Why did Kim Jong-Un Suddenly Bail on his Moscow Trip? B/c NK’s ‘Policy Process’ is more like a Factional Mosh-Pit

Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping watch the parade in Moscow.

You don’t see Kim Jong Un in there do you?

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute a few weeks ago on why Kim Jong UN of North Korea suddenly decided not to go to Moscow.

Everyone wants to know why Kim Jong-Un decided, out of the blue, not to got to Moscow for the WWII Victory Day celebration despite months of it being talked up. So here’s my theory – North Korea policy process isn’t a process at all. It’s more like a mosh-pit of competing interest groups and factions trying to control major decisions like this. So randomness, like sudden cancellation of this visit or the UN Secretary-General visit this week, is just built-in. Even if North Korea wanted to be less erratic and more predictable, it probably couldn’t be, because of the way it is governed.

The rest of the argument follows the jump.

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North Korea with SLBMs Scares the Hell Out of Everybody

Kim Jong Un North Korea

Am I the only one who is amazed at how good North Korea seems to be at developing new military technology? They got to nukes despite all sorts of international efforts to block them. They’ve got an apparently pretty successful missile program. They beat South Korea to drones last year. And now they’ve got submarines, and ones that can launch missiles to boot! Wow. We seem to consistently underestimate the Norks – probably because everyone loathes them so much that we keep telling ourselves that the place is falling apart and will implode any day now. Alas, it doesn’t look like it.

I wrote the following essay, below the jump, for the Lowy Institute a few days ago on the SLBM test. My primary fear is that all these nuclear and missile advances raise the temptation for South Korea to preemptively strike before the Northern program really gets out of control in the next decade with hundreds of warheads and missiles. The Israelis did that in Iraq and Syria, and I could see the South Koreans mulling it too.

Increasingly it is impossible to see how this ends well. Where are we going? What is the exit from a North Korea seriously threatening the entire region? Jees…

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Enough Dithering, South Korea. It’s Time to Deploy THAAD Missile Defense

The debate on missile defense in South Korea is accelerating. Increasingly it looks like there will be some kind of stationing of ‘Terminal High Altitude Area Defense’ (THAAD, pictured). This is almost certainly a good thing, because North Korea’s programs keep going and going; no one would really trust Pyongyang to adhere to a deal at this point anymore anyway; and North Korea is not in a nuclear rule-system, like the IAEA or NPT, so we really have no idea what’s happening in much detail. Remember that their HEU program was kept hidden pretty well and then suddenly revealed.

Given all this uncertainty, and North Korea’s established history of lying, especially about its nuclear program, missile defense strikes me as a no-brainer. It is clearly a defensive weapon too, so it does not add to South Korea’s ability to offensively strike North Korea. The North won’t really be able to credibly criticize the system as a ‘tool of imperialism’ or something (although they will certainly say that anyway). Also, in passing for IR theorists, I’d say this debate nicely illustrates both the security dilemma and the offense-defense balance debate.

The full essay follows the jump; it was first published in The Diplomat here earlier this month.

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Will South Korea Eventually Feel Compelled to Bomb NK Missile Sites?

The picture to the left is the poster from a South Korean film in which a North Korean coup forces South Korea to launch on air-strike on Nork missile sites. It’s not very good (it’s the Top Gun of Korea), but it’s the closest pop-culture reference I could think of to the argument I make below.

My growing concern for years now is that the more nuclear missiles North Korea acquires (read this on just how many and when), the more they threaten South Korea’s very existence. To date, North Korea’s missile and nukes have generally been understood as a tool for regime security – to prevent an American ‘regime change’ attack – or as a gangsterish way for NK to shake-down SK, Japan, and the US for concessions. As Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton both noted, the Norks are great at selling and re-selling their nuclear program for aid.

But, if NK gets dozens, or even hundreds, of nuclear warheads and missiles, then the NK nuclear program is no longer about regime security or blackmail. It would then have grown into an existential threat to SK as a state and society. This is why I am such a strong supporter of THAAD. NK is moving from being a frightening rogue state obsessed with survival, to a major threat to the constitutional order and even physical survival of the ROK (and Japan). To be sure, the USSR and US were that to each other in the Cold War, but both developed technologies (SLBMs mostly) that allowed them to survive (or ‘ride out’ in nuclear parlance) even a massive first strike and still retaliate. This ‘assured second strike’ capability dramatically reduced the incentive for either side to strike first, so stabilizing the nuclear competition despite the huge size of the arsenals. By contrast, neither NK nor SK have assured second strike (SK might because of the American alliance, but that’s not entirely clear) which therefore incentives attacking first.

Further, both NK and SK are very vulnerable to a first strike, so again the incentives to move first are high. NK cannot hide its nuclear weapons; it is too small and US satellite coverage too intrusive. Nuclear facilities are big and vulnerable, and a obvious temptation for an allied preemptive strike. This creates a ‘use-them-or-lose-them’ dilemma for Pyongyang. And this dilemma worsens as Pyongyang builds more and more, and spends more and more. The more nukes North Korea deploys, the greater the allied temptation to destroy them before they could be used (this was American thinking during the Cuban Missile Crisis too). This vulnerability, in turn, incentivizes NK to use them before they’re struck. It’s a nasty spiral of paranoia.

SK too is vulnerable, which again incentivizes moving first. SK cannot ride out a serious nuclear assault, because it is a small, highly centralized state with a highly concentrated population defenseless against missile attack. It would not take many nuclear strikes to destabilize the Republic (unlike the US or USSR in the Cold War). As Nork nukes move from a few for security, to many as a state- and society-breaking threat to SK (and even Japan), the incentives to preemptively destroy them first will grow also. This is a classic nuclear security dilemma, straight out of the Cold War in the 1950s.

The best way out of this nasty, worsening game would be nuclear restraint on the NK part (a pipe-dream, that), and/or robust missile defense on the SK side. THAAD is really, really important to slow the security dilemma paranoia that accompanies arms build-ups, especially nuclear ones. The Chinese ought to think about that before they come out so strongly against THAAD:

If South Korea is entirely ‘naked’ or ‘roof-less’ against missile attack, when NK has 100+ nuclear missiles – a capability that could destroy South Korea in just a few minutes – what does Beijing think will happen? That Seoul will just sit back and do nothing because of trade with China? I doubt it. No SK president could tolerate such a stark, asymmetric threat to the ROK’s very existence just to keep the Chinese mollified. That would border on dereliction of duty. Even if SK did not want to strike North Korea’s nuclear sites (which I don’t think it does), it might feel compelled to out of sheer fear.

These ideas were first fleshed out at The Diplomat here. That essay is re-posted below and repeats the above discussion:

Kim Ki Jong, likely a Nutball Lone Wolf ‘Terrorist’-wannabe, will have Zero Impact on US-Korea Relations

So it’s been a week since the US ambassador to Korea got attacked, and the consensus here is pretty much that he is a lonely nutball who drank too much Nork kool-aid. The South Korean police are investigating to see if he is connected to North Korea in any meaningful way. Apparently he went there a few times, but I find it highly unlikely that actually acted on orders or training he got in Pyongyang. The NK regime is not that suicidal, as an open attack on the US ambassador might well precipitate a US counter-strike.

I think it is pretty important to note that while lots of Koreans on the left are uncomfortable with the US presence and have even protested it (such as the candlelight vigils back in 2008), the mainstream Korean left does not call for anti-American violence or physical harm of Americans. The SK left may be too pro-Pyongyang – which is a big reason it keep losing elections; it really needs a Tony Blair/Bill Clinton-style centrist reformation – but its definitely not violent or revolutionary.

So forget about Kim – he’s likely more a loon than a revolutionary. Little will change.

The piece after the jump was originally written for the Lowy Interpreter here.

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Modernization has Revolutionized Korean Grand Strategy

In the summer 2015, I went off to Columbia for a strategy training seminar called the ‘Summer Workshop on the Analysis of Military Operations and Strategy.’ It was pretty great. You should apply for it, here.

It got me thinking about Korean grand strategy, which I have written about before. I still think the primary geopolitical dilemma for Korea is that it is a middle power surrounded by three great powers. That really sucks, and may be unique in world politics to be bordered by three great powers while being a small/middle power yourself. Most encircled powers only face two large states so directly adjacent to them. Even Germany, while encircled, was never so overmatched by neighbors, because it too was a great power. But Korea has three large states right on top it. That’s very tough.

But the power ratios are changing. In the last 50 years South Korea has grown very fast, while in the last 20-30 years, Russia and Japan have stagnated. That still doesn’t mean Korea is a great power, but the gap is much narrower. So for the first time in its history, Korea is not a regional geopolitical football. That’s actually a pretty great national achievement.

This is the focus of this essay (after the jump), originally written for The Diplomat.

My Review of ‘The Interview’: Dumb, but Mildly Subversive


I know this came out awhile back and almost everyone has seen it now. But my review just went up at the Lowy Institute, so here is my local mirror of that post.

I saw it twice and actually found it reasonably funny the second time, but for low-brow reasons that had nothing to so with N Korea. If you watch it over some beers with your drinking buddies, it’s reasonable Saturday night fare. But all its best jokes are Animal House-style, guys-behaving-badly stuff that has nothing to do with NK, and for which the NK backdrop is totally unnecessary. So why was the film even set there?

Finding humor in North Korea, while nonetheless respecting how awful the place is, is a tough task which would require good writing, something along the lines of The Great Dictator. But Seth Rogen scarcely tries that. Instead it’s all twenty-something American humor (lots of western movies and music references, and sex jokes). So why drag in all the moral weight that comes from engaging North Korea? I didn’t find that morally offensive, as some reviewers did, but rather just bizarre and incongruous. It’s as if a standard issue Hollywood ‘dudebro’ comedy just fell out of the sky into North Korea. Wait, what? Who thought that mix of elements would work?

Whatever. If you haven’t seen it once, you should. Review follows the jump.