Singapore Summit: The Trump Show Goes to North Korea


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote earlier this week for The New York Review of Books.

I haven’t blogged here in awhile, because I am so busy. Last weekend, I went to the Shangri-La Dialogue (reflections here). Today I am flying down to Singapore to provide analysis for BBC for the Trump-Kim summit. Two weeks after that, I am going to the Jeju Peace Forum. So sorry. Also, I am slowly gravitating toward Twitter more for my commentary. Please go there.

This NYRB essay focuses on the extraordinarily chaotic ‘process’ of Trump foreign policy-making applied to the North Korean case. The short version is that there is scarcely a process at all. Trump agreed to the North Korea summit 45 minutes after it was broadly suggested to him by the South Korean government. He has since done none preparation, and Bolton has all but abjured what NSA’s are supposed to do.

So now, we are basically going into this blind. It’s a Trumpian crap-shoot, and no one really knows the outcome will be, because no one knows what Trump will say, or worse what he will give up for his ‘win’ for the fall midterms. Call it this whole mess of reality TV affectations + incompetence + unprofessionalism the ‘Trump Show.

My guess, the summit will be a nothingburger. The strategic and ideological divisions between the two sides are too wide for such a tight timetable, and Trump is way too checked-out from the details of nuclear missiles to seriously bargain the issue. Even Trump is now saying it’s just a ‘get to know each other’ meeting, which is default win for the Norks, because the get the photo-ops. So wait, why are we even doing this now?

In short, we should have cancelled long before, but now it is too late. And Rodman, Gorka, and Hannity are coming too, just to make sure this whole thing is a gonzo Trump Show entertainment-not-reality joke. Whatever…

The full essay follows the jump:

Can S Korean President Moon Sell a Deal with North Korea to the Hawks, in the US and South Korea?


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This is a local re-post of an op-ed I wrote earlier this month for the Lowy Institute. Basically, I am wondering if Moon can get a deal with North Korea by South Korea’s  conservatives, especially in the press. I am skeptical.

It is worth noting in this regard that Moon and the Blue House have said almost nothing publicly about the talks with Kim Jong Un, specifically what the agenda might be or what proposals POTROK might make. Does anyone else find that vaguely alarming? Given all the big talk about settling the big issues of Korean, shouldn’t POTROK be floating some ideas out there for the public and analyst community to chew over? And Moon talked so much about improved transparency in government as a candidate.

It is worth remembering that when SK President Park Geun Hye negotiated the comfort women deal in a blackhole like this, she faced punishing public criticism when the deal was finally released. Moon will face the same backlash if he gives away a lot with little to no public input or warning. This is all very curious. I wish we knew a lot more about what Moon and Trump are considering offering up – USFK, the alliance itself, aid, sanctions relief, recognition? Everyone is guessing, because these two democratic governments aren’t telling anyone anything. Grr.

So below the jump are some ideas on how to get a deal passed Seoul conservatives who are increasingly suspicious of this whole thing.

An Agenda for the N Korea Talks: If They Balk at CVID, What if We Start with Nuclear Safety?


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This is a local re-post of an idea I floated at The National Interest after the Pyeongchang Olympics. My working assumption is that NK doesn’t really want to de-nuclearize. Yes, they are saying this stuff to get the talks rolling, but after 40 years of effort and enormous sacrifice, it’s highly unlikely they’ll just trade them away in the upcoming summits. Or if they did put the nukes on the table, the concessions they would demand would be so outrageous, that neither we nor the ROKs would go for them.

We can hope of course, but a full de-nuclearization outcome would likely only come after years of concessions and counter-concessions building toward some kind of final status agreement. It’s almost certainly not going to just fall out of the sky in the next 2 months.

So how about starting with nuclear safety? It’s topically in the nuclear space, so it keeps discussion hovering around our main concern. But it also avoids an early stalemate of de-nuking in exchange for concessions we’ll never give, which would then halt the summits before they even get going. Talking nuclear safety also cuts to a problem of genuine concern – that NK likely manages its nuclear materials pretty sloppily, raising the possibility of a Chernobyl-style incident. I’d bet Homer Simpson could get that nuclear safety inspector job at Yongbyon.

Anyone have any thoughts on this? The full essay follows the jump:

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More on Why I Don’t Think the North Koreans will Carry Real Costs/Risk for Unification


Korea tensions1This is a local repost of something I wrote for the Lowy Institute in January. It is sort of a sequel to my last post. Across these two posts, my point is to argue that North Korea is basically a status quo state and won’t carry serious costs for unification.

I got a lot of heat on Twitter for suggesting this. Hawks were displeased. Josh Stanton particularly had a smart comeback.

So let me try again. Yes, ideally the North Koreans want national unity. In fact, maximally, they may even want socialism. But that’s not what matters. What we care about is what they will sacrifice for, not their ideal wants. We’re looking for satisficing, not maximizing, behavior here.

So what are the North Koreans sacrificing for? Where are they carrying costs and taking risks? A couple obvious areas: 1. Nukes. 2. Luxury imports. Neither of these really advance a unification agenda. Nukes are a defensive weapon in practice, because of their extraordinary deterrent value. And all the counterfeiting, money in Chinese banks, and general sanctions-busting is either to smuggle in luxuries for elites or to promote the nuclear missile program. What North Korea is not doing is launching war-risking strategic provocations, no matter how much crazy stuff they say. (Why we listen much to North Korea when they lie and exaggerate so much never ceases to amaze me.)

Like all other states, they firstly want to survive, and they are in a pretty hostile neighborhood. Before we get carried away that nukes have empowered them to overrun the peninsula, let’s start with what we can prove: the elite their wants to hang on – because they don’t want to die on the run or in South Korean jails – and prosper – hence all the sanctions-running and criminality.

However I do agree with Josh, that the nukes open up a lot of opportunities to blackmail South Korea, bully it into semi-permanent subsidization of the North, and otherwise try to cow it. But that is not unification. It’s subsidization – endless, condition-less South Korean cash is what they want. Not unity.

The full essay follows the jump…

North Korea 2017: What Did We Learn? That We Can’t Bluster/Threaten Them into De-Nuclearization


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Sorry for the long hiatus. The holidays were pretty busy and exhausting.

This is a local re-post of something I wrote The National Interest late last year. I like these end-of-the-year retrospectives and predictions. So here is a look back at all the craziness around North Korea in 2017.

The most obvious new element is an American president talking to the world’s most dangerous state like a petulant man-child. Honestly, Trump just made everything worse, and his rhetoric almost certainly convinced the Kimist elite that going for nukes was wise.

The other big thing I think is how the debate over responding to North Korea is increasingly cutting out the doves. North Korea with nuclear weapons is such a scary prospect that it is side-lining engagers and powering the hawks in the debate. Increasingly the debate is an intra-mural one among the hawks, between moderates (where I’d put myself), who are wary of strikes and at least open to talks even though we know the Norks will gimmick them, and ultras like Trump or Nikki Haley who genuinely seem to want to strike. The real question in the US debate now is whether the moderate hawks, with an assist from the doves, can restrain the ultras from attacking North Korea this year.

The full essay follows the jump…

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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…

Is Trump Baiting Kim Jong Un?


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This is a local re-post of something I wrote a few weeks ago for The National Interest. It pivots off of the argument I made last month as well, that this is the weirdest North Korean crisis ever. Not necessarily the most dangerous – the ax-murder incident might still be at the top – but rather the strangest. And you thought Dennis Rodman was the weirdest low the North Korean debate could hit. How wrong you were.

The reason of course is Trump’s mad ad-libbing over these last months, and his downright bizarre commentary in general about east Asia. It’s worth remembering that his frightening comments like ‘fire and fury’ and ‘totally destroy’ were just thrown out off the cuff with no vetting by Trumps’ natsec team. So we’re backing into a war because Trump does not how to take direction from experts. John Kelly tried to ground him and Trump, like some petulant teenager, won’t have it – purposefully ignores his staff recommendations just to spite them. Surreal…

The full essay follows the jump.