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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US-South Korea Alliance Survived Presidential Partisan Differences Before


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This is a local re-post of an op-ed I wrote this month for The National Interest. There’s been a minor freak-out on the right since Moon Jae In got elected. He’s a communist; he’s gonna sell out SK to Pyongyang; the alliance with America might break. Good grief. Enough with the hyperventilating. Even if he was a communist at heart, he couldn’t govern that way because he only won 41% of the vote. He doesn’t have the political space to govern as some far lefty. And realistically, he’s just a social democrat: he wants to raises taxes, expand the public sector labor force, and clean up the air. That’s hardly a marxist revolution.

I do think that there is a possibility of a real split at the top though. It is easy to see Trump and Moon loathing one another. So this essay notes how previous US and SK presidents of different political beliefs stumbled through. The short version is that there is a lot of depth to the US-SK alliance. So much actually, that it almost makes presidential changes irrelevant, which is not exactly democratic if you think about it. But the point is, that the alliance will likely survive.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Korea’s Healthily Bland Presidential Race


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This is a re-post of my pre-election prediction piece for the Lowy Institute a few weeks ago.

It’s dated now of course, so you should probably read something else. But, I think I broadly got things right: Korea is a stalemated society. Neither right, left, nor center has a majority. So even though Moon won, he won’t govern far too the left. He does not have the political space to do it. He will be a social democrat, not a socialist.

The left won, but its combined total, 47%, is the same as Moon’s 2012 total. So the left missed a huge chance to cross 50%. Choi-gate was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the left to prove it could win a national majority, which it has never done, and it failed. This is practically a smoking gun that the left cannot win a majority here, that South Korea is a center-right society.

The right ducked a huge bullet by coming in second. Had Ahn beaten the Liberty Korea party, LK might have faded into a largish third party as the People’s Party assumed the role of the head of the opposition. For much of the race, polling suggested this. Hong got very lucky, given the SK right is now a national embarrassment. They stuck with Park way too long into Choi-gate, and then Hong, in wild desperation, started calling himself the ‘Donald Trump of Korea,’ whatever the hell that means. Ech. The SK right’s time in the wilderness is well-deserved.

The center flopped. Ahn has been saying for 7 years that he could be president, and when he finally got the chance, he imploded. His debate performances proved how soft his support was. When he flamed out on TV, his voters fled. The question now is whether Ahn has a future at all in SK politics after such a dismal showing after all the hype. The answer is probably no.

The full essay follows the break:

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My New York Times Op-Ed: A North Korea “Agenda for SK’s New Leader”


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This is a local re-post of an op-ed I wrote last week for The New York Times.

Basically it is four suggestions to President Moon on dealing with North Korea. They are (mildly) hawkish arguments of the sort I routinely make here, including all my favorite hobby horses – talks are a shell game, move the capital, spend more on defense, bang away at China to cut off North Korea, and start treating Japan like a liberal democratic ally instead of a potential imperialist. Naturally a dovish liberal like Moon will adopt all these. Hooray! I anticipate a Blue House call any day now…

Regular readers have seen all this before, but it’s still pretty cool to get into The New York Times though. I figure this will be the most read thing I ever write, so I rolled out arguments I know well rather than something really new. The full essay follows the jump.

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South Korea’s Finest Hour: Lessons from the Impeachment of Park Geun-Hye


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute in the wake of the impeachment. My thoughts on the Moon election will come shortly. That is Park behind bars in the photo.

I agree with this analyst from the Washington Post who says South Korea just showed the world how to do democracy. That’s a great way to put it and quite correct. And this is all the more impressive as Western democracy embarrasses itself by veering towards illiberalism and norm-breaking.

Koreans always tell me how great Korea is because of hallyu or hansik, but that’s just fluff talking points. This is what really matters. Well done, South Korea. Now tackle the corruption problem for real so that this doesn’t keep happening.

The full essay follows the jump.

THAAD is Not about Missile Defense anymore; It’s about a Chinese Veto over South Korean Foreign Policy


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This is a local re-post of a piece I wrote at The National Interest a few weeks ago. The graphic here comes straight from the Lockheed Martin webpage on THAAD. There’s so much contradictory information floating around about THAAD, maybe it’s best just go to the website and look for yourself. No, I’m not shilling for LM; I have no relationship. I just thought it would be convenient. And yes, I support the THAAD deployment here.

Anyway, this essay is actually about the politics, specifically that China WAY overplayed its hand against the THAAD deployment in South Korea. Now THAAD isn’t about THAAD anymore. The Chinese have ballooned it into such a huge issue, that it’s now about SK sovereignty and freedom to make national security choices without a Chinese veto. If you want to read why I am wrong, here’s my friend Dave Kang to tell you that I am getting carried away.

I still stand by my prediction though: neither Ahn nor Moon will withdraw THAAD even if they’d want to otherwise, because now it would look like knuckling under to China. Maybe the Justice Party candidate would withdraw it, but she is polling at 3%.

The full essay follows the jump:

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South Korean Security in the Trump Era


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This is a local re-post of a piece I wrote a few weeks ago for The Korea Times. Basically my concern in the Trump period is, how will Trump and Moon Jae-In, the likely winner of the upcoming May 9 election, get along? Or not?

Trump doesn’t care about Asia, except for trade with China. His security concerns turn on Islam, and he was elected for that in foreign policy. His and Bannon’s clash of civilizations frame only works so-so out here. Huntington’s argument required putting China, Japan, and the Koreas into one Confucian civilization, but it was so obvious that they didn’t get along that Huntington was forced to pretend that Japan was its own civilization. Without this frame, I wonder if Trump the non-reader can figure out an approach?

The other thing which worries me is the burden-sharing fight. If Trump presents the ROKG with a bill like he did Merkel, the SK press will go ballistic. Trump might not care though, so ultimately I suggest that it would likely be a good idea for SK to pay a little more so that the issue can ultimately be dropped.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Tillerson is, Regrettably, Wrong. Strategic Patience is a Good Idea. And It will Happen Anyway


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This is a local re-posting of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a few weeks ago. And Rex Tillerson’s recent comment that  Obama’s ‘strategic patience’ approach to North Korea is over, just highlights my argument. He’s almost certainly wrong, even if he is saying it out of a frustration which most in the analyst community share. We all want to do some kind of game-changer to alter the arc of North Korean behavior, but the non-strategic patience options are all terrible unfortunately.

The Trump people are said to be considering all options, including kinetic choices or meeting with the North Koreans. An internal policy review is occurring. It all sounds very dramatic, but I’ll say for the record that, barring some bizzaro Trumpian meltdown, any major shift is unlikely.

Strategic patience – best understood as containment and deterrence – has more or less been US, South Korean, and Japanese policy toward North Korea for decades. Sure we didn’t call it that, but that’s pretty much what it has been. We’ve had lot of provocations over the years which reasonably warranted counter-strikes, just as we’ve had lots of chances to talk. Neither have worked. So we end up defaulting back to containment and deterrence – waiting for North Korea’s internal contradictions to bring its collapse, and constantly, frustratingly negotiating with the Chinese to cut, or at least constrict, the umbilical which keeps Pyongyang afloat. This is fatiguing and uninspiring, but just about every conceivable policy, barring bombing, has been tried, so I doubt Trump has anything new. Are the Trump really read to risk a major regional conflict?

The full essay follows the jump:

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North Korea Survives. Start Hardening South Korea for a Long Contest


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This essay is a local re-post of an essay I wrote last month for The National Interest. Basically this is my sketch of how to deal in the medium- and long-term with North Korea. North Korea is not going to collapse anytime soon. It has some source of strength we don’t fully grasp, and China is willing to bail out North Korea indefinitely. That means South Korea needs to start hunkering down – hardening itself – for a long-term conflict of attrition. There is not magic bullet – barring China pulling the plug, which, honestly, doesn’t look like it is going to happen soon.

So it’s time for South Korea to get more serious about winning the stand-off with North Korea and carrying the costs and inconvenience to do so. On the other hand, if South Korea only continues to manage North Korea, it will still be here in 20 years. If the ROK wants to win this stand-off – not manage, but win – then it needs to do a lot of things it doesn’t want to do, such as spending a lot more on defense, moving the national capital (so that it’s not right on the border, which makes it so vulnerable that South Korea can never hit back when North Korea provokes), consider drafting women (due to precipitous birth-rate decline), nuclear civil defense, and so on. This will be hard.

So far, South Korea has ducked these sorts of dramatic steps in the permanently short-termist expectation that North would just collapse one day, or that it could be bought off and somehow go away. But of course, it won’t. So if South Korea doesn’t still want to be ‘managing’ North Korea in 20 years, it needs to start thinking long-term now. For example, it should have moved its capital 40 years ago, like West Germany did during the Cold War, but it never did. And now North Korea has a massive city hostage it can threaten whenever it like to prevent South Korea from taking any kinetic action, like airstrikes on its missile sites. Yes, it will take a long time to unwind that, to decentralize South Korea, but then, North Korea is not going to collapse. Constantly hoping/expecting it would, and therefore taking no steps to check Seoul’s growth, is exactly the problem. Time to think long-term.

The full essay follows the jump:

Obama did about as well in E Asia as could be Expected: One Last Defense of Strategic Patience


I know the only thing people want to talk about now is Trump, but here is a parting review of Obama in Asia. I wrote this a few weeks ago for the Lowy Institute. All in all, I’d say he did about as well as you could expect.

Yes, he didn’t prevent North Korea from getting a nuclear weapon and missile, but no one knows how to do that barring kinetic action which is off the table because of South Korea’s ridiculous decision to place its capital, and allow it to flourish, just 30 miles from the border. And no he didn’t slow China’s rise, but no president could do that without kinetic action either. And that’s even crazier than bombing North Korea.

There are no good solutions to our challenges out here, just as there were none to communist power in the 1950s. Hawks calling for ‘toughness’ and ‘leadership’ should remember that rollback was a catastrophe (in the Korean War) that almost ignited WWIII. We then settled for hanging tough’ until communist power imploded, which it did. The contemporary Asian analogue of hanging tough is Obama’s ‘strategic patience.’ Everyone criticized it, but no one has a better option that isn’t hugely risky. So stop complaining about strategic patience until you’ve got a better, genuinely workable idea.

The full essay follows the jump.

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What are the Chinese Telling Us by Bullying South Korea so Much over Missile Defense?


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This is a local re-post of an essay wrote for The National Interest about 10 days ago. Basically, I’m curious why the Chinese are making such a huge deal out of THAAD missile defense. They’ve been bullying South Korea relentlessly for a year or so now over this. But THAAD doesn’t even impact them, as everyone knows now. That graphic over, from the Heritage Foundation, nicely illustrates that.

So the big question is why. Why is China making a huge deal of something where it’s so obviously on the wrong side of the debate? (Everyone can see North Korea’s nuclear missile program and South Korea’s obvious need for a ‘roof.’) Why does China think something this minor – THAAD has no impact on Chinese strategic forces – is worth wrecking a decent relationship with South Korea, one of the few regional states that is not that scared of China’s rise? Is this coercive diplomacy to prove Chinese regional hegemony, with South Korea being the first target to be bullied into knuckling under? Is Vietnam next? Or does China really care about North Korea so much that it wants NK to be able to blackmail South Korea with nuclear missiles?

I can’t believe that latter explanation is right. To me, this is China feeling its oats. It’s rising; no longer feels it has to keep its head down per Deng’s early advice. Now it’s number 2 in the world, on the way to being the world’s largest economy. So it’s going throw its weight around, and the states closest to it will feel the hammer of its prestige-seeking fall first.

The full essay follows the jump:

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2017 Preview, part 2: Korean Security


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This is a local re-post of an essay earlier this month for The National Interest. It is also intended as a sequel to my last post, drilling down from East Asia generally to Korea specifically.

There are three big challenges for South Korean security this year:

1. Will China insist on South Korean removing American missile defense? And how far will they go to insure that? (It’s looking pretty far.) Is China prepared to alienate one of the few countries around that is genuinely ambivalent about China’s rise (where most others are nervous)?

2. Does President Trump care about Korean security? If his inaugural address is anything to go by, then no, he doesn’t.

3. Will South Korean President Park Geun-Hye’s successor – almost certainly from the left – accommodate (read: appease/sell) out to North Korea and China?

The full essay follows the jump:

2017 Preview, part 1: East Asian Security


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This is a local re-up of a broad predictive overview of East Asian security issues in 2017 published first at the Lowy Institute a few days ago.

The standard first line of reviews like this is to bemoan North Korea and China. I do a little of that here, but tried to look beyond facile predictions that the US and China will fight in the South China Sea shortly. Asia is a pretty status quo place, so the only big ‘disruptors’ are the usual suspects – the Kim family of North Korea and Donald Trump. The Chinese and the Japanese aren’t really interested in rocking the boat much, so they’re barely mentioned, curiously enough. For example, the next time North Korea does something dumb, we can count on China saying that we should all calm down and maintain stability – in other words, do nothing. One thing I do wonder about is if the left wins the South Korean presidency this year, will it dramatically change South Korean foreign policy by accommodating (read: appeasing) North Korea?

Part 2, next week, will focus on South Korean security issues in the new year.

The full essay follows the jump.

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Year in Review, 2016: Top 5 Events of Northeast Asian Security


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If that thrilling post title doesn’t pull you away from It’s a Wonderful Life or Sound of Music, I don’t know what will.

This essay is a local re-post of my op-ed posted with the Lowy Institute this month. The pic is President-Elect Donald Trump in his first meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It well captures what a banana republic amateur hour set will be running the US shortly, which makes Trump the number one Asian security story of the year. That is Trump with his daughter and son-in-law business partners, but no US-side translator or Japan expert, because heh, what really matters is getting Trump Tower Tokyo built…

My top 5 security events for the region in 2016 follow the jump, but honestly you’re probably a lot more interested in my picks for the worst TV show and movie of the year.

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The Korean Public Saved Korean Democracy from their own Corrupt Political Class


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This is the English-language version of an article I published this week with Newsweek Japan on ‘Choi-gate.’

This pre-dates the impeachment vote of yesterday, but the basic point still holds: the Korean public just gave the world a lesson in what democracy looks like. In the 8+ years I have lived here, this is its finest hour. Koreans should be proud of themselves for peaceful protests in the millions on behalf of clean and transparent government. It’s all the more impressive given that the US is about to install an authoritarian game-show host as president. Who ever thought the Koreans would teach the Americans what democracy is all about?

Yesterday, I told Bloomberg that corruption is now, very obviously, the most important domestic politics issue in Korea. Yes, it is still trumped by North Korea, but it is now painfully, painfully obvious that Korea needs much cleaner government. In fact, corruption is so bad, I am surprised that there is no Donald Trump figure entering Korean politics. Yet again, the Koreans prove themselves more democratically mature than Americans.

So yes, Korea’s political class is a corrupt, self-serving mess, but its public is not and that is vastly more important. For all their flim-flam about Dokdo, the curative powers of kimchi, the made-up anthropology of a ‘glorious 5000-year history,’ and all the rest, when it came to the big thing – clean, robust democracy – they got it right in a big way. Props to the Koreans.

The essay follows the jump.

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