Would a Chinese Cut-Off of North Korea Bring It Down?

This is a re-posting of something I wrote for the Lowy Institute here. Basically, I was trying to think of what might either bring North Korea down, or otherwise force it to change substantially. Usually at this point, people say something like, a war, or an internal revolt. But a war would be so disastrous, that it is worth looking at other possibilities. And an internal popular revolt seems really unlikely. In 71 years, North Korea has never had one.

In the movies, like Avatar, the people rise up and overthrow their oppressors. In reality, authoritarian regimes almost always collapse when the regime’s internal groups turn on each other. Regime splits, possibly catalyzed by popular protest, can force dictatorships to change or even collapse. In Egypt in 2011, the regime split after Mubarak failed to quell the revolt with his thugs and then flirted with using the army. They brass balked, and Mubarak began to lose internal support.

But if there won’t be popular revolt in North Korea, how to set the regime’s factions against one another? Well, how about going after their cash? The military and police who keep the Kim regime afloat pay a pretty high price for that. They are globally isolated, hated by the countrymen, and will be remembered in Korean history as thugs. What is the compensation? The great lifestyle of the gangster racket Pyongyang runs – the HDTVs, booze, women, foreign cars, and so on. All of that depends on a) foreign cash, and b) a foreign pipeline. China is required for both. Shut that gate, and the pie of foreign goodies suddenly starts to dry up. That might get them them tearing at each other.

The full essay follows the jump:

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My Predictions and Expectations for the Upcoming South Korean Parliamentary Elections: The Left will get Hammered


This is a re-post of something I wrote a few days ago for the Lowy Institute. I thought it would be helpful to put some predictions out there, with a logic for why I made them.

That map to the left is the last South Korean parliamentary election’s distribution of seats. Red and blue are conservative parties. Yellow and purple are left-wing. Gray is independent. The reason red (the Saenuri Party) looks so dominant is because rural Korea is empty. So the parliamentary districts in the countryside are very big in order to capture the necessary number of voters. You can see this in the US as well, where the geographic expanse of urban congressional seats is much smaller than rural ones.

In brief, my prediction is that Ahn Chul Soo’s upstart left-wing party will throw lots of seats (10-30?) to the right by fragmenting the left-wing vote. 82% of the National Assembly’s seats are won by plurality voting. So all the right has to do is stick together under one roof, and they win while the left fragments its votes. The Diplomat interviewed me on this, and I said the same: Ahn doesn’t want to admit that he is sucking away votes from the main left-wing (Minjoo) party. So Ahn is the Jesse Ventura of South Korean politics, a vague, apolitical who-knows-what-he-believes purposefully damaging the larger effort of the left for his own egomania. (To be fair, parties to the left of Minjoo – typically pro-North Korean – also have a record of pointlessly splitting the left’s vote.)

The full essay follows the jump, but you probably shouldn’t listen to me anyway. My wife, naturally, won’t have any of this and will vote for Ahn, because he’s new… or something… I just don’t get the Korean liberal voter…

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My Newsweek Japan Cover story: The Sewol Sinking and the Modernization of Korea

Sewol Japan Cover

The following is a story I wrote for Newsweek Japan this week on the sinking of the ferry Sewol in Korea in May. Here is the Japanese version.

Sewol has a been a terrible national tragedy, and that callous, incompetent captain should almost certainly get life imprisonment for hundreds of cases of negligent homicide. But there was more than just that. A series of bureaucratic failures led to the sinking. Bad seamanship may be been the spark, but a lot of poor regulation and corruption laid the groundwork for the sinking to become a major catastrophe.

If Park is serious about cracking down on corruption post-Sewol, it could be a big deal. I am skeptical myself; she leads a traditionalist, not reformist, coalition, and she has not governed as a innovator. But the costs of corruption in Korea – its 46 score from Transparency International – are now clear. Let’s hope she really tries.

Here’s the full version of this argument:

“On April 16 this year, the South Korean passenger ferry Sewol capsized off the southwest coast of Korea. The ferry carried 476 people; at the time of this writing almost 250 are confirmed dead, with several dozen still missing. The Sewol was enoute from Incheon port on the Yellow Sea, south to Jeju Island in the Korea Strait.

The emergency response to the sinking was badly botched. The captain initially told all the passengers to stay in their rooms and not exit to the deck. Retrospectively, the captain has argued that the water was too cold to abandon ship. But later he and the crew were among the first to escape. It is not clear if the ‘abandon ship’ order was ever given, or if it was properly transmitted. Many of the bodies recovered were found in passenger rooms. President Park Geun Hye called the captain’s actions “akin to murder;” he and the entire crew have since been arrested. Worse, only two of the lifeboats on the ship activated properly, and the coast guard response was confused. The initial call for assistance went to far away Jeju; only later did local coast guard get an alert. In fact, one of the initial calls for help came from a student passenger calling a national emergency hotline.

My March Essay for the Diplomat: 3 Hypotheses for Korea’s ‘Japanobia’ – 1. Genuine; 2. Post-Colonial Score-Settling; 3. RoK Legitimating Ideology

This, I hope, is my last piece on Japan-Korea relations for awhile. I think everyone is getting burned out by this topic. And I am sick of the hate-mail. But at least Obama got Abe and Park into the same room last week. Park look pretty furious, but at least the meeting was progress.

This essay goes into what purpose or function Korea’s resentment of Japan fulfills. Koreans get a little upset when I phrase it this way, but the extreme nature of Korean resentment of Japan tells me there is more going on than just memory and the war. That picture, from here, is a good illustration of just how instrumentalized ‘anti-Japan-ism’ has become for South Korean political identity.

This essay was originally written for the Diplomat this month. As always, when I write on this topic, I just don’t read the comments there anymore, because the hostility is so over-the-top. So if you’re here to tell me I am traitor to your favored cause, don’t worry. I know already. Thanks. Save your vitriol and try to stick to the social science research question I sketch in this essay. The essay follows the jump:

The Contemporary China–Wilhelmine Germany Analogy, part 2: Differences

imagesHere is part one.

This is the second half of my series on the analogy of China today with Germany in 1914. This was originally written for the Lowy Institute in Sydney. China today = Wilhelmine Germany is a pretty common analogy in international relations writing, especially in the op-ed ‘literature’ on China. I thought it deserved a little more deconstruction given how much we use it. Here I argue that there are enough dissimilarities to undercut the predictive value of the analogy.

Once again, I can’t find a good image of Wilhelmine Germany and China. Someone please find me a pic that doesn’t use the modern Germany flag like this one. Here is that post:

“In my previous post, I noted that China today is often analogized to Wilhelmine Germany in the run-up to WWI. This is probably captured most famously in well-known argument observation, ‘will Europe’s past be Asia’s future?’ The basic idea is that intense nationalism, seething historical and territorial grievances, and rapid modernization might plunge Asia into a WWI-style general war, with China as the neo-wilhelmine villain provoking it all. Previously, I argued that there are four shared structural characteristics that drive the China today-Germany 1914 analogy: encirclement by suspicious powers, rapid economic expansion, grievance-driven nationalist ideology, and rapidly expanding military power upsetting the regional balance of power.

But many other, perhaps less hawkish observers, such as Timo Kivimäki, David Kang or Amitav Acahrya, have regularly noted that east Asia has enjoyed a robust peace since 1979, and that realist-hawkish predictions of Chinese aggression have been around since Tiananmen Square yet never come true. Predictions that never pass but are regularly re-warmed by saying that we should just wait a little longer, are theoretically weak and deserve re-evaluation. 1979 was the last time a serious inter-state war – between China and Vietnam – occurred in East Asia. And Kang has argued for awhile that declining military expenditures in East Asia belie the standard western op-ed page narrative of rising Chinese power and fear of it throughout Asia. Asian behavior seems not to support that contention of the ‘China threat’ school.

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So What do you think of Open Access Journals? Ever Submit to One?


I get these mailers from Sage and other academic presses a lot asking me to submit to open access journals. I have never done so, because SSCI peer-review is so absolutely central to what we do. But I feel really bad about that actually, because I absolutely detest paywalls.

I am a big supporter of open access. Like most academics, I think, I find it absolutely preposterous that journal publishers charge $30 to get to an article. It goes without saying that most students have limited means and will not pay that (nor should they). Such an ridiculous fee also punishes people in LDCs who don’t get access to JSTOR and the rest.

Barring some strong countervailing reason, like clearly defined national security concerns, knowledge should be open; it is a public good. While academics want to get paid like everyone else, no one joined this profession to get rich. We do it, because we enjoy the life of the mind and want to share ideas with others. I’m sure you’re rolling your eyes right now, but it’s true. Academics would rather win an argument and have you read their work than get paid. And they will willingly drain the fun out of everything to just convince you they’re correct about something. If we get paid along the way for that, that’s great. But most of are not doing this for the money. In fact, that is probably one reason we get no royalties on our articles. We don’t do it for that, and we probably don’t care enough to organize to push for it.

In sum, publishers simultaneously wildly overcharge end users while paying zippo to providers – all while violating a central academic tenet – that knowledge-production is not primarily about money. Yuck. This has to stop.

But we do of course need tenure and promotion, and the SSCI, especially the very top ones, are just about the excusive road to that. You may like blogging and teaching and mentoring, but peer-review is gold. Hence I never submitted to an open access journal. I don’t really like that, but I wonder what the answer is. Does anyone know?