Invading North Korea is a Really, Really Bad Idea


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The idea of invading North Korea comes up now and again. Usually this is quickly dismissed as hugely risky, naïve, and so on. But the idea does keep recurring and there is an underlying moral attraction to stomping on North Korea. NK is just about the worst place on earth, barring perhaps the ISIS statelet emerging in the Middle East.

So I took this opportunity to sketch out a more detailed rebuttal than the usual ‘this is crazily dangerous’ response. I lay out 6 reasons, probably the most important of which is that South Korea, which will carry most of the costs of a NK collapse, is strongly opposed to preemptive attack. More generally, I continue to be amazed at how blithely neocons and liberal internationalists recommend the American use of force all over the place. Iraq (and Libya and Afghanistan) haven’t made it obvious how risky regime change decapitations are?

This essay was motivated by this original argument for an invasion by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. Should Gobry read this response, please note: ‘I did notice that you blocked my access to your twitter account. My apologies if this response came off as harsh or inappropriate. That was not my intention. Contact me if you like.’

This essay was originally picked up by the Lowy Institute and, I was pleased to see, reprinted by the National Interest. It begins after the jump:

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My Top 5 List for 2104: 5 Biggest Foreign Policy Events in Korea


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This is a follow-up to my previous post – a top 5 list of events for US power in Asia in 2014.

South Korea had a good year. President Park’s cozying up to Beijing is starting to pay off. China-North Korea relations are frosty, which is important progress. Seoul also got OPCON delayed indefinitely, which is great for Southern security, as well as its defense budget (but not so great for the US). And the UN report on North Korea human rights has gotten a lot of traction – way more than I thought – and looks increasingly likely to show-up China and Russia for what they really are out here – shameless, cold-blooded supporters of the worst regime on earth. The more that point is made in public and Moscow and Beijing suffer the embarrassment costs of that support, the better.

The full post comes after the jump; it was originally written for the Lowy Institute:

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The “Interview” Fits a Long Tradition of Really Stupid US Portrayals of North Korea (but SK Film is much Better)


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If you are looking to watch The Interview immediately, you can buy it on YouTube here. But the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes have been weak so far.

I am not quite sure what to make of all the hacking controversy yet, but in the run-up to the film, I wrote this quick comparison of North Korea in South Korean and US film. Not surprisingly, South Korea handles NK far more intelligently, whereas the US seems to have a weird, somewhat creepy obsession with North Korea invading America. Yes, really; read the review below: the US will have four ‘NK invades the US’ movies or video games in five years. I am still trying to figure out what that means.

Anyway, this was first written for Lowy Institute; the essay follows the jump.

My Lowy Essay on the Paranoid Anti-Americanism of South Korean Geopolitical Film


Take that English Teacher with Bad Hair!

So I watch way too many movies when I should be working, probably because I am pretty lazy. But a side benefit is noticing the various tropes and themes of movie genres. And one thing I’ve picked up watching movies in my field (international relations) in South Korea, is the regular use of stock American villains. Maybe I notice it just because I am an American, but it seems pretty pronounced to me.

It is well-known that westerners in Korean soaps are frequently used to introduce duplicity, sleaze, STDs, and so on. But in the film industry, the Americans are more nefarious, usually plotting to manipulate Korea  to serve neo-imperial goals or something preposterous like that. Amusingly, the plots are usually ludicrous to the point of laughable (Americans mass-bombing plague victims in downtown Seoul in broad daylight?! – hah!); the dialogue is risibly ridiculous as well (“Korea is independent and sovereign, and you Yankees can’t tell us what to do!” Yeah!!); and the ‘American’ characters almost always sound like Russians or non-American English teachers the movie producers just pulled off the street and stuck in a bad rip-off of a US Army uniform.

It is also noticeable that all this American manipulation of Korea is self-congratulation: if the Americans are going to great lengths to use Korea for their dastardly plots, then Korea must be pretty important to the world’s lone superpower. Better fanciful American flattery of Korea, in trying to manipulate it, than the reality of American ignorance of it.

So here is some nice holiday relaxation. Revel in the sheer laughable paranoia of left-wing Korean cinema. It’s a hoot:

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My Lowy Essay: “OPCON Reversion is Dead – the 10-Year Soap Opera is Finally Over”


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This is a reprint of an essay first published by the Lowy Institute a week ago.

The reversion of OPCON – operational wartime control of the South Korean military – to South Korea is finally over. After 10 years of endless meetings, papers, op-eds, and power-points, everyone seems to have realized it was a basically a huge mistake (which it was). The US and Korea recently agreed to push it off the 2020s, which is another way of saying it will probably never happen.

The irony is that almost as soon as reversion was agreed to last decade, the South Koreans got cold feet and tried to have it changed back. No one seems to have thought that closing down the Combined Forces Command would mean that Korea would have to do a lot more for its own defense and stop free-riding so much. Once that reality hit by the end of President Roh’s term, ‘US imperialism’ didn’t look so bad after all: it meant Seoul could continue to woefully under-invest in defense. So here we are at last, back to where we started from. And honestly, it is all for the best – if the US is going to stay here.

The essay follows the jump.

My September Diplomat Essay: “After Six Years, Is there an Obama Doctrine? Kinda, Sorta”


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This is a re-post of a piece I just published at The Diplomat this week. And that picture is Clausewitz. I attended a strategy training seminar this past summer at Columbia (apply for it if you’re in a PhD track; it’s excellent). So this stuff has been on my mind a lot recently. And what would a blog about security be without ostentatiously name-dropping Clausewitz once in awhile so I look smart?

Actually I am kind of skeptical of these big ‘doctrinal’ or ‘grand strategy’ statements. Is it really even possible to burn down the complexities of US foreign policy all over the world into some kind of pithy statement, or a few paragraphs? I doubt that is even possible. I suppose if you are a micro-state like Panama or Tuvalu, these exercises are manageable. But for large states like the US, I think it is easy for such debates to become scholastic, how-many-angels-can-dance-on-a-pinhead sorts of things. And frequently, these sprawling, meta-statements fly out the window when events don’t follow the ‘strategic’ guidelines or expectations. This has certainly been the case in dealing with North Korea, where I have repeatedly defended the Obama line of ‘strategic patience’ against the critique that its lacks a ‘strategy.’ Just look at how many big ideas for dealing with North Korea have crashed and burned. It makes one wonder what the point is at all. Keeping deterrence firm and not getting rooked by the Norks is pretty good without elaborate, fanciful power-points on to disarm the KPA in 20 years.

So give Obama break. The most important thing is making the world a little more liberal, a little more democratic, a little more capitalist from presidency to presidency. There is no huge need for some major, complex intellectual edifice for that, because events will often invalidate anything more detailed than that. Just look at how President Bush more from anti-Clintonian realist to uber-Wilsonian democracy promoter overnight. Ultimately, it is US behavior that matters, not some paragraphs in the NSS that only Washington think-tankers read.

Anyway, here’s that essay:

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My Lowy Debate on whether the US should Retrench from South Korea, part 2: No


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This is a re-up of the second part of a couplet I wrote for the Lowy Institute on whether the US should retrench from South Korea. Part one is here; the original Lowy version of part 2 is here. And that pic is me doing what I really went to North Korea for…

My friend Dave Maxwell responded to part one by suggesting that I am not really laying out core US realist or national interests in Korea. Instead I got sidetracked going after liberal internationalists and neocons over the alliance and interventionism. Here is his reply. He says I come down on the side of retrenchment. Hmmm…

First, if you don’t know Dave’s work on Korea, you should. Go follow his blog. He’s way better on Korean security than I am. For example, his piece on a possible insurgency in post-unification north Korea is really valuable. I can’t think of anything else on that topic. Until I had read it, I must admit that I hadn’t really even thought of that scenario.

In response, I guess I would say that I am not sure what direct national interest the US has in ROK security today. I get it that South Korea is a liberal democracy facing off against the worst tyranny ever. But that’s a liberal argument, not a realist one. And I get it that North Korea is horrible, worse-than-1984 state which we should push into the dustbin of history as soon as possible. But that’s also a liberal/humanitarian argument.

I also get it that South Korea is important for the US position in Asia and dealing with/hedging/containing (or whatever it is we’re doing with) China. But that’s more a neocon argument in which US hegemony, instantiated in our global basing network, is an end itself. But if hegemony means allied free-riding (see: NATO) and getting chain-ganged into conflicts with states like North Korea or China, then realists would say hegemony should be scaled back, because it is not serving the national interest. American hegemony is only valuable if it serves the national interest; it is not an end in itself. (Daniel Larison makes this argument a lot.)

Finally, I get it too that a North Korean destruction of South Korea would be a horrible tragedy, a humanitarian nightmare, a boon to autocrats and tyrants everywhere, give new life to the worst regime on earth, and so on. But those reasons are so big and ‘metaphysical’ that they violate the realist demand that the national interest be something direct, tangible, immediate, and so on. It cannot credibly be the purpose of US foreign policy to stop tyranny or humanitarian catastrophes everywhere in the world. However morally attractive, that’s a sisyphean task that means perpetual war by the US all over the planet. This was thrust of Bush’s soaring second inaugural – which just about everyone derided immediately as an impossible flight of crusading fancy.

So, what, exactly, are the US national interests in South Korean security? North Korea is not going to invade the US. The Cold War is over, so South Korea is not a domino about to fall as communism chews its way through the Free World. South Korea doesn’t export anything that the US absolutely has to have, like oil which keeps the US tied to the Persian Gulf no matter how much we want to get out. There’s no anti-American terrorism problem out here.

And I don’t say all this to be testy or contrarian. My own gut-feeling is to keep the US in Korea – probably because I think North Korea is just about the worst place on earth. I am open to being convinced on this, and I kinda want to be. I imagine a lot of people instinctually feel the same way. But that’s not a replacement for clear, obvious need for us to be here. As I said in part one, this is the big hole in the conversation. We’re in the Middle East because of oil and terrorism. We’re in the Caribbean littoral states, because they’re our neighbors, and their problems become our problems. We’re in Japan, because China is a genuine emergent hegemonic challenger to the US. But Korea? I’m not sure. Even the reasons given in this post below are kinda vague, nothing is as crystalline as, say, helping Mexico defeat its super-violent drug cartels so that they don’t penetrate the US.

So give me your best shot. I’m open to it.

The essay follows the jump: