Modernization has Revolutionized Korean Grand Strategy


In the summer 2015, I went off to Columbia for a strategy training seminar called the ‘Summer Workshop on the Analysis of Military Operations and Strategy.’ It was pretty great. You should apply for it, here.

It got me thinking about Korean grand strategy, which I have written about before. I still think the primary geopolitical dilemma for Korea is that it is a middle power surrounded by three great powers. That really sucks, and may be unique in world politics to be bordered by three great powers while being a small/middle power yourself. Most encircled powers only face two large states so directly adjacent to them. Even Germany, while encircled, was never so overmatched by neighbors, because it too was a great power. But Korea has three large states right on top it. That’s very tough.

But the power ratios are changing. In the last 50 years South Korea has grown very fast, while in the last 20-30 years, Russia and Japan have stagnated. That still doesn’t mean Korea is a great power, but the gap is much narrower. So for the first time in its history, Korea is not a regional geopolitical football. That’s actually a pretty great national achievement.

This is the focus of this essay (after the jump), originally written for The Diplomat.

The ‘Interview’ Hack Suggests N Korea will now Cyber-Target the Private Sector too


northkorea-hack-100537123-primary_idgeAll the hubub on North Korea hacking Sony got me thinking about the impact this might have on the private sector. To date, most of the North Korea & hacking discussion has focused on cyber-attacks on big, predictable targets like the US Defense Department or South Korean Ministry of National Defense. But targeting a private sector firm, especially a big, well-known one like Sony strikes me as a major expansion. Now for-profit entities with far fewer resources, especially intelligence, have been put on notice. That’s gotta make a lot of foreign companies who are thinking of operating in Korea think twice. Who wants to accidentally anger the Norks for who knows what by opening a store in Daejon or something? Best to just steer away. At least that is what I would be thinking, or more correctly fearing, if I were South Korean commercial officials.

So if you are major foreign firm operating in the Korean space, you’ve been warned. The Sony hack is meant to put you on notice. Hopefully you do the right thing: pulling investment or chilling creativity because of totalitarian threats would be a terrible outcome.

The essay below was first published at the Lowy Interpreter and then picked up by The National Interest. It starts after the jump:

My Review of ‘The Interview’: Dumb, but Mildly Subversive


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I know this came out awhile back and almost everyone has seen it now. But my review just went up at the Lowy Institute, so here is my local mirror of that post.

I saw it twice and actually found it reasonably funny the second time, but for low-brow reasons that had nothing to so with N Korea. If you watch it over some beers with your drinking buddies, it’s reasonable Saturday night fare. But all its best jokes are Animal House-style, guys-behaving-badly stuff that has nothing to do with NK, and for which the NK backdrop is totally unnecessary. So why was the film even set there?

Finding humor in North Korea, while nonetheless respecting how awful the place is, is a tough task which would require good writing, something along the lines of The Great Dictator. But Seth Rogen scarcely tries that. Instead it’s all twenty-something American humor (lots of western movies and music references, and sex jokes). So why drag in all the moral weight that comes from engaging North Korea? I didn’t find that morally offensive, as some reviewers did, but rather just bizarre and incongruous. It’s as if a standard issue Hollywood ‘dudebro’ comedy just fell out of the sky into North Korea. Wait, what? Who thought that mix of elements would work?

Whatever. If you haven’t seen it once, you should. Review follows the jump.

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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Northeast Asia 2015 Predictions: Another Year of the Repetitive, Uninspiring Status Quo


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This is another of my end of year prediction/look-back posts. The others, on 2014, are here and here. This time I want to look forward to 2015, and I’ve got to admit that I see little that inspires confidence. Every state in northeast Asia is run by nationalists and social conservatives who have little interest in overcoming regional foreign policy splits, or altering the bureaucratic, crony corporatist status quo.

So expect another year of the same: loud, angry, status-quo reinforcing foreign policy fights over empty rocks and events 80 years ago; corruption scandals; competitive devaluation and outrageously punitive consumer prices; a rough deal for working women; dirigisme instead of innovation; North Korean shenanigans; and so on. NE Asia really needs visionary leaders – an Adenauer or Mandela – someone to pull the region out of the blind alley of nationalism and crony statism that rewards nationalist elites and punishes everyone else.

The following predictions were originally made in the Diplomat here.

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Looking Back on What Predictions for East Asia 2014 I got Wrong…and a little Right


untitledI have always liked these end of the year prediction check-ups, and new year prediction-making exercises. It’s fun, but it also is an important check on irresponsibility in our punditry. Month after month we say this or that is important, or this or that will happen. But later when the current we thought was important turns out not to be, or the ‘revolutionary’ leader we thought would ‘change everything’ turns out to be a bust, we conveniently forget about that and say some other trend is actually what really matters.

This is intellectually pretty shoddy but understandable. No one likes to admit they are wrong. But identifying why causal mechanisms we thought important actually weren’t, is an important way for us to improve our thinking and explain ourselves to readers. The alternative is those neocons who got Iraq really, really wrong, but still come back on TV unchastened. Bleh.

So here is a run-down of the big things I got wrong in 2014 in Asia. In brief, I overestimated the importance of the Sewol in driving reform in Korea, and the depth of the freeze between North Korea and China; I underestimated the importance of the UN report on North Korean human rights, and China’s efforts to build parallel institutions in Asia particularly. This was originally posted at the Lowy Institute last week:

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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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