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:

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