Newsweek Korea asked me to participate in a debate on Obama’s strategic patience. A friend of mine wrote against it; I wrote in defense. Here is the Korean language text at the NWK website. Below is my original English language version.
In brief I argue that North Korea is so hard to pin down, that big strategies never work with it, provoke it into lashing out, and raise impossible expectations on democratic decision-makers. So Obama is acting responsibly, IMO, by not promising more than he can deliver and by not giving a reason for NK to act out.
After 20+ years of negotiating on more or less the same topics, it should be pretty obvious that NK is insistent on not being placed in some box by outsiders. It will not be treated as some technocratic ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ by a conference of experts, like global warming or something. And it will lash out if necessary to remind us of that. Hence, I argue for ‘muddling through,’ and that we should stop expecting our policy-makers to have some great NK strategy that will fix the issue. That’s not gonna happen. We all know that. We just have to wait for China to stop paying NK’s bills. Until then, all the sweeping declarations (‘agreed framework,’ ‘sunshine',’ the ‘axis of evil,' the current big idea du jour of ‘trust’) are rather pointless and raise impossible expectations among voters in SK, the US, and Japan. Let’s be a little more honest about what we can expect from North Korea.
I continue to be amazed at how the Korean government won’t admit that Japan’s revival is really good for democracy in Asia and the prevention of Chinese regional primacy. No less than the SK finance minister (pic) actually said Abenomics is more dangerous to SK than the NK missile program. Wait, what?? The worst totalitarianism in history gets a pass when the Bank of Japan prints a lot of cheap money? Come on. That's unbelievably irresponsible. Are Korean officials so deeply bought by the chaebol that they actually have to say stuff like that? Honestly if Minister Hyun really believes that (I doubt that though, see below), he should probably resign. This is just an embarrassment.
The conventional wisdom on the US presence in Asia is that we re-assure all players. Specifically, US allies don’t need to arms race local opponents, because the US has extended deterrence to cover them. Hence Japan and South Korea don’t need to go nuclear, for example. Among academics, this logic pops in the work of Christensen, Ikenberrry, and Nye; among policy analysts, here is the US military saying this, and here is the DC think-tank set.
But there’s flip-side to this logic that really needs to be investigated – whether the US presence also freezes conflicts in place, by reassuring Asian elites against their own reckless nationalist rhetoric, racially toxic historiographies, and Fox News-style inflammatory media (just read the Global Times op-ed page occasionally). I think the Liancourt Rocks fight is a particularly good example of this ‘moral hazard’ mechanic, as is the recent comment by no less than the South Korean foreign minister (!) that Abenomics’ threat to Korean export competitiveness is a greater danger to SK than North Korea’s nuclear program. That kind of preposterous, reckless myopia can only be explained by taking the US security umbrella for granted.
The North Korea flap seems to be calming down, so here I reprint my original essay from the Diplomat a few weeks ago on the crisis, plus a follow-up ‘response to my critics’ essay from the China Policy Institute Blog of the University of Nottingham and e-IR. Together, I think they make a nice whole, although it's a little long for a blog-post. I would like to thank Harry Kazianas of the Diplomat, John Sullivan of Nottingham, and Max Nurnus of e-IR for soliciting me.
“North Korea is the ‘Boy who Cried Wolf’: There will be No War” (first essay, from April 10)
So it increasingly looks like the inter-Korean Kaesong industrial zone is closed for good. (The Wikipedia write-up is a pretty good quick history of it.)
The zone was set-up during the Sunshine Policy period (1998-2007). It was to do 3 things: 1) Lead to some liberal-capitalist spill-over in the North, 2) Expose regular North Koreans (the workers in the area) to regular South Koreans (the managers and staff), and 3) Generally provide some inter-Korean cooperation that might hopefully reduce larger tensions. A resort area in North Korea (Mt. Kumgang) was also opened along these lines in the Sunshine period. Broadly the idea was along the lines of liberal explanations for the Soviet Union’s changes in the 1980s: the Helsinki Accords and CSCE opened the USSR to the outside world, and the inflowing liberalism slowly changed attitudes that eventually helped wind-down the Cold War. Unfortunately, none of this seems to working in the NK case.
I think my toaster has more computing power than that guidance system…
A few days ago, I predicted there would be no war, probably because I’m lazy and predicting the future will be the same as the present is an easy way to protect my credibility. But I got some criticism that I was a dippy academic who doesn’t see how dangerous the situation really is. And if I am wrong, I won’t be around to see it anyway; I’ll be swimming for Japan. So here is the most likely escalation pathway I can see, despite my firm conviction the North Koreans do not want a war, because they will lose badly and quickly, and then face the hangman in Southern prisons.
I know what you’re thinking, I’m being a show-off area specialist, Asian language names can be hard for anglophones (and vice versa), and who cares about KIS anyway, because this crisis is about Kim Jong Un? All of that is true of course, especially the first one, but come on…
Richardson isn’t just any old hack like me on North Korea. (Here’s my take on the crisis.) He has been a regular point man for the US on NK for more than a decade and markets himself as such on the talk-shows. And if you study NK in even the most basic way (here’s a good place to start), you know who KIS is. He’s everywhere. He founded the state in 1948 and ruled it until 1994 as his own personal fiefdom. The whole country is built around his personality cult. The regime even started calling its ideology ‘Kimilsungism,’ giving up the fictions of Marxism, communism, etc. KJU has called NK ‘KIS country’ and explicitly models himself after KIS in his clothing, hairstyle, and girth. Statues of KIS are everywhere, and Richardson has been there apparently eight times. I went there just once, and I’ve got my propaganda down pat about the Great Korean Leader, Comrade KIS’ heroic construction of socialism in our style under the revolutionary guidance of the Korean People's Army defending the peasant and workers against the bourgeois imperialist Yankee Colony..… (I could keep going like that for a few more sentences if you like).
My own thinking on the current Korea flap is on The Diplomat. I argue it’s a faux crisis, which promptly got me accused of being an air-head academic in the comment section. Lovely. I was also pleased to respond to Kim Jong Un’s threat that I should leave the country. And I managed not to explode laughing when a reporter asked me point blank on live TV if Kim Jong Un was ‘just bonkers.’ Was itching to say yes to that one actually. Good times… Never waste a missile crisis, right?
Anyway, here’s David Kang suggesting the cable and satellite news services are overhyping this thing, a point I argue in the Diplomat as well. Regular readers will know that Dave is my good friend and a far better Korea/Asia hand than I’ll ever be. A professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California and director of its Korean Studies Institute, I’d certainly recommend his work. Here and here are his previous guest posts. REK
The Non-Crisis on the Korean Peninsula
In a poll released by Dong-A Daily last week, 4.5 percent of South Koreans think North Korea means to start a war. In contrast, a CNN poll reveals that 51 percent of Americans think the latest round of name-calling will only end in war, and 41 percent think North Korea is an “immediate threat” to the U.S. So – either South Koreans are incredibly naïve, or Americans over-reacting. Hmmm…I wonder which it is.
Studying North Korea inevitably means people ask me pretty outlandish stuff. People have asked, if the North really believes long hair is bad for socialism, if that goiter on Kim Il Sung’s neck made him crazy, if Kim Jong Il’s platform shoes meant that he liked disco, and if North Korean women are good looking because a food shortage would mean everyone is slim. (I presume that last one is a reaction to the obesity epidemic in the US.) So I tried to avoid this latest outbreak of Norko bizarreness with Rodman. But people keep asking me, so here a few thoughts to the effect that no one should shill for North Korea - ever.
Call it yet another chapter in the history of clueless foreigners getting lost in and manipulated by North Korea – Lenin’s ‘useful idiots’ from the West who defended the Soviet experiment. Who knows what to make of that utterly weird photograph of Rodman in bling and Kim Jong Un dressed like Mao. There are so many contradictions in there, it’s not even worth unpacking.
Here are part one and part two of this post. I spoke last Tuesday at a USC-CSIS conference on Korean unification. I learned a lot, and it was very good. If you’re interested in unification, start here with the primary report on which the conference was based. The principal investigators said a final wrap-up report will come at some point, and I’ll put up that link when it arrives.
My comments below are on the papers presented on Tuesday about neighboring states’ reactions to Korean unification. These papers aren’t publicly posted yet, so all the comments might not make sense. But in the interest of completism, I’m putting this up to round out my thinking on this excellent unification project. (For my earlier thoughts on dealing with NK, try this; for my travelogue of my trip to the DPRK, try this.)
My big beef with these sorts of conferences on NK – I go to a lot - is that inevitably outsiders, especially Chinese scholars, start laying down all sorts of guidelines, restrictions, parameters, etc. for unification, as if it’s our right to muck around in this thing. I can understand the national interest in doing so. But we shouldn’t have the temerity to try to legitimate our muddying of the waters in what is really an internal family affair. It would also help a lot if the Chinese would stop talking (not so much at this conference, but definitely at others I’ve gone to) about how Korea needs to respect its wishes, because China is big and important now, post-2008 Olympics. I heard one guy once even say that China is now the ‘veto-player’ on unification. That’s true of course in realist sense, but that sorta cockiness infuriates Koreans who’ve really soured on China in the last decade. I see the same kind of emergent Chinese bullying on unification that Southeast Asian littoral states see on the South China Sea. So I try to call that out whenever it seems necessary.
Anyway, here on my thoughts on Japan, Russia, and China’s role in this thing.
Here is part one of this post. The following will make more sense if you start there. I noted that I am participating, today in Seoul (attend if you can), in a USC-CSIS project on Korean unification. This is the final ‘phase’ of their Korea Project on unification.
I thought I would post my thoughts on the previous USC-CSIS Korea report (available here) which provided all sorts of suggestions for reconstruction. It’s useful reading if your area is East Asia or Korea, but I actually disagree with a fair number of the analogies of NK to Iraq and Afghanistan. I think Germany is a better model for what will happen, and I think a ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement like in greater China is nearly impossible given the extraordinary deep ideological divide, which is also existentially necessary for NK to demonstrate why it must be a separate, poorer Korean state. So it’s either implosion or stalemate.
Anyway, the rest of my thoughts are after the jump. Having read the CSIS report is not a prerequisite to understanding my arguments, but it would help.
The University of Southern California Korean Studies Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies are running a joint Korea Project: Planning for the Long Term (pic to the left). CSIS will hold the last of three conferences in this project at the Asan Institute on January 21st next week. If you are in Seoul, you should go. The agenda looks pretty good. (Contact the Asan Institute.) I’d like to thank USC and CSIS for soliciting my participation..
The January 21 conference is actually the last meeting of the Project. The first meeting asked Korea area experts to look at unification; the second meeting asked functional experts to do the same. This upcoming third meeting will look at regional impacts from unification. I will comment on papers from Russia and Japan. I will put up my thoughts on those papers after the Phase III conference, but for now, I thought I would post my comments on the Phase II conference (by the functional experts).
Basically I argue that Germany is a better model for what will happen here than either the occupations of Iraq or Afghanistan, or LDCs in transition. Also I don’t buy for one second that NK will enter into a meaningful ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement like in greater China. DPRK change meaningful enough to permit a federation would be so far-reaching, that it would inevitably raise the question why the DPRK exists at all. Ideological change is an existential threat to the regime: why be a poorer version of SK if you’re in a federation with SK? why not just join up? This is the logic that undid the GDR. So it’s either implosion or stalemate IMO.
So North Korea has issued a "Gangnam Style" video to mock a South Korean presidential candidate, Park Guen Hye, from the ruling conservative party. According
I know what you’re thinking – how many more d--- pictures of this guy and Kim Il Sung (left, KJI right) do I have to
This is my final post about NK; here is one, two, and three. The post title comes from a remark a local guide made to
There is KJI in the middle – he was even born in uniform Actually, he was probably born in the USSR during the war. Here are parts
I have 50+ similar pictures of me standing with KIS murals, statues, busts...I went to NK this summer. In my first post, I noted how
My North Korean VisaIn August, I visited North Korea for the first time. It was the most unique travelling experience I’ve ever had. I’d certainly
I am happy to guest post my friend Dave Kang of the University of Southern California. I think Dave’s work on east Asia and IR