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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Park Geun-Hye’s Trip to that Bombastic Chinese Military Parade Was Actually a Good Idea

South Korean President Park Geun-hye (2nd from L) talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin (3rd from L) as they, along with Chinese President Xi Jinping (far R), stand to review a massive military parade marking the 70th anniversary of China`s victory over Japan in World War II at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015, (Yonhap)

I know what your thinking: there’s the president of a democracy standing next to three dictators, one of whom insists on dressing like Mao, watching Chinese soldiers goose-step like fascists. Yikes! I agree that the optics are terrible. (Quick quiz: who’s the ‘president for life’ in blue on the left? Here.)

But Park is flattering China like this is for a purpose – to isolate North Korea. So stop all your nattering about her clothes at this event (yes, I’ve heard that); that she is Xi’s ‘girlfriend;’ that she’s a ‘sinophile;’ that she’s drifting from the US or turned her back on her friends or democracy or whatever. None of that is true. All of that is speculative.

Instead, she’s hustling hard – 6 trips to China in 3 years – to convince China that South Korea is not an enemy and that China can therefore give up the North Korean buffer. How many times have you heard American analysts, in an attempt to get China to do more on North Korea, say, ‘the road to Pyongyang runs through Beijing’? Well, here are the South Koreans taking that to heart. If you think she’s dissing the US alliance, recall that the whole purpose of the US-SK alliance is North Korea. The US alliance is not an end in itself, no matter what neocons think.

China is North Korea’s last trap-door to escape the obvious inefficiencies of its economy. Without China, the perks of running North Korea – the cars, yachts, booze, trips to Hong Kong, girls, foreign education for your kids, and all the rest – disappear. Cut that Chinese umbilical cord, and North Korean resources will diminish dramatically. As the budget steadily shrinks, regime elites will turn on each other over a diminishing pie. The Songun bargain (my term) – struck by Kim Jong Il to keep the system rolling after the Cold War, in which the KPA generals do not overthrow the Kims in exchange for the cushy lifestyle – would collapse, because the lifestyle is impossible without some access to the outside world. And the only place North Korean elites can park their money, traffick their meth and missile parts, import skiing equipment (yes, really), and all the rest, is China.

If you can finally cut off North Korea from the world – no more hidden pipelines – then I’d bet the regime would collapse within a decade from elite infighting over the small domestic, not very cushy resource pie leftover (no more Hennessey!). After the jump is a reprint of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute making this argument at length.

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The Iran Deal Cannot be a Template for a North Korea Deal if NK doesn’t Want to Deal

This is a rather tardy re-post of something I wrote for the Diplomat in the wake of the Iran deal in late July.

I still think my basic argument is correct. North Korea is far more isolated than Iran, so it needs the weapons a lot more. It also spent a far larger proportionate share of GDP to develop those weapons. So there’s no way they’d give them up without impossible concessions like the withdrawal of USFK or the end of multiparty elections in South Korea.

I do think the Americans, and especially South Koreans, would be open to dealing. But the Norks aren’t. The South Koreans especially just want to find modus vivendi with North Korea so that they can forget about it. But being ignored as the backward, nut-ball, third-world hellhole that it is, is exactly what the Norks don’t want. They crave the prestige of global attention, because otherwise they’re just a nuclear version of Zimbabwe or Turkmenistan. And how could the heroic Baekdu bloodline preside over a dump no one cares about?

So forget any deals. Provocative, nuke-adulating North Korea is here to stay. The full essay follows the jump.

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Part IV of Me and Van Jackson Debating South Korea’s Role in the South China Sea: N Korea Comes First

Kim Jong Un

This is a cross-post of an essay originally written for the Lowy Institute this week, available here.

This essay is the last round of a 2-month long debate between me and Van Jackson of Georgetown. Van wrote at the Diplomat; I wrote at the Interpreter. Here is part 1 (Van), part 2 (me), and part 3 (Van again). Van is a friend and way smarter than me. You should read his stuff.

Basically, I argue that if South Korea gets involved in the South China Sea flap, opposing China, then China will resume its relationship with North Korea. Right now that relationship is the coldest it has ever been. That is awesome. We really, really want this. The day China cuts off North Korea is the day the countdown to North Korea’s implosion begins.

Van argues South Korea could help get better Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. Mathematically, that is true; every little bit helps. But that help is small and the gains of a Sino-North Korean split are huge. Even if that split won’t happen soon, there is no way North Korea will collapse without it. So we have to do everything we can to groom Beijing’s alienation from Pyongyang. SK keeping quiet on the SCS, even when it agrees with the anti-Chinese coalition down there, is a necessary, albeit minor, cost.

Anyway, it’s a good debate. Judge for yourself after the jump.

Separating China from North Korea is Worth South Korea’s Silence on the South China Sea

South China Sea

I got this map from here. Very useful. The article below was originally published at the Lowy Institute last week, here.

In short, I don’t mind too much that the Koreans aren’t engaged on the South China Sea freedom of navigation dispute, because keeping their mouths shut and schmoozing the Chinese is necessary to get China to finally cut North Korea loose, which in turn is the only way North Korea will ever collapse. This is why I have never thought much of the criticisms that President Park Geun-Hye is a ‘sinophile.’ If you were South Korea, you would be too. If you lived next to giant China, and they were permanently bailing out your mortal enemy, then sucking up to them (within limits) is a good idea. I am not a big fan of PGH, but she has really gotten the Beijing-Pyongyang nexus right that her predecessors did not. Let her keep flattering Xi Jinping.

So you say that SK is a US ally and they’re getting a free-ride on the US, and therefore they should be involved in the SCS. Fair enough, but think a few steps further out. Getting China to dump Pyongyang is way more valuable than a little more weight on the scales in the SCS. SK can’t add much there, but openly throwing in with the US and Japan on the SCS would push Beijing back to Pyongyang when PGH’s schmoozing and flattering of Xi Jinping has done so much to push them apart. That’s hugely valuable.

Remember that NK will not collapse until China cuts it off, and that NK’s collapse is vastly more valuable to everyone – US included – than one more minor voice in the SCS flap.

The full essay follows the jump.

More on South Korean ‘Anti-Japanism’ and the Intra-Korean Legitimacy Contest


The challenge to South Korea this picture represents is my argument for where South Korea’s extraordinary national hang-up about Japan comes from.

Last month, I wrote about ‘anti-Japanism’ in South Korea. I tried to make an argument for why I thought it went beyond just what Japan did in the colonial period. Remember that North Korea does not villainize Japan the way South Korea does.

I lot of readers didn’t get the argument, and a lot rejected it. So I thought I’d try again. Once again, when it comes to comments on this thorny issue, spare me the hate-mail and the racism. Read this before telling me that I am a Japanese ‘parasite’ or whatever. Thank you.

This article was first published at the Lowy Institute, here. It starts after the jump.

Abe, the US, and ‘Korea Fatigue’: How Interested is the US in the Korean ‘History Issue’?

That is Wendy Sherman in Korea before the flap over her ‘history’ remarks.

The following essay was originally posted here, at the Lowy Institute.

The idea for this essay came from watching Abe’s successful trip to the US last month and just how much the Korean media wigged out that that was some major set-back for Korea. There were even calls at the time that the Korean foreign minister should resign, as if some how MoFA could have stopped Abe and Obama from sharing a glass of wine or whatever, and that that was some kind of cataclysm for Korea. Really? Jesus. Get some perspective.

Anyway, all the hullaballoo just reinforced that South Korea has an unhealthy obsession with Japan and an ‘enemy image’ of it that really doesn’t fly when you live next to the likes of North Korea, China, and Russia. Are Korea’s historical grievances with Japan legitimate? Yes, they are. Does Abe’s coalition have creepy righties in the shadows? Also, yes. But when you are more willing to talk to the modern day version of Big Brother (Kim Jong Un), than the elected leader of a liberal democracy with a 70-year history of good global citizenship, then something is wrong.

Anyway, I already got lots of hate-mail on this (try here and here if you want to troll me), so please spare me your ‘you-hate-Korea-and-don’t-what-you’re-talking-about’ and ‘Japanese-colonialism-was-good-for-Korea’ emails. I just delete them anyway.

Enjoy. …or maybe not. I don’t really care anymore…

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