Robert Kelly

Associate Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy, Pusan National University, Korea Home Website: Twitter: @Robert_E_Kelly

Some Thoughts on the Korean Election: Left Blew a Good Chance to Win

Election pics 008

This pic is from the TV election coverage on the Korean version of CNN. That would be the two main candidates (the liberal Moon Jae-In on the left, and conservative Park Geun-Hye, who won, on the right) as dancing electronic cartoon avatars. Yes, they do look like boogying Nintendo Miis, and yes, they are the most bizarre, hysterical election graphics I have ever seen. Who says political science is boring?

So Foreign Affairs solicited me for a ‘snapshot’ essay on the Korean election. Here is the link, but I also thought it might be useful to post my first draft which is fuller:

“South Korea’s next presidential election will occur on December 19. The main candidates are Park Geun-Hye of the conservative New Frontier (Sae Nuri) party and Moon Jae-In of the liberal Democratic United Party (DUP). A third, unaffiliated liberal candidate, Ahn Chul-Soo, dropped out in late November. Ahn had no clear party identification, which was part of his attraction, although he was broadly center-left. A former hi-tech entrepreneur and professor, he was popular with the young who feel alienated by the closed, oligarchic character of Korean politics and for much of the year, he outpolled Moon. Because he and Moon were splitting the anti-Park liberal vote, they tried to merge their campaigns. But Ahn’s hasty, somewhat bitter withdrawal speech implied that old-style, backroom politics by the DUP had pushed him out. Post-withdrawal polls showed Park picked up around one-fifth of Ahn voters, a very strong showing.

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5 Fox News Myths about the Fiscal Cliff – and no more ‘Cliff’ Metaphors either… please! stop!


Does anyone else find Fox News strangely appealing to watch? For some reason I watch it all the time. As ideology that is inadvertently entertaining, interwoven with a veneer of ‘news,’ it’s a freaky, terrifying wonder to behold. It is vastly more interesting – maybe because it’s akin to experiencing an alternate reality –  than it’s-so-bland-what’s-the-point-anymore CNN. Watching Fox is like watching yourself become dumber, all while being shamelessly entertained by gorgeous teleprompter-readers and militant American nationalism. It’s like the news + ‘Call of Duty’ + ‘Baywatch.’

As a news station it is, of course, preposterous. Its presentations are astonishingly partisan. Even after 15 years, I am amazed at what Hannity, O’Reilly, etc. can get away with (try here or here in just the last few weeks). It does very little investigative/reportorial work itself. It generally repackages what other outlets have produced, or presents lengthy ‘Crossfire’-style opinionating, which is not really journalism. And it’s Michael Bay-style presentations, particularly its graphics and swooping necklines, make the news look like an action movie, not like, you know, the news.

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When the Asian Growth Model Starts to Stumble, or how Korea could go like Japan if it’s not careful


Newsweek Japan asked me for an long-form essay on Korea’s economy for its December 5 issue (cover story to the left). Here is the link in Japanese, but I thought it would be useful to publish the original, untranslated version as well. (If you actually want the Japanese language version, email me for it please.)

The essay broadly argues that Korea needs to move beyond ‘developmentalism’ toward economic liberalism, as a lot of Asia does in my opinion. Regular readers will see themes I have emphasized before. This was intended for the print edition, so there are no hyperlinks included in the text. Here we go:

“As Korea’s presidential election moves into the home stretch (December 19), the local economic discussion is sharpening. Inequality, demographic collapse, massive concentration of economic weight in a few mega-conglomerates, weak consumer purchasing power, growing trade friction over intellectual property rights, and a chronically under-powered small- and medium-enterprise sector (SME) are among the major problems this outwardly very successful economy must confront. Unfortunately, none of the major candidates are pushing the deep reform needed to fix these underlying issues. As with China’s leadership transition, things seem so good at the moment that elites are wary of rocking the boat; as with the recent American election, tough choices will likely once again be kicked down the road. In Korea’s case, that means moving away from its ‘developmentalist’ growth model before encountering troubles similar to Japan’s.

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The International Relations Discipline and the Rise of Asia


A few months ago, I was commissioned by the International Relations and Security Network of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to provide a brief write-up on how Asia’s rise will impact the formal discipline of international relations (IR) within political science. I didn’t get a chance to put it up earlier, and inevitably, the brief means sweeping judgments in just a few pages, but I think it’s a reasonable effort. Here is the version on their website; below it is reprinted:

“It is widely understood that international relations (IR) relies on modern (post-Columbus) and North Atlantic cases as the research base for its general theory. Our graduate students are well-versed in a heavily researched set of cases such as the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, or the Cuban Missile Crisis. While this is arguably ‘eurocentric’ training – white, western practitioners feigning to build ‘universal’ theory from just the cases and languages they know best from their own civilizational background – it might be also reasonably explained by Western dominance of world politics for so many centuries. So long as the West (including the USSR as a basically Western leftist project) so overawed the planet’s politics, then a modern and Atlantic prejudice was perhaps less narrow than it seems. Whatever the cause, this will likely change in the coming decades.

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Economist 2012 Conference on Korea: Foreign Ownership in Korea


Each year in September, the Economist holds a conference on the Korea economy (a part of its Bellwether series on Asian economies). They invite me to come, and then I try to write up my thoughts on it in the JoongAng Daily (which I think is the best newspaper in Korea) as an op-ed. Each year, unfortunately, we seem to argue about the same things – a proper, untweaked float of the won and the openness of the Korean economy to foreign products and owners. Here are my thoughts from 2010 and 2011. I was so busy in the last few months blogging about the US election and other stuff, that I didn’t get a chance to reprint the JAD op-ed. But I like it, so here is the link a few months late, and here is the text itself:

“Last week the Economist magazine held its annual conference on Korea’s economy. This series is rapidly becoming the most important regular discussion in Korea for Korea’s foreign investors. Last year in these pages, I was critical of the Korean speakers’ response to foreign concerns. This year was an improvement. The finance minister particularly fielded a tough question about foreign investors’ rights in Korea in the wake of the Lone Star debacle. To his credit, he admitted what many already know from that case – that the Korean public is deeply ambivalent about substantial foreign profit-taking and ownership of major Korean assets.

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Why I Voted for Barack Obama Today

Amazing how the Simpsons is still pretty funny after 25 years…


In the interest of full disclosure, I thought I’d list the reasons why I voted the way I did. I know conservative media regularly accuse professors of politicizing the classroom, but an honest discussion of why one chooses the way one did can also be useful exercise of citizenship. (See Drezner for an example of what I was thinking of.) So with that goal, not demagoguery, in mind, here we go:

1. The Tea Party Scares Me

This is easily the most important reason for me. Regular readers of my own blog will know that I vote in the Republican primary and write regularly about the Republican party, but almost never about the Democrats. (Even in Korea where I live, my sympathies are with the conservatives.) I don’t see myself as a Democrat. I see myself as a moderate Republican, like Andrew Sullivan or (less so) David Frum. Unfortunately, the Tea Party has made the GOP very inhospitable for moderates.

Given Romney’s propensity to blow with the ideological wind rather than stake a claim somewhere, I think it is likely he’ll get bullied by the hard right once in office. Following Kornacki, my problem with Romney is not his ideology – because I don’t know what that is – but the party from which he stems, run, as it is, by increasingly radical, Christianist, southern right-wingers. I find it simply impossible to vote for a party so contemptuous of science, so willing to violate church-state distinctions, so committed to a heavily armed citizenry, so obsessed with regulating sex, so strutting and belligerent toward the rest of the world, so unwilling to compromise on taxes to close the deficit, etc. Hint to the RNC: the rest of the country is not Dixie; please stop dragging us down this road. This southernization of the GOP in the last 20 years has made it harder and harder for me to vote for national Republicans, even though I vote for them a lot in Ohio. Not surprisingly, I find Andrew Sullivan’s conservatism quite congenial.

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Five Election-Explaining Clichés I really don’t want to hear this Tuesday

On Interstate 71, south of Columbus; Ohio’s most famous sign


So it’s election time, which means CNN, etc. will be filled with pundits with only the vaguest credentials – never any PhDs Sad smile – telling you why the outcome inevitably had to be such-and-such. (Retrodiction is so insufferably smug.) And they’ll explain it as if these tired clichés are real insights and not the same flim-flam they pedal every November.

So let me predict the future: here are the five worst clichés you’ll hear Tuesday – the lamest, most recycled, simplistic, and least analytically useful (because they’re so flexible they can explain almost any outcome).

Save yourself hours of Donna Brazile and David Gergen right now; just roll these out at Thanksgiving dinner to impress the relatives:

1. Ohio, or the white, blue-collar voter theory of everything 

Every four years the media runs the same easy, generic storyline about my state (Economist 2004, 2008, 2012; FT) that goes something like this: ‘these grizzled veterans of America’s economic dislocation cleave to their guns and religion but increasingly live in suburbs and see their kids work in tech plants outside Columbus or Dayton. The large urban populations of Cleveland and Cincinnati are balanced by the church-going rural voters in the god’s country of southeastern Appalachia…’ Yawn. And it goes on like that for pages. Most of these articles make sure to cite the above picture. And yes, that sign is for real; I’ve seen it. It’s on the same road that leads to the Creation Museum (no joke either – I’ve been there), but thankfully that’s over the river in Kentucky. I guess they go to the dentist even less often than we do.

The thing is, we get all this attention for 3-4 months before every election – but then nothing afterwards. So how much can they can take us seriously as a swing state? In 2004, Rove drove up GOP turnout with the Defense of Marriage Act ballot issue and terrorism. In 2008, Clinton and Obama told us they were going to amend NAFTA and reduce illegal immigration to save our jobs. This year, Romney and Obama promise to defend us against China. If you’re keeping score, that means there should be no homosexual Mexican terrorists driving NAFTA-certified trucks on Chinese tires around Ohio. Ah yes, Ohio, that clichéd, right-wing blue-collar paradise!

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3rd Presidential Debate, Foreigner Version: If you’re not an American, you’re Mentally Ill or something

Did anyone else find the third presidential debate just appallingly narcissistic and self-congratulatory? Good lord. Good thing America is around to show you bubble-headed foreigners the way to freedom. I could run through all the offensive, ‘America-is-tasked-with-upholding-the-mantle-of-liberty’ patronizing condescension, but why bother? (Nexon does a nice job here.) I told my students to watch it, and in retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have. It was so embarrassing, and in class this week I kept trying to explain why we talk down to the rest of the world like this while my students rolled their eyes in disgust.

I keep saying this – running around the world telling people how exceptional and bound-to-lead we are is a great way to alienate the planet and convince them of exactly the opposite – to not to follow us. We’d have a much easier time with the world if we could back off the blustery, Fox News nationalism and actually speak maturely. But Americans couldn’t give a damn about the rest of the world, no matter how much we posture about our world historic role to lead it.  Our ODA totals are disgrace for a coutnry as wealthy as we are. We don’t learn languages much. The only time we worry about casualties in the war on terror is when they are own; our clear disinterest for all the collateral damage we have done since 9/11 speak volumes to the rest of the planet.

So instead, here is the debate foreigners heard:

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Guest Post: Dave Kang – “Is America Listening to its East Asian Allies?”

REK: I am pleased to guest-post my friend Dave’s longer, fuller version of a book review he wrote for CSIS. My thanks to CSIS as well. If you aren’t reading Dave yet, I’d recommend it.

“Is America listening to its East Asian allies?: Hugh White’s The China Choice

David C. Kang

For all the recent attention on increasing tensions between the U.S., China, and East Asian countries, regional balance of power dynamics remain muted. The past few years have seen increased Chinese assertiveness, which has led many to expect that East Asian states will flock to the side of the U.S. This has not proven to be the case, however, and Hugh White’s thoughtful and bold new book, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power, provides some clues as to why not. White argues that neither China nor America “can hope to win a competition for primacy outright, so both would be best served by playing for a compromise.” White concludes that the best policy would be an explicit “Concert of Asia” in which the U.S. and China agree to treat each other as equals and create two clear spheres of influence. White is probably right that a U.S. balancing strategy in East Asia is unlikely to succeed – yet a concert of Asia with two clearly defined spheres of influence would appear fairly similar in the eyes of East Asian states. East Asian countries are clearly hoping to find a pathway that avoids taking sides, and the best approach for the U.S. to take is a strategy that helps them achieve that goal.

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VP Debate once again tells the World that all We care about is the Middle East

Yes, it’s partisan, but it’s a somewhat useful deconstruction

First, I included the above video to reference a point I tried to make earlier – that Romney flip-flopped so much in the first debate that I no longer have any idea what he thinks about the big issues of campaign. I just wish I knew wth Romney wants to do with the presidency. There has to be some purpose, some reason to vote for him, and I can’t find it. Someone tell me in a few coherent, specifics-laden paragraphs why I should vote for him? Not why Obama is a bad president – I know that already – but why Romney should be president. Honestly, I don’t know, which makes his presidential run look like a vanity project or something.

Second, did anyone else think that the vice-presidential debate once again broadcast to the world that our foreign policy is dominated by the Middle East? It was all about Iran, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan. Obviously, these are all important places and issues. But it doesn’t take a lot of foreign policy training to know that Russia’s ever-more erratic course under Czar Putin, a possible euro-EU meltdown, or China are a lot more important to the US’ future than a bunch of small, poor fractured states in the Middle East. But no, let’s argue once again about Israel, Iran, terrorism, Iraq…  Good grief. There are other issues out there…

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If Flip-Flopping is a GOP Cardinal Sin, How can you Vote for Romney after that first Debate?

George W Bush practically built his re-election effort against John Kerry on the idea that even if you disagreed with him, you consistently knew where he stood on stuff. That commercial above is famous. And the US right in general loves that sort of macho grandstanding on behalf of American will in the face of wimpy, carping detractors – usually Europeans, academics, and liberals, ideally combined. Remember ‘freedom fries’?

Palin and McCain struck the same pose in 2008 (‘I would much rather lose a campaign than a war’), and so did lots of Tea Party candidates in 2010 and in the 2012 GOP primary. Remember when Perry even said, “I’ll be for water-boarding until the day I die”? And Fox talks like this all the time, as if Hannity were the last bastion of American bootstrap ideals against a rising tide of liberals, illegal immigrants, and Muslims. So if the Tea Party right loves this ‘let’s-go-down-with-the-ship-on-behalf-of-principle’ posture, how can one possibly support Romney after he flip-flopped all over the place in the first debate last week?

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EU and the Peace Prize (Round 3): M Tsvangirai should have Won


(Here and here is the previous Duck debate on this.)

The EU? Over a guy regularly facing down death-threats, bullying, and intimidation from one of the worst dictators on earth? Boo to the Nobel Committee for missing this obvious choice.

If they can give the prize to the drone-warrior with a kill-list (Obama) and an institution run by wealthy, comfortable lawyers, bankers, and white collar professionals, then surely they can give it to someone who every day is making a far more direct, personal, bodily commitment to peace and social betterment. In fact, why Tsvangirai hasn’t won yet is beyond me. It seems so obvious. (Yes, his personal life is somewhat chaotic, but I don’t think that is normally a consideration. Kissinger called himself a ‘swinger.’)

Here is a good profile from the BBC. Note how badly he got beaten up by the thugs of President Robert Mugabe in 2007. He’s be charged with treason multiple times, and his party, the Movement for Democratic Change, has been harassed from the beginning. That is commitment, far more than endless EU meetings about some treaty no one will read.

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Pop Music Brings a Lot More Readers than Social Science: Follow-up on ‘Kangnam Style’

Korea_Seokguram_Buddha Now THAT is Korean art – the Seokguram Buddha; I’ve been to see it 3 times

The Internet has slapped down my arrogance. I told myself I wouldn’t write about k-pop, but that post on ‘Kangnam Style’ drove so much traffic to my site and twitter, that here is a response to all the comments. It’s kinda of depressing how my posts on Asian political economy or what-not get little traffic and a lot of yawns, but K-pop brings huge numbers. It’s like those Facebook posts on something you find interesting that no one bothers to look at, but put up a pic of yourself blotto on a beach, and everyone ‘likes’ it.

1. I am not sure K-pop is really ‘family-friendly,’ as one of my commenters argued. I hadn’t really thought about that, but I guess it’s nice to have light, fluffy lyrics instead of gangster rap or Robert Plant screaming that he’s ‘your backdoor man.’ But if you watch the performances and look at the appearance of these ‘bands,’ it is highly sexualized and teasing – and that is obviously far more important the music itself, which just comes from a music machine. These band members can’t play instruments, but they do look like sex symbols and swing around on poles wearing leather boots like strippers. (*sigh* you see why I wanted to avoid writing about k-pop?) Is that what you want the kids watching? What kind of signal does that send?

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A Pre-Post-Mortem on Romney’s Defeat


It increasingly looks like Romney is gonna lose. Intratrade now puts that likelihood at 75%. Now it’s my understanding from the American politics subfield, in which I took exactly zero courses in grad school, that the state of the economy is supposed to be the great determiner of American elections. But somehow Romney can’t seem to win despite 8+% unemployment. So I’ll take that as a methodological opening for wild speculation – namely my own – masquerading as rigorous theory.

Given my masterful background in this field, which includes watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, still getting Fox News in my cable package even though I don’t live in the US (stop chasing me!), and having been a Congressional district slave staffer (Republican) 15 years years ago, here’s my take. And no, I have no great proof to back up these instincts, but as George W Bush’s decision-making style taught me, my gut is enough, and ‘data,’ or whatever you ‘academics’ call it, is for wusses. “We’re an empire now; we make our our reality,” and here’s mine:

1. That 47% video just killed him.

Wow. The polling after this just collapsed. The desperate ‘me too-ism’ of Fox News in response spoke volumes about how destructive that leak was. Scrounging up any dated recording of Obama also saying something dumb (or not) and then trying for 2 weeks to balloon it into an ‘affront to all Americans’ to stir indignation was just embarrassing. I wonder if O’Reilly and Hannity can say to Roger Ailes or Rupert Murdoch once in awhile, that some conspiracy-mongering is just too ridiculous even for them. If some old, vague Obama comment on ‘redistribution,’ which the government has been doing for almost a century, is now cause enough for GOP ‘outrage’ (ever noticed that Fox is always ‘outraged,’ btw?), then they’re effectively repudiating more than half the budget. Even in the GOP, I don’t think eliminating redistribution is majority opinion, and there’s no way the electorate will go for that, as it essentially re-writes the social contract on something –  a basic safety net – that most American simply assume now. Maybe Romney should apologize? I dunno; politicians do it in Asia sometimes. But doubling-down on that remark, as he has, is a sure-fire loser.

2. He can’t be who he really is, because the Tea Party holds him hostage.

I still think that the conventional wisdom that Romney is a moderate, trying to fool both himself and his party that he’s not, is correct. Even though the 47% tape looks like ‘smoking gun’ evidence that Romney is a clone of Jamie Dimon, I still don’t think so. Chait makes the strong point that Romney sounds like a ‘sneering plutocrat’ on the tape. Yeah, it’s pretty hard to get around that interpretation. But if I had to guess, I bet he was just saying what he thought they wanted to hear. Anyone who’s ever worked in an American campaign cycle knows the enormous pressure on candidates to pander to the mega-donors (as in the Romney vid) who make our campaigns possible (all the more reason for dramatic campaign finance reform, but that’s another story).

My own sense, still, is that Romney is moderate non-ideologue and probably not a wing-nut. I had affiliations with the Ohio GOP throughout the 1990s, and most of the people I knew were reasonable and sane, but under constant pressure from the right-wing to say/do outrageous stuff. It was always a battle to fend off some group insisting that the 10 Commandments be hung in member’s office, that the UN was taking over America, or called CNN the ‘Communist News Network.’ (All true stories.)
Instead, I think Bruni is right that the process of running for president has so distorted Romney that he just doesn’t know what to say anymore. He’s so desperate to win, so frustrated he can’t get traction against a weak president in a terrible economy, so flummoxed that his CV from the ‘real world’ doesn’t obviously out-stack a community organizer who somehow became president. So he’ll say almost anything anymore.

He wants to be a moderate who had a decent, centrist record as Massachusetts governor. He’s almost certainly proud that he put through ‘RomneyCare’ in Massachusetts (his signature achievement as guv), speaks French (who isn’t pleased they can speak a foreign language?), and turned around a major government project – the Olympics (that’s a huge achievement). But now he can’t say any of that, because the ideological right and its media network won’t abide it. Instead, he’s reduced to transparent, shameful phoniness like teasing Obama for worrying about global warming, when someone as educated as Romney obviously knows that science is not some liberal plot.

In short, he’s been running for president for so long, he’s so desperate, that he’ll say almost anything to anyone; he’s lost himself in this mess and doesn’t really know what he thinks anymore. And the voters have picked up on this and can’t figure out who he is (like Nixon in 1960). It’s sad actually, that a pubic servant with Romney’s reasonable credentials must pander so bad he loses respect for himself. It reminds me of Condoleezza Rice, a realist for 20 years, who suddenly ‘saw the light’ of neoconservatism when in power. Yeah, right – having direct access to POTUS every day had nothing to do with that.

This is yet another reason why the agonizingly long US election process is so awful. Most importantly, the horse-race element of it distracts government from governing for huge stretches of time. But it also wrecks the integrity of almost everyone who runs for high office, Romney included, sadly.

3. He comes across like Gordon Gekko just 3 years after the Great Recession.

Even if he isn’t a plutocrat at heart (maybe not) or a winger (probably not), he comes off just awful. Romney really needs lessons from the Bill Clinton ‘I-feel-your-pain’/George W Bush ‘who-would-rather-have-a-beer-with’ school of campaigning. I realize this is terribly shallow. Exactly what difference for government does it make if W comes across like ‘Dubya,’ while Kerry is a windsurfing dork? None at all. To this day, I still resent how the media read Al Gore’s earnest, over-read wonkiness as a flaw (?!!), while embracing W’s cowboy-hat-wearing folksiness. What c—!

But atmospherics count – a lot unfortunately, and Romney, a master of the universe, is a god-awful candidate – especially just 3 years after the Great Recession. As I argued earlier this month, how is it that a product of the financial services industry, like Romney right down to his perfect hair, got to be a presidential candidate just a few years after high street banking nearly wrecked the economy? That just floors me. Who wants that Jamie Dimon clone in the White House? (It’s bad enough when Dimon goes before the Senate Banking Committee and mocks the whole country.) Makes you wish Santorum had won…(*shiver*)…

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

‘Kangnam Style’s Irony is Missed b/c of the Publicity Wave

I try to avoid K-pop on my website, because I find far too many foreigner websites in Korea focus on the silliest, shallowest elements of what is around us – probably because the language is so hard, Korean pop culture is the easiest for us to understand. But I keep getting asked, and it is huge hit, so here a few thoughts:

1. Thank god ‘Kangnam Style’ shows a level of irony, self-awareness, humor, and creativity that K-pop normally lacks. That alone is enough to value it, given how shallow, idiotic, and pre-packaged almost all Korean pop is otherwise. K-pop is wasteland IMO. (Try it yourself; tell me how long before you cringe.) None of these carbon-copy bands like the Wonder Girls or Girls Generation or whatever would even get considered for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (I’m from Cleveland, so I thought I’d add that little plug). K-pop slavishly copies from the boy-band/girl-band model that began in the US 20 years ago and crossed-over to Japan. The hair, the synched dance-moves, the gratingly cutesy presentations, the insipid teen love-story lyrics – it’s awful. None of them can play an instrument; they are recruited solely because they’re hot, and the music-machine does the rest. Continue reading

RNC: Don’t Speak in a Publicly-Built Facility when you Attack Government – D’oh!


I got bogged down with NK for awhile, so I missed a chance to comment on the RNC and the US election more generally. I have some thoughts after the break, but a Democrat friend of mine wrote the following, which is a pretty good first draft of the GOP’s problems I think, in this election cycle:

On the whole, I found the Republican convention disgusting and not simply because I disagree with their policies. They substantively are disconnected from the problems of the average person. They offered nothing which will help average people and, what they do offer, is bereft of details. They said nothing – NOTHING – about the two wars they started and the one that is still ongoing. (They do however feel we should have wars, or at least brinksmanship with several other countries.) They have no narrative connecting who they were just four years ago with who they think they are now.

The narrative they do present is a fantasy beyond what even Republicans of a prior generation would present. They stand in a publicly-built convention center preaching nothing but disdain for the role of government. They parade women, Latinos and an African-American secretary of state who talk about the ‘bootstrap’ mentality of their parents with no mention of the giants of civil rights and the role of government which reformed the bigoted society which their beloved founding fathers gave us. That reformation – more than their parents – allowed the likes of Condoleezza Rice to be where she is today.
They reach out to women with symbolism and yelps of ‘I love you women,’ but want to savage Medicare and Medicaid, both programs disproportionately benefiting women (remember, Medicaid is also a program for the elderly medical class who enter nursing homes). They are utter hypocrites on things like government stimulus – Romney first supported it and Ryan voted for Bush’s Tarp and took money from Obama’s stimulus. Even by politicians’ standards, their willingness to lie about Obama’s policies and statements is breathtaking.

But what bothers me the most is this ‘we built it’ mentality which they go on with. The US’ post-war middle class and social stability would not have existed without government. Support for college education, a redistributive tax structure, a modest social safety net, civil rights, Keynesian counter-cyclical spending, massive government infrastructure programs from highways, to the space program, to the defense establishment contributed mightily to every American’s success. This includes the success of their plutocrat leader Mitt Romney who made his money during the tech boom of the 1990s, a tech boom built on government research in computers and the internet. It includes the success of his running mate Paul Ryan whose family made much of their money building government-funded roads. 

I would add that I wonder how much ‘risk’ himself Romney has ever actually taken, given that dramatically pairing back the welfare state is emerging as the GOP meme for this election? If the Randian superman who ‘built it all himself’ is the economic ideology of the GOP, then it becomes central just how much Romney, Ryan, Cantor, Limbaugh, etc. exploit government services. Ayn Rand herself accepted Social Security and Medicare late in her life. That strikes me as fairly fraudulent, as does insisting that SS and Medicare be retained for today’s elderly but not tomorrow’s. I’m sure that the likelihood of older voters to vote GOP and younger voters to go for Obama has nothing to do with that.

For example, did Ryan try to steer government money into his district, as a congressman, as most congressmen do? If he did, isn’t that hard to justify given what he’s saying now? It seems increasingly obvious that Romney never did without in his life in a meaningful way, never went through a ‘back in grad school when I lived in a crappy apartment and ate ramen’ phase. He “refused to head up Bain Capital until Bain promised him he would get back his old salary and interest if he failed. He risked nothing.” He’s also done a fair job of using the government to make a mountain of money – whether that be fixing the Olympics, getting a sorta government bailout, using a battery of accountants to gin up such amazing tax shelters that he doesn’t want to release his returns, or working in government itself – governors get paid a lot more than most Americans. I don’t mean to begrudge Romney his success, but profiting handsomely from government while you promise to tear it down for those who come after you strikes me as fairly selfish.

More generally, I would ask how the GOP thought that a guy who’s practically a caricature of Gordon Gekko could get elected just 3 years after white shoe banking nearly wrecked the world? That just staggers me. And the scandals that continue to come out – LIBOR most recently – have made it obvious to just about everyone except Jamie Dimon that Wall Street needs a tighter regime, most obviously the Volcker Rule. Given just how much we’ve all learned about the financial industry since 2009 (in a bad way), I can’t imagine Romney – who’s so obviously steeped in the values of that class, right down to his perfect hair and willingness to say anything to please – winning. I can’t imagine Tea Partiers, who share the Occupy Movement’s disdain for too-big-to-fail banks and slick ‘masters of the universe,’ being enthusiastic for this guy either. Good lord, even Sandy Weill is now saying the banks need to be broken up. Yet in the first presidential election after the mostly-Wall-Street-caused Great Recession, we’re going to elect such an obvious product of the financial services industry? Wow. God help me for saying it, but where’s Santorum or Bachmann (at least they were honest) when you need them? It’s a measure of just how bad the economy is and just how weak a president and candidate Obama is that Romney is competitive at all.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

Pyongyang isn’t ‘Laid-Back & Leafy,’ or What Parag Khanna didn’t Learn in NK

North Korea 2012 056
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 look at? Well…too bad! They go on and on and on…

In the last two weeks I rolled out a series of impressions from my trip to North Korea (one, two, three, four). Apparently Parag Khanna went to NK at the same time I did (last month) and simultaneously put up his impressions at CNN-GPS, making for an interesting comparison of views this week. (You don’t have to go to the Khanna link, as I have reprinted the piece after the break, with some response comments.)

Dan Nexon and Dan Drezner both noted the coincidence (favorably, I am happy to say), and the blogosphere reaction to the Khanna piece has been pretty negative (look at the piece’ comments and then this, which is genuinely disturbing). I also thought the piece was too puffy and far too pleasant-toned for a place like NK.

I am amazed Khanna didn’t talk up the personality cult, as this is easily what any even mildly politically astute observer would catch, especially in Pyongyang which is ground-zero for the KIS cult. The guides practically beat you over the head with it at every turn. (NB: I tried make this point, about the blindingly obvious KIS cult, by posting a comment to the article on CNN. It failed moderation, twice. Come on, CNN. Really? Why censor me when other commenters are accusing Khanna of being paid by NK? Lame.)

Anyway, all this surprises me, because Khanna seems like a pretty good scholar. I thought Second World was pretty good and cited it in my tangle over Russia and the BRICS earlier this year. More generally, he’s probably a pretty bright guy, and it doesn’t take much political sophistication to see that the NK tour-guides were steering us toward certain images, impressions, ‘heroic’ sites and tales, etc., so that we would leave NK and write something as complimentary as Khanna just did. Khanna didn’t see that? Really? How?

I’m just flabbergasted that someone with his level of sophistication about politics couldn’t detect raw agit-prop staring him in the face. I know Morozov thinks Khanna looks the other way on democracy to praise Asian technocratic authoritarianism. But NK hardly fits that mold; visiting NK is like travelling around Africa, not Singapore. The food is poor quality, the lights don’t work, hot water is rare, but brown water isn’t, the potholes are so bad that no one sits behind the rear axel, etc. There’s nothing technocratic or ‘Beijing Consensus’ about NK. Dilapidation is everywhere, but for the few miles around Kim Il Sung Square. Khanna left that tiny bubble, so he surely must have seen that.
So I don’t really get it, unless there’s a long-term access issue at play. Perhaps Khanna wants to be able to return to NK and thought he had to write a puff-piece piece in order to get another visa in the future. I hear this accusation a lot here in SK. South Korean conservatives often accuse foreign scholars who soft-pedal NK of doing so in order to keep getting visas so they can return, thereby keeping their cachet as ‘insiders’ with ‘unique access’ to NK. 

So here’s a gloss on Khanna’s article, noting some pretty disturbing oversights:


The specter of U.S.-South Korean military exercises, a potential nuclear test, assassinations of defectors in South Korea, and general saber-rattling haven’t prevented a record 4,000 tourists from arriving in Pyongyang this year. There’s even a hopeful air among diplomats that the two Koreas, as well as China and Japan, might find the right balance of words and gestures to smooth out their emotional grievances that fuel regular nationalist flare-ups. [WAIT, HAS KHANNA EVEN READ THE NEWS ABOUT THE NASTY TERRITORIAL FLARE-UP OUT HERE IN THE LAST MONTH OR SO? THE US AMBASSADOR TO JAPAN CALLED KOREA ‘IRRATIONAL’ OVER THIS MELTDOWN. IT’S SO BAD, MY UNIVERSITY’S HOLDING A CONFERENCE ABOUT IT NEXT MONTH.]

The scene at Beijing airport already gives clues into how North Korean society continues to defy economic gravity. Pyongyong elites check in dozens of boxes of household goods (from electronics to wine glasses) for their own use or to resell. [IT’S HIGHLY UNLIKELY KHANNA ACTUALLY WITNESSED THAT UNLESS HE HAD A VERY SPECIAL FLIGHT AND PACKAGE.]
Like upscale Iranians ferrying in and out of Dubai, the international, multilingual and urbane class may seem like precisely the ones to support regime change, but also profit the most from the status quo. [DID HE REALLY JUST WRITE ‘INTERNATIONAL, MULTILINGUAL, AND URBANE’ ABOUT THE NK GANSTER ELITE HE JUST WITNESSED VIOLATING UN SANCTIONS IN THE BEIJING AIRPORT?]


Despite Typhoon Bolaven battering the country at the start of our visit, we came during a week when student groups, worker units, and families from all parts of the country flocked to Pyongyang for the Arirang mass games, which take place in the 150,000-capacity May Day stadium and feature up to 100,000 performers in the most spectacularly choreographed precision movements ever staged — almost every single night. North Koreans are no longer afraid or suspicious to engage with foreigners. [!!! I THINK MY HEAD JUST EXPLODED. WHEN WE RODE THE PYONGYANG METRO, PEOPLE WERE FREAKED OUT JUST TO SIT NEXT TO US. THE STAFF YOU MEET ON THE TOUR, WHO SEEM ‘UNSUSPICIOUS,’ HAVE ALL BEEN HEAVILY BACKGROUND-CHECKED IN ORDER TO BE ALLOWED TO INTERACT WITH YOU.]


We encountered locals at the mass games, film studios, world’s deepest underground metro, art schools, and delicious restaurants. This is not a society voluntarily marching in lockstep.[GAH! ARE YOU SURE YOU WENT TO NORTH KOREA? DIDN’T YOU JUST TELL ME YOU WENT TO THE ARIRANG GAMES, WHICH IS 10,000 PEOPLE MOVING IN PERFECT LOCKSTEP, WHICH IS THE WHOLE POINT OF THE PERFORMANCE?]


Our appreciation of their beautiful cultural offerings reminds them that they are a rich civilization temporarily trapped in an anachronistic state. Outside of Pyongyang one witnesses the reality afflicting many of the country’s 20 million-plus citizens: poverty and malnutrition. Most of those labeled defectors into China are actually economic migrants, and even in Pyongyang one can tell which children come from poor villages by their ragged sandals and brownish hair, made lighter by long hours under the sun in the fields. [HERE KHANNA HAS DRIFTED INTO GENUINELY IMMORAL ‘USEFUL IDIOT’ TERRITORY, IF HE REALLY THINKS THAT BLACK HAIR REDDENS NATURALLY IN THE SUN. IT DOESN’T. THAT’S FROM MALNUTRITION; THAT’S PART OF CHLDHOOD STUNTING FROM BORDERLINE STARVATION. HONESTLY, HE SHOULD PROBABLY APOLOGIZE FOR THAT LINE.]

One of Pyongyang’s crown jewels is the 150-meter tall Juche tower, which celebrates the country’s ideal of self-reliance. Plaques in the lobby commemorate the visits of dignitaries and earnest academics from Gambia, Tunisia, Pakistan and dozens of other nations who devoted serious study to North Korea’s Juche ideology in the 1970s and 1980s. We all know what’s happened to them. North Korea too feels on the cusp of a new phase. [WE SAW ABSOLUTELY NO PHYSICAL EVIDENCE OF THAT. IF HE MEANS CHINESE AID, THAT’S NOT NEW. NK HAS PLAYED OFF ITS NEIGHBORS FOR AID FOR DECADES. WHAT’S NK IMPORTING RIGHT NOW, IN THIS ‘NEW PHASE’? FOOD? CONSUMER GOODS? NO. GRANITE, SO THAT IT CAN RECUT ALL THE JUCHE COLUMNS AROUND THE COUNTRY TO INCLUDE KJU’S NAME NEXT TO HIS PREDECESSORS.]

Though it hasn’t accepted Japanese apologies for World War II imperial atrocities, and its many monuments excoriate in stone America’s Korean War aggression in which 420,000 bombs were dropped on Pyongyang alone (greater than the number of residents in the city at the time), the concrete high-rises with intermittent water supply and belching buses are all reaching the end of their shelf-life. Soviet support and fuel subsidies collapsed in the early 1990s, and food security has been tenuous ever since. Most investment now comes from China, but much less so ideological support. Nominally committed to the same Communist ethos, China has still become one of the world’s largest economies while North Korea lacks a credit rating. It’s not likely that the young regime of Kim Jong-Un will actually collapse. Though the Arab Spring teaches us not to put much faith in the softer sons of iron-fisted rulers, North Korea is a deeply Confucian society and symbolically views itself as still run by Jong-Un’s late grandfather and national revolutionary Kim Il-Sung and father Kim Jong-Il. Jong-Un is something of a caretaker while the old clique continues with anti-Japanese propaganda, nuclear brinksmanship, and threats against the South. The country’s premier, Kim Jung Nam, has been increasingly visible as a decisive government official, but as with everything else in North Korea, it is a carefully staged diversification of authority [‘DIVERSIFICATION OF AUTHORITY’? IN NK?! WHAT PROOF OF THAT HAS HE GOT?], not a transition towards democracy.

As one wanders [LET’S GET THIS STRAIGHT – NO FOREIGNER ‘WANDERS’ IN NK; I WENT TO THE LAVATORY ONCE WITHOUT PERMISSION, AND OUR MINDER CAME RUNNIG AFTER ME.] through lively [‘LIVELY’? ARE YOU SERIOUS? DID YOU SEE STREET VENDORS OR A COLORFUL STREET MARKET? DIDN’T YOU SEE MILITARY EVERYWERE? HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A REAL BUSTLING ASIAN STREET MARKET IN BUSAN, HANOI, HONG KONG?] street arcades full of roller-skaters [‘FULL’ – I THINK I SAW ABOUT 5 KIDS IN NK WEARING ROLLER SKATES] and volleyball games, one has to hope that Confucian communism can make enough space for capitalism such that the burden of isolation falls on the regime rather than society.

More tourism, mobile phones [ONLY ELITES GET LEGAL CELLPHONES – THIS WAS PRETTY OBVIOUS TO SEE…], and industrial joint ventures all help. One of the most promising is the Chinese funded special economic zone of Rason at the intersection of Russia and China, a warm water port that would serve all three countries. A decade from now, it could be North Korea’s Shenzhen. Another is Dandong, also on China’s border. Suddenly North Korea is making flat-screen televisions and its own DVD players. [WHAT? WHERE DID THAT LAST LINE COME FROM? THE QUEUE AT BEST BUY WILL BE AROUND THE BLOCK FOR THE NK-LED!]

While not wanting to buttress the Kim regime as China has, South Korea fears being marginalized for influence in the North and is returning to the economic engagement of its 1990s “sunshine” policy [THAT IS ABSOLUTELY FACTUALLY INACCURATE UNDER THE CURRENT CONSERVATIVE SK PRESIDENT – COME ON], and is considering expanding investment in its own special economic zone at Kaesong.

But a rail line meant to connect Seoul and Pyongyang remains dormant. Still, the North too fears becoming too dependent on China, and like Myanmar, is courting more foreign investment for those with a high appetite for risk. [THAT PHRASEOLOGY IS MISLEADING, B/C THERE’S ONLY ONE COUNTRY INVESTING IN NK – CHINA, AND THAT’S FAR MORE ABOUT POLITICS AND ASSET-STRIPPING THAN MODERNIZATION. ]

North Korea does indeed have plenty to offer. Its largely mountainous territory is rich in gold and magnesium. Mining operations are picking up, with serious interest from Australia and other extractive giants. Its mighty rivers could be key hydropower resource both to electrify the country and sell power to the South. It also produces agricultural staples like rice, corn, soybeans and potatoes. And of course there could be much more tourism, including to scenic Mt. Paekdu and to witness the centuries of well-preserved Korean traditions in Pyongyang. For example, Beijing-based Koryo Tours has increased its tourist volume from 200 to 2,000 over the past decade, almost half of which are American. The nation’s capital, the largest of its half-dozen large cities, feels like an Asian Kiev. Like Ukraine’s capital, it has broad avenues with revolutionary monuments and fountains, but also a laid-back, leafy feel. [MY HEAD JUST EXPLODED, AGAIN, LIKE THAT GUY IN ‘SCANNERS.’ ‘LEAFY’? – LIKE HAPPY COUPLES STROLLING DOWN UNTER DEN LINDEN? ‘LAID-BACK’? WERE YOU IN THE SAME CITY I WAS, WHERE GUARDS CARRY MACHINE GUNS ALL OVER THE PLACE, WHERE THE INFAMOUS TRAFFIC COPS DIRECT LIKE ROBOTS, WHERE UBIQUITOUS MURALS AND STATUERY REGULARLY DEPICT HARSH MILITARISTIC IMAGES OR KIS LOOKING DOWN ON YOU LIKE BIG BROTHER STRAIGHT OUT OF 1984?]

Czech made trams still roll through the city ferrying workers and students between homes, offices, and schools.North Koreans are not automatons but citizens [HOLY C—! DID HE JUST WRITE THAT? NO VOTE, NO VOICE, NO DISSENT, NO RIGHTS, A THEOCRATIC SUN-KING CULT – THAT’S WHAT CITIZENSHIP IS ALL ABOUT], loyal but misinformed, curious and educated [THAT’S BECAUSE THEY TOOK YOU TO THE ELITE SCHOOLS IN PYONGYANG FOR THE CHILDREN OF THE KWP/KPA LEADERSHIP. WE WENT THERE TOO, SO THAT WE MIGHT GET THE SAME FALSE IMPRESSION. YOU COULDN’T FIGURE THAT OUT?].

Whether in schools, billiard halls, or karaoke bars (Some Pyongyang girls have perfected Celine Dion’s “Titanic” theme song), the people can be quite open about their concerns. [YOU DIDN’T REALLY JUST WRITE THAT DID YOU? YOU REALLY THINK THEY OPENED UP TO YOU, A FOREIGNER WHO DOESN’T SPEAK THEIR LANGUAGE AND WHOM THEY’LL NEVER SEE AGAIN? STOP DRINKING THE JUCHE KOOLAID! ]

Some mothers would rather their kids practice the piano than spend hours training for the mass games; some teachers want their kids to focus more on math. Outside the capital, where information flow is more a one-way street, Western powers and responsible neighbors have to provide the young Kim with opportunities to change the hostile rhetoric. After the New York Philharmonic performed in Pyongyang, the reciprocal visit was effectively killed by Washington, which rejected the North Korean visas. But how about having the mind-blowing Arirang youth performers take stage at halftime in the Superbowl? Surely Kim wouldn’t call for America’s destruction after that. [JESUS! STOP! PLEASE! AN ARIRANG PERFORMANCE AT THE SUPERBOWL?! ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND? DID YOU WATCH THE SAME MILITARISTIC, HYPER-NATIONALISTIC, BELLIGERENT, JAPAN- AND AMERICA-BASHING, HYPER-CONTROLLED, ROBOTIC, BLATANTLY-LYING-ABOUT-AGRICULTURAL-PRODUCTION, INDIVIDUALITY-CRUSHING, PARTY-WORSHIPING, JUCHE-CELEBRATING, KIM-ADULATING, YOU’RE-JUST-A-COG-IN-THE-COLLECTIVIST-MACHINE PERFORMANCE I SAW? THE AIRANG GAMES IS NOT ‘AMAZING’; IT’S TERRIFYING. IT’S ‘TRIUMPH OF THE WILL’ FOR A POPULATION WITHOUT TELEVISIONS. ALL THE BANNERS ABOUT THE PARTY, THE MILITARY TRIUMPHALISM, THE IMAGES OF THE KIMS, THE BLATANT LYING IN THE IMAGERY ABOUT NK AFFLUENCE DIDN’T MAKE THAT PAINFULLY OBVIOUS?]

Indeed, Jong-Un has an opportunity now his failed Arab counterparts missed: to lead the rehabilitation of his country and enjoy his remaining decades not as a pariah but a statesman, not feared by his people but admired by them. [ADMIRATION FOR THE KIM FAMILY?………..[PROCESSING FAILURE]..…. DO YOU KNOW THAT SK STILL HAS THE DEATH PENALTY ON THE BOOKS, EVEN THOUGH THEY NEVER USE IT DOMESTICALLY, BECAUSE THEY’RE GOING TO HANG MOST OF THE KIM FAMILY AND KPA & KWP ELITE AFTER IT’S ALL OVER?]

Rather than being banned from most international travel he could enjoy basketball games in Europe as he did during high school in Switzerland. Whether or not the North reunifies with the South like West Germany absorbing the East in the early 1990s, the current priority should be turning the country into a passageway between China and South Korea rather than a buffer. There’s no guarantee that economic opening will lead to political reform; indeed, China is if anything a more likely future model of governance for North Korea than outright democratization or sudden reunification. All the more reason then to stop pretending that placing conditions on investment such as freezing the nuclear program will actually work. [I DON’T KNOW ANYONE IN SK, EVEN ON THE LEFT, WHO BELIEVES THAT.]

Diplomacy with pre-requisites has a very poor track record with nuclearizing states. Rather than wait for statues to be violently yanked down in city centers, the goal should be de facto economic integration without political humiliation. The heavily fortified De-Militarized Zone (DMZ), then, would quickly go from Cold War flashpoint to nature park given its unique ecosystem and flora. The past 20 years of revolutions followed by slow, halting, and even reversed transitions from the Balkans to the Middle East teaches us to be guarded in our optimism about the pace of change in countries whose political and economic systems have been frozen in time. Today North Korea is like Turkmenistan, isolated and ideological. Even with a surge of infrastructure investment and technology, a decade from now it could at best become like post-Communist Romania, exporting industry and agriculture but still corrupt and destitute. But it would be an economic passageway with greater freedom and opportunity for its people, and have a greater stake in peace than war. So come to North Korea, and come soon [*SIGH*  I’M JUST OUT OF OUTRAGE. GIMME A BREAK. NK AS A HOT TOURIST DESTINATION? WITH LAID-BACK, LEAFY BOULEVARDS? THE KIDS WILL LOVE IT! KIS WILL SMILE HIS BENOVOLENT RADIANCE DOWN UPON THEM!]

The Pyongyang International Film Festival takes place in September with documentaries and avant garde movies being screened from a dozen countries. [YEAH, WELL, YOU SEE THE THING ABOUT ‘AVANT GARDE’ IN NK IS THAT THERE IT MEANS YOU STAND IN FRONT OF THE GUARD SO THAT HE CAN MORE EASILY ARREST YOU THAN WHEN YOU ARE RUNNING AWAY. — JUST READ THE D— HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH PAGE ON NK, PLEASE.]


And here’s one more KIS pic for the road…
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Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

“Kim Il Sung will always be with Us,” or what I learned in NK (4)


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 me, and that is the standard KIS image in the pic.

7. The Korean People’s Army is pretty much everywhere.

This is easily the most militarized state I’ve ever been in. Soldiers and other uniformed military are everywhere, and units of KPA were doing all sorts of even banal things, like going to the Pyongyang fun fair, together en bloc. Guards carried automatic weapons openly in public with disturbing frequency. And the KPA was pretty clearly a captive, exploited labor force. Again and again we saw KPA young men fixing roads, constructing buildings, working in the fields, felling trees, and doing all sorts of things with little connection to actual soldiering – and doing all these dirty tasks in uniform, looking very uncomfortable and overheated. Guides regularly told us about a ‘heroic, glorious’ KPA work brigade that built that or this, but all I could think of was how miserable those young men looked making bricks or hoeing a field in the August heat while in a uniform wholly unsuited for the job and probably getting paid zippo. This wasn’t the army – it was impressed labor in a workers’ state. Ironically, if there’s any one thing East Asia has in abundance, it’s construction companies; SK, Japan, and China love building white elephants. What a shame then to waste your 20s as semi-enslaved labor building a crappy highway for the KPA that no one will use anyway, because no one owns a car.


8. Don’t Personality Cults face Time-Constraints as They Age?

Another thing I kept wondering about is how long this whole ideological structure can lurch on, when everyday takes North Koreans further and further away from the actual life and exploits of KIS. In the first post, I noted that NK felt like a neopatrimonial absolute monarchy or even theocracy – mostly focused on the persons themselves of KJI and especially KIS as a Korean-communist version of Jesus. So if NK isn’t even Korea anymore, but the “Kim Il Sung state,” then how long can it hang on – or to be more specific, remain ideologically coherent – without KIS around? If the whole show is built around one or two guys, and they aren’t around, then isn’t there a time limit to how long such an ideology can actually remain convincing to anyone? For example, we saw students using computers at a university. KIS (d. 1994) never saw any computers and provided no guidance on them. So as computers become more common in even NK, how can that be connected to a personality cult whose traits are frozen in time, i.e., KIS’ lifespan, 1912-94?

This problem strikes me as inevitable for any highly personalized system. At some point everyone, even Stalin, dies; time continues to tick by; eventually new generations grow up for whom this stuff isn’t even a distant memory, it’s just ritual. Maybe the ‘KIS state’ can sorta work 18 years after his death, but what about 50 or 100 years? George Washington, a similarly lionized founder, may have been such an inspiration to early Americans that he was offered the kingship of America, but it’s hard to imagine a ‘George Washington state’ by, say, 1850. At some point, the sheer passage of time would undercut any such personalistic regime, no?

Maybe NK is aware of this, because it looks like they’re trying to replace one personality with another in the personality cult (KJU replaces KJI replaces KIS), but doesn’t that violate the basic premise of a personality cult – that one awesome personage (Hitler, Stalin, Mao) instantiates everything great about a certain national community? (If you’ve actually studied personality cults and their longevity, please chime in here). So instead of NK being a personality cult, I guess it’s now a ‘family cult’? Does that even make sense? Can that work if the latest guy in the family line has almost no accomplishments at all? At least, KJI had the nukes.

As the pics in this post show, KIS is everywhere, but he’s been dead now for almost 20 years. I guess that is not too far in the past yet, but inevitably it will be. Time marches on, and no matter what the regime does, eventually KIS will become a distant memory – a frozen almost mythic great leader, again like George Washington is to Americans perhaps, but not an actual present figure guiding the state. The personality cult of KJI was already a struggle and less convincing. KJI never equaled his father in terms of (real or apparent) successes, like struggling against the Japanese or founding the DPRK, and there aren’t nearly as many statues and such of KJI as there are of KIS. Is KJU just up to the task? I doubt it. People are mortal and can’t be institutions, no matter how powerful they are.

Similarly, the cult felt frozen because it rehearsed again and again for us the ‘glory days’ – KIS’ guerilla war against the Japanese, the founding of the DPRK, and the Korean war. (Not surprisingly, the propaganda wildly overblows KIS’ role in both the defeat of Japan and the creation of NK; there’s almost no mention of the American, Chinese or Soviet role in any of this. And apparently NK won the Korean war too.) So if you’re a N Korean, you really get it that KIS did some great stuff in the 40s and 50s. Ok. But what about the other 60 years since then? There’s almost nothing. What did KIS do in the 60s or 70s or 80s? I have almost no idea judging by the statuary, the murals, the parks and locations we visited, the talks we got, etc., because it all focused on the independence struggle and the Korean war. (KIS smiling and pointing to a dam or the metro hardly compares with defeating Japan, and sheer volume of imagery of the latter over the former makes that pretty clear.) But the further in time these glories recede, the more it becomes stale no matter how much it gets mythologized. At some point, the past is past, and nothing we saw told me that NK has a strategy for the future.


9. A Few more Notable Observations

a. Just to reinforce just much NK really is the KIS state, NK runs an alternate ‘Juche Calendar’ whose point of origin is the year of KIS birth. So 2012 is Juche year 101. This was all over the literature we received.

b. Forgetting where I was for a moment, I asked our guides if they had email addresses so I could send some pictures. None of them had one. When we were showed computers (see we’re modern), they all ran on bootlegged copies of Windows XP, and the ‘internet’ was actually a NK intranet. No surprise there, but notable nonetheless.

c. Corn was planted in almost every accessible nook and cranny of the countryside. We saw it constantly – up and down in hills in crazy-quilt patterns, or in gullies and ditches next to roads at terrible angles – all of which will be pretty hard to access for harvesting. We took that to be a mark of just how food-desperate the country was.

d. Dilapidation was everywhere. We saw people starting trucks by cranking the engine with a crowbar (I don’t think I’ve ever seen that outside of the movies). On the Soviet-era plane we flew to Mt. Paekdu, the overhead bins had no doors. If we’d hit turbulence, imagine the bags flying all over the place smashing into people’s heads. Flush toilets outside of Pyongyang were a luxury. Beds were flat boards with a blanket on top. Brownouts and back-up candles were common; hot water was not. The roads were atrocious; everyone began to avoid the back of the bus.To be honest, it kept reminding me of traveling in southern Africa where nothing worked right and our drivers kept saying ‘TIA.’

e. I kept wondering what SK will do with all this commie crap when they finally take over (and I do think NK will collapse one day). The historian in me says it’d be a terrible shame to rip it all down. It’s history, whether we like it or not and shouldn’t get airbrushed out. The political scientist in me says the opposite: tear it all down ASAP as symbols of possibly the worst government in the history of East Asia and get on with reorientation toward democracy. Tough question.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

“Kim Jong Il was Born on Mt. Paekdu,” or what I learned in NK (3)

North Korea 2012 349
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 one and two of this series.
5. Pyongyang the Potemkin Village?
The usual line is that Pyongyang is a potemkin village compared to the rest of the country. I can’t say, but I think so. Unfortunately, we only saw the capital, Nampo, and the Mt. Paektu area. And what we saw was quite controlled of course. We were told at certain points that we were not allowed to photograph out the bus windows. But honestly, I didn’t see any extreme poverty. I certainly didn’t see anything like what I saw in southern Africa or India. There was nothing like the gigantic slum-and-shack ‘city’ around Mumbai that is a terribly depressing shock the first time you see it.
My impression instead was that almost everything, beyond the most important government buildings in the elite district around Kim Il Sung Square, was run-down – the sort of crappy, broken down socialist world of faceless, concrete block ‘living units’ portrayed in A Clockwork Orange. Just as Alex lived in “’Municipal Flat Block 18A, Linear North,” so do most North Koreans. In our hotel, there was even restaurant no. 1, no. 2., no. 3, and no. 4. Apparently the Presidium of the Fourth Committee for Ideology in Quadrant B12 decided in the Eighth Five Year plan that restaurants in NK must be as bland as possible…
Like so many of the ex-communist countries I’ve visited, the architecture was hideous – concrete was everywhere, and it was cheaply made, so everything seemed to cracking and crumbling. It reminded me of Mozambique or Vietnam – desperately in need of a good cleaning, more humane architecture, and a lot of foreign investment to tighten things up. And the architecture that was in good repair was that typical soul-crushing communist gigantism. What better way to remind you of your insignificant role as a cog in the KIS machine than epic concrete monumentalism towering above you. Awful.
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6. Moral Discomfort.
The guides are smart enough to realize that foreigners, especially westerners and/or the deeply religious, would have a fair amount of trouble if we were expected to bow to images of KIS and KJI as often as North Koreans must. Do the North Koreans really believe it? Who knows. The problem of ‘hidden preferences’ is pretty obvious in NK. But foreigners have a little bit more room to dissent. I made sure to roll my eyes occasionally or drift away from the group when the presentations got more over-the-top than usual. We only had to bow twice – once at Mansudae, which is obligatory for any foreigner visiting, and once near Mt. Paekdu. There was a opportunity to buy flowers with the bowing at Mansudae, which I forewent. A bit of resistance.
The other obvious problems are one, going to NK itself, and two, how to respond to guides and other North Koreans as you meet them and they are polite and pleasant with you. On the first one, I wrestled with this a bit. Travelling to North Korea is expensive – $3-400 a day, the bulk of which goes to the regime. So in going you are supporting it I guess, which still makes me very queasy. But I have to say that my morbid curiosity won out. I didn’t make it the east bloc before the Wall fell, and China and Vietnam hardly count anymore. So I was terribly curious to see a stalinist system before it disappears, which I do think one day will happen in NK. But it was a morbid curiosity – you go not to take a vacation or tour some exciting, exotic place. You go to see what a mess it is. It’s ‘disaster tourism’ – like those people who took bus tours of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. You couldn’t care less about KIS, instead you are going to see how the regime obsesses over KIS. You go to observe the personality cult and wonder about its freakishness, not to actually participate in it. This is why I went to see Mao and Ho in China and Vietnam too; as a political scientist, I found it absolutely fascinating, in a very, very disturbing way, to watch it all.
The other issue is how to respond to the North Koreans you meet. Inevitably the people you meet are pleasant and polite. We drank beer with our guides, small talked with the drivers, chatted with students we meet, etc. Inevitably this humanizes them, which is presumably one reason NK permits such tourism and why SK dislikes foreigners going. Do I feel like NK is any less awful and barbarous after talking with people in NK? Were we Lenin’s ‘useful idiots’ to be deployed in propaganda later to show the foreigners do in fact find NK a nice place?
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More in the 3 days.
Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

“Of course the Americans Started the War,” or what I learned in NK (2)

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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 NK should probably be re-named Kim-land. Here are some more impressions:

1.a. Kim Jong Un was not so emphasized.

In passing, it is worth noting that KJU was not stressed that much. At the Arirang games, portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were put up, but not KJU. Nor did we see any images of him at all. No portraits or murals. There were a few slogans using his names, but no imagery anywhere. We were told that is because of his modesty. He does not want to so glorified while he is still alive. I don’t buy that for a moment. Maybe it suggests he is still getting a hold of the state? Not quite sure what to make of it.

1.b. KIS and KJI equally deified?

Also noticeable was the equality between KIS and KJI, which surprised me. At the most famous image of KIS, the Mansudae grand monument, KJI has been placed right next to him, in similar size and on the same plane. The kremlinologist in me noted right away that KIS was not elevated above his son. This was also the case for their images on horseback at Mansudae Art Studio and when their images were presented to us at the Arirang Games (below). I kept trying to get a sense of which one was more important or greater, but couldn’t (and the guides ducked any questions that even hinted about this).

North Korea 2012 014
I kept thinking of how Stalin was placed in the Red Square mausoleum next to Lenin immediately after his death, but then, with destalinization, he was removed. He was buried behind the mausoleum, and even under the partial re-stalinization of Brezhnev, he was not put back. NK arguably reached its high point under KIS, who seems a little less dangerous than his son was. I wonder if a ranking will eventually emerge?

2. Get your terminology right!

My Korean is already an embarrassment, but all the unique NK vocabulary made it a pain and signaled that I had training in SK. Korea was ‘Choseon’ not “Han-guk,” which I knew beforehand but kept forgetting to say. This was politely ignored, but no one teaches you how to say ‘long live the great general comrade KJI’ in SK language schools. D’oh! And the Marxist-Juche vocabulary was a even harder – I don’t think I ever learned the word for ‘peasant,’ because there aren’t any in SK, but now I know. I would also forget to attach titles to KIS and KJI, like ‘comrade,’ ‘general,’ etc, which the guides were fastidious in using. I also kept almost using the South Korean parlance for North Korea (buk-han), which was a major mistake, but the words DPRK in Korean were a mouthful to learn. All in all, I kept putting my foot in my mouth.
North Korea 2012 189
3. Not as much propagandizing of the tourists as I expected.

I heard that visits to the Soviet Union involved a lot of ideology and agit-prop for the tourists, but this wasn’t the case for us. Maybe with the Cold War over, the travel service realizes we’d just fall asleep if they rolled that out. But I was surprised given NK’s reputation and the very obvious efforts to indoctrinate the N Koreans themselves. Occasionally we got guides who seemed like true believers, and the video at the captured USS Pueblo was a real hoot about decadent US imperialism turned back by the quiet heroism and might of the Korean people and so on. But as a rule, we weren’t bombarded by claims about western failure and socialism’s triumph and all that. When unification did come up, the idea of ‘one country two systems’ was the typical response. No one argued for a war (which was hardly surprising I guess, but still nice to hear). We were however sure to be told that the US began the war – not even Syngman Rhee and the South so much as the mi-guks.

4. God forbid you fail on-the-spot guidance.

We heard so much about KIS and KJI coming to this or that location to provide nuggets of wisdom like, ‘this restaurant should serve healthy food and the workers,’ that it got to be second-nature. Typically, when we reached a place or facility, a local guide would tell us what the institution was, and by the second or third sentence, tell us when KJI and KIS came to visit. In the metro museum, these dates were recorded in detail with a light display indicating when, where, and how often. Typically the guidance was banal – this ‘bridge should heroically serve the people’ – which apparently caused the builders to redouble their efforts and dramatically improved the quality of the bridge. Often the guidance was then inscribed into a gold-leaf plaque that was hung by the entrance so that all could read it immediately on entering. Or the plaques would be free-standing concrete edifices, presumably to indicate the enduring strength of the state. On My Paekdu, the locations where KIS/KJI stood were roped off with guards drifting about.

North Korea 2012 205

One moment stood out. We visited a collective farm that had heavy investment by China. Unlike so much else we had seen, it looked clean and functional. There was no cracking concrete, hulks of blown-out tractors, broken windows, etc. By NK standards, it was a marvel. Yet our local guide made sure to tell us in his second sentence that KJI had approved of it. And she said it in such a way that implied that if KJI hadn’t approved, they might have burned down the whole facility and plowed it under. This site was enormous and represented a large portion of NK agriculture in certain sectors. Yet all that hung on the capricious fancy of one man. The way our guide told us of his approval made it sound lucky that this otherwise excellent facility was approved and therefore operational. Good thing KJI wasn’t having a bad day that time or was otherwise upset – I guess that would have been a good enough reason to deprive the whole country of fruit. This was one of those moments that really reinforced the royalism I argued for in the first post.

More in 3 days.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

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