Korea 2017 Year in Review: The Presidential Impeachment was Actually the Biggest Story


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This is a local rep-post of a piece I just wrote for the Lowy Institute. I like these sort of retrospective, end-of-the-year pieces.

Basically I argue that the impeachment of former President Park Geun Hye was the biggest story of the year. Yes, Trump sucks up all the oxygen in the room, but who even knows if he means all his threats? But completing a full impeachment cycle is a pretty rare event in the history of democracy. And the Koreans did it with no violence or civic rupture. That is pretty impressive. But yes, I did then list North Korea and Trump as otherwise the big stories of the year.

The full essay follows the jump:

2017 was a rollercoaster year on the Korean peninsula. The South Koreans impeached their president. The North Koreans tested dozens of rockets, including intercontinental ballistic missiles. The American president threatened war repeatedly, possible nuclear war, against the North. And some random dorky foreigner in Korea got famous, because his cute little kids wandered into the frame while he was on TV. Honestly, why didn’t they fire that guy? It was quite a year.

For all the bluster and threats of war, I would nonetheless rate the impeachment of the South Korean president as the most important event. North Korean war scares are, as disturbing as it is to say it, pretty common, while a completed democratic impeachment is actually quite rare.

1. The Impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-Hye

With several months of distance from the upheaval of the winter protests against Park, the impeachment trial, the new election, and all the attendant drama, it is now pretty clear that Park Geun-Hye’s circle was grossly corrupt, and that she, by extension, did not really deserve to remain in office. There are diehards who are convinced it was a ‘communist’ conspiracy. The South Korean right is disturbingly comfortable with mccarthyite attacks on liberal opponents, and there is an Alex Jones-style conspiracy fringe here. But it is otherwise pretty widely accepted that Park’s confidant, Choi Soon-Sil, grossly abused her access to the president and had far too much influence over Park.

Choi was often compared to Rasputin. Choi’s father had a quasi-religious influence over Park since her youth, and Choi seemed to ‘inherit’ that. Choi in turn abused it, particularly on Park’s ascension to the presidency, enriching both herself and her cronies. It was undeniable sleazy and embarrassing, and as more and more details came out, Park’s approval rating fell to an astonishing 6% at one point. Has any chief executive in a modern democracy ever fallen that low?

There is much debate about whether Park herself knew about all the corruption. But like Ronald Reagan’s ignorance defense during the Iran-Contra affair, this too represents a gross dereliction of duty. President Park was either blithely unaware of what was happening right under her nose among her closest companions and staff, or covered it up, Nixon-style.

Eight months out now from all the controversy, my own sense is the former, while most of the Koreans I know seem to think the former. Park, it strikes me, was more incompetent than dastardly. Her behavior throughout her presidency suggested she was constantly overwhelmed by the scope of her office. On missile defense, North Korea policy, or the sinking of the Sewol ferry, she was adrift, and the rumors from her staff regarding her (low) intelligence were harsh. We will likely never know.

2. North Korean Missile Tests.

North Korea conducted twenty separate missile provocations in 2017, involving dozens of missiles, from short-range Scud-style launches to full-blown ICBMs designed to strike the continental United States. This was the fastest test tempo ever. For all Donald Trump’s pettiness, his ‘rocket man’ nickname for Kim Jong Un is not wrong.

One of these tests overflew Japan, prompting the commencement of civil air defense drills. (Although in a society whose median age is 47, they likely will not work well given the 8 minute warning time the Japanese will have.) Others have sought to demonstrate a capability to strike the United States. November 29’s test seems to have been accepted as that breakthrough.

Much of the debate over the weapons turns on whether the North intends to use them offensively. It is widely accepted that nuclear weapons give North Korea a potent shield against US-led regime-change against Pyongyang. After the Western removals of Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Moammar Kadaffi, that is an understandable goal, however regrettable for us. There is a defense and deterrence logic here which all can grasp.

We may dislike it, but it is in fact quite rational for a state like North Korea to pursue these weapons. It is poor and backward. It is loathed by much of the world as a freakish cold war relic. It is surrounded by enemies, or frenemies like China eager to exploit it instrumentally, but it has no real friends. When international relations theorist Ken Waltz spoke of ‘internal balancing,’ North Korean nuking up against such a tough neighborhood despite its poverty is exactly what he had in mind. Friendless, encircled, dysfunctional, and poor, North Korea is, in Victor Cha’s words, the ‘impossible state.’ In such circumstances, nuclear weapons are in fact an excellent choice. Not only for security, but they can be proliferated for cash and used as gangsterish shake-down instruments as well.

Hawkish fears of North Korean aggression in the vein of the old saw that ‘nuclear weapons make the world safe for World War II’ strike me as over-wrought. Even if North Korea could successfully ‘de-couple’ the US from South Korea, it could likely still not defeat South Korea. The terrible health of that recent defector, who was a relatively privileged border card, is suggestive. And even if the North somehow managed to win, it would struggle enormously to occupy and integrate a modern state of free people twice its size into its ossified framework.

3. Trump’s Fire and Fury

Throughout the year, Trump’s erratic and explosive commentary raised tension in ways not seen before. No previous American president had ever threatened to ‘totally destroy North Korea’ or threw around casual war threats – the ‘armada, ‘fire and fury.’ Trump, in his impatience to distinguish himself from his predecessor, claimed ‘strategic patience’ to be over. All this created a momentum to strike North Korea – enough that South Korean President Moon Jae-In felt it necessary to publicly declare to the National Assembly, just days before Trump’s arrival, that no war could take place against North Korea with the South’s assent.

And curiously, Trump blinked. When he also spoke to the National Assembly, he forsook the best chance he had to lay out a case for war to the South Korean government and public. Instead he fell back on bromides about South Korea’s self-evident moral superiority and the need for ‘maximum pressure.’ In fact, there is little difference between that and strategic patience – alliances, deterrence and defense, missile defense, sanctions, etc. Similarly, after the November 29 ICBM test in which North Korea triumphantly declared it could strike the US, Trump said little more than ‘we’ll take care of it,’ likely because he know realizes that no one believes his bizarre threats anymore and that war in the region would be a catastrophe laid at his feet.

South Korea came through these multiple challenges remarkably well. It completed a full impeachment cycle without violence or civil upheaval. Few democracies have ever done that. It similarly held the line on the North’s bullying despite a new liberal president whom conservatives relentlessly criticize as too dovish. And for all the anxiety about Donald Trump’s warmongering – or it just reality TV star blather? – the US president finally seems to have realized what South Koreans and the analyst community have known for years: There is no obvious solution to North Korea; if there were, it would have been tried long ago; and war is a terrible option. Now if only they could find a way get rid of that hack BBC Dad guy…

Annihilation without Representation: Do S Korea & Japan have a Veto over Action against N Korea?


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest this month. The TNI editors gave it the very helpful title, “The True Danger of the North Korea Crisis: It Could Cost American Its Allies.” That is exactly right. If the US strikes North Korea without getting the consent of South Korea and Japan, they will exit the alliance. Why stay when your ally jeopardizes potentially millions of your citizens and doesn’t even get your permission? And this would have a huge demonstration effect on other US allies too. Now you know that Trump thinks you’re expendable. Why would you stay?

So to me, that is the big question going forward: Will Trump even bother to call the South Koreans and Japanese before he strikes? He couldn’t be bothered to appoint an ambassador to South Korea, and presidenting is pretty hard. So hey, why bother? Fox and Friends is on…

The full essay is below the jump:

Trump, Naturally, is Making this the Weirdest North Korea Crisis Ever


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This is a re-post of something I wrote for the Lowy Institute this month. In short, Trump is not only making this rolling semi-crisis more dangerous, but weirder too. US presidents don’t talk like vengeful Old Testament prophets, ratings-seeking reality TV stars, or children taunting their siblings, but I guess they do now. *sigh*

I spoke at the New Yorker Festival of Ideas last week on North Korea. I said then that if Trump would simply get off Twitter, there would be a noticeable step down in the tension our here. By extension, I mean he should stop ad-libbing scary, off-the-cuff remarks like the ‘calm before the storm.’ I did the best I could to explain these sorts of remarks here, but honestly, I wonder if he really even grasps the scale of his office. Today’s preposterous comment on the US nuclear stockpile suggests he doesn’t.

My full essay on how Trump is changing this NK crisis from the usual pattern is below the jump.

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The Wide Gap between South Korean and American Media Coverage of North Korea


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This is a re-post of an essay I wrote earlier this month for the Lowy Institute.

Every time there is a war crisis around North Korea, I notice the wildly different coverage between US and South Korea media, with the former being too alarmist and the later being almost too sanguine. My Korean cable package includes CNN and Fox, so I can quickly flip between the US and local coverage, and the difference is extraordinary. Fox freaks out over impending nuclear wear, while YTN gabs on about some celebrity with a drinking problem before getting to North Korea. The contrast really is that extreme.

Western pundits particularly tend to get carried away every time we have a North Korean war-scare. All sorts of irresponsible rhetoric gets thrown around about how we should invade or pre-emptively attack North Korea (we shouldn’t). In fact, so often do I read these sorts of op-eds when North Korea re-surfaces in the Western media, that I now call this the Kelly Rule, only half in jest. Just look at some of the frightening examples in that link. And here is today’s ‘Kelly Rule’ entry in case you need an extra boost of paranoia to go with the general hysteria.

The short version of these war-scares is that no, North Korea is not going to nuke the US out of the blue, so stop freaking out about that, and stop listening to Fox pundits scaring the hell out of you. The real threat is that North Korea the gangster state will use the nukes to shake down South Korea and Japan. Coercive nuclear bullying – not war – is the real threat. But that’s not as exciting as dramatic red arrows flying across the screen or ‘fire and fury,’ so let’s all get carried away over a war that’s not going to happen.

The full essay follows the jump.

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Learning to Live with a Nuclear N Korea: Awful, but Better than the Alternatives


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We live Pakistani nuclear missiles; we can live with North Korean ones too.

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for the New York Daily News a few weeks ago, at the peak of the summer war-scare.

I argue that we can in fact live with a nuclear missilized North Korea. Yes, that sucks. But all this irresponsible talk that we can’t adapt, that nuclear North Korea is an undeterrable, existential threat is just threat-inflating baloney. We’ve learned to live with nuclear missiles in the hands a Muslim state with a serious jihadi problem. Would America prefer this not to be the case? Yes. But is living with a nuclear Pakistan a better choice than bombing it or sending in US special forces to destroy their nukes? Absolutely. Or we would have done it already.

It’s not clear to me why this is so hard for people to absorb. What is it about North Korea that makes people lose their mind and say bonkers s*** about risking a huge regional war?

The full essay follows the jump.

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North Korean Nukes are almost Certainly for Deterrence and Defense


8114998_origThis is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest this week.

I feel like a broken record. I keep saying this – they’re not going to use them offensively, we don’t need to airstrike (at least not yet), we have learned to live with Russian, Chinese, and Pakistani nuclear missilization, the North Korean leadership is rational enough to know that using these things against a democracy would bring extraordinary retaliation. So yes, it really, really sucks that North Korea has these weapons, but we can adapt, as we have to other countries’ nuclear missilization. We don’t HAVE to start a potentially huge regional war over them right now. If we must, we always can. But let’s not get carried away that North Korea is going to nuke the US out of the blue, so we should airstrike them right now. That is HIGHLY unlikely.

But journalists keep asking me if we’re going to/should bomb North Korea, and US officials keep saying stuff like this. So here we go again:

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Corruption, not Foreign Affairs, should be Moon Jae-In’s Focus


2890This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Interpreter this month. The pic is former President Park Geun-Hye, who is now in jail.

So am I the only one wondering what Moon Jae-In is doing talking up foreign policy so much? The only reason he got elected is because of corruption. Corruption is so bad in South Korea that it brought down a president. So can we stop complaining about THAAD, wimping out in front of the Chinese, and flim-flamming on North Korea? The most important issue in South Korea right now is clean government. South Korea needs anti-nepotism laws post-haste. And the chaebol, as Choi-gate revealed, are graft champions too, as well as price-inflating oligopolists. So can we finally start talking about anti-trust action?

Yes, foreign policy is more important that domestic policy in South Korea due to the unique threat of North Korea. But it’s corruption that put Moon in office, not lefty nationalist foreign policy. Moon deserved to win, because the SK right is so corrupt and mccarthyite. But Moon shouldn’t over-interpret his victory as some kind of green light to appease NK and China. The need for clean government is why he’s POTROK.

The full essay follows the jump.

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