The THAAD Debate is now Wildly Overwrought and Exaggerated


This a local re-posting of an essay I just wrote this week for The National Interest here. That pic is mine, taken next to the US embassy in Seoul.

Basically, I’m amazed at how unhinged the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense debate has become in South Korea. The South Korea left is really digging in its heels and turning this into a huge issue. ‘Activists’ have shaven their head and and thrown eggs at officials supporting deployment. Opposition lawmakers even went to Beijing, which strongly opposes the deployment, to ‘apologize.’ The National Assembly, now with a leftist majority, wants a vote on THAAD, and this might even become a presidential election year.

I honestly don’t understand this at all. All THAAD does is raise South Korea’s missile defense roof by about 100 kms. That’s it. SK already has lower tier missile defense, and THAAD’s radar adds nothing that the US doesn’t already have (contrary to China’s assertions, which the Chinese know but won’t admit). Yet the South Korea left and China (cynically) are treating this like the apocalypse, as some massive re-orientation of the northeast Asian strategic landscape. It’s not.

This is not intended to seem partisan. I actually agree with the SK left on a lot of domestic issues, such as better regulation of the chaebol, press freedom, protests rights, the SK right’s creepy mccarthyism. But on North Korea, I just don’t get the SK left at all, and running off to China over THAAD looked like craven appeasement of a bully. Appalling flunkeyism.

Anyway, read after the jump about why THAAD only buys SK a little more time to figure out to response to NK missilization. It’s hardly a revolution.

The Comfort Women Deal Six Months On – Where’s the Korean Backlash?


The following is an op-ed I published in last week’s Newsweek Japan, where I write once a month. My editor asked me to write about how the comfort women deal of last year is getting on, and I have to say that I am surprised just how little we even hear about it anymore. For an issue that the Korean media often treated as central to South Korean identity, it seems to have inexplicably dropped out of the newspapers (which, I strongly suspect, displays how much the Korean government ‘directs’ the media here.)

So the main argument I make advances the one I made a few months ago: that if the Korean left does not fight back against the deal, then the deal achieves a level of national consensus it did not have initially when it was clinched in secret by a conservative government. And now that the left has surprisingly taken the majority in the parliament, this is the first and most important acid test for the deal. If the left doesn’t use its newfound power to go after the deal, then they are tacitly approving it.

Of course, no one in Korea will proactively say that they support the deal, but not acting is a way acting too. If the left, which has done so much to create this issue, does not re-politicize it, then that basically mean a broad, however unspoken, left-right consensus has emerged to take the deal and let the issue slowly disappear. The activist groups and leftist intellectuals, many of whom seem to have built their careers around the comfort women, will never give up. But without political representation, they are just one more voice in South Korea’s cacophonous civil society.

I have to say that I am really surprised that events are running this way. Just about every Korean I know gets really indignant and emotional at the mention of this issue. Yet the political class has dropped like a hot potato. So all these years of sturm und drang are over, just like that? Really? Still not sure why this has happened – American pressure? it was all just an act? everyone is truly terrified of NK and wants Japanese solidarity?

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.

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The Korean Right Got Crushed Last Month – Why?


The following post is the original English language version of a story I wrote for Newsweek Japan (relevant issue to the left) a few weeks ago on the South Korean.

The results of last month’s South Korean National Assembly went sharply against my prediction that the left would get routed. It serves me right for actually making a clear claim; next time I’ll stick to banalities to elide accountability. And I suppose I can take solace in that just about everyone was surprised at how well the Left did, including the left itself.

My logic in the prediction piece was straight out of political science: Duverger’s law predicts that partisan fragmentation – the fracturing of the Korean left’s votes across 3 parties – would throw lot of plurality seats, which are 82% of the National Assembly, to the right. This clearly did not happen. In fact, the new center-left People’s Party drew from the conservative New Frontier party instead of the traditional left-wing Democratic party. This is a huge surprise, and should be a huge red flag that Park Geun-Hye is not a popular president. Indeed, an early lame-ducking of her administration may be the most important outcome of the election.

The full essay follows the jump.

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


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.

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My Predictions and Expectations for the Upcoming South Korean Parliamentary Elections: The Left will get Hammered


This is a re-post of something I wrote a few days ago for the Lowy Institute. I thought it would be helpful to put some predictions out there, with a logic for why I made them.

That map to the left is the last South Korean parliamentary election’s distribution of seats. Red and blue are conservative parties. Yellow and purple are left-wing. Gray is independent. The reason red (the Saenuri Party) looks so dominant is because rural Korea is empty. So the parliamentary districts in the countryside are very big in order to capture the necessary number of voters. You can see this in the US as well, where the geographic expanse of urban congressional seats is much smaller than rural ones.

In brief, my prediction is that Ahn Chul Soo’s upstart left-wing party will throw lots of seats (10-30?) to the right by fragmenting the left-wing vote. 82% of the National Assembly’s seats are won by plurality voting. So all the right has to do is stick together under one roof, and they win while the left fragments its votes. The Diplomat interviewed me on this, and I said the same: Ahn doesn’t want to admit that he is sucking away votes from the main left-wing (Minjoo) party. So Ahn is the Jesse Ventura of South Korean politics, a vague, apolitical who-knows-what-he-believes purposefully damaging the larger effort of the left for his own egomania. (To be fair, parties to the left of Minjoo – typically pro-North Korean – also have a record of pointlessly splitting the left’s vote.)

The full essay follows the jump, but you probably shouldn’t listen to me anyway. My wife, naturally, won’t have any of this and will vote for Ahn, because he’s new… or something… I just don’t get the Korean liberal voter…

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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.