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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Don’t Fear Trumpism too Much, East Asia – You’re Already Governed by It


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The following is a local re-up of an essay I wrote for The National Interest recently. That essay was edited. The original is below, and I think it is better.  

The text in the picture is Chinese and reads: “Donald J. Trump super fan nation, Full and unconditional support for Donald J. Trump to be elected U.S. president.”

That Trump has sympathizers out here makes sense – even though he bashes the region all the time – because he obviously got a lot of his political ideas from East Asia: Mercantilism, race nationalism, hostility to immigration, huge distrust of Islam, oligopolistic mega-corporations dominated by interlocking family and crony networks, soft authoritarianism, manipulating the state to benefit politically-connected insiders, golf – that’s Trumpism. But it’s also the de facto governing ideology of contemporary Sinic-Confucian East Asia.

I remained convinced that Trump learned about East Asia primarily through the ‘declinist’ school of the 1980s. The popularized version of that argument was Michael Crichton’s 1992 novel Rising Sun. Given that this is Trump we are talking about though, he probably just watched the movie instead. This is why he talks about Japan so much.

What just amazes me is that Trump simultaneously has a 35-year history attacking the East Asian (mostly Japanese) nationalist-developmentalist model while pretty much proposing to bring it to the United States now if he gets elected. Trump is basically acting like what he thinks Japanese businessmen acted like in 1985 – just with an extra thick layer of idiocy and know-nothingness on top . Why does no one else see this? So if you are Japanese, maybe you can be proud in a weird way (lol): Trump thinks he’s you, just turning the tables.

The full essay follows the jump.

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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?


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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


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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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