East Asia’s History Wars: South Korea and Japan (Yes, once again)


Newsweek Japan ran a story last week on the continuing history disputes in Northeast Asia. I love that cover (left). Here is internet link to that issue.

I was asked to contribute regarding South Korea. My essay, originally in English, is reprinted below. While the essay admits Japan’s many needed changes on this issue – Yasukuni, historical memorialization, etc. –  that stuff was more for the contributor on Japan. I was to focus on the South Korean side.

If you’ve read my work on this before, you’ll note some my regular themes. The debilitating competition with that mendacious, duplicitous regime to the North means that South Korea often feels compelled to try to ‘out-minjok’ the North by going over the top on Japan (read this, for example). The US alliance with Korea and Japan also saps any incentive for either side to compromise; there’s no external pressure to improve ties.

Increasingly though, I am thinking that the Korean NGO sector plays a big role too. By constantly pushing history issues to the front in the relationship with Japan, they insure that these issues effectively frame the relationship with Japan. This means little progress happens, and South Korean politicians are too afraid to take them on. No one wants to look like a friend of Japan in SK politics. There’s no upside to that. But recall that most Korean and Japanese actually want a working relationship – a cold peace, even if a warm peace is impossible, instead of the current cold war.

So increasingly, on the SK side I think (and probably on the Japanese side too), there must be some of kind reckoning with the NGOs. South Korea’s political class is going to have to say at some point that we will only go so far down this road, but no further. This will take some courage on the part of Koreans, to break with spell of unbounded nationalism. But I can’t see the relationship improving without more moderate voices, willing to call out stuff like this.

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On the 70th Anniversary of the North Korean Communist Party, Just How Communist is North Korea?

It was the 70th anniversary of the North Korean communist party – officially, the Korean Workers Party (KWP) – on October 10. The event got lots of press for the usual military bluster, but given that the event ostensibly celebrated a communist party, I thought it a nice opportunity to consider just how ‘communist’ North Korea actually is. If you look at that pic above, it sure looks communist: red everywhere, the iconography, the Mao suit, the Soviet-esque military uniforms (complete with those ridiculously oversized hats), the party symbol, and so on. So the stalinist form is still there.

But three changes since the end of the cold war have turned North Korea into something else:

1. Monarchic Succession, an openly feudal practice

2. The Replacement of Juche by Songun, ie, the flirtation with racism/fascism in the place of socialism as regime ideology

3. The effective Collapse of the Public Distribution System and its (unadmitted) replacement by creeping marketization from below and rampant corruption.

The original post is here at Real Clear Defense. Next month I want to write on other possible interpretive frames for North Korea once one throws out Marxism – is it a mafia state, or a national defense state, for example?

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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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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.

How Japan Manages to Hang Tough in History Debates with Korea & China


This is a cross-post of an essay that went up today at the Lowy Interpreter.

I was wondering why it is that Japan seems to be able to duck-and-weave on thorny East Asian history questions, when these are settled in just about the rest of the world? Even the Japanese left admits the nasty stuff the Empire did, so how is it the right hangs on in denial?

Some of it, to be sure, is domestic politics. The uyoku dentai certainly keep up the pressure on Abe & co. to give up nothing. And my own experience with them on Twitter has lead me to block them a lot, because they’re so visceral and racist: ‘Koreans are immoral’ and so on. But they’re no more than a few hundred thousand people at most, out out 126 million Japanese total.

The IR academic in me instinctively looks to foreign pressures, and here one can really see how the Chinese Communist Party’s appalling history toward its own people conveniently lets the Empire off the hook. The CCP will lose a ‘who was worse to the Chinese people than who’ contest with the Empire. Similarly, the ROK’s instrumentalization of the relationship with Japan for national identity-building purposes allows the Japanese right to stonewall, the logic being ‘Korea will never stop demanding apologies, so there’s no point engaging them anyway.’ As usual, it’s a tangle.

The essay follows 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.