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


Image result for trump abe

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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Trump and Northeast Asian Nuclearization: Not as a Terrible an Idea as You’ve Heard


Image result for nuclear weapons northeast asiaThis is a re-post of something I wrote for the Lowy Institute earlier this month. The original is here.

So yes, Donald Trump is awful. He is a threat to American democracy, an vain narcissist, doesn’t know anything about nuclear weapons or national security, and so on. I know what you’re thinking, so I will say that I mailed-in my absentee ballot today, and I voted for Hillary Clinton.

That does not necessarily impugn all of his ideas however. And when he says that Japan and South Korea might pursue their own nuclear weapons, I have never understood the hysteria that greets this notion. That Trump says it, and that he might not really even understand what he’s saying, does not automatically mean it is wrong.

The debate over SK and Japanese nuclearization is a lot more variegated that we normally hear from mostly ‘liberal international order’ analysts who dominate Washington thinking on foreign policy. The essay below makes several claims, but the strongest to my mind is that a northeast Asian nuclear arms race is already underway; SK and Japan are just not participating in it – which does not mean it is not happening. It is true that they need not to some extent, because they are covered by American extended deterrence, which gives them ‘shadow nuclear weapons’ I suppose.

But the costs of them going nuclear are not that high anymore. Russia and North Korea have both substantially elevated the role of nuclear weapons in their grand strategies in the last two decades. China might start counter-building, but what is China doing for Japan or South Korea that it earns the privilege of them staying non-nuclear? Specifically, if China won’t rein in NK, the case for SK and Japanese nuclear restraint diminishes.

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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No, South Korea does Not Need Nuclear Weapons – bc They’ll Never Use Them


This essay is a reprint of a long-form piece I published recently with The Diplomat. It is a response to the growing debate inside South Korea after the recent Northern nuclear and missile tests.

I am actually pretty sympathetic to South Korea’s desire to go nuclear. With North Korea breathing down their neck, and projections that it might have dozens, if not hundreds, of nuclear weapons and missiles in the next decade, including hydrogen bombs, it is pretty easy to see why Seoul would like to counter that. And that same logic applies to Japan. When analysts say this will spark a nuclear arms in race in northeast Asia, I say, so what? 1) NK, and China because of its enabling behavior, have already started that race. Japan and South Korea would just be catching up. 2) The real problem is not nuclear technology, but who wields it. I have little fear that sable democracies with civilian control of their militaries will manage these weapons well.

So why not build nukes? Because they’ll never be used. Why not? Because in any contingency where North Korea actually used a nuclear weapon, the entire world, including China and Russia, would immediately assent to the DPRK’s final destruction. South Korea and the United States would invade North Korea forthwith and eventually win. Therefore, any nuclear strike on North Korea by the South (or the US) would suddenly become unified (South) Korea’s responsibility to clean up. Better to have a post-war, post-nuclear environment with fewer blast zones, even if that means, bizarrely, not launching against NK even if it launched against SK. I know that sounds weird and awful, but just read the whole piece to get the argument. Unified Korea (ie, SK) would have to clean up all the blast zones on the peninsula – both north and south – so it actually makes sense not to nuke North Korea, but to just defeat it conventionally.

So there is little upside to SK going nuclear. But there will be predictable downsides: bad press globally, NK crowing that their program is now justified and legitimate, China saying N and S Korea are now morally equivalent. As unsatisfying psychologically as it may to not respond in kind to the fatiguing, obnoxious Don Corleone of Korea, it is best to stick to the US alliance and plans for a conventional victory.

The full essay follows the jump.

The Iran Deal Cannot be a Template for a North Korea Deal if NK doesn’t Want to Deal


This is a rather tardy re-post of something I wrote for the Diplomat in the wake of the Iran deal in late July.

I still think my basic argument is correct. North Korea is far more isolated than Iran, so it needs the weapons a lot more. It also spent a far larger proportionate share of GDP to develop those weapons. So there’s no way they’d give them up without impossible concessions like the withdrawal of USFK or the end of multiparty elections in South Korea.

I do think the Americans, and especially South Koreans, would be open to dealing. But the Norks aren’t. The South Koreans especially just want to find modus vivendi with North Korea so that they can forget about it. But being ignored as the backward, nut-ball, third-world hellhole that it is, is exactly what the Norks don’t want. They crave the prestige of global attention, because otherwise they’re just a nuclear version of Zimbabwe or Turkmenistan. And how could the heroic Baekdu bloodline preside over a dump no one cares about?

So forget any deals. Provocative, nuke-adulating North Korea is here to stay. The full essay follows the jump.

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North Korea with SLBMs Scares the Hell Out of Everybody


Kim Jong Un North Korea

Am I the only one who is amazed at how good North Korea seems to be at developing new military technology? They got to nukes despite all sorts of international efforts to block them. They’ve got an apparently pretty successful missile program. They beat South Korea to drones last year. And now they’ve got submarines, and ones that can launch missiles to boot! Wow. We seem to consistently underestimate the Norks – probably because everyone loathes them so much that we keep telling ourselves that the place is falling apart and will implode any day now. Alas, it doesn’t look like it.

I wrote the following essay, below the jump, for the Lowy Institute a few days ago on the SLBM test. My primary fear is that all these nuclear and missile advances raise the temptation for South Korea to preemptively strike before the Northern program really gets out of control in the next decade with hundreds of warheads and missiles. The Israelis did that in Iraq and Syria, and I could see the South Koreans mulling it too.

Increasingly it is impossible to see how this ends well. Where are we going? What is the exit from a North Korea seriously threatening the entire region? Jees…

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Will South Korea Eventually Feel Compelled to Bomb NK Missile Sites?


The picture to the left is the poster from a South Korean film in which a North Korean coup forces South Korea to launch on air-strike on Nork missile sites. It’s not very good (it’s the Top Gun of Korea), but it’s the closest pop-culture reference I could think of to the argument I make below.

My growing concern for years now is that the more nuclear missiles North Korea acquires (read this on just how many and when), the more they threaten South Korea’s very existence. To date, North Korea’s missile and nukes have generally been understood as a tool for regime security – to prevent an American ‘regime change’ attack – or as a gangsterish way for NK to shake-down SK, Japan, and the US for concessions. As Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton both noted, the Norks are great at selling and re-selling their nuclear program for aid.

But, if NK gets dozens, or even hundreds, of nuclear warheads and missiles, then the NK nuclear program is no longer about regime security or blackmail. It would then have grown into an existential threat to SK as a state and society. This is why I am such a strong supporter of THAAD. NK is moving from being a frightening rogue state obsessed with survival, to a major threat to the constitutional order and even physical survival of the ROK (and Japan). To be sure, the USSR and US were that to each other in the Cold War, but both developed technologies (SLBMs mostly) that allowed them to survive (or ‘ride out’ in nuclear parlance) even a massive first strike and still retaliate. This ‘assured second strike’ capability dramatically reduced the incentive for either side to strike first, so stabilizing the nuclear competition despite the huge size of the arsenals. By contrast, neither NK nor SK have assured second strike (SK might because of the American alliance, but that’s not entirely clear) which therefore incentives attacking first.

Further, both NK and SK are very vulnerable to a first strike, so again the incentives to move first are high. NK cannot hide its nuclear weapons; it is too small and US satellite coverage too intrusive. Nuclear facilities are big and vulnerable, and a obvious temptation for an allied preemptive strike. This creates a ‘use-them-or-lose-them’ dilemma for Pyongyang. And this dilemma worsens as Pyongyang builds more and more, and spends more and more. The more nukes North Korea deploys, the greater the allied temptation to destroy them before they could be used (this was American thinking during the Cuban Missile Crisis too). This vulnerability, in turn, incentivizes NK to use them before they’re struck. It’s a nasty spiral of paranoia.

SK too is vulnerable, which again incentivizes moving first. SK cannot ride out a serious nuclear assault, because it is a small, highly centralized state with a highly concentrated population defenseless against missile attack. It would not take many nuclear strikes to destabilize the Republic (unlike the US or USSR in the Cold War). As Nork nukes move from a few for security, to many as a state- and society-breaking threat to SK (and even Japan), the incentives to preemptively destroy them first will grow also. This is a classic nuclear security dilemma, straight out of the Cold War in the 1950s.

The best way out of this nasty, worsening game would be nuclear restraint on the NK part (a pipe-dream, that), and/or robust missile defense on the SK side. THAAD is really, really important to slow the security dilemma paranoia that accompanies arms build-ups, especially nuclear ones. The Chinese ought to think about that before they come out so strongly against THAAD:

If South Korea is entirely ‘naked’ or ‘roof-less’ against missile attack, when NK has 100+ nuclear missiles – a capability that could destroy South Korea in just a few minutes – what does Beijing think will happen? That Seoul will just sit back and do nothing because of trade with China? I doubt it. No SK president could tolerate such a stark, asymmetric threat to the ROK’s very existence just to keep the Chinese mollified. That would border on dereliction of duty. Even if SK did not want to strike North Korea’s nuclear sites (which I don’t think it does), it might feel compelled to out of sheer fear.

These ideas were first fleshed out at The Diplomat here. That essay is re-posted below and repeats the above discussion: