ‘North Korea’s gone viral,’ and they gotta be lovin’ it. When else do we listen to them otherwise? (Here’s a collection of some of the NK humor.)

I still think there will be a missile launch, but I remain pretty positive there won’t be much escalation. I sketched an escalation path a few days ago. But despite being the most likely possible path to a conflict, I still don’t think it is in fact likely. Some comments, both on that post and privately made some good further points why escalation is unlikely.

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Escalation in the Korean Crisis: What will the NK Military do if Japan Shoots Down the Missile Launch?


Jpn Patriots

A few days ago, I predicted there would be no war, probably because I’m lazy and predicting the future will be the same as the present is an easy way to protect my credibility. However, I also noted that NK could get entrapped by its own belligerent rhetoric and be forced to escalate even if it doesn’t want to. I think this is why Kaesong was closed, for example.

I also noted how sanguine South Koreans are about NK, but foolishly, I didn’t really think about the Japanese. Then came the story about a mistweet by the city of Yokohama that apparently created local panic.The Japanese seem far more nervous about this than South Koreans, and NK did launch a missile once over Japan. The Japanese have also been talking a lot tougher, and Abe is clearly a hawk on NK. So here is the most likely escalation pathway I can see, despite my firm conviction the North Koreans do not want a war, because they will lose badly and quickly, and then face the executioner in Southern prisons:

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The Awful State of US Punditry on the North Korea Crisis: Bill Richardson called Kim Il Sung ‘Kim Yun Sum,’ or something like that, on CNN Yesterday


North Korea 2012 279I know what you’re thinking, I’m being a show-off area specialist, Asian language names can be hard for anglophones (and vice versa), and who cares about KIS anyway, because this crisis is about Kim Jong Un? All of that is true of course, especially the first one, but come on…

Richardson isn’t just any old hack like me on North Korea. (Here’s my take on the crisis.) He has been a regular point man for the  US on NK for more than a decade and markets himself as such on the talk-shows. And if you study NK in even the most basic way (here’s a good place to start), you know who KIS is. He’s everywhere. He founded the state in 1948 and ruled it until 1994 as his own personal fiefdom. The whole country is built around his personality cult. The regime even started calling its ideology ‘Kimilsungism,’ giving up the fictions of Marxism, communism, etc. KJU has called NK ‘KIS country’ and explicitly models himself after KIS in his clothing, hairstyle, and girth. Statues of KIS are everywhere, and Richardson has been there apparently eight times. I went there just once, and I’ve got my propaganda down pat about the Great Korean Leader, Comrade KIS’ heroic construction of socialism in our style under the revolutionary guidance of the Korean People’s Army defending the peasant and workers against the bourgeois imperialist Yankee Colony..… (I could keep going like that for a few more sentences if you like).

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