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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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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Kelly Family Press Release on the ‘BBC Dad’ Viral Video


Today, my family and I conducted a select set of interviews, with the BBC for the international audience, with the Wall Street Journal for the American audience, and with the Korean media for the local audience here. Here is our statement on the video incident. Thank you. Robert E. Kelly

“My family and I would like to thank our many well-wishers. We are just a regular family, and raising two young children can be a lot of work. Because of that, it seems that the video has resonated with parents around the world, and we are flattered at the many gentle sentiments about our children. Thank you. We love them very much, and we are happy that our family blooper brought some laughter to so many.

We would also like to thank the British Broadcasting Corporation for its gentle and tactful treatment of the video. We are grateful for their professionalism in handling the exposure of our young children. We especially thank James Menendez, the announcer in the clip, for his kindness during the interview itself.

To the media, we would like to apologize for our reticence. We have been deluged with requests since Friday. We were unsure how to respond, and as the attention accelerated, we became genuinely unnerved. We had no idea how to handle this. We therefore decided to return to the BBC for a follow-up interview for the international audience, to speak with the Wall Street Journal for the US domestic audience, and to hold today’s press conference for the Korean audience. We apologize to the many outlets that seem to find this dissatisfactory. We are doing the best we can. Some have asked for interviews in our home. At this point, we are unready for that. We are hoping to return to normality in the next few days. Perhaps next week if there is still interest.

Finally, we would like to clear up a few of the rumors and controversies around the video:

– Yes, the woman in the video is my wife, Jung-A Kim/김정아, not my nanny.

– The first child to enter is our daughter, Marion Yena Kelly/켈리 매리언 예나, age 4.

– The second is our son, James Yousup Kelly/켈리 제임스 유섭, age 9 months.

– No, Jung-A did not use too much force in removing the children from the room. It is quite apparent from the video that she is frantically trying to salvage the professionalism of the interview. The children were not injured. When Marion speaks in the clip, she says, in Korean, ‘why Mom?’ She is responding in surprise, because we normally do not treat our children this way. Marion’s willingness to comfortably traipse into my home office illustrates her usual ease with her parents.

– No, I was not shoving Marion out of the way. I was trying to slide her behind my chair where there are children’s toys and books, in hopes she would play with them for a few moments until the interview ended.

– Yes, I was wearing pants. I choose not to stand, because I was trying to salvage the interview.

– No, this was not staged.

– Yes, the flat surface to my left was in fact a covered-up air-mattress. Our children like to play and jump on it.

– No, the map was not hung there as a prop. It was a gift and genuinely helps me learn world place names in Korean.

– No, we did not fight about the blooper afterward, nor punish our children. Rather, we were mortified. We assumed that no television network would ever call me again to speak.

– No, Jung-A did not hug the floor, because she was being ‘servile.’ She was trying to stay out of the line of sight of the camera in hopes saving the interview.

– Yes, our floors are hardwood, which is why Jung-A slid into the room. The floor is slippery after mopping, and my wife was wearing socks, not shoes, in the house, as is customary in East Asia.

– We have no comment on the many social analyses of the video. We see this simply as a very public family blooper, nothing more.”

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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Is the Park Geun Hye Scandal is Paralyzing Government in South Korea?


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This is the English-language version of an article I published with Newsweek Japan last week.

Is anyone else, among readers living in Korea, amazed at how the coverage of this is now essentially non-stop? If you turn on any of the cable news stations here now, it’s Park Geun Hye all day all the time.

My big concern is that she stays on, perhaps surviving an impeachment vote or somehow or other lurching on into the spring next year, while facing regular demonstrations. How much longer will those protests say so peaceful? To date, they have been remarkably non-violent. But civil unrest is not hard to imagine if a hugely unpopular president stays in office for months and months with an approval rating around 4%. Even Park seemed to realize this when she gave that kinda-sorta resignation speech last Wednesday.

And the answer to the post title question is yes, in case you haven’t figure that out yet. Let’s just hope the Norks don’t pull some hijink while the ROKG is frozen like this. God forbid we have some executive-vs-legislative battle over who leads the response.

My previous writing on this scandal is here.

The full essay follows the jump.

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Is Obama’s Second Term the Highlight of the Pivot to Asia?


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The following is a re-up of an essay I published this week with Newsweek Japan. I was thinking about Obama’s attendance at both the G-20 and ASEAN this month. Those trips really do reflect his commitment to the pivot to Asia – probably as much out of conviction as out of a desire to escape the sink-hole of the Middle East.

But as readers of this website know, I am rather skeptical that the pivot actually grips the median American voter. Sure, elites love it, especially realists. It has all the trappings of geopolitical excitement think-tankers and IR types love. But regular Americans care way more about other regions first – when they even consider foreign policy, which the rarely do when they vote. Europe and increasingly Latin America will always have a powerful ethnic pull, because most Americans have roots there, while the Middle East bewitches the American evangelicals who are obsessed with Islam and Israel. China, even though it is vastly more important, isn’t actually as pressing to voters except as a trade issue.

This is not to say that I don’t support the pivot. I do. Very much. But if you look at Trump and Clinton’s foreign policy utterances, they basically cleave to the pre-pivot norm: the obsession with the Middle East, Islam, terrorism, while Asia is basically a trade-cheater. Hillary has turned against her own creation, TPP, while Trump sounds like he’d spark a trade-war with China, and maybe even Japan.

So if you’re an Asia hand, enjoy your moment in Obama’s sun. Next year, we’ll back to warring in the Middle East.

The full essay follows the jump.

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