Tag: South Korea (page 2 of 2)

Multicultural Panic Comes to Korea

This recently ran on Korea’s largest broadcaster in primetime news slots until the outburst controversy grew so loud, it got pulled. Don’t miss the guy in the white shirt and tie behind a desk to lend academic credibility to it all. For some analysis, try here.

Here’s a response video that is very funny.

The World Does its Duty & Conforms to Social Science: More on Korea & Japan

If academia’s taught me anything taught me, it’s that the real world is flawed, not theory, and that facts should change for me, not the other way around. As Marxists would say, ‘future is certain; it’s the past that keeps changing,’ and Orwell famously quipped that academics would love to get their hands on the lash to force the world fit theory. (I guess Heinlein agreed; check the vid.) So I am pleased to say that the world meet its obligations to abstraction this week a little: Japan and Korea edged a little closer toward a defense agreement (here and here). A little more of this, and I can safely ignore – whoops, I mean  ‘bracket’ – any real case knowledge…

Last week I argued that Korea and Japan seem like they’d be allies according to IR theory, but weren’t. I wrote, “Koreans stubbornly refuse to do what social science tells them;” obviously they don’t realize that abstraction overrules their sovereignty. I thought this was fairly puzzling, but I got an earful from the Korea/Asia studies crowd about how I was living in the clouds of theory. I also learned that area studies folks don’t really like it when you throw stuff like ‘exogenous’ and ‘epiphenomenal’ at them. Once they figure what ‘nomothetic’ actually means, they think you’re conning them. D’oh!

So for those of you argued I didn’t know anything about Korea or Japan (a fair point) but was just blathering on about theory that had no necessary time-space application to this case, I thought I’d put up this bit from Starship Troopers. It’s hysterical – when PhDs rule the world, apparently the military has to step in to prevent us from running it over a cliff. Didn’t Buckley once say he’d rather the first 2000 names of the Boston phone book run the US government than the faculty of Harvard?

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

Why don’t Korea and Japan Align, even though IR says they should?


For awhile I was collecting links and such to make an argument about Korea and Japan working together on big issues like China and NK, or finally clinching the much-discussed but little worked-on FTA. Both the realist and the liberal in me wanted to see two liberal democracies working together in a tough environment with similar structural threats. Initially I had written: “This may be the biggest news of the year if it actualizes: Japan is apparently considering real defense cooperation with SK. If you follow East Asian security, this is a revolution. Try here, here and here.” But this is sorta cheating on social science, right? Looking around for any scrap of data to support an outcome we like, even though it isn’t really happening?

Well, I give up. Instead of more normative, but ultimately speculative, essays on why East Asian states should align, found an Asian Union or Community, build a local alternate to the IMF, forge a common currency, take ASEM seriously, etc., I think we should start asking why Asian states cooperate so badly. (My short answer: they’re too nationalist.)

My students bring integration up all the time. Until the euro crisis got really bad, students used to tell me all the time that Asia needs an EU or coordination against the (much-loathed) IMF. And I’ve read lots of term-papers on this. But the more I look at the most important Asian IO, ASEAN, the more it just doesn’t impress me no matter how much hype it gets (which is a lot out here at the conferences and in business advertising in the media). ASEAN is around 60% of the age of the EU and has done maybe 20% of the integration/cooperation the EU has. I argued in ISR a few years ago that lots of IOs aren’t actually about integration at all, but rather the joint self-defense of weak and/or authoritarian elites (OAU, GCC, SCO). But that still doesn’t explain why Korea and Japan are so distant. And now for an r&r, I’m revisiting Walt’s Origins of Alliances. Balance of threat feels pretty persuasive too, but I think it would struggle with the Korea-Japan case, as would the democratic peace.

So if I had the time, I would write this up as a real journal submission. This case creates trouble for both standard realist and liberal arguments that have underlain my own personal (as well as USPACOM’s) enthusiasm for this alliance-that-refuses-to-be for awhile. I flagged this earlier as a good non-western puzzle for IR that doesn’t really get the attention it deserves, because we don’t know Asian cases very well (Kang is very important on this, IMO). Walt and Doyle tell me this alliance should happen, but Koreans stubbornly refuse to do what social science tells them to. (Cue your orwellian fantasy of intellectuals with their hands on the whip at last to force the world to fit theory.) When I mention idea this at conferences or to my students, I get lots of blasé disinterest.
In short, all three big paradigms of IR broadly seem to suggest that Korea and Japan should be much closer than they are. But Korea just won’t do it, and my sense is the Japanese don’t really want to either. Here’s the basic theoretical run down as I see it:

1. Realism: Korea and Japan face a very similar structural environment. They are geographically in basically the same place facing the same regional security complex. So if states balance power (Waltz), wouldn’t Japan and Korea be cooperating to hedge China, and mildly cooperating to more balance NK? If states balance threats, especially proximate ones with offensive power (Walt), shouldn’t Korea and Japan be pretty publicly aligning against freaky, unpredictable NK, and mildly cooperating to hedge China? But they really aren’t doing any of those things. Sure, they’re on the same side of the table in the NK talks, but there’s no real coordination. Diplomatically, Korea can barely talk to Japan, and Koreans can be downright japanophic if you get them going on Japan’s colonial history here. The Liancourt Rocks and the history issues constantly interrupt. As everyone knows, the US relationship with them is ‘hub-and-spoke’ bilateral rather than NATO-style multilateral. The US would love for them to cooperate, but they don’t. It’s more like Schweller’s ‘underbalancing’ than Walt’s balance of threat, even though Walt should fit here pretty well, no?

2. Liberalism: Shouldn’t two liberal democracies be friends, if not allies? The democratic peace, security community, and other liberal theory broadly tells me that Korea and Japan should be closer than they are. I guess one could say that the democratic peace explains why they don’t fight even though they don’t like each other much. That might actually be a pretty good finding: two otherwise hostile states are able to channel their disputes through conflict-dampening democratic transgovernmentalism. (But even that might be spurious, as one argue that it is the mutual US senior alliance partner that tamps down the conflict, as many would argue is the case between Greece and Turkey too.)

But the more norm-based, neocon, or ‘strong’ versions of the democratic peace anticipate a sense of ‘we-ness’ or community among democracies, like in NATO, or less so, the OAS. A few years ago, there was talk about formalizing a ‘community of democracies’ as sorta like a global NATO of liberal states. But I don’t see this here at all. When we think about the US-Canada relationship or EU relations, we see a reasonable amount of warmth that suggests that ‘we-ness,’ shared concern for the other’s well-being, and an unwillingness to exploit the other. I don’t see here. Korea and Japan are more like ‘frenemies’ than liberals in solidarity. Liberalism and democracy – and all the conflict-reducing things that are supposed to flow from that, like student exchanges, tourism, mutual language learning, lots of Track II interchange – don’t seem to be working. Germany and France managed to do this stuff and build a real alliance, as did the EU generally. But Korea and Japan are more like Greece and Turkey.

3. Constructivism/Culture: Shouldn’t culturally similar states find it easier to cooperate, like the US and Canada? In EJIR, I argued that Confucianism played a role in keeping an east Asian peace before the Opium War. The more time I spend in Asia, the more I think Korea, Japan, and China are more culturally similar than they want to admit. (My students bristle at that one a lot.) And if you look at Korea and Japan, they do in fact share a slew of cultural characteristics from the mundane – eating lots of fish with chopsticks – to the profound – long histories of Confucianism, Buddhism, shamanism, monarchy, social hierarchy, ancestor veneration, etc. (NB: This is one of the reasons why Huntington’s clash of civilizations didn’t go down too well in East Asia. Because he couldn’t very well lump China and Japan together for political reasons, Huntington was forced to parse out Japan as radically different based on Shintoism. This wasn’t really convincing.) Brian Myers argues that this cultural similarity is one the reasons why Japan was able to absorb Korea without too much difficulty.

But this doesn’t seem work either. (So maybe Huntington was right after all?) I find Korean students intensely dislike being compared to Japan and hammer away what Freud would almost certainly call the “narcissism of small differences.” If you didn’t know the differences between kiminos and hanboks, just about everyone here is excited to tell you in great detail.

In short, two states that share a lot of cultural characteristics, structural-geographic conditions, threat perceptions, and domestic institutions and values can’t ally and can barely talk to each other. To give a western example, imagine Canada saying the US was a greater threat to it than the USSR. As a rule, I find Koreans worry far more about Japan than China, or even NK (yes, that’s not an exaggeration outside of the foreign policy set), and there is a far amount of paranoia about Japan lurking beneath the surface. I know Japan less well, but Japanese colleagues I know from conferences tell me similar stories about how many Japanese look down on Koreans and secretly think Japanese empire was good for Korea, because it brought modernity.

So what would be a theoretically progressive way to explain this tough case? The actual empirical issues of territory and history that keep them divided are well-known, but it is important to not just tack them on as a transparent ad hocery, like ‘balance of threat only works when partners haven’t conquered each other in the last 50 years.’ I find this a tough one.

So if you’re a grad student, here’s a paper idea.

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.

Why N Korea Gets Away with its Stunts: a Response to Jennifer Lind

NKl trajectory
Jennifer Lind has a good piece up on Foreign Affairs this week on why NK seems to regularly get away with with hijinks like last week’s rocket test (which directly contravenes UN Resolution 1874). She notes, correctly, that NK has been pulling unanswered, wild stunts like this for years – shootouts in the Yellow Sea, nuclear tests, kidnappings, etc. Further, the US particularly tends to hit back when hit. Indeed, looking at the GWoT, America’s problem is over-reaction rather than passivity. If we look at the Israelis, it’s similar. They have a well-established reputation of hitting back, hard, when provoked. So why don’t the democracies of the Six Party Talks (Korea, Japan, US) do the same here? They easily out weigh NK.

Her argument is that NK manages to deter counter-strikes through a bizarre mixture of the ‘madman theory’ (what will the loopy, hard-drinking, megalomaniacal Kim family do next? so let’s just not provoke them), regional fear of what would follow a NK implosion (après moi le déluge), and traditional nuclear deterrence (if Saddam and Gaddafi had nukes, they’d still be alive, so we’ll never give them up!).

None of that is wrong, but I think she’s missing the big factor – SK domestic politics. Lots of countries and other international actors do wacky, crazy stuff; the question is whether the target wants to counterstrike and risk escalation. So it is SK ultimately (not the US or Japan) that decides whether or not to hit back. And SK doesn’t want to, because 1) South Korean population centers are extremely vulnerable to Northern aggression, and 2) South Koreans just don’t care that much about NK anymore.

I’ve written a lot before on the issue of SK’s extreme vulnerability and how this ties the Korean military’s hands (here is the full write-up, also here; this, picked up on Lawyers, Guns, and Money, is a long discussion thread of my argument). 50% of South Korea’s population lives northwestern SK, in the extremely dense Seoul-Kyeonggi-Incheon corridor. The southern most tip of this massive agglomeration is less than 70 miles from the DMZ. The extreme demographic concentration of the Seoul area is worsening too. Busan, the second city, where I live, is shrinking, even though we are a paltry 3.5 milllion, and Incheon, the site of a super-fancy new airport, is growing. This corridor is huge, proximate, defenseless city-hostage to the North. NK does not need nuclear weapons to jeopardize these inhabitants, which is why I remain skeptical of the hawk/neocon line that NK’s nukes change the balance in big way. (Lind herself has a made a similar point.)

I have brought this point up again and again at conferences here, and I have gotten no real response. Does it make any sense to hyper-centralize a country in a direct competition with a dangerous neighbor and place the grossly overpopulated national capital just 40 miles from the border? Who thought that would be a good idea? Look at what the West Germans did. But decentralization never happens because of the cost and resistance of Seoul-based elites who like the convenience.

Remember how Cold War planners used to say that the US had an advantage over the USSR, because its many federal layers of government and widely dispersed population meant it could absorb a Soviet strike better? By contrast, because the Soviets centralized everything in Moscow, they were very vulnerable to a decapitation strike. The logic is the same here. The ROK is extremely centralized (a legacy of the Park Chung Hee dictatorship), not just politically, but in just about every way – culturally, economically, demographically. And it’s all but impossible to shield these people from a NK rocket and artillery bombardment (even non-nuclear). That Korean urbanites live in towering apartment blocks vulnerable to World Trade Center-style collapse if bombarded only worsens the vulnerability. This dramatically ties the hands of the SK government. Even if none of Lind’s three variables applied, this huge risk alone is enough to prevent SK escalation/response (as is likely the case in the foregone retaliation after the Yeonpyeong incident in 2010).

Next, Lind does not address the growing disinterest in SK for retaliation, or even otherwise engaging NK. Several Korea-based western analysts (me, Brian Myers, Brendan Howe) have made this point. In a post-Yeonpyeong analysis for the Korean National Defense University, I argued that the most likely way to end the Korean stalemate is get greater South Korean commitment to ‘win’ rather than simply manage-when-necessary-and-ignore-when-possible, today’s current ‘strategy.’ And at the Korean Institute for Defense Analysis last year, I argued for a significant effort to ‘harden’ South Korea to withstand this competition. When Brendan and I suggested raising SK defense spending, which is a paltry 2.3% of GDP, the room roundly said it’s politically impossible.

In IR lingo, SK is not really a revisionist anymore; it is a status quo power. De jure, (i.e., in its constitution), the ROK is committed to unity, but as anyone who’s lived here for just a little while can tell you, most South Koreans are genuinely frightened of NK’s collapse – not of NK, mind you, but of its collapse: the huge amount of money it will cost, the massive, generations-spanning reconstruction it will require, internal ‘refugees’ from the north decamping in southern cities, loss of the hard-won OECD lifestyle in the name of national sacrifice, etc. South Koreans would much rather buy iPhones, travel, study in the West, move to Seoul, and get a cool job with Samsung.

I see this in my students all the time. We talk about reunification in class a lot naturally. It’s an unnerving abstraction to them; they certainly don’t get fired up about it. I have never seen a Korean get passionate, angry, or intensely patriotic about unification, even though they are a very nationalistic as a people. In my experience, South Koreans get more angry and emotional over the Liancourt Rocks dispute with Japanor or the Dongbei/Mt. Baektu flap with China than over NK . Just look at the lack of interest and care shown to North Koreans who make it here (a terrible moral failing, IMO). Or, I’ve had students tell me that my discussion of the 1990s famine in NK that killed maybe half a million people was just American propaganda I picked up from the US military in Korea.

If you’re wondering if this really strange, yes, it is. North Korea has probably the worst long-term human rights record of any country in the world, yet South Koreans don’t want to talk about it. I guess a parallel is Germans under 40 years old by the mid-1980s. They too increasingly saw the inter-German border as a real border, not a temporary division. Divide a community long enough, and I guess it slowly becomes two. That’s not too surprising. It’s rather uncomfortable that outsiders, usually Americans, are the ones who seem to push the NK issue and worry about NK human rights and nutrition. I am continuously mystified and moral discomforted that NK doesn’t dominate SK politics.

But that’s how it is. And if we believe in democracy and self-determination, we have to respect Southern public opinion. We can’t get in front our own ally who will carry most of the costs if there’s a war or collapse. When I came to SK I shared the typical American hawk/neocon thinking regarding NK – on the axis of evil, the worst country on earth, run by power-mad lunatics, deserved to get punched in the face at the earliest opportunity, etc. All of that is still true of course, but the longer I live here, the more I have moderated on what that means for policy. South Koreans really don’t want a war or escalation, no matter how many times western IR and think-tank types tell them that NK is dangerous, erratic, terrifying, etc. (I’ve seen this so debate so many times here); they don’t want to risk much for regime change; they don’t want to ally with democratic Japan against communist NK and China, regardless of what structural realism and democratic peace liberalism say; SK is very vulnerable and neocon-John Boltonism looks reckless and scary to them; most don’t really believe in their hearts that their ethnic compatriots to the north will nuke them. Yes, there are demonstrations sometimes against NK, but look closely and you’ll notice that most of the demonstrations are small and the participants elderly. Washington may not like this (I don’t either), and it may feel morally uncomfortable, in that it effectively abandons North Koreans to the brutal status quo, but this is where Southern public opinion is.

So South Koreans seem increasingly comfortable letting NK go its own, bizarre way. I think this is why the conservative, anti-communist press here comes off so unhinged; they’re terrified that South Korea is effectively a status quo power now (which is true). President Lee’s post-Sunshine Policy return to confrontation is very unpopular here (even though lots of western analysts I meet here [me included] think it was a good idea to give it up). Even the conservatives in this year’s elections here are running as doves now. Lots of Koreas thought that the 2010 Cheonan sinking was a plot by the government or the even Americans, or that it illustrated the incompetence of the Lee administration; there was no post-9/11-style national outburst against NK. And a similar shrug greeted the 2010 Yeonpyeong shelling; there was no nation-wide outburst for war or even counterstrikes comparable to how, say, Americans would have responded to such an attack.  In the parliamentary elections that just concluded, NK wasn’t an issue, even though the rocket launch preparation was making global news during the campaign.

I don’t think I would call this appeasement of Lind’s ‘madman.’ That would imply a level of interest, if only to duck or hide from the North, that isn’t there. Appeasement would also suggest that SK would eventually spend more on defense so that it would have more choices against the madman next time. But as Brendan noted, SK isn’t doing any of this. The military is shrinking, the defense budget is astonishingly, irresponsibly low, and there’s no effort to generate force totals with the requisite skills even close to what Lind says is needed to pacify a unified Korea. And that’s because a unified Korea isn’t really on the public radar.

To my mind, the real reason SK doesn’t respond is simple disinterest; they don’t want to make the sacrifices and run the risks.  K-pop, climbing the social ladder, learning English, moving ‘up to Seoul,’ reducing the Gini-coefficient, going to school in the US, playing golf, Yuna Kim, the scandals of the Lee administration, etc. are far more common topics of conversation with my students, family, and colleagues. I am the one who brings up NK, and the answers just aren’t that passionate.

More than anything else, South Koreans just want NK to go away. The most scary implication of this is that if NK can hang on a few more decades, the South won’t even want unity.

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.

All Politics is Local, Korean style


Because I work for a public university, I am a national civil servant. So it was inappropriate for me to comment on my site about the recent Korean parliamentary election. But now that it’s over (here are the results), I thought it would be fun, as a political scientist, to share this video of what downhome street politics looks like in my election district in Korea. Here’s a little anthropological, comparative politics participant observation in the field.

This took place about 2 minutes from our apartment, in the middle of a boisterous Korean streetmarket (the woman next to me was chopping the heads off of fish). The candidate’s name is Jin Bok Lee (the incumbent and a conservative); here’s his campaign truck and part-time campaign dance squad. So if you’re wondering what Richard Fenno’s ‘homestyle’ campaigning looks like in Korea, here you go, goofiness and all. Don’t miss the ajeossi on the left side boogying with the dancers. Awesome! Doubtless, this is what Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson had in mind Smile.

In Busan, I live in Dongnae Gu. ‘Dongnae’ is proper name, and ‘Gu’ would roughly translate as ‘precinct,’ but much it’s larger (around 250,000 people I’ve heard). Busan is pretty conservative, a stronghold for the conservative, government Sae Nuri Party (the new, hard-to-translate name of the old Grand National Party). Korean parties change names all the time, and mix and merge so much it’s hard to keep track.

Korea’s voting system for the National Assembly is similar to the German system for the Bundestag. It’s a mix of proportional representation (54 seats) and single-member districts (246). Here’s a quick write-up on the election process. It’s also a very presidentialized semi-presidential system. There is a prime minister, but he’s pretty weak. Turn out on April 11 was 54.3%. The wiki write-up on the results is amazingly thorough just 36 hours after the vote.

Back in the 1990s, I worked for a US representative in the district office. It was campaign season, so inevitably I ‘voluntered’ a lot. I didn’t have to dance in public like these kids, but we did walk in parades, go to church lunches, work the bingo halls, and do all that sort of stuff Fenno talked about in Homestyle. And when Assemblyman Lee spoke, after the dancers, he all but channeled Tip O’Neill’s famous line that ‘all politics is local.’ Here’s him speaking:

Election 008

To my mind, perhaps as an IR guy, the big issues in Korea all revolve around North Korea, where I tend to agree with moderate SNP hawks. But as O’Neill and Fenno would predict, our assemblyman said pretty much nothing about foreign affairs. Instead, it was all about the pork. He told us we’d get more money for schools (pretty much a throw-away line in any democracy I guess), more foreign teachers for direct foreign language instruction (a big issue in Korea, where English proficiency is critical professional skill), and Dongnae would become a transportation hub (even though we are a very dense, totally enclosed section of Busan), complete with another subway station (we just got a big new subway interchange built last year, which is supposedly bringing more people to a big mall in our Gu). The big issues in Korea this year are social-welfarist – things like school lunches for kids and the widening Gini-coefficient. So the SNP has been pivoting left for months. This was definitely not Romney talking about ‘self-reliance’ and ‘job creators.’

Finally, I guess as if to show the conservatives around the world just can’t resist, Lee drew some specious link about how the opposition parties in Korea wouldn’t care if al Qaeda showed up in Seoul. Ah, the ease of Bush-Rove-Palin demagoguery. I guess when Obama was “pallin’ around with terrorists,” Korean left-wingers were setting the meets in Seoul. Actually Korea’s conservatives are a lot more balanced and centrist than the GOP, so I was rather disappointed with that remark. Some Korean conservatives have used Christianity as a wedge issue, which has provoked tension with Buddhist community. And NK can always bring out over-the-top anti-communist cold-war rhetoric from the right-wing media here. But the kind of nastiness the Tea Party has brought to American discourse (cheering for the death penalty and such) is pretty uncommon here. I once remember even hearing a sitting congressman on the campaign trail in the US call CNN the ‘Communist News Network’ directly to a group of reporters. To its great credit, the Korean right doesn’t usually talk that way.

It turns out Lee was reelected. The pre-election consensus our Gu seemed to be that he was good, even if even else in the NA is corrupt, which sounds pretty much like the well-established finding in American politics that Americans loathe Congress as a body, but like their own guy.

It is also worth noting that there was almost no one under 40 among the listeners at that street event. That was immediately obvious. That reminded me of those arguments in the US that because the elderly vote and pay attention so much to politics, their preferred issues like Social Security and Medicare are untouchable. Korea is aging rapidly, and I imagine the effects will be similar.

Next, if your wondering about the truck, they are common here, which surprised me. It reminds me of those political trucks driving around in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and that’s how they do it. The truck pulls up to an intersection. The dancers and music start up, and then the candidate starts bellowing into the mic. That really struck me, because in the US, when I worked for Congress, it was all about TV. Hitting the streets was a worth a few points in the polls maybe, but it was difficult and boring and time-consuming. (Our candidate hated it.) The real focus was dialing for dollars and then big ad buys on TV. Thankfully, Korea is not like that, at least in the legislative races. Korea is far more dense than the US, so there are only a few major TV markets for a huge number of districts. My colleagues tell me it would therefore be astronomically expensive for National Assembly candidates to go on TV. But this fall is the presidential race, which should be played out heavily on TV in the American sense.

Finally the number “1” on Assemblyman Lee’s truck means his party is the first list on the PR portion of the ballot. List 1 is the conservative bloc; list 2 is the social democratic or liberal bloc (the Democratic United Party).

Random factoid: Door-to-door campaigning is illegal in Korea, in order to prevent direct vote buying. The average constituency in Korea is 200,000 voters, less than one-third of a US House seat. But I still find it hard to imagine that so many people could get bribed.

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.

China’s Counter to the Asian ‘Pivot’ (1): Korea, India

So the US is supposedly going to pivot to Asia and start worrying more about China. This makes sense (which is probably why we won’t do it). The Middle East has become a pretty terrible sinkhole of American power. Increasingly the verdict on the war on terrorism is negative, and we should probably retrench from the Middle East (but we won’t because of the religious right’s interest in the region). Mearsheimer argued that if it weren’t for 9/11 we probably would have focused on China a lot earlier. Kaplan sketched how the US would defeat China in a war. I argued a few years ago, at the height of the ‘China-has-changed-into-a-scary-revisionist’ hype of 2009-11, that containment of China was likely (maybe even desirable Sad smile). And clearly China’s behavior over the last few years has raised the likelihood of at least soft containment; even the Vietnamese and the Filipinos are asking for US agreements now.

But I don’t see much Western discussion of how China would/should respond. So in the tradition of those old CIA A team/B team exercises, here are five ideas for how China should/could respond to its incipient encirclement:

1. Pull Korea into its orbit by dumping NK and supporting finlandized unity.

This is such a no-brainer. China’s big regional political problem is that no one really trusts it. So its allies are lame – NK and Myanmar, and even the latter is drifting now. The best way to head off the encirclement that hammered both the Germans and the Soviets in the 20th C is to break the ring with some decent allies, and nasty, dependent dictatorships are not enough. SK is a pretty central link in any containment ring around China, but one where China has a lot of leverage.

Before the 20th C, Korea was Confucian China’s closest ally/subordinate for a millennium. Korean culture is very close to China (even if modern nationalist Koreans don’t want to admit it): the language is shot through with Sinic roots, the philosophy of Confucianism comes from China, social traditions are similar (food, dress, etc.). Koreans will not tell you that China is a big enemy of Korea, no matter how many Japanese and US scholars, pundits, etc. say it is. I see this in class and at conferences all the time. Structural realism and liberalism both say that Japan and Korea should ally against China and NK. Nope! The average Korean just won’t buy that no matter how many times you repeat your IR logic. Instead, he thinks that Japan, and even the US, is a greater threat to Korea than China. Dokdo activates Koreans a lot more than China’s growth.
Also Korea has a long tradition of anti-Americanism too. Yes, they are a good ally to the US, but mostly because they need us a lot more than most US allies, not because they really like us that much. Lots of Koreans that I meet think that the US is heavily responsible for the division of the country, bullies SK leaders, forces unfair trade deals on the country, sends pot-smoking English teacher to prey on their young girls, etc. All this may or may not be true – hold that thought – but consider what an opening this gives China.

Finally, Koreans really want unity, and China is probably best placed to give it to them (more so than the US actually). I have written about this a lot before, but if we accept that NK is all but dependent on China now, then China could basically force a deal in which Korea got unity on southern terms, but only if US Forces in Korea left. Yes, lots of Chinese see NK as a buffer between the robust democracies of Japan, SK, and the US. But NK is a losing horse. Someday it will crash and burn, and how much does it really help China now anyway? Its elites are so unpredictable than the CCP must always be wondering wth they will do this week. A Chinese-backed finlandized unification would electrify the region, neutralize a major link in the ring, isolate Japan, and confuse the US (would the US oppose unity to keep troops in Korea and Japan?).

2. Keep flattering India.

India and China will never be too close (barring a democratic revolution in China). Their long border and history of tension makes the relationship tough. But China would at least benefit if India did not throw in its lot completely with the US camp in Asia. In 2010, I predicted that India would have US bases within the decade because of the almost tailor-made fit between India and the US. That is, both India and the US share both values (liberal democracy) and security concerns (salafism and China). No other major US ally has that nice contiguity (see the chart below). But a tight Indo-US link would be clearly worsen China’s position, complementing the current tight US-Japan link and providing an obvious anchor on the other side to a ring running from Japan through Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, and India. That really would be encirclement along the lines of what happened to Germany before 1914.  But India isn’t really following this script. They’re hedging the US somewhat, and the evolution of the responsibility to protect into triumphalist western regime chagne in Libya looks to New Dehli like neocolonialism all over again. There’s an ‘BRICS solidarity’ opening for China here. Given the India is still pretty soft on American option, a charm offensive, however humbling, would be wise.

Great Britain/NATO
Japan/East Asia

Part two will come in 3 days.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

Seoul 2012 Nuclear Security Summit

This week is the big nuclear security summit in Seoul, with something like 60 attending countries and over 40 heads of state or government. A friend from a Korean expat magazine here in town asked me for a brief write-up. Here are the issues as I see them from Korean IR and the local media. For full-blown think-tankery on the summit, try here.

1. Obama’s personal commitment to de-nuclearization: I can’t think of any president since Reagan who seems as personally offended by nuclear weapons as Obama. Back in the day, Reagan watched ‘The Day After,’ ‘Wargames’ and other nuclear war movies and came to dramatically oppose mutually assured destruction as it had underpinned US policy since flexible response. This helped Reagan achieve the first nuclear stockpile  reduction in history (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – a point anti-New Start neocons conveniently forget). But Obama is going beyond that, talking about ‘global zero’ – the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere. Wow. This is why there have been two of these summits in three years, but nothing like this under Bush. To be honest, I don’t think the complete elimination of the American nuclear deterrent is probably not a good idea (although we can go pretty low); nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of US sovereignty and democracy, and many US allies, like SK, rely on our extended deterrence. In any case, Obama’s personal interest in this issue is a major driver for this thing.

2. NK, always and again: It takes absolutely no imagination to realize that NK is, inevitably, the big focus on these sorts of gatherings. The placement of the summit in SK is to make that pretty clear. NK is easily the most dangerous nuclear-weapons state in the world. (Even Israel’s most dire opponents would probably accept that; well, ok, maybe they wouldn’t.)  Not only is its policy process incredibly opaque and its leadership capricious, NK has no declaratory policy on use (such as NATO’s ‘no first-strike, but reserved first-use’). So we have no idea what NK’s redlines are (which is probably one reason why no further retaliation for Yeonpyeong was approved). Beyond that, NK is a well-established proliferator with known involvement in the programs of Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. To boot, it is a delivery system (i.e., missile) proliferator too. They’re so desperate for cash, it seems like they’ll sell anything. With Kim Jong Il deceased, a new push to move NK toward denuclearization is likely, and this summit is part of the pressure to get NK back into the Six Party Talks to deal for real this time. Similarly, it is likely that the Summit will strengthen the Proliferation Security Initiative, which is also aimed primarily at NK. (On the problem of retaliation and the risk of out-of-control escalation in Korea after Yeonpyeong-style incidents, try here; on nuclear first-use in a Korean war scenario, try here.)

3. Heading off a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East: To everyone’s relief, India and (less so) Pakistan are managing their nuclear stockpiles pretty well. There will be little pressure on South Asia. The US interest in nuclear materials safety within Pakistan probably won’t be mentioned publicly, because we so desperately need Pakistani cooperation in the war on terror. Instead, the geographic focus, after NK, is almost certain to be Iran, and possible cascading Sunni nuclearization (Saudi Arabia and Egypt particularly) if Iran weaponizes. As Obama noted at AIPAC, there is a lot of ‘loose talk’ floating around about war with Iran. So this summit will probably be yet another venue for the administration to blunt the Likud-neocon demand for airstrikes. If Obama can get some global commitment, particularly from Asian states like Japan and Korea, for sanctions against Iran, that buys him time to defuse the war he’s partially backed himself into.

4. Materials Security: In the early post-9/11 years, there was a lot of talk at the conferences about the so-called ‘hand-off’ – a rogue state would hand-off a nuke to a Qaeda-style group who would then use it in a western city. This threat thankfully seems to have been overblown, but there’s a lot of nuclear material floating around. About 2,000 tons to be precise. That’s actually pretty terrifying if even just one-third of that were in corrupt, semi-dysfunctional states like Russia, NK, and Pakistan. In fact, I gotta agree with Graham Allison that it’s fairly amazing there’s no been nuclear use since the Cold War’s end, given how much processed plutonium and uranium there is in weak Eurasian states and how big the black market for it is now. Inevitably, the conference will emphasize security at the source. It’s obviously far easier to prevent proliferation than to rein it in once material is out the door. This also means more funding and inspection capabilities (also informally pointed at NK) for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

5. Fukushima and Nuclear Power: This isn’t technically a weaponization issue but a production one. And under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, states have the right to pursue nuclear power for energy (weaponization is a different story). But clearly the catastrophe of last year hangs over all this. In East Asia, it’s gotten, lots of press as you might imagine. Ironically, nuclear power is fairly safe, but the public has taken an especial fear to it. (My guess is that this fear comes from too many scary images in movies and TV and because if nuclear plants do meltdown, the potential catastrophe is enormous and unusually unpredictable because of the fallout). So there will be long-term commitments to find alternative energy sources.

Bonus Silliness: Finally, it wouldn’t be a global conference of consequence in Korea without some cringe-inducing, gratuitously inappropriate K-pop addendum to trivialize it all. Really, who vets this stuff? ‘Enjoy’ that uber-cheese vid above if you can actually make it through to the end. I sure wish the ROKG would stop looking at these sorts of conferences as a marketing gimmick for Korea (don’t miss the daily countdown marker in the top left corner of all Arirang broadcasts now and the relentless advertising blitz) and stay focused on the weighty issues at hand. Just as CNN International blew its credibility by re-cycling Demi Moore (?), complete with drug problems, as a wholly unconvincing ‘anti-slavery campaigner,’ I can think of no better way to drain the gravity of nuclear disarmament than to pointlessly shoehorn in a Korean soap opera actress and boyband with orange hair. Good grief – who thought that would raise the level of discussion? Just a few more rads of gamma rays, boyo, and that hair really will be orange. God save us from Hallyu shallowness…

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog and Busan Haps.

DPRK’s attention-deficit disorder (updated)

Pyongyang’s “pay attention to me! right! now!” routines seem calculated to convince the United States, South Korea, and Japan of one thing: that military force is the only effective long-term solution to North Korean intransigence. Which means, naturally enough, that Pyongyang’s recent rounds of “WTF” are most likely driven entirely by domestic DPRK politics.

World history is flush with with examples of more prosperous states repeatedly buying off uncouth and belligerent barbarians. But one has to wonder how far Pyongyang can push the South Koreans. Will there come a point when Seoul decides to risk war rather than see the DPRK’s retrograde regime become even more awash in “Sampson Option” capabilities? I assume that the South Korean policy toward North Korea is rooted in a belief that, if Seoul waits long enough, the regime will implode. But what if that calculation changes?

What makes this interesting (and dangerous), is that ROK forces–even without U.S. help–are more than a match for anything that the North Koreans can field. This means that the South Korean leadership has any number of plausible military options; if the South Koreans begin to significantly alter their assessment of current trends, these military options will likely appear increasingly attractive.

Still, none of this suggests an alteration in the basic factors that restrain Seoul:

  • Before they collapse, North Korean forces will kill a lot of South Koreans and do a lot of damage to South Korea’s economy;
  • The United States has no appetite for taking part in an additional large-scale military conflict;
  • Uncertainty surrounding Beijing’s likely actions in the event of a conflict; and
  • The significant challenges that would come from assuming control of North Korean territory if the conflict leads to ROK victory in a full-blown war. 

These four factors–two of which aren’t particularly manipulable–make significant escalation unlikely. But with the developments of the last two days, I’m less sanguine than I was even after the sinking of the Cheonan–especially about the long-term prospects for a peaceful Korean peninsula.

UPDATE: that there’s some serious brinksmanship.

South Korea warned today that it will unleash “enormous retaliation” if North Korea launches fresh attacks against its territory.

North Korean troops bombarded Yeonpyeong, an island in disputed waters, with dozens of rounds of artillery earlier today, reportedly killing two South Korean soldiers and injuring around 20 people.

Seoul placed its military on its highest non-wartime alert level, scrambling F-16 fighter jets to the western sea and returning fire, officials said. It warned that the attack was a violation of the armistice that ended the Korean war in 1953.

The South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, who convened an emergency security meeting shortly after the initial bombardment, said an “indiscriminate attack on civilians” could never be tolerated.

“Enormous retaliation should be made, to the extent that [North Korea] cannot make provocations again,” he said.

While war remains unlikely, audience-cost dynamics can combine with political miscalculations in unexpected, and unpleasant, ways.

Hypocrisy watch

Before departing on vacation, Stephen Walt posted about a rift between South Korea and the United States concerning spent nuclear fuel reprocessing. The U.S. is opposed, primarily because plutonium is a byproduct, while South Korea wants to reprocess waste so as to reduce the volume of nuclear refuse from its large-scale atomic energy program.

To reduce proliferation fears inherently tied to plutonium production, South Korean policy in this area reflects a pledge (and as Walt notes, implicit threat), that “We will never build nuclear weapons as long as the United States keeps its alliance with us.”

After making other interesting points about the dispute, Walt makes an argument that I have often discussed in the past. The U.S. view on nonproliferation is laden with hypocricy:

it’s hard not to be struck by the basic hypocrisy of the U.S. position, which it shares with other existing nuclear powers. Washington has no intention of giving up its own nuclear weapons stockpile or its access to all forms of nuclear technology. The recent New START treaty notwithstanding, U.S. government still believes it needs thousands of nuclear weapons deployed or in reserve, even though the United States has the most powerful conventional military forces on the planet, has no great powers nearby, and faces zero-risk of a hostile invasion. Yet we don’t think a close ally like South Korea should be allowed to reprocess spent fuel, take any other measures that might under some circumstances move them closer to a nuclear capability of their own.

Walt and I agree about what counts as hypocrisy, what about the implications for foreign policy? Walt:

In my view, there’s nothing reprehensible or even surprising about this situation; it merely reminds us that no two states have the same interests and that hypocritical (or more politely, ‘inconsistent’) behavior is common-place in international politics.

Criticial theorists like me are a lot lest sanguine about the meaning of hypocrisy. In fact, critical theorists see it as a basic function of their scholarship to reveal hypocritical policies and arguments in order to foment emancipatory political change. If the illogic undergirding inconsistent positions is revealed and thus undermined, replacement policies and arguments are more likely to reflect something like well-reasoned consensus. At least that’s a central purpose of immanent critique.

As I’ve argued previously, many contemporary neorealists like Walt seem also to prefer a world with less hypocrisy. The short blog post about the U.S.-South Korea dispute is no exception:

But the U.S. ability to persuade others not to flirt with their own nuclear capabilities might be a lot stronger if we didn’t place so much value on them ourselves.

Read differently: if the U.S. was less hypocritical, its policies would be more effective.

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