Ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics, the media has become fascinated with a common narrative that the erstwhile “bitter enemies,” North and South Korea, will march under one flag. The identity and political relations of the Koreas are more complicated than the “enemy” rhetoric conveys. Emblematic of this complexity are the families that are separated by the border, with living siblings that pre-date the division of the peninsula. The current thaw in inter-Korean relations is rooted in the late 1990’s “Sunshine Policy” of the former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. Yet, the question remains as to whether direct engagement between North and South Korea has the possibility to fundamentally alter the political situation on the Korean Peninsula.
So this post is a bleg to those of you who know more about alliances than me. I am considering writing this up for an article, so I thought I would ‘crowd-source’ early comments on the basic argument. I also wonder if someone elsewhere has already suggested this idea in the vast alliance literature. So please let me know. The motivation is inductive – the deepening tension between Japan and Korea has suggested the addendum to alliance theory I am proposing here. But I wonder if others have said this before.
Put briefly, I don’t think entrapment or abandonment captures the US position between allies in dispute, like Japan and Korea, or Greece and Turkey (perhaps – I know that latter case less well). Instead, each seems to use the US alliance patron to: a) compete with each other, because b) the US alliance relieves external pressures (China and North Korea, and the USSR and chaos in the Balkans and Middle East, respectively) that would otherwise incentivize a rapprochement. These four states are not trying to ‘entrap’ the US so much as leverage it for an intra-alliance squabble, with the shared patron as referee. I’ve not read this theorized elsewhere, so here is an effort to do so.
This has been on my mind a lot because the Korea-Japan meltdown has been so bad recently. And I think it’s a good research question if you are into Asian IR. I have written about this before and just did again this month and yet again. I’ve argued repeatedly that the reason America’s allies in Asia cooperate so poorly is moral hazard. But this is different question. It is meant to explore why Koreans exaggerate Japan so much. Why do Koreans – the media specifically – routinely say things like Japan is run by right-wing fanatics who want to invade the Liancourt Rocks with samurai? These statements are not only obviously false, they are ridiculous.
I have said before (here, here) that Koreans have legitimate grievances regarding Japan, particularly on Yasukuni and the comfort women. But Koreans don’t stop there; they go over-the-top with things like the Sea of Japan re-naming campaign, claims that Japan wants to invade Korea again, that Japanese behavior in Korea equates with the Holocaust, or that Liancourt is worth going to war over – even though a Korean use of force against Japan would almost certainly eventuate a US departure from SK and therefore dramatically reduce Korean security. Other victims of earlier Japanese imperialism don’t talk like this, and I think a lot of well-meaning Japanese, who do recognize what Japan did in Korea, are genuinely baffled by all the hyperbole.
If you haven’t yet seen the zone’s geography, here it is to the left, complete with its overlap with the Korean and Japanese zones. The most important conflict of course is over Senkaku, but Korea watchers will also note that the Ieodo submerged reef, which Korea claims, is also in the zone. Gotta wonder what the Chinese were thinking by giving Korea and Japan common cause over anything. Foolish.
Dan Drezner asked the question I think pretty much everyone is wondering now: did the PRC really expect the US, Japan, and SK to just accept this out of the blue? Obviously they’re not, and it’s hard to find anyone besides the
Fox News of Asia Global Times who thinks they should. The following are some quick ideas for where this suddenly came from. Each is more-or-less tied to a level of analysis, but the prose is laymen-style because it was originally written for media
1. Belligerence (anarchy, straight-up realism): the Chinese really are picking a fight with Japan. This is the worst possible reason. They may figure that the Hagel visit to Japan a couple months ago has made Japan into an open challenger to China now. And that is kinda true. America is hedging China, ducking and weaving, trying hard to avoid an open confrontation with it. But Japan is increasingly unabashed that is it balancing China directly as a threat. Abe is increasingly willing to call out China openly. So Asia is becoming a serious bipolar contest, and maybe the Chinese are thinking: ‘to hell with it; Abe’s playing tough; we have too also.’ Certainly my Japanese colleagues in this area increasingly talk about China this way.
Hollywood’s solution to intractable interstate conflicts
This is what happens when you write in the area of Japanese-Korean relations. Pretty much everybody hates you, because you don’t tell them what they want to hear, and then maximalists come out of the woodwork to, as Robert Farley aptly put it, “explore Japanese-Korean animosity one angry e-mail at a time.” As I’ve argued before, there’s little domestic cost to the either party for the most outrageous rhetoric, so this just goes on and on. Given that intractability, the Obama administration’s big idea to untangle this – sending embarrassingly unqualified socialite donor Caroline Kennedy to be ambassador to Japan – is cringe-worthy. So why not call Tina Turner? She’s a celebrity too. And Aunty Entity is the kind of no-nonsense external ref this conflict needs. (Bad 80s references can fix everything!) Anyway…
The other day I posted how the Korean government leaned on me to alter the nomenclature in my writing – from the ‘Sea of Japan’ to the ‘East Sea.’ I don’t exactly stand on this point. I can’t actually say for sure if I use the expression ‘Sea of Japan’ much. But now, I wouldn’t change just to oppose the highly inappropriate arm-twisting of academics by the state. And then a few days ago, I got one my most creative hate-mails (from a Japanese) in awhile. Both letters follow the jump.
I am so burned out on this issue, I’m ready to say we should just nuke the Liancourt Rocks (left) to end this whole thing. But it’s everywhere now in the regional media. Park pointedly won’t meet Abe, which the Japanese media is reading as a huge snub. She even said she’d talk to Pyongyang before Tokyo (yikes!). The Japanese are getting more open in expressing loathing for Korea. The Americans are livid. And the Chinese and Norks are loving it all, I have no doubt. So here’s yet another essay on this topic. This is the English version of a long-form essay I wrote for Newsweek Korea last week.
The short, IR-ish version is that: a) S Korea is a middle power that risks ‘overplaying its hand’ against Japan, as a think-tanker friend put it, because of the ‘moral hazard’ facilitated by the American alliance (as Katzenstein noted long ago, Japan is the US anchor state in Asia, and Koreans can’t change that no matter how much they resent that special relationship); b) the Americans believe in the democratic peace and simply don’t accept that Japan is some kind of proto-fascist state (this is a real breakpoint with the Americans); and c) Korean geography basically traps it in a ‘balance of threat’ quandary: even though it is small, its proximity means it will get pulled into the Sino-US/Japan stand-off whether it likes it or not. The only possible way out I can think of for Korea is unilateral nuclearization (more yikes). Also, my continuing skepticism of the pivot pops up. I still don’t think Americans actually care enough about Asia to really get pulled into a major competition with China. Here’s that essay…
Newsweek Korea asked me to participate in a debate on Obama’s strategic patience. A friend of mine wrote against it; I wrote in defense. Here is the Korean language text at the NWK website. Below is my original English language version.
In brief I argue that North Korea is so hard to pin down, that big strategies never work with it, provoke it into lashing out, and raise impossible expectations on democratic decision-makers. So Obama is acting responsibly, IMO, by not promising more than he can deliver and by not giving a reason for NK to act out.
After 20+ years of negotiating on more or less the same topics, it should be pretty obvious that NK is insistent on not being placed in some box by outsiders. It will not be treated as some technocratic ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ by a conference of experts, like global warming or something. And it will lash out if necessary to remind us of that. Hence, I argue for ‘muddling through,’ and that we should stop expecting our policy-makers to have some great NK strategy that will fix the issue. That’s not gonna happen. We all know that. We just have to wait for China to stop paying NK’s bills. Until then, all the sweeping declarations (‘agreed framework,’ ‘sunshine’,’ the ‘axis of evil,’ the current big idea du jour of ‘trust’) are rather pointless and raise impossible expectations among voters in SK, the US, and Japan. Let’s be a little more honest about what we can expect from North Korea.
I continue to be amazed at how the Korean government won’t admit that Japan’s revival is really good for democracy in Asia and the prevention of Chinese regional primacy. No less than the SK finance minister (pic) actually said Abenomics is more dangerous to SK than the NK missile program. Wait, what?? The worst totalitarianism in history gets a pass when the Bank of Japan prints a lot of cheap money? Come on. That’s unbelievably irresponsible. Are Korean officials so deeply bought by the chaebol that they actually have to say stuff like that? Honestly if Minister Hyun really believes that (I doubt that though, see below), he should probably resign. This is just an embarrassment.
The conventional wisdom on the US presence in Asia is that we re-assure all players. Specifically, US allies don’t need to arms race local opponents, because the US has extended deterrence to cover them. Hence Japan and South Korea don’t need to go nuclear, for example. Among academics, this logic pops in the work of Christensen, Ikenberrry, and Nye; among policy analysts, here is the US military saying this, and here is the DC think-tank set.
But there’s flip-side to this logic that really needs to be investigated – whether the US presence also freezes conflicts in place, by reassuring Asian elites against their own reckless nationalist rhetoric, racially toxic historiographies, and Fox News-style inflammatory media (just read the Global Times op-ed page occasionally). I think the Liancourt Rocks fight is a particularly good example of this ‘moral hazard’ mechanic, as is the recent comment by no less than the South Korean foreign minister (!) that Abenomics’ threat to Korean export competitiveness is a greater danger to SK than North Korea’s nuclear program. That kind of preposterous, reckless myopia can only be explained by taking the US security umbrella for granted.
Newsweek Japan asked me to write an introductory essay for a special issue on tension in Northeast Asia. Basically I plea not to throw out all the remarkable growth of the last 35 years in an orgy of nationalism. It’s almost certain that the post-79 Asian peace was a necessary condition for simultaneous economic growth. So fighting over some empty rocks (Liancourt Rocks, Pinnacle Islands) is a terrible idea. And for IR, I think the current Sino-Japanese tension is a good test of the old liberal hypothesis that economic interdependence encourages peace. It’s fascinating to watch China especially try to figure out just how much economic gain to forego to push Japan over the Pinnacle Islands. Here we go:
The North Korea flap seems to be calming down, so here I reprint my original essay from the Diplomat a few weeks ago on the crisis, plus a follow-up ‘response to my critics’ essay from the China Policy Institute Blog of the University of Nottingham and e-IR. Together, I think they make a nice whole, although it’s a little long for a blog-post. I would like to thank Harry Kazianas of the Diplomat, John Sullivan of Nottingham, and Max Nurnus of e-IR for soliciting me.
“North Korea is the ‘Boy who Cried Wolf’: There will be No War” (first essay, from April 10)
So it increasingly looks like the inter-Korean Kaesong industrial zone is closed for good. (The Wikipedia write-up is a pretty good quick history of it.)
The zone was set-up during the Sunshine Policy period (1998-2007). It was to do 3 things: 1) Lead to some liberal-capitalist spill-over in the North, 2) Expose regular North Koreans (the workers in the area) to regular South Koreans (the managers and staff), and 3) Generally provide some inter-Korean cooperation that might hopefully reduce larger tensions. A resort area in North Korea (Mt. Kumgang) was also opened along these lines in the Sunshine period. Broadly the idea was along the lines of liberal explanations for the Soviet Union’s changes in the 1980s: the Helsinki Accords and CSCE opened the USSR to the outside world, and the inflowing liberalism slowly changed attitudes that eventually helped wind-down the Cold War. Unfortunately, none of this seems to working in the NK case.
Here are part one and part two of this post. I spoke last Tuesday at a USC-CSIS conference on Korean unification. I learned a lot, and it was very good. If you’re interested in unification, start here with the primary report on which the conference was based. The principal investigators said a final wrap-up report will come at some point, and I’ll put up that link when it arrives.
My comments below are on the papers presented on Tuesday about neighboring states’ reactions to Korean unification. These papers aren’t publicly posted yet, so all the comments might not make sense. But in the interest of completism, I’m putting this up to round out my thinking on this excellent unification project. (For my earlier thoughts on dealing with NK, try this; for my travelogue of my trip to the DPRK, try this.)
My big beef with these sorts of conferences on NK – I go to a lot – is that inevitably outsiders, especially Chinese scholars, start laying down all sorts of guidelines, restrictions, parameters, etc. for unification, as if it’s our right to muck around in this thing. I can understand the national interest in doing so. But we shouldn’t have the temerity to try to legitimate our muddying of the waters in what is really an internal family affair. It would also help a lot if the Chinese would stop talking (not so much at this conference, but definitely at others I’ve gone to) about how Korea needs to respect its wishes, because China is big and important now, post-2008 Olympics. I heard one guy once even say that China is now the ‘veto-player’ on unification. That’s true of course in realist sense, but that sorta cockiness infuriates Koreans who’ve really soured on China in the last decade. I see the same kind of emergent Chinese bullying on unification that Southeast Asian littoral states see on the South China Sea. So I try to call that out whenever it seems necessary.
Anyway, here on my thoughts on Japan, Russia, and China’s role in this thing.
Here is part one of this post. The following will make more sense if you start there. I noted that I am participating, today in Seoul (attend if you can), in a USC-CSIS project on Korean unification. This is the final ‘phase’ of their Korea Project on unification.
I thought I would post my thoughts on the previous USC-CSIS Korea report (available here) which provided all sorts of suggestions for reconstruction. It’s useful reading if your area is East Asia or Korea, but I actually disagree with a fair number of the analogies of NK to Iraq and Afghanistan. I think Germany is a better model for what will happen, and I think a ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement like in greater China is nearly impossible given the extraordinary deep ideological divide, which is also existentially necessary for NK to demonstrate why it must be a separate, poorer Korean state. So it’s either implosion or stalemate.
Anyway, the rest of my thoughts are after the jump. Having read the CSIS report is not a prerequisite to understanding my arguments, but it would help.
The University of Southern California Korean Studies Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies are running a joint Korea Project: Planning for the Long Term (pic to the left). CSIS will hold the last of three conferences in this project at the Asan Institute on January 21st next week. If you are in Seoul, you should go. The agenda looks pretty good. (Contact the Asan Institute.) I’d like to thank USC and CSIS for soliciting my participation..
The January 21 conference is actually the last meeting of the Project. The first meeting asked Korea area experts to look at unification; the second meeting asked functional experts to do the same. This upcoming third meeting will look at regional impacts from unification. I will comment on papers from Russia and Japan. I will put up my thoughts on those papers after the Phase III conference, but for now, I thought I would post my comments on the Phase II conference (by the functional experts).
Basically I argue that Germany is a better model for what will happen here than either the occupations of Iraq or Afghanistan, or LDCs in transition. Also I don’t buy for one second that NK will enter into a meaningful ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement like in greater China. DPRK change meaningful enough to permit a federation would be so far-reaching, that it would inevitably raise the question why the DPRK exists at all. Ideological change is an existential threat to the regime: why be a poorer version of SK if you’re in a federation with SK? why not just join up? This is the logic that undid the GDR. So it’s either implosion or stalemate IMO.
Here is the final CSIS report on Phase II (a must-read if you want to research unification); my gloss on that follows the jump. (Here is the much shorter Phase I report.)
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.
Robert provides Foreign Affairs a “snapshot” on the South Korean election — which Park won today. An excerpt:
For all the talk of the “pivot” to Asia in the United States, the idea is not widely discussed in South Korea. And South Koreans are not all that interested in containing China. Although Korea was a tributary state of China for nearly a millennium, China never terrorized it the way Japan did. A January 2012 poll from the Dong-Anewspaper found that more South Koreans disliked Japan than disliked China — 50 percent and 40 percent, respectively. And the dispute over the Liancourt Rocks, a group of islets claimed by both Seoul and Tokyo, regularly sparks anti-Japanese fervor in South Korea. China and South Korea share obvious cultural similarities, and their sheer proximity means that Seoul and Beijing will inevitably engage on many issues — most importantly, the fate of North Korea. All this means that, for South Korea, relations with China are now arguably as important as those with the United States.
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?
yeah, it’s pretty hysterical, especially when you get the underlying social critique
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