70th Anniversary of the Korean War: North Korea isn’t Going Anywhere; It’s Pretty Stable (Unfortunately)


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This is a re-post of my contribution to The National Interest’s recent essay round-up on the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. (My essay here; the full symposium here.)

My argument, in brief, is that North Korea is actually quite stable. Hence the answer to the symposium question – would Korea be re-unified by 2025 – is a resounding ‘no.’ Here is a brief Twitter thread which summarizes my argument.

North Korea faces little pressure internally – Kim has consolidated power quite nicely; elites are quiescent; there’s never been a popular revolt – and externally – China is unwilling to cut NK off; nukes give NK deterrence against regime change. The sanctions are tough, but Northern elites have been pushing the costs of them onto their population for decades. They won’t bring down or substantially change the DRPK system.

So we are stuck. We can try to negotiate, and we should, but the last few years’ flailing shows how hard that is. The stalemate is quite persistent.

The full essay follows the jump:

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South Korea’s Very Limited Re-Opening


1217405840This is a local repost of an essay I wrote last week for The National Interest

I wrote it in response to growing interest in the US in ‘re-opening.’ South Korea is further along the corona timeline than the West, and it dealt with corona very well. So if there is any economy ready to re-open, you would think that it is South Korea’s. Except that that is not really happening.

It’s true that restaurants are re-opened, that you can eat in them in proximity without a mask, and that masking generally is declining a bit. But not much. And most things are still closed – schools, concerts, museums, aquariums, marathons, whatever. And the government here is not talking about mass opening at all like the US discussion, especially on the right. In fact, it’s the opposite. The South Korean government keeps saying this will be a long slog, at least for the rest of the year.

The full essay follows the jump:

South Korea has been widely praised for its handling of the corona virus. As a democracy, it labors under constraints a dictatorship like China, for example, does not. South Korea nevertheless managed to beat down the virus’ spread to under ten new cases a day this week, and without the kind of social revolt brewing in the United States now.

As everywhere else, there is pressure to re-open. Everyone is bored and frustrated at home. Businesses are struggling. Families are frazzled at having the kids at home all day every day. People are putting on weight, because they are watching too much TV and over-eating. All the same sort of complaints accumulating on social media in Western countries exist here too. It’s exhausting.

Indeed, ‘corona fatigue’ set in earlier here. Korea’s clampdown began in mid-March, and one can already see the edges fraying. I see fewer masks on the subways. The lines to pick up government-distributed masks are shorter. Bars and restaurants are filling, where people are sitting in proximity and not wearing masks. Panic buying has stopped (although to be fair, there was never really much). The economic costs of the lockdown are now discussed more frequently on TV (although not nearly as vociferously as on Trumpist media in the US).

All this – the apparent success of the anti-virus campaign, the spiraling economic costs, the social unhappiness at being locked indoors all day – has brought the government to experiment with some loosening. Religious buildings have re-opened, although the government has insisted on strict distancing which will likely be hard for the Christian churches particularly given their design. Schools have also been given leeway to re-open, although the implementation of that varies widely. For example, my son’s kindergarten has re-opened almost completely; my daughter’s elementary school is closed completely; and my university is open for staff and required exams. Food establishments seem to be pushing hardest. Restaurants and bars particularly seem to be operating in a pre-corona fashion, probably as much out of desperation for business as belief that the worst has passed.

It is important for Western readers hoping for a return to normalcy not to overrate these moves. South Korea is indeed a useful canary in the coal mine for other democracies in this struggle. It too is a democracy whose anti-viral moves constrained by civil liberties; it has handled the virus very well; and it has struggled with it longer than the West. So it is further along than many other countries and is certainly a better model than non-democracies like Singapore.

But South Korea’s corona ‘re-opening’ is still quite limited. The South Korean government, for example, does not even use such language, as that suggests a far greater return to pre-corona times than it is permitting. There were also warnings almost immediately from South Korean health officials that any re-opening would permit a resurgence of the virus. The Korean CDC is talking about a lock-down of varying intensity for a year – with re-clamp-downs possible if clusters pop up – until a vaccine is found.

This is very different from the American discourse, particularly on the Trumpist right where sympathetic media such as Fox News are hinting that normality could return within in a month or less. Republican governors are now even admitting that their states could see a spike of fatalities as they re-open. The US conservative debate is now increasingly blunt that the economic costs, and the consequent human costs, of the lock-down are exceeding the direct human costs of the virus.

There is nothing like this in South Korea. The response here is far more technocratic. The South Korean president does not give daily briefings. He has given a few pep talks now and then, but nothing with the level of politics and sensationalism characteristic of the US President Donald Trump’s daily briefings. Instead the prime minister speaks a few times a week in a fairly bland tone. But mostly scientists and bureaucrats, such as the head of the KCDC, have been the public face of the South Korean government regarding corona.

Nor has the government contradicted the epidemiologists or sought to dispute their expertise or suggestions. No politician is arguing that the lock-down should be relieved for political reasons, and in the legislative election last week, a re-opening of the economy was not an issue. The South Korean public seems resigned to a fairly long slog and a re-opening in very small steps.

There will be much future discussion about why the stark contrast in the US and South Korean responses, given the plaudits South Korean has received. Some of it will inevitably redound on Trump himself. Trump is up for re-election, and he is itching, for fairly obvious reasons, to restart the economy. An economy racked by plague, contraction, and unemployment will likely cost him the election.

But there is another issue too – cultural memory. South Koreans have been through these sorts of lockdowns before – for SARS and MERS. There is a reservoir of collective patience which does not exist in the West which has not seen something like this since the Spanish Flu of 1918. Trump is not just channeling his own desire to ‘re-open’ but that of a large chunk of the American population in disbelief that the world changed so rapidly.

Trump and Moon are the most Dovish Presidents Ever on N Korea, and Kim will Still Give Them Nothing


This is a repost of an essay I wrote earlier this month for The National Interest. My argument is that Kim Jong Un is passing up his best chance for a deal for years, maybe decades, to come. Both Moon and Trump are extremely unusual, and favorable, counterparties for the North.

Most South Korean and US presidents have been either hawkish or very hawkish on North. Doves haven been rare – two SK presidents between 1998 and 2008. But neither of them ever went as far or talked as détente-ish as Moon does. Similarly, Trump is a huge outlier for US presidents on North Korea. He has made a far greater and more personal outreach effort than ever before.

And that these two dovish presidencies currently overlap is unique. This is a fantastic alignment for North Korea and almost certainly won’t last. If Pyongyang really wants a deal, this is the time to go for it.

Instead, they have played Trump for a fool – getting the legitimating photo-ops with POTUS while giving up nothing – and been surprisingly cold toward Moon’s repeated outreach. As so often, it’s their way or no way at all.

Expect hawks to cite this behavior in a few years to justify a much tougher line on NK. The missed opportunity between 2018 and 2020 will be seen on the right and center as proof that NK doesn’t want a deal, even under very favorable circumstances.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Failing North Korea Talks Once Again Suggest Starting Small


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This is re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a few weeks ago. The argument is one I have made repeatedly – that big-bang, all-or-nothing deals with North Korea are unlikely – because of low trust on both sides – and they represent far too large a leap to take given North Korean cheating in the past. We should scale back our efforts to smaller, cumulative steps which are actually doable. Think where would be now if we had done this for the last 18 months instead of gambling again and again on a huge breakthrough while not making any actual progress.

The problem is that the US and South Korean presidents both want a big-bang deal for domestic political reasons unrelated to the substance of denuclearization talks with the North. Trump wants a Nobel Peace Prize to stave off impeachment and get himself re-elected. He will sign anything because he doesn’t actually care about the deal’s contents. Also, and perhaps as important, Trump is lazy. He doesn’t want to negotiate in depth and detail with NK because he doesn’t know enough to do that and doesn’t want to learn.

SK President Moon wants a big-bang deal because he has pinned his whole presidency to détente with North Korea. All his domestic policies are contentious and are being overwhelmed by the North Korea issue which is absorbing all Moon’s time and energy. NK has a way of overwhelming SK presidents’ time in office, and Moon has worsened that normal time-suck by jumping in with both feet (and getting nothing).

In short, the North won’t go for a big, one-shot deal just because Moon and Trump are desperate at home. If we really want progress, we need to start with small, manageable, transparent swaps. These should involve a limited series of steps on both sides over a limited period of time. This would make post-hoc evaluation easier: after such a swap, we could do an after-action analysis and decide what the next swap should be. With each step, we could enlarge cooperation, building organically and credibly on previous steps. Needless to say, this will take a long time. But it is far more likely to actually work than hoping that NK will suddenly – after 50 years developing nukes – agree to trade them away. They won’t. That should be pretty obvious at this point.

The full essay follows the jump:

Trump’s Impeachment is Good for US Foreign Policy


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This essay is a local re-post of my essay for the Lowy Institute for this month.

In brief, I argue that Trump, for all his bluster and chaos, has not actually moved the US foreign policy consensus that much. So if he is impeached, we’ll likely get a ‘snap-back’ to more traditional liberal internationalist positions. That would broadly be a good thing, but for the over-interventionism of the traditional foreign policy community. Trump’s departure would mean the end of idiocy like undercutting the World Trade Organization or the Universal Postal Union, attacking US allies, throwing friends like the Kurds under the bus, and cozying up to dictators like Kim Jong Un.

Trump is too uninformed, impulsive, and erratic to represent any kind of meaningful critique of foreign policy liberalism. Some of his supporters try, but it’s most been in vain. There’s no coherent Trump Doctrine, just whatever suits his fancy or serves his political purposes at the time. Nor has Trump created an alternative foreign policy community to the current one. As POTUS, Trump is hugely influential in that community, but he’s leaving no lasting mark because he’s too incoherent and, well, dumb. So if he’s impeached, it’s back to what was, because there is no serious Trumpian alternative.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Does Trump Want to Withdraw from South Korea if He’s Re-Elected?


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote this month for The National Interest.

I keep hearing this idea on the lecture and conference circuit in East Asia – that Trump wants to withdraw from South Korea and a second term would open that possibility.

The big problems for Trump, if he really wants to do this, are 1) US bureaucratic resistance, and 2) his own laziness and incompetence. That is, much of official Washington would oppose a SK retrenchment. Just as it did Jimmy Carter’s late 1970s effort to withdraw from South Korea.

But Trump is POTUS in a highly presidentialized system. He might be able to win the battle Carter lost, but Trump would have to really work at it – get on the phone, have face-to-face confrontations with the military, use the bully pulpit against the pundit network who would oppose this. But Trump is so lazy, and so uncomfortable with personal confrontation – this is why he fires people over Twitter – that I doubt he has the focus to push this.

Curiously though, Trump might find a sort-of ally in SK President Moon Jae-In. The SK left has long had an ambiguous relationship with USFK as ‘neo-imperialists’ bullying the ROKG. I doubt Moon’s leftist coalition would push back much if Trump tried to do this.

The full essay is after the jump:

Trump’s August was so Outlandish and Awful that He is Unfit to Remain President


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This is a local re-post of my monthly essay for the Lowy Institute for September.

In brief, I argue that Trump crossed a rubicon in August. He is now clearly unfit to be president. His behavior in August was so unhinged and inappropriate, that a 25th Amendment removal is now warranted. A white collar professional in any similar position of institutional authority – at a bank, school, hospital, military or government agency, etc. – would be removed for Trump’s August meltdown. So should Trump.

This will not happen of course. Republicans in Trump’s cabinet and in Congress clearly know he is unfit. Leaks like Rex Tillerson’s “he’s a f* moron” are common. But Trump voters’ bond to Trump is akin to a personality cult and they actually seem to approve of the chaos he has unleashed. So Washington Republicans won’t act. But still it is worth noting that they should. And why Trump voters have endorsed ‘burn it all’ is just beyond me. An ideological preference for Trump – however toxic and racist – is at least understandable. But what is the value is simply wrecking American governance?

So not only should the president probably be impeached for the obstruction findings of the Mueller Report, he should also be removed via the 25th Amendment for psychological unfitness. Never thought I’d that sentence. Wow.

The full essay follows the jump.

Trump’s Third Pandering, Legitimizing, Normalizing Photo-Op Summit with Kim Jong Un: Trump is Getting Played


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This is a local re-post of an essay I recently wrote for The National Interest about the DMZ summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un. In short, it was a joke, another media stunt of the kind Trump is so good at. But now that everyone – Trump, Kim, Moon – have gotten their vanity picks for the history books and domestic legitimation/re-election needs, can we actually get back to, you know, the actual point of all this – a US-North Korean deal?

This is now the third of these made-for-TV, substance-free summit. Kim wins the optics and legitimation benefits just by showing up. He doesn’t have to do anything; he wins just by coming and smiling for the cameras. Trump on the other hand needs a deal to look like the meeting was worth it, because meeting Kim grants Trump no prestige, as it does vice versa for Kim. In fact, Trump looks at this point like he’s getting played, because he’s not getting anything despite three meetings so far, with a White House event possibly to come. Once again, it looks like Trump is just winging it, which is an asinine way to conduct foreign policy, especially for a superpower.

All that matters is what deal comes from all this and we still have no idea what they will be. It’s fashionable to say we’re making ‘progress,’ but are we? I’d say we’re just drifting.

The essay follows the jump:

There is Actually a Strategic Logic behind the China Trade War; Trump just doesn’t Understand or Care


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This is a re-post of an essay I wrote earlier this month for The National Interest. Basically, I have been amazed in the media discussion of the Sino-US trade war at how little effort there’s been to explain why it might be a good idea – namely, if you accept that China is a serious medium- and long-term threat to the United States.

Now you don’t have to agree that China will, in fact, become  that threat. Scholars like Dave Kang don’t think so. If not, then the trade war is just a foolish distortion of the comparative advantage benefits both sides reap from trade. It is then strictly an economics question, where Trump is indulging foolish protectionist instincts which woefully misunderstand that a US trade deficit is not a a problem to worry about.

But if you do think China is a looming competitor, if not a serious threat, then the logic of scaling back China trade is pretty obvious – the political benefits of slowing China’s rise outweigh the economic benefits of its cheap imports and T-bill purchases.

This line of argument would actually be pretty persuasive to a lot of people. I think there is a growing consensus in the natsec community that China is a real threat. Hence Trump could find new allies for his controversial trade war policies. But he never makes this pitch – I presume because he is too obtuse to actually understand this argument. Just in his Wisconsin speech again yesterday, he instead made the same ridiculous argument that the US trade deficit with China is China ‘ripping us off.’ Whatever…

The full essay follows the jump.

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Hanoi Fallout (3): Moon Jae-In is Now Leading Détente with N Korea – and He Needs Clearer Domestic Political Support for It


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This is a local re-post of an article I wrote for The National Interest a few weeks ago.

Basically, Moon Jae-In is now in charge of détente with North Korea. Trump is too checked out, too lazy, and too ill-informed to run this thing properly. Trump blew Hanoi because he got outwitted by his own staff (Bolton), because Trump doesn’t know anything about the issues, so he didn’t know how to push back on Bolton, or even realize he was being manipulated by him. So it’s up to Moon now.

But Moon lacks a national coalition in South Korea to push through a major change in relations with North Korea. South Korean conservatives are sliding into paranoid delusions that Moon is being manipulated by the North. The Liberty Korea Party is totally cut out of this process and furious. The big three newspapers in South Korea are all center-right, and all are skittish if not hostile to Moon’s initiatives.

Moon is running this from his left-liberal base, but it’s not big enough. He won with only 41% of the vote. If he does not get at least some conservative buy-in on a new relationship with North Korea, the right will destroy ‘Moonshine’ when it next re-takes the POTROK, just as it destroyed ‘Sunshine’ in 2008.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Hanoi Fallout (2): Trump is Too Incompetent and Unprepared for these Open-Ended, High Stakes Summits. Time to Stop


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This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute earlier this month.

Basically, Trump blew Hanoi, because he is lazy and poor negotiator. He has no empathy, so he cannot put himself in another’s shoes. Nor does he read, so he has no idea what the issues really are. He isn’t preparing for these meetings. He is throwing them together as he goes. So he walks into them unprepared with little fallback when he doesn’t get his way. Both Singapore and Hanoi failed along the same lines. Trump is 0-2, because he’s winging it.

This is classic Trump of course and shows yet again how badly suited for the office he is. A normal president would have at least had staff hammer out some basic agreement beforehand so that acrimony was not the only outcome. But not Trump. Negotiating to him is laying down ultimatums and sounding off on Twitter. And the response is predictably: the North Koreans are upset at the snub and threatening to restart testing.

For the life of me, I cannot understand the affection of Trump’s voters for such rank incompetence. He is so obviously in over his head, bungling a rare window of opportunity with NK, because he simply will not read, plan, or prepare like a normal professional. It’s amazing he hasn’t wandered into something genuinely catastrophic.

The full essay follows the jump:

Hanoi Fallout (1): Trump’s Impulsiveness & Laziness Undercut the Process (or just go watch that CPAC speech)


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This is a re-post of an essay I wrote just before the Hanoi summit for the Korean Dong-A Daily newspaper.

If you’re tired of all this, save yourself the trouble of reading the essay and just go watch the highlights of Trump’s crazed CPAC speech from yesterday. He is pretty obviously having a mental breakdown. If the guy at CPAC is the same guy who will bring peace to Korea, then we’re all delusional.

Basically I wrote this because South Koreans don’t quite get just how unhinged and ignorant Trump really is. Not being Americans or watching as much American news, they still, flatteringly, expect the US to be, um, mature and normal and don’t quite understand that we’ve elected a man-child who couldn’t care less about Korea, US power in Asia, allies, and so on. It’s crushing to see my students’ faces fall when I repeat some of the things Trump has said. Can’t wait for this to end…

The essay is after the jump:

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My Thoughts on the US Midterm: Voting against Trump to Defend US Institutions and Keep the GOP from becoming the National Front


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This essay is a re-post of a post I wrote for the Lowy Institute before the election explaining my vote against Donald Trump’s Republican party. This post went viral on Twitter; thank you.

One thing I wish I had emphasized more in retrospect is that Trump is turning the GOP into the National Front. I mention that in the essay, but the more I think about Trump’s impact on the Republicans, the more I think the National Front is the right model for where the GOP is going. The NF is a lot like Trump himself: semi-authoritarian, racist, gangsterish, flirting with anti-semitism. No wonder Bannon and Marine LePen get on so well.

I say all this as a deeply disaffected lifelong registered Republican. I voted a straight Democratic ticket this week just because of Trump’s threat to America’s institutions. I figure I will stay a registered Republican for the 2020 primary, to vote against Trump there. But if Trump wins re-election, I see no choice but to register as a Democrat. The GOP will be unrecognizable at that point – basically the American National Front by 2024. I imagine a lot of other center-right natsec types are probably thinking the same. This whole thing is so depressing, because the US actually needs a coherent center-right party as a part of checks-and-balances in a two-party system.

The full essay is after the jump…

A Korean Deal Based on Flattering Trump as a Useful Idiot will Not Hold


This is a local re-post of a piece I wrote for the Lowy Institute a few weeks ago.

Basically I wrote this in disgust at how Trump is falling all over himself about Kim Jong Un. I do not oppose a deal with North Korea, as my critics keep saying. Rather, I deeply distrust Trump’s motives. He isn’t doing this for peace in Korea or because he cares about the US position in Asia or the well-being of people out here. In fact, he’s not even doing it for the American national interest. He’s doing it because the leaders of North and South Korea are flattering him.

It’s appalling that Trump can’t see this. He hasn’t gotten anything serious out of North Korea, but apparently he loves Kim Jong Un, probably because Kim called him ‘Your Excellency’ in one of his letters. And Moon is playing Trump so badly – Nobel Peace Prize! – it’s embarrassing. Last year Trump was a jerk and called Moon an appeaser of NK. So this year, Moon is the tail wagging the dog. Moon has figured out that he can go around the hawkish US natsec bureaucracy, which distrusts him, and go straight to Trump. Flatter Trump enough, and he’ll agree to anything.

It’s gross, and it won’t hold anyway, because Trump is fickle and stroking his ego is not the same as building institutional support in the US for a deal.

The essay follows the jump:

South Korea is Now Running Détente with North Korea – and that is Probably a Good Thing


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This is a local re-post of a lengthy review I wrote on this year’s détente for the Center for International Governance Innovation. This is the original version, rather than that edited up version. They’re basically the same

Basically, I argue that the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore was a nothingburger, that basically served to get Trump out of the way. The Americans had to be involved somehow given their importance to South Korea security. So Trump had to have something – unsurprisingly, a content-free, made-for-TV summit. With Trump now sidelined, Moon can do his stuff. I figure we’ll be lucky if he can cap NK at its current arsenal without giving up too much. That is the challenge now.

The full essay follows the jump:

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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:

Cancel the Trump-Kim Summit – because you don’t really think Trump is up to this, do you? (Don’t Lie)


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This is a local re-post of something I wrote for The National Interest earlier this month. This essay expands on what I have been saying on Twitter for last two weeks since Trump – or rather foreign envoys speaking on behalf of the US president (WTH?!) – agreed to the summit. Namely, that Donald Trump is woefully, obviously, embarrassingly unqualified to go head-to-head with Kim Jong Un in a serious bargaining environment

Normally it would not make much difference that Trump himself is clueless about Korea, because staff work would comprise most of the summit effort. But with only 8 weeks before the summit, much of the burden of negotiating falls on Trump himself. And since it is a summit, presumably the the really big issues between the US and NK are on the tables – nukes, a peace treaty, recognition, etc. Does anyone really believe a reality TV star who doesn’t read, watches five hours of TV a day, and relies more on family and friends than technical staff is qualified to negotiate these sorts of questions in just 8 weeks? Wake up, everybody.

To be sure, the summit will likely just be a bust, with Trump skylarking about how he’d like to build a Trump Tower in Pyongyang as Kim gives a long-winded speech about US ‘war crimes.’ But it might also go badly wrong as Trump veers wildly off-course and trades away US forces here for some weak-tea de-nuclearization deal the Norks will cheat on. Honestly, I am amazed the South Korea government thought it a good idea to put Trump – the guy who just 3 weeks ago gave this insane speech – in a room with Kim. What is going on?

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?


Image result for trump kim

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.

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