Trump & Korea Policy: We Now Enter the Bargaining Stage

If South Korea’s most sober and cool-headed people are checking the prices of houses in Fairfax this week, there are some good reasons for that. Our next president-elect’s Korea policy could not be more unsettled if he had written it on an Etch-a-Sketch, set the Etch-a-Sketch on the bed of the honeymoon suite in Trump Tower, and fed four quarters into the magic fingers.

In his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” Trump advocated a surgical strike against the North’s nuclear facility before it’s too late. In this year’s campaign, he said the North is China’s problem to fix, though he also expressed a willingness to hold nuclear negotiations with the North’s leader while eating hamburgers. Trump has also called the North’s leader a “madman,” a “maniac” and a “total nut job,” but he’s also praised the young dictator, saying it is “amazing” for him to keep control of the country. [Yonhap]

On the U.S. side, then, it has never been so true that “personnel is policy.” The potential candidates for State, Defense, and Treasury are a Whitman Sampler — diverse and surprising, and in some cases, we’ll probably want to throw them away after the first bite. The New York Times lists the candidates for Secretary of State as John Bolton, Bob Corker, Newt Gingrich, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Stanley McChrystal. All of these men are well-qualified, experienced, and intelligent, and they’ve given much serious thought to foreign policy, although I’d have some misgivings about Gingrich’s temperament and judgment.

Also, Dana Rohrabacher’s name has been mentioned. So has Rudy Giuliani’s, although I can’t see what he really knows about foreign policy. 

Bolton’s nomination would throw the left and the isolationists into apoplexy. It’s tempting to say that this alone is a reason to nominate him (it isn’t). I’d be most reassured by the nomination of Bolton or Corker (who is blamed by some on the right for green-lighting President Obama’s Iran deal, but who played an essential role in passing the North Korea sanctions law this year).

Having met Bolton more than once, he’s a much more sophisticated thinker than his foes give him credit for. I was most surprised by his dry sense of humor — indicative of a capacity to digest contradictions and contraindicative of a one-dimensional ideologue. Bolton narrowly lost a tough confirmation fight to be U.N. Ambassador in 2005, due in part to his undiplomatically harsh characterization of North Korea. I’ve relished pointing out that at the time, one of the strongest critics of Bolton’s criticism of Kim Jong-il was John Kerry, who went on to say worse of Kim Jong-un, thus implicitly validating that Bolton was really right all along. On North Korea policy, I’ve defended Bolton’s record and pointed out that President Obama’s entire North Korea policy (such as it was) was a series of sand castles built on UNSCR 1718, which Bolton drafted and negotiated. 

For Treasury Secretary, candidates under discussion include Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the current Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Steve Mnuchin, a Wall Street banker who financed a string of successful Hollywood films and who holds conventionally conservative economic views, and Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor and darling of economic conservatives. For Defense, those under consideration include Michael Flynn (who has been accused of being too cozy with Putin), Jon Kyl, and Jeff Sessions. 

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South Korea’s beleaguered President, Park Geun-hye is understandably terrified of this uncertainty and the risk that Trump’s election could endanger the country’s alliance with its long-standing security guarantor. For example, Victor Cha was quoted as suggesting that Trump might accelerate the transfer of operational control of alliance forces from the U.S. to South Korea. It’s a move first proposed by Donald Rumsfeld, but South Koreans have come to see it as a first step toward U.S. withdrawal. Nervous South Koreans have been trying to build bridges to Trump’s transition team, even as protesters have massed in the streets in an attempt to oust the first democratically elected South Korean President to have an effective North Korea policy since … ever.

Park must have been relieved when, in a ten-minute telephone conversation, Trump promised that America would continue to be a “steadfast and strong” ally, would stick by Seoul “all the way,” would “never waver,” and would be “with you 100 percent.” Reports of the conversation between Park and Trump suggested that Trump had backed away from some of his more isolationist rhetoric, and reassured jittery South Koreans. One subject Park probably brought up was sanctions against North Korea, maintaining the momentum toward cutting off Kim Jong-un’s hard currency, and confronting China’s long-standing and willful sanctions-busting. Here, Trump’s team has been saying the right things:

The United States should impose “secondary boycott” sanctions on Chinese financial institutions for doing business with North Korea, a senior member of the transition team of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump was quoted as saying Tuesday.

Former Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner, considered a key policy expert in the transition team, made the remark during a meeting with a bipartisan group of South Korean lawmakers, according to Rep. Na Kyung-won of the ruling Saenuri Party.

Feulner’s remark suggests the U.S. is expected to intensify pressure on China. That’s also in line with Trump’s stance on how to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. He has said that he would pressure Beijing to exercise more of its influence over Pyongyang because it is basically China’s problem to fix.

Feulner also strongly reaffirmed the alliance with South Korea, Na said.

“While stressing that there is no daylight in the alliance between the two countries, he said that there is no difference in the positions of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party or between the ruling party and the opposition party,” she said. [Yonhap]

Trump now denies that he ever suggested that South Korea and Japan should go nuclear. (I’m willing to give him a pass on that if it reassures people, but the idea of going nuclear doesn’t strike me as an insane view from the perspective of defense planners in Seoul, Tokyo, or Taipei. What strikes me as insane is the idea of letting Beijing and Pyongyang have a nuclear monopoly in Asia.) 

In any event, the reassurance won’t last.

First, North Korea immediately made it clear that it won’t denuclearize. This isn’t surprising, although even in his infamous “hamburger” gaffe, Trump still said of Kim, “[W]ho the hell wants him to have nukes?” That puts Trump and His Porcine Majesty on a collision course. 

Second, even assuming Trump nominates a competent foreign policy team, we’ll likely see some difficult negotiations next year over the next USFK cost sharing agreement. I had expressed the view that South Korea should pay a greater share of the cost of USFK long before Trump did. According to the World Bank, Israel spends 5.9 percent of its GDP on defense and the U.S. spends 3.5 percent. By contrast, South Korea spends 2.5 percent and Japan, just one percent. With the U.S. paying the cost of new THAAD batteries in South Korea, U.S. taxpayers will shoulder a higher cost. Given the insufficiency of THAAD as a defense against shorter-range missiles, South Korea may have to buy C-RAM and Iron Dome to protect Seoul and its surroundings. Clearly, South Korea and Japan will have to do more. It’s also true that the three countries are stronger together, and that by integrating their defense strategies, all three countries would spend less to protect themselves against a common threat. The U.S. can make a good deal for the taxpayers if South Korea and Japan pay something more than 50% of the cost, and something less than 100%.

The greater danger, however, lies in the convergence of North Korea’s nuclear hegemony and weak leadership in Seoul. Pyongyang is gradually losing control over the flow of information to its suffering people, and an impoverished North cannot coexist with a prosperous South. Kim Jong-un knows that this ideological competition is zero-sum, and that one system must eventually defeat the other. He cannot possibly believe that his starving conscript army could occupy South Korea today. Instead, since 2010, he has been fighting a war of skirmishes, instigating calculated provocations and sometimes winning important concessions on South Korea’s self-defense, its national policy, its sanctions-busting financial subsidies to Pyongyang, and even South Koreans’ freedom to criticize the North’s system of “government.”

It’s not hard to see how this war of skirmishes will escalate when Kim Jong-un gains an effective nuclear monopoly on the Korean peninsula, or how a future leftist South Korean government might yield to a slow-motion surrender, as part of an extended “peace process,” to the celebration of much of the world press and a few academic dullards who will not even understand what they’re witnessing. Indeed, the greatest Korea policy challenge that most Americans do not fully grasp is how deeply anti-American and anti-anti-North Korean — and in many cases, how pro-North Korean — the South Korean left really is. Today, it looks overwhelmingly likely that the left will end up winning next year’s South Korean presidential election. It’s difficult to see how the next Secretary of State will align with the next South Korean president on defense or North Korea policy. 

What all of this means is that the U.S.-South Korean alliance is about to face its greatest threat since the election of Jimmy Carter, only now, the potential consequences are vastly more terrible for Korea, and for us all: One Slave Korea, the end of nuclear nonproliferation, an increasingly direct North Korean threat to the U.S., and a vast range of geopolitical, humanitarian, and economic effects, all of them bad.

But on the bright side, I hear there are some great bargains in Loudon County. See it before the last leaves fall.

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What victory looks like from Pyongyang (Parts 1 and 2)

Part 1

David Straub’s “Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea” has resonated with me in several ways, but none of them more than Straub’s deep ambivalence about Korea in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a time when I also served there as a young Army officer. Straub admits that in writing his book, he struggled to reconcile, and to show his readers, an honest-yet-fair portrayal of a society that earned his affection, and also caused him much exasperation, even as he was forever bound to it by experience, study, love, and marriage. So it was with me. Indeed, Staub is kind enough to cite this blog in his acknowledgments in his book, and much of what he writes reminds me of my own congressional testimony, from very nearly a decade ago.

What also resonates in Straub’s book is how disturbed he was — as I also was — by the incapacity of so many South Koreans on the political left to perceive the danger North Korea represents to the peace, prosperity, and liberty their parents worked and fought so long and so hard to achieve. Korea is as polarized as we are becoming. Its left is very far left; its right is very far right. The left lives in a Hankyoreh reality; the right lives in a Chosun Ilbo reality.

The Korea I remember then, and the one I continued to read about after my DEROS in 2002, was a place that seemed to find no fault with North Korea and no virtue in America. As Kim Jong-il poured his nation’s resources into developing a nuclear arsenal, Seoul indirectly bought him that arsenal with billions of dollars in cash, no questions asked. (Meanwhile, in cost-sharing negotiations, Korea constantly demanded that U.S. taxpayers subsidize greater proportions of Korea’s defense.) The ever-receding promise that this subsidy to Kim Jong-il’s regime would buy reform and peace was quickly forgotten in a haze of nationalist emotion. Protests against North Korea were suppressed, sometimes forcefully, either by South Korean police, or by far-left activists who operated without official state sanction (but with government subsidies).

Pyongyang’s influence operations had not only opened Seoul’s wallet, but they had also enlisted its government to silence and censor criticism of Pyongyang. By 2005, Pyongyang had effectively silenced Seoul as a diplomatic critic on the North’s crimes against humanity. It had introduced reluctance into Seoul’s legal and moral obligations to accept refugees from the North. It had extracted public statements from Seoul that it was effectively a neutral party — a “balancer” — in any potential conflict between the U.S. and China or North Korea. There were endless demands to renegotiate the countries’ status-of-forces agreement, always to the procedural disadvantage of U.S. military personnel tried in Korean courts. The U.S. began to reduce its forces in South Korea. Although it strongly denied that this represented any diminution of its commitment, it was increasingly difficult to identify what interests and values the two states shared. The alliance was growing apart, and I have little doubt that had Chung Dong-young won the presidential election in 2008, it would have effectively dissolved by now.

No doubt, others who lived in Korea during those years — especially those who harbored more sympathy than me for the Sunshine Policy — may see my view as too apocalyptic. So be it.

The assumption behind most U.S. and South Korean planning and policy is that North Korea’s goal is a military conquest of South Korea. In fact, the situation that existed in South Korea during the Roh Moo-hyun years was far more favorable for Kim Jong-il than a military conquest. War is expensive and destructive, and by 2000, Kim Jong-il knew he could not win it. Rather, he knew that Seoul was worth more to him alive than dead; after all, you can’t milk a cow you’ve slaughtered, and he had already squeezed most of the blood out of North Korea. Surely he must have imagined the effect on his shriveled conscripts from Hamhung and Chongjin to see the cars, skyscrapers, and markets of Seoul, even as occupiers. No rational dictator could harbor the fantasy of occupying a state with twice the population, many times the economy, a vibrant culture, and a much higher standard of living. To dominate South Korea ideologically was the best situation Pyongyang could possibly hope for. During the Roh Moo-hyun years, between 2003 and 2008, that goal that was within sight.

That is to say, I believe Kim Jong-il came much closer to winning the Korean War than most Korea-watchers believe or acknowledge. Indeed, he had everything he wanted from Seoul without any of the costs of war. I still believe Kim Jong-un stands a chance of winning it.

Ironically, just as the North Korean elites and military seem to be losing their cohesion and confidence in Kim Jong-un, the U.S. and South Korean elections of 2016 and 2017 could put Kim Jong-un on a path to winning the Korean War within the next decade. To Kim Jong-un, victory does not look like overrunning the Pusan Perimeter. Instead, it looks like a one-country/two-systems hegemony over the South as the North gradually seizes political and economic control. I’ve said that predicting history is a fool’s errand. Having said this, I predict that within the next five years, one of the two Koreas will abandon its political will to preserve its system of government. It’s just a question of which one will lose its will first. 

Part 2: They will call it peace.

How can an impoverished failed state overcome one of the world’s most prosperous and wealthy nations? Just as a character in “The Sun Also Rises” went bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” Rich states have succumbed to poorer, more determined ones countless times since Sparta defeated and absorbed Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Only the strategies have varied.

North Korea has waged a war of skirmishes against the South almost since the end of World War Two, but escalated it again with the 2002 naval skirmishes in the Yellow Sea, the 2010 Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island attacks, the 2015 land mine incident, and a series of nuclear and missile tests. Seoul’s response to each of these skirmishes was constrained by the long leash of a weary American ally, and by its own calculation of North Korea’s capacity to destroy its cities. As Pyongyang’s destructive power grows in the coming years, Seoul’s deterrence will be nullified. Pyongyang will grow bolder, and the scale of the attacks will escalate to an apex within the next five years, when Pyongyang will become a full-fledged nuclear power. Without the capacity to deter Pyongyang, public and political opinion will demand a diplomatic de-escalation. Pyongyang will be ready to offer one, but peace will come at a high price.

Every time Pyongyang has raised fears of a second Korean War, the easy and popular decision for the South Korean government was to make some small sacrifice of its freedom or security to de-escalate a potentially catastrophic conflict. Each compromise, viewed in isolation, seemed like the sensible thing to do at the time. Never mind that Pyongyang premeditated each of these war threats to begin with, apparently with a calculated political purpose. In each of these cases, South Korea’s political left (and more often than not, its political right, too) was willing to make these small, “pragmatic” sacrifices for peace.

Recent history tells us precisely how Pyongyang’s censors will extend their reach over the South to suppress its critics. In recent years, Pyongyang has repeatedly demanded that Seoul muzzle or censor political criticism of it as the price of peace. The second of the 2000 inter-Korean agreement’s eight points required the two sides to “work for mutual respect and trust in order to overcome differences in ideology and system.” Seoul obliged, and used the police forces of a nominally free and democratic society to enforce the point against the few troublemakers — and there were very few of them, most of them defectors — who protested against the North. For the next decade, many of the films that emerged from South Korea’s movie studios — which benefited from preferential government “screen quotas” — were anti-American enough to have been ghostwritten by the United Front Department in Pyongyang itself. Foreign films that offended Pyongyang were sometimes banned from South Korean theaters.

In 2014, Seoul agreed to Pyongyang’s proposal that each state should cease its “slander” of the other, as part of a deal allowing family “reunions” — in reality, short visits with relatives, often people abducted by the North, under the close supervision of North Korean minders. It was never clear exactly how the two sides would define “slander,” or whether Pyongyang would interpret this as an agreement by Seoul to censor criticism of Pyongyang by private South Korean citizens or activist groups. (Pyongyang prefers vague agreements. It can interpret them freely at moments of opportunity.)

As the world learned from the Sony cyberattack later and since then, Pyongyang recognizes no limits to its censorship and no distinction between the speech of governments and private persons. Pyongyang’s new skill in cyberwarfare is its newest and greatest weapon to censor its critics abroad. The greatest impact of the Sony attack may be the films that were never made because the studios submitted to their fears. Pyongyang will deny responsibility for these cyberattacks, of course, but studios, newspapers, and the government in Seoul have learned that it is wiser to avoid criticizing Pyongyang.

There will also be more direct methods of extortion. In the short-lived 2015 agreement after North Korean troops planted land mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers, the South agreed to stop loudspeaker propaganda announcements along the DMZ, and to work toward “dialogue” and “cooperation.” These are not bad things in themselves, of course, except for the troubling circumstances. Pyongyang had walked away believing that it had won a financial payoff from talks that began with an armed and unprovoked attack. At other times, the North has sent assassins to murder its critics in the South, or threatened war to stop activists from launching leaflet balloons — and plenty of South Koreans wanted their government to comply. Television stations and newspapers that broadcast criticism of Pyongyang were hit with cyberattacks in 2013 and directly threatened with artillery strikes in 2012.

Some experts have estimated that North Korea could have road-mobile ICBMs by 2018, or perhaps 2020. At some point in the not-too-distant future, it may also have submarine-launched missiles that can hit America’s coasts with nuclear weapons. It may be able to put a nuke on a medium-range missile now. Its reliable and accurate short-range missiles are the greatest direct threat to the South, especially if combined with large volleys of artillery rockets. It’s difficult to see how a missile defense system can protect Seoul from a large number of accurate and reliable short-range missiles flying at lower trajectories. Even if they can’t carry nuclear warheads, those missiles can probably carry chemical and biological weapons. 

Pyongyang’s goal, of course, isn’t to use these weapons, except in dramatic demonstrations or shocking-yet-limited skirmishes. Its goal is to shift the balance of power and terrorize South Korean society into slow submission. As its nuclear capability rises, so will the stakes, and so will Seoul’s temptation to make small sacrifices, one at a time, in the name of peace — by stopping anti-North Korean broadcasts and leaflet launches, by encouraging studios and financial backers to abandon their support for plays or films critical of North Korea, or by launching tax audits of newspapers that print critical editorials. If these suggestions seem fanciful, they shouldn’t. If you’ve read the links I’ve embedded in this post, you already know that similar occurrences took place during Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency.

Korea’s extreme-left tide has receded since 2008, but the pendulum will swing back, and voters grow weary of one-party rule. South Korea will hold its next presidential election in 2017. Despite some earlier flirtations with moderation, the recent direction of South Korea’s political left isn’t encouraging. The newly elected leader of the main opposition Minjoo Party is Choo Mi-ae, a disciple of Moon Jae-in, who is himself a disciple of Roh Moo-hyun. In 2003, Roh appointed Choo to serve as his special envoy to the United States on the North Korean nuclear crisis, where she “set out a series of bold proposals for promoting peace on the Korean peninsula and for resolving the international deadlock with the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.” 

One of Choo’s most prominent policy positions today is a promise to lead her party’s opposition to American’s deployment of THAAD missile defense batteries. She gives every indication that she intends to steer Seoul in a more anti-anti-North Korean direction and return it to policies like Roh Moo-hyun’s. This would mean a sharp left turn for South Korea’s security policies, diplomatic posture, and its enforcement of sanctions against the North. The foreign policy establishments in both Seoul and Washington are universally — and understandably — terrified that the election of Donald Trump would destroy our alliances in Asia, invite Chinese hegemony and North Korean aggression, and destabilize much of the region.

What no one is saying is that the election of Choo Mi-ae could present just as great a danger.

For years, Pyongyang’s sympathizers have demanded that the U.S. sign a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. Recently, Pyongyang has raised that demand itself. In reality, North Korea doesn’t really want peace; after all, the perpetuation of conflict with foreign enemies is its raison d’etre, the justification for its oppression and its abysmal standard of living. For the same reason, it doesn’t even want a peace treaty. What Pyongyang really wants is a peace treaty negotiation. It wants the concessions it will demand and get as preconditions to keep the “peace process” moving forward. Above all, it wants to buy time. It needs, if only briefly, the relaxation of sanctions and subversive challenges to its legitimacy while it rushes to complete its nuclear arsenal. With this accomplished, its bargaining power will be greatly enhanced, and U.S. and South Korean options to deter its threats will narrow to a vanishing point.

Would the Clinton administration simply go along with this? I suspect so. In the dozen-plus years I’ve watched Korea policy in Washington, it has never ceased to astound me how much Washington defers to Seoul’s preferred approaches to Pyongyang. A new administration might waste months on policy reviews it should be doing now, and the policy review it should be doing now is premised on the preferences of a lame-duck president in Seoul. Already, we can see the calls for a peace treaty metastasizing from the pro-North Korean fringe into the U.S. foreign policy establishment, through the usual suspects.

U.S. experts and former officials secretly met several times with top North Korean officials this year, and some of them have emerged believing the regime of Kim Jong Un is ready to restart talks about its nuclear program. [….]

“The main thing they are interested in is replacing the current armistice with a peace treaty. In that context, they are willing to talk about denuclearization,” Joel Wit, a nuclear expert with the U.S.-Korea Institute, told me. “They made it fairly clear that they were willing to discuss their nuclear weapons program, that it would be on the table in the context of the peace treaty.”

Wit traveled to Berlin in February with other U.S. experts and met with Ri Yong Ho, who in May was promoted to North Korea’s foreign minister. He said the Pyongyang delegation sent signals that the door was open for resumed negotiations.

Robert Carlin, a former U.S. official and North Korea negotiator, was on the Berlin trip. In July, he wrote an article analyzing a new statement from North Korea in which Pyongyang also talked about denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula as part of a grand bargain with the United States.

Other Americans who have met recently with the North Koreans are skeptical that real signals are being sent or any real opening for negotiations has emerged. Victor Cha, the top Asia official at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, was at the same meetings as Wit and Carlin but came away with the opposite conclusion.

“They don’t seem like they are speaking in a leaning-forward quasi-official capacity,” he said. “They seem to be just spouting talking points.” [Josh Rogin, Washington Post]

It’s not hard to imagine what the North’s opening demands for that peace treaty will look like. It will demand “mutual respect” and an end to all forms of “slander” against its system. Quietly, Seoul will again suppress the criticisms of defectors and activists. Newspapers that “slander” will lose government funding, investors, leases, and tax exemptions. Seoul’s already-considerable internet censorship with tighten, perhaps with friendly technical assistance from China. High-ranking and high-profile defectors from North Korea, already bullied by the far left’s lawfare, will be intimidated out of fleeing to South Korea. Many will choose to take their chances in Pyongyang instead. Seoul will pressure the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights office in Seoul to slow-walk its work and dilute its criticisms of Pyongyang. Seoul’s diplomats would return to abstaining from U.N. resolutions, or quietly lobbying to soften their language.

Pyongyang will demand more aid and “engagement” projects that increasingly amount to transfer payments from South Korean taxpayers to the North Korean elites and military. The demands will grow steadily until the lifestyles of North Korean elites reach parity with South Korea. Instead of leveraging its substantial diplomatic talent toward the enforcement of U.N. sanctions against the North, Seoul would re-initiate “engagement” projects that would refill Pyongyang’s coffers and deprive sanctions of the leverage they would need to disarm Pyongyang.

There will be more demands to suppress South Korea’s capacity to defend itself — an end to military exercises, the cancellation of THAAD and other missile defense systems, and South Korea’s withdrawal from the Proliferation Security Initiative and intelligence sharing agreements. Slowly, its alliances with democratic states will be eroded to nullity. Eventually, Pyongyang will insist that the very existence of an alliance with the United States is an impediment to the peace process. South Koreans would turn from a distant America toward the appeasement of North Korea to guarantee their security, with China as the final adjudicator of its appeals. That will put Seoul on an irreversible course to domination by Pyongyang and Beijing.

The fall of Seoul will not begin with a massive artillery barrage or an armored thrust through Panmunjom. It might begin with a missile attack on an empty mountaintop near Busan, the burst of a single shell at Camp Red Cloud, or an unexplained bombing at Hannam Village, where the families of American soldiers live. World-weary Americans, with their own cities now within range of North Korean submarines, might well decide that an unfriendly, ambivalent South Korea isn’t worth defending. I wouldn’t blame them. We’ll have problems enough of our own once Pyongyang feels no restraint about selling nuclear weapons to any bidder willing to pay the purchase price, and after the global nuclear nonproliferation framework collapses completely.

Once North Korea has an effective nuclear arsenal, it may demonstrate its new capability dramatically, perhaps with a nuclear explosion in the waters off Cheju Island. Then, the North’s attacks — for one pretext or another — will grow bolder. A limited artillery attack might drive thousands of refugees south from Uijongbu and cause a collapse of the real estate market in northern Kyonggi Province. A mine in the Yellow Sea might block a crucial sea lane, or an artillery strike on Incheon Airport might destroy South Korea’s tourist industry and force an evacuation of American civilians. Perhaps North Korean special forces will seize Baekryeong Island, and stage demonstrations by residents welcoming their new “liberators.” Any of these events would trigger capital flight or a market crash, throw South Korea into recession, and leave investors clamoring for appeasement. They would serve the secondary purpose of narrowing the differences between the living standards of the North Korean elites and South Koreans. These things are almost as unthinkable today as the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island were in 2009, but none of them will be cause, by itself, to start a nuclear war, especially if South Korea’s next president believes she can negotiate peace.

The fall of Seoul will not end with the crash of tank treads through the Blue House gates, or by renaming Seoul Kim Il-Sung City, but with signatures, handshakes, smiles, clicking shutters, and the praise of editorialists that two warring states “de-escalated tensions pragmatically” by embarking on a “peace process.” The surrender will be too gradual, and the terms too vague, to be recognizable as such. It will have something like the consent of the governed — that is to say, the soon-to-be-ruled — through the assent of elected leaders who will approve a series of easy, lazy decisions to yield to Pyongyang’s calculated confrontations, embarking irreversibly toward the gradual strangulation of free debate, and then, a slow digestion into one-country-two-systems hegemony on Pyongyang’s terms.

It may or may not involve the dismantling of South Korea’s nominally democratic system, but with no opposition press, and with the South Korean people held hostage to nuclear blackmail, it may not have to. The pendulum might even swing back — a little — but it won’t be able to swing very far. Thus ends the “gradually” portion of our program, and thus begins our segue into the “suddenly” portion. The way in which this portion will play out is, naturally, much harder to predict, although the way this story ends should be clear to everyone.

But at the time, they will call it “peace.”

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The Republicans on North Korea

A few minutes before I sat down to write this, the Republicans officially nominated Donald Trump as their presidential candidate. So on one hand, I’d guess a GOP platform won’t mean much more to Trump than that tax plan you’ve already forgotten about. On the other hand, the GOP platform probably reflects the views of its rank-and-file and down-ballot candidates, and it looks like a thinly veiled call for overthrowing His Corpulency:

We are a Pacific nation with economic, military, and cultural ties to all the countries of the oceanic rim and treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. With them, we look toward the establishment of human rights for the people of North Korea. We urge the government of China to recognize the inevitability of change in the Kim family’s slave state and, for everyone’s safety against nuclear disaster, to hasten positive change on the Korean peninsula. The United States will continue to demand the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program with full accounting of its proliferation activities. We also pledge to counter any threats from the North Korean regime. [GOP Platform]

The platform also mentions North Korea further down, in a brief mention of potential electromagnetic pulse threats.

This year, of course, there are really two Republican parties — the one that still lives in the house and drives the minivan, and the one that took her stuff and moved into the trailer with Darryl, who drives a tow truck — so congressional Republicans have their own platform this year. It has numerous mentions of North Korea, calling it “bellicose,” a cybersecurity threat, and a nuclear threat to be countered in cooperation with our allies in Asia. It criticizes President Obama for extending an open hand to North Korea (among others) in 2009 and says that “strategic patience … emboldened the country’s rogue regime to test nuclear weapons and new missile systems that can reach our territory.”

In most places, it doesn’t sit long after landing. These are the two most substantial excerpts. The first, on alliances, looks like a direct rebuke of Trump.

In East Asia, our allies are desperate for a greater American role. Our top priority must be to counter the threat of a nuclear North Korea. And we must respond strategically to expansionist China’s rise, including checking its territorial ambitions. These challenges create opportunities to bring together Japan and South Korea while strengthening our ties with Taiwan and the Philippines. We cannot allow our alliances in East Asia and the Pacific to atrophy and must shore up our defense arrangements to deter China from tilting the global balance of power toward autocracy. [A Better Way]

The second is about human rights, and contains surprising praise of “the international community,” and implicitly, the U.N., for a Republican policy document.

The regime in North Korea likely has the worst human rights record in the world. Over 140,000 North Koreans are kept in forced labor camps where many are worked to death. Yet for years, the global community, including U.S. administrations, largely ignored this barbarity in a failed attempt to arrest North Korea’s nuclear development. With North Korea having flagrantly demonstrated its nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities, the international community is finally bringing deserved attention to these abhorrent human rights abuses. International condemnation of the regime’s human rights abuses is not only morally justified, but it also weakens the regime’s autocratic grip on power. [A Better Way]

With the South Koreans understandably nervous about the things Trump and his minions have been saying, adults from both sides of the political spectrum are making their disagreements with Trump clear. You expect criticism of a Republican candidate from Democrats and the liberal foreign policy establishment; you don’t expect a Republican Speaker of the House to openly disagree with his party’s (then-presumptive) nominee.

Already, congressional Republicans are trying to mitigate the damage to the confidence of our allies in the region — allies that might be asking themselves if China, voracious as it may be, is a more dependable protector. Senators Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) went to Seoul in June to reaffirm their commitment to the alliance and the Free Trade Agreement, regardless of who wins the presidential election. John McCain was in Seoul last week, too.

And of course, the South Koreans have no better friend in Washington than Ed Royce, who has been going directly to South Korean people to talk about human rights, financial sanctions, and the importance of the alliance. In recent months, Royce has met with South Korea’s Defense Minister, Vice Foreign Minister, and National Security Advisor; U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert; and the Commanding General of U.S. Forces, Korea. The South Koreans obviously value their relationship with Royce, who said, “I’ve never seen the [U.S.-South Korea] relationship as strong as it is today, and I think it’s going to get stronger … Republicans and Democrats in Congress are very committed to the alliance.”

The smoke from this year’s Republican dumpster fire tends to obscure the intelligence and statesmanship of some congressional Republicans, including members of the Class of 2014.

But then, as I’ve written before, Trump’s apparent soft-line policy toward Kim Jong-un is probably just as shallow and ephemeral as everything else under his hair. He doesn’t see policies; he sees flash cards with inkblots. His appeal is that he projects dominance to voters who harbor two mutually contradictory perceptions — that Barack Obama is weak, and that we have too many foreign entanglements. Trump craves the adoration of the mobs, and the mobs like the idea of “noninterventionism” in the abstract, right up until someone pisses them off. Then, they want a president who bombs stuff.

Which is interesting — and by “interesting,” I mean “terrifying” — because some of those observations are just as true of Kim Jong-un, only Kim’s stakes in maintaining his image are much higher. Kim must provoke the U.S. to maintain the adoration of his generals and survive, and Trump can’t stand anyone questioning his manhood by accusing him of backing down to Kim Jong-un. The personalities of these two men, both flawed and neurotic in their own ways, put them on a collision course. I’m more afraid that Trump will overreact and nuke Pyongyang than I am that he’ll cut a crappy deal that gives away Baekryeong-do and the Aleutian Islands, although (as I said before) those are both plausible possibilities, and aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s not hard for me to imagine a Manafort-Han Pact as a prelude to war. Not hard at all.

The thing with Trump is, it’s often not really the things he says (though sometimes, it really is) but the man himself. A nuclear South Korea, Taiwan, or Japan would cost me no sleep, if I could believe that things would go only this far and no further. It would be profoundly clarifying for China if the consequence of its bellicosity was to surround itself with nuclear states. It might even be stabilizing for China to have an extra reason not to invade Senkaku or blockade Taiwan.

In principle, I also agree that wealthy allies that want our protection should pay a greater share of the costs. Foreign governments should read this smart analysis of Donald Trump’s criticism of our alliances, and our allies. It’s possible to despise Trump while agreeing that on this issue, he makes a point that resonates with a large (and perhaps, growing) percentage of American voters. If Americans continue to perceive allies as free riders, they will elect a president who promises to walk away from its security commitments entirely. That’s why Seoul’s hard bargains on USFK cost-sharing or the SOFA are ultimately self-defeating.

The good news for Seoul is that American popular support for the alliance is still strong. I’m not sure how much depth there is to that support, however. I certainly don’t see the alliance with South Korea as sacrosanct or permanent, but I don’t believe that presidential candidates should deconstruct alliances soundbite-by-soundbite. I still believe that the ground component of U.S. Forces Korea should be withdrawn, if gradually. Whether the air component stays should depend on whether South Korea acts like an ally that shares our interest in dealing with North Korea as a global proliferation threat. There are plenty of examples of strong alliances where the U.S. keeps its allies safe without keeping tens of thousands of Americans on their soil. Our alliance with Israel is my own mental model of what our alliance with South Korea should become; our alliance with Taiwan is a model of what it should never become.

Much has been said about the risk to the alliance from the U.S. presidential election, but as David Straub points out, the South Korean election is a big risk, too.

Frankly, I’m concerned that too many people in the “progressive” camp in South Korea continue to underestimate Pyongyang, that is, assume that its ultimate aim is security from a hostile world rather than achieving security by inducing the end of the U.S.-ROK alliance and eventually undermining and taking over the South. South Korea will have its next presidential election in December of next year. At least three major candidates are likely to run, increasing the odds that a progressive candidate could win and then try to implement an updated version of the sunshine policy. If that happens, we will suffer five lost years in which the leaders in Pyongyang will feel they have no reason to reconsider their current approach.  [David Straub, NK News]

A Trump victory would contribute to that result by undermining South Koreans’ confidence in us, and South Korean weakness as an ally might be a good opportunity for a Trump administration to reduce the ground component of U.S.F.K.

Recently, however, South Korea has acted like an ally — and a rather effective one at that — and I don’t believe in kicking one’s allies in the teeth. The January nuke test, the consequent closure of Kaesong, and South Korea’s extraordinarily effective sanctions diplomacy have united the two governments to a degree I’ve never seen since I began writing this blog. Perversely, the short-term impact of Trump sharting out extortionate demands for the upkeep of U.S. Forces Korea may have caused the South Koreans to embrace their Republican friends more closely than ever.

But even if the alliance grows apart, let’s not kid ourselves by imagining that North Korea would cease to be a threat. North Korea thinks it has a right to censor our films, threaten our cities, and sell chemical weapons, missiles, and nuclear reactors to the highest bidder. Those things will still be serious threats to our security whether we keep troops in South Korea or not, and there are advantages in having a good relationship with the legitimate Korean government when opposing the illegitimate one. Korea is another one of those problems, like Syria or Iraq, that a lot of simple thinkers would like to walk away from, based on the naive assumption that this is actually possible. Does the Republican Party, whatever it is now, still understand that?

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Update: Perhaps the most reassuring thing I’ve heard about Trump, ever, is the possibility that if elected, he would not serve, other than as a figurehead of some kind. Sorry, but I don’t buy that clever marketing strategy.

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Craig Urquhart: Withdraw U.S. soldiers from Korea

Writing at NK News, Craig Urquhart makes a punchy but powerful case for withdrawing U.S. soldiers from South Korea:

South Korea has been allowed to act like an overgrown child for decades. The U.S. exercised exclusive military command because South Korea could not be trusted not to start a world war, and now resists the American push to transfer operational command. It relies on U.S. protection when it flubs its own diplomatic efforts. It carved out a state-sponsored industrial policy that flouted fair trade rules, but was given a generous pass, and now pretends that this was entirely a South Korean achievement. It received aid from the IMF during the Asian Currency crisis, but has made little headway in financial reform.

The United States has been bailing South Korea out militarily, politically and diplomatically since UN troops landed at Incheon.

The “Miracle on the Han” is indeed miraculous, but it came prepackaged with serious design flaws that South Korea is too smug to address. South Korea was allowed access to foreign markets without reciprocating; sheltering industries breeds inefficiency and creates justified resentment overseas. “Get-rich-quick” economic policies artificially concentrate wealth and power into the hands of a tiny class of fratricidal, laughably dysfunctional and incompetent elites. Favoritism and collusion enables society-wide institutional corruption. “Bbali bbali” (“speed first!”) development encourages a culture of shoddy workmanship and corner-cutting, which, when combined with corruption, actively endangers South Korean society. Rigid, military-inspired corporate cultures stymie the development of creative and knowledge industries, while heavy regulation drowns out domestic and foreign competition, allowing gargantuan family combines, the infamous chaebol like Samsung and LG, to treat South Koreans like indentured laborers and captive consumers. Government interference in the economy makes South Korea more like a nation-sized “company town” than a modern state.

South Koreans are both proud of and enraged by their chaebol. This schizophrenia is a direct result of the economic model spearheaded by South Korea’s 1960s and 1970s dictator, Park Chung-hee. While ostensibly successful, this model was also deeply flawed, yet few will openly admit that the rot was built-in and does not come from pernicious outsiders. Political actors blame vague and sinister-sounding foreign forces for manifestly domestic economic and social issues. They can do this because Korea abdicates responsibility for its own mistakes. [Craig Urquhart, NK News]

Hear, hear. Real patriotism is the companion of national confidence, and as long as South Korea keeps thousands of foreign troops forward deployed near the DMZ, it won’t gain a sense of national confidence, or a sense that it must “own” the consequences of its own policies. One of those policies is the continuation of South Korea’s cuts in its own Army, despite the fact that it lacks the strength to stabilize North Korea in the event of a regime collapse. Another is its policy of sustaining North Korea financially, through projects like Kaesong, which is a de facto subsidy of Kim Jong Un’s misrule.

I’ve also come to believe that USFK’s deterrent effect is dangerously overstated. The presence of U.S. forces gave President Obama a veto against retaliation for the attacks of 2010. That makes U.S. forces more like the opposite of a deterrent against North Korean attacks. I’m not advocating a total withdrawal. Things like anti-missile batteries, air power, and joint naval installations deter attacks and support South Korea’s defense. A large ground component in South Korea, however, is an expensive and counterproductive anachronism.

If you’ve been watching events closely enough, however, there are clear signs that some key policymakers would like to reduce or withdraw USFK. For example, last October, at a news conference in Berlin, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. was “prepared to reduce its military presence in Asia if North Korea rejoins nuclear negotiations and follows through on its denuclearization commitment.” Kerry’s comment drew swift and hard push-back from the South Korean Foreign Minister, Yun Byung-se. Yun “attempted to dilute” Kerry’s comments by saying,“The reduction of the U.S. Forces Korea is an issue that can be discussed in the distant future when the North’s denuclearization is being actualized.” Yun likely has complete confidence that this condition precedent would never come to pass, but it’s less clear that Kerry grasps this. Even so, after Yun talked to Kerry, Kerry was forced to backpedal:

It is too premature to talk about reducing American forces in the Korean Peninsula without “authentic and credible” negotiations with Pyongyang about ending its nuclear program, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday.

Kerry said the United States was willing to restart denuclearization talks with North Korea although he emphasized “there is no value in talks just for the sake of talks.” [….]

“The mere entering into talks is not an invitation to take any actions regarding troops or anything else,” Kerry said after meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se. “If anything, it would be way too premature to have any thought or even discussion of such thing.” [Reuters]

Behind the scenes, Republican and Democratic administrations have been trying to extricate U.S. forces from Korea since the great wave of anti-Americanism of 2003. Kerry’s exchange with Yun came shortly after the Pentagon had agreed to an indefinite pause on the OPCON transfer. The following month, however, the Pentagon decided to withdraw and deactivate the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team of the Second Infantry Division from Korea, a/k/a the Iron Brigade, which had been posted in Korea since 1965. To keep the force numbers at the same level on paper,“similarly sized, fully trained units would be rotated into South Korea for nine-month tours,” although this move would clearly give the U.S. more flexibility to refrain from entering a renewed conflict in Korea.

Kerry’s speedy retreat (from withdrawal!) is understandable to anyone who knows the power of South Korea’s influence machine in Washington. Through the Korea Foundation and other groups, it gives generously to a number of influential think tanks here, which in turn are funded by South Korea’s corporate conglomerates. Ordinarily, rational people don’t throw money at goals that don’t serve their interests. Obviously, those donors believe that it serves their interests to sustain the status quo. Whether that serves America’s interests is an entirely different question. Frankly, I doubt that it serves the interests of ordinary South Koreans, much less the interests of the North Korean people. This suggests a second reason for reducing USFK’s presence — that the scale of this alliance, and the influence machine it has spawned, inhibits the emergence of a more clear-eyed approach to North Korea.

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Roh Moo Hyun’s ex-campaign manager just hates it when politicians exploit tragic isolated incidents

The good news is that Ambassador Mark Lippert has been released from the hospital, and is recovering well.

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[Joongang Ilbo]

Give the South Koreans credit for making lemonade from lemons — the news coverage here has been filled with images of well-wishers greeting Lippert, or expressing regret for the attack on him. The greetings look both staged and sincere,* but because of that reaction, most Americans will see Kim Ki-Jong as one small turd in a vast, sweet, fizzy bowl of gachi gapshida.

lippert 2

I’m not sure I quite agree with that image now, and I certainly wouldn’t have agreed with it nine years ago. In today’s environment, however, I’d guess that Kim’s actions, Lippert’s obvious gift for public diplomacy, and the imagery of the pro-American reaction will shift public opinion in a more anti-anti-American direction, at least until something shifts it back. But as we’ll also see in a moment, the reactions of other Koreans seem oddly conflicted.

Lippert’s assailant, Kim Ki-Jong, has been charged with attempted murder. The Men in Blue have established that Kim visited North Korea not six, not eight, but seven times between 1999 and 2007. Which does raise a rather obvious question:

“We are investigating whether there is any connection between the suspect’s visits to North Korea and the crime committed against the U.S. ambassador,” Yoon Myeong-seong, chief of police in Seoul’s central Jongno district, told reporters. [Reuters]

It’s hard for me to believe that North Korea ordered a hit on the U.S. Ambassador, but then, I never thought they’d order a hit on a South Korean warship or build a nuclear reactor in Syria, either (or get away with both of those things, but I digress). It’s still the sort of thing you expect the police to investigate when someone slashes a foreign ambassador, especially when the assailant’s preferred country-of-destination publicly approves of the attack.

The police are doing a forensic analysis of Kim’s hard drive, and looking at what his phone and financial records say about any accomplices or foreign sponsorship. They’re also going through his library, and have concluded — to the astonishment of no one with any sense at all — that it has some pro-North Korean content.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t want the police to investigate a man’s political views. I don’t believe it should be illegal to hold any political belief, but as we’ve established, Kim Ki-Jong fits the American legal definition of a terrorist, and the motives of a terrorist have to be probative of something in a criminal investigation. Not that there should be much question, based on Kim’s words, actions, target, and timing, that Kim was a North Korean sympathizer. Right?

Opposition leader Moon said that he expressed his appreciation to Lippert as his calmness and online messages helped the alliance remain on a firm footing.

“I believe Lippert’s attitude helps enhance the alliance, but if this incident is politically used (by the ruling party), which claims pro-North Korean followers are behind it, such a move will rather hurt the Seoul-Washington ties,” Moon said. [….]

The liberal NPAD says the attack was an “isolated incident” committed by an extremist nationalist, urging the Saenuri Party not to use the case politically. [Yonhap]

That’s right. Roh Moo Hyun’s former campaign manager and successor party earnestly hope that conniving politicians won’t exploit emotions arising from a tragic-yet-isolated incident for political gain.

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Because that could hurt the alliance. Nice of him to warn us about that.

angry-koreans-protests-demonstrations-08

Also, does anyone else see anything off about Moon passing judgment on the attitude of the guy who just had 80 stitches? Couldn’t he have at least waited for Lippert to come home from the hospital before deconstructing the sensitivity of his tweets? In what sense is “the alliance” responsible for Korean politicians doing what politicians do? And why, by contrast, is Moon so rigidly non-judgmental about Kim Ki-Jong’s motives? He isn’t even waiting for the police to finish their investigation to rule out the McCarthyist smear that Kim Ki-Jong, who slashed the face of the American Ambassador while shouting, “The two Koreas must be reunified!” and protesting joint military exercises, might just maybe have been a North Korean sympathizer.

With this risible statement, Moon not only opened the door to rebuttal about Kim’s views, he opened the door to questions about his own grasp of reality.

Before you get too worried that Moon’s election to the presidency would be the second coming of Roh Moo-Hyun, at least take comfort in the fact that it would be a terrific opportunity to withdraw two brigades from South Korea and put the OPCON handover on a six-month timetable. And if you think hard enough about the insecurity and dependency from which Moon’s attitudes grow, you’ll start to see why that would be a healthy thing for South Korea’s sense of nationhood, self-reliance, and sense of responsibility for its own policies. I’d prefer to see our alliance with Korea become more like our alliance with Israel.

Oh, and since Kim Ki-Jong lawyered up, he now denies having ever been to North Korea, that (in Reuters’s phrasing) his actions were “connected in any way with North Korea,” or that he intended to kill Lippert. Not that I have any great interest in the success of Kim Ki-Jong’s legal defense, but it’s a hard thing to stand by and watch legal malpractice. So, as a man with some experience defending criminal suspects, I’ll offer this gratis consultation to Mr. Kim’s lawyer: get your client under control and shut him the f**k up.

Below the fold, for your enjoyment, I’ve posted excerpts from the delectable inter-Korean dialogue that has broken out over the question of whether slashing Ambassador Lippert’s face was the moral equivalent of Korean patriots resisting the Japanese occupation. (Yes, Pyongyang is doubling down on that one.) I can’t imagine that in the 1930s, a popularly elected Korean government (had one existed) would have lobbied Tokyo to stall the transfer of OPCON back to Seoul. I see that Marcus Noland also found that analogy objectionableWhat I did not see is where Moon Jae-in did. Anyone?

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* A regular reader, based in Seoul, and with strong connections to conservative groups there, writes in to say that the pro-Lippert demonstration shown in this photo was not staged by the Korean government, and describes the organizer as “a grass-roots, pro-US conservative” woman.

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Seoul finally decides it needs a missile defense plan

South Korea and the United States are drawing up a joint contingency plan to employ Washington’s missile defense (MD) system against growing threats from North Korea’s ballistic missiles, a government source here said Tuesday.

The joint contingency plan would employ not only missiles and surveillance equipment the U.S. Forces Korea and South Korea have been developing under their Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) project, but also key assets of the U.S. MD system, according to the source.

The U.S. air defense includes the X-band radar system, the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system and the high-altitude, unmanned aerial vehicle, Global Hawk. [Yonhap]

Better late than never. Despite the objections of China, North Korea’s number one supplier of missile technology and a major exporter of chutzpah, the arrangement under discussion would have the U.S. sharing intelligence, technology, and backup, and the South supplying its flat refusal to join in an integrated air defense system with the U.S. and Japan. Seoul also seems to be leaning toward the deployment of THAAD.

Great. So now tell me who’s going to pay for it.

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So, you really, really don’t like North Korea, do you?

I’m just glad to have done my small part:

North Korea has topped the list of countries that the American people feel most unfavorable toward, a biennial survey showed Monday, amid the communist nation’s prolonged detention of three U.S. citizens.

North Korea received a favorability rating of 23 points out of 100 in the Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey conducted on 2,108 adults from May 6-29. The North was followed by Iran with a rating of 27 points, Iraq with 31 points, Pakistan with 33 points and Russia 36 points. [Yonhap]

Also interesting: just 47% of Americans think U.S. troops should be “used” (Yonhap’s word) if North Korea invades South Korea, compared to 51% who were opposed. Even that is a significant recovery from 22% support in 1982, when memories of Vietnam were relatively fresh. It’s nearly unchanged since 2004, just after the peak of the anti-American fad in South Korea.

Also, it would be a completely meaningless statistic as soon as the first shots were fired. Even my views on that question are very, very complicated, and they would also be subject to dramatic shifts, depending on what the next South Korean government is like.

Yonhap also points to high levels of support for diplomacy with North Korea, but doesn’t mention that the use of targeted sanctions also enjoys overwhelming support. (The study didn’t measure support for sanctions against North Korea specifically, but in the case of Iran, support for both talks and sanctions was stratospheric.)

The original report is here, although I tend to wonder if it’s already been overcome by the shock of recent events and the collapse of President Obama’s mandate for “retrenchment,” as the CCGA describes it.

The study was funded, in part, by our friends at The Korea Foundation.

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Does this mean we’re paying for THAAD for South Korea?

The United States has wrapped up its survey of candidate sites for its advanced missile defense (MD) system to be deployed in South Korea, with a final decision likely to be made before their annual defense ministers’ meeting in October, sources said Monday.
Washington has made no secret that it is considering deploying a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery, an integral part of its MD system, to South Korea, citing evolving threats from North Korea. [Yonhap]

Does the “it” mean that U.S. taxpayers are going to pay for that expensive missile defense system, even as South Korea — burdened with far less public debt per capita than this country — continues to reduce the size of its own military? Well, apparently it does mean that.

But take some comfort in this — if you’re not South Korean, that is: South Korea, under pressure from the ChiComs and the neo-Soviets not to deploy THAAD, is saying that the system is only for the protection of U.S. Forces Korea. Tough luck, people of South Korea.

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Gates: Roh Moo Hyun was “anti-American” and “a little crazy,” and Lee Myung Bak wanted to bomb the crap out of Kim Jong Il.

This must be the most controversial understatement of the year, so far:

Reading a new memoir by former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, South Koreans may be quite surprised by his characterization of the country’s late President Roh Moo-hyun as “a little crazy.”

I estimate that approximately 63.8% of them won’t be in complete shock about that.

Gates recalls a November 2007 meeting in Seoul with the liberal-minded president, whose diplomatic and security policy is still being debated. He calls Roh “anti-American and probably a little crazy.”

Roh was quoted as telling Gates that “the biggest security threats in Asia were the United States and Japan.” [Yonhap]

He said that to the U.S. SecDef’s face, and the SecDef thinks he’s a little crazy? If anything, Gates was too kind. I’m tempted to make the case that Roh’s policies were detached from reality, but I did enough of that when Roh was alive, and besides which, there’s someone willing to argue that about every politician.

Instead, evaluate Gates’s description on its literal, medical merits. If you must, pick some less pejorative adjective, like “unbalanced.” A retrospective examination of Roh’s public statements while in office, which clearly foretold his cause of death, could have been grounds to commit him to an institution for his own safety. Not only did Roh seem to lack the will to govern, I often sensed (correctly, as it turned out) that his suicidal ideations didn’t have an exclusively political character.

I worried more that Roh was projecting those ideations onto his entire country.

Gates also confirms that Lee Myung Bak had intended to carry out a “disproportional” response using “both aircraft and artillery” after North Korea’s attacks of 2010, but that the Obama Administration forced Lee to call off the strikes.

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Obama Administration’s N. Korea policy evolves from the 90s to the 60s.

Not surprisingly, North Korea’s missile test is bringing out a lot of criticism of President Obama’s North Korea policy, but sometimes, that criticism writes itself.  Writing at The Cable, Josh Rogin tells us that just as Kim Jong Un was counting down the launch sequence between drags on a smuggled Marlboro, Wendy Sherman and the State Department’s crack team of Asia experts were relaxing at a cocktail party in honor of — smack your forehead now — the Emperor of Japan, while silently thanking Kim Jong Un for not ruining their holidays:

But several attendees at the Japanese emperor’s birthday celebration told The Cable that the fact so many Asia officials were not at their desks illustrated how surprised the administration was about the timing of the launch.

“Everybody stood down. Nobody thought they were going to do it this week. It was a real head fake by the North Koreans,” another top Asia expert and party attendee said. “DOD, State, and the White House were just stunned by it. They were shocked.”

There were varying explanations as to why the Obama administration was caught off guard. North Korea said Dec. 10 said that “technical issues” were forcing it to push back the launch window. Previously, North Korea had said the launch would come by Dec. 22, and the new window was supposed to end Dec. 29. News reports Dec. 9 and 10 also said the missile was being removed from the launch pad. Those reports turned out to be wrong.

It may be that Sherman and the East Asia Bureau types took too much comfort in Joel Wit’s widely circulated — and spectacularly ill-timed — prediction that snow would delay the launch.  Wit may be the most chronic schlimazel of all North Korea watchers who is still taken seriously by most people, but I think Rogin’s post was a little too unkind to him.  Satellite imagery is subject to different interpretations, and I’ve probably made my own share of wrong guesses.  It’s when Wit stubbornly ignores the evidence that is there that he really invites mockery.  Among other treats, Wit insists that North Korea really does abide by its agreements, it really is reforming and opening its economy, and really isn’t to blame for this launch (South Korea’s decision to extend the range of its own missile gave the North no choice). Off-hand, I can think of roughly three people in Washington who still believe this since the D.C.’s Finest cleaned out the Occupy camp.  So the next time Wit tugs at your heart strings to advocate unmonitored food aid, just remember:
Based on the North Korean government’s own calculation of daily need, the money spent on yesterday’s launch could buy 5.8 million tons of corn, enough to feed a population of 20 million for 19 months.  [Daily NK]
Some of the criticism is what you’d expect from people with partisan and ideological reasons to oppose this president, but I’ve tried to pick out the more serious and credible examples.  John Bolton, for example, became a fierce critic of the Republican president who appointed him, and isn’t an inflexible critic of his Democratic successor:

John Bolton:  In 2009, the Obama administration’s approach to Pyongyang appeared unexpectedly realistic. The White House initially seemed to abandon the Clinton-Bush obsession with making deals involving tangible economic and political concessions to North Korea in exchange for yet more promises to terminate its nuclear weapons program. Mr. Obama rightly believed that avidly pursuing such negotiations, offering one “compromise” after another, simply reinforced the North’s craving for attention without producing results.  [….]

But Mr. Obama’s reluctance to engage the North, simply abandoning the misguided Clinton-Bush diplomacy, is nothing to write home about. Not making unforced concessions that have the political or economic effect of propping up the regime, which repeatedly promises to give up its nuclear program but never does, avoids one erroneous path but follows another. In fact, administration passivity simply permitted the North to proceed essentially unimpeded.

The problem, in other words, is that our policy hasn’t caught up with the long-overdue consensus that North Korea isn’t going to disarm or cease to be a menace for any price, and won’t allow us to just ignore it.  Talks have failed, deterrence is failing, and trying to wait North Korea out has failed because China keeps it afloat no matter what it does.  North Korea is forcing a confrontation.  We’ll eventually have to face that, but it’s also important to make China pay for the behavior it enables.

Stephen Yates:  China should be named and shamed for its role in enabling North Korea to remain and grow as a threat. North Korea is one of the most sanctioned countries on the planet, but Beijing (with only brief exceptions) has effectively watered down and otherwise dulled the impact of international sanctions on North Korean “stability.”

Beijing no doubt would be horrified by the prospect of an international review of the many ways North Korea’s illicit activities involve Chinese institutions, territory, and personnel, but such a comprehensive audit would be entirely appropriate.

Well, yeah, except that everyone who doesn’t already know what China’s game is, is simply denying the overwhelming evidence of its deliberate bad faith.  It’s a small beginning that Susan Rice, who has taken herself out of the running for Secretary of State, is at least trying to be our U.N. Ambassador by pushing her Chinese counterpart past the limits of polite decorum.  Good luck getting her government to reign Kim Jong Un in unless we do things to make him China’s problem, too.  Like sanctioning the Chinese banks and mining companies that finance Kim Jong Un, and threatening to seed the Tumen River valley with more guns per square meter than Waziristan.

Ed Royce:  “I’ve been calling for a North Korea policy with energy, creativity and focus. Instead, the Obama Administration’s approach continues to be unimaginative and moribund. We can either take a different approach, or watch as the North Korean threat to the region and the U.S. grows.”

Royce, who had advocated the global pursuit and freezing of North Korean assets by the Treasury Department, beyond the constraints of a moribund U.N. Sanctions Committee, knows that this strategy worked with devastating effect in 2005 and 2006.  To be fair, the administration has dropped a few hints that it’s considering this:

Even if the Security Council fails to pass sanctions, the United States and other nations could impose unilateral measures, as they have with Iran, the senior administration officials said.  [CNN]

But my guess is they’re more serious when they also say they’ll ask the U.N. for a new (unenforced) resolution, send a few ships to do port calls in Chinhae and Incheon, and stop the long-overdue removal of U.S. ground forces from Korea.

Beijing’s biggest fear has always been destabilizing North Korea, and setting off a collapse that could put South Korean forces, and perhaps their American allies, on China’s border.  [N.Y. Times, David E. Sanger and William J. Broad]

Yeah.  It sure is too bad we have no conceivable means of pressuring China whatsoever.  Any ideas?  Nothing?  In that case, what do you suppose McNamara and Rusk would have done?

But the essence of the American strategy, as described Wednesday by administration officials, was to force the Chinese into an uncomfortable choice.

“The kinds of things we would do to enhance the region’s security against a North Korean nuclear missile capability,” one senior administration official said in an interview, “are indistinguishable from the things the Chinese would view as a containment strategy” aimed at Beijing.

They would include increased patrols in waters the Chinese are trying to claim as part of their exclusive zone, along with military exercises with allies in the region. “It’s the right approach, but whether it works is another matter,” said Christopher R. Hill, who was the chief negotiator with North Korea during President George W. Bush’s second term, and is now dean of the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, on Wednesday. “The approach of thickening up the antimissile effort is something that would get China’s attention.”

Notwithstanding the poor credibility of the Times’s source, I agree that there are some good ideas here, including a regional anti-missile shield, an East Asian analogue of NATO, and an open effort to contain a China whose belligerent territorial claims have scared the bejeezus out of Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and have even given rise to a budding alliance with Vietnam.  This much is to our strategic benefit.  It concerns me that we won’t really go through with this, but it concerns me more that we’ll “send American boys 9 or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”  Increased U.S. involvement should focus on command, control, intelligence, and diplomatic relationships, and controlled sales of the best defensive weapons systems.  It should not focus on putting a heavier U.S. footprint in the region.

I’m sure plenty of Japanese and Koreans sleep more soundly knowing that every Saturday, Itaewon and Pyongtaek are filled with Americans — the likely majority of them civilians — shopping for mink blankets and soju kettles.  They might even feel safe enough to vote for imperialist-America-bashing candidates who promise to cut defense spending and send the difference to Kim Jong Un.  Of course, those soldiers didn’t stop North Korea from sinking the Cheonan, shelling Yeongpyeong, or kidnapping God-knows-how-many Japanese.  In fact, they probably gave the Pentagon enough leverage to prevent South Korea from taking out the North Korean units responsible for the 2010 attacks.  I wonder if any North Korean soldiers know enough to thank Kim Il Sung’s eternal spirit that American G.I.’s keep them safe and well-fed.

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A Quick Thought on this Psy business

My ten year-old can already tell you that one of my life’s newer objectives is to die an old man without having heard “Kangnam Style” even once. Pop culture has never been my thing, but I sure did get tired of all the forced Kangnam-Style allusions and cliches in just about everything written about Korea during Psy’s 15 minutes.  Anyway, if you’re wondering whether I’m even a little bit surprised that Psy once sang, “Kill those fucking Yankees …. Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law, and fathers …. Kill them all slowly and painfully,” well, no, I’m not surprised.  Not even a little.  In fact, I’m sure there was a whole mob cheering those applause lines when he sang them. Some of the rhetoric in South Korea in those days would have made Hamas blush.  It also enjoyed a significant amount of encouragement from — and exploitation by — South Korea’s ruling party. If you doubt me there, then you haven’t read that last link.

You know who made a lot of good points about this? Someone I disagree with more often than not, The Metropolitician.  I agree with him that Psy’s apology was certainly insincere, and the fact that Psy’s “art” has as much to do with Korean culture as a Samsung knockoff. (I allow that Psy may have been just one more ambitious person who exploited the popularity of anti-Americanism for his own selfish reasons, but that excuses nothing.) Having served as a soldier in Korea at the time when Psy was spewing his hate, I don’t deny my feelings of satisfaction that Psy, unlike me, was capable of making millions of Americans aware of the depth of many South Koreans’ hate. I worry that he may also make South Korea as a whole infamous for hate. Like many other things in life, including South Koreans’ own views of America and its soldiers, this would be unfair.  Psy’s promoters must be awfully thankful that their client shares a peninsula with an even more repulsive individual, who provided a timely distraction.

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What Don Rumsfeld Got Right

Writing at Korea Real Time, Evan Ramstad quotes from a memo written by Don Rumsfeld in late 2002, shortly after Roh Moo Hyun was elected President of South Korea on a wave of anti-American rage:

“As you know, the new President-elect [Roh] has stated that he wants to review the relationship,” Mr. Rumsfeld wrote. “Rather than pushing back, I think we ought to accept that as a good idea. If we had recommended it, we could be accused of destabilizing the peninsula, but he recommended it.

Over the next two years, Mr. Rumsfeld’s Pentagon and Mr. Roh’s defense ministry negotiated a substantial drawdown of U.S. troops in South Korea, from about 39,000 to about 28,000. As well, they began the discussions that led to an agreement in 2006 for South Korea’s military to take control of its own troops in wartime. Since the Korean War of the 1950s, U.S. commanders have had wartime control of South Korean troops.

Mr. Rumsfeld so wanted to see a change in the U.S. position in South Korea that, in 2005, he quickly agreed to Mr. Roh’s request for wartime control. “You’re pushing through an open door,” Mr. Rumsfeld told Mr. Roh’s defense minister at the time.

Mr. Roh initially wanted the wartime control transfer to happen in 2009, but later agreed for 2012. Last year, current South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, representing conservative forces who were alarmed by Mr. Roh’s aggressive push to reduce South Korea’s reliance on the U.S. military, forged a new agreement with the U.S. to delay the transfer of wartime control until 2015.

But Mr. Rumsfeld’s desire for change in the U.S.-South Korea alliance was clear in that December 2002 memo.

“We have been there since 1950,” he wrote. “It is time to rearrange the relationship and put the burden on the South Koreans.

The irrational, manipulated anti-Americanism of the bleating herd isn’t directly mentioned here, but it’s the subtext of the whole discussion. A few months later, Rumsfeld was in Korea, telling American soldiers there that the Pentagon was thinking about “making some adjustments” to USFK force levels. Suddenly, the same Roh government that had whipped up and exploited anti-Americanism for its political advantage (and would do so again) began telling the protesters to dial it back. Rumsfeld went forward with the troop cuts anyway, in a move that apparently shocked Roh’s people.

If it were up to me, the Eighth U.S. Army would be commanded by a Staff Sergeant stationed on Cheju-Do. But given the power and influence of the Korea lobby in Washington, Rumsfeld probably did as much as he could. Events have proven Rumsfeld right. The shelling of Yeonpyeong and the sinking of the Cheonan have shown the limits of U.S. deterrence, notwithstanding its financial cost to American taxpayers. In the meantime, South Korea spent about seven billion dollars extending the survival of the North Korean regime and financing its capacity to threaten not only the South Korean people, but Americans who might one day be the victims of weapons proliferated by Kim Jong Il.

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Heritage Scholar Calls for Asian Missile Defense Alliance

Bruce Klingner at the Heritage Foundation is proposing an idea whose time has come: a comprehensive, multi-national missile defense system for Asia. Klingner’s argument begins with an explanation of what should be obvious — that diplomacy has failed to disarm North Korea, as China’s own missile arsenal is growing rapidly. The land- and sea-based system Klingner proposes would protect Asian democracies from both North Korea and China, and enhance U.S. national security, as well. Here’s the abstract:

The United States and its allies are at risk of missile attack from a growing number of states and non ­state terrorist organizations. This growing threat is partic ­ularly clear in East Asia, where diplomacy has failed to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them on target, and where China continues the most active nuclear force modernization pro ­gram in the world. To counter these growing threats, the U.S. should work with its allies, including South Korea and Japan, to develop and deploy missile defenses, including ground-based, sea-based, and air-based components.

Read the rest here.

Until recently, only cranks like me could propose things like this, and few would have thought we’d see much interest in this in Asia. As recently as two years ago, Asian nations might have seen good diplomacy with China as a cheaper and equally plausible way to mitigate any security threat from China. Today, all of this is revealed as dangerously wishful by China’s own bullying — its failure to throttle North Korea, its risible claims on the Yellow and South China Seas, and its provocations of skirmishes with Japan. In Washington, there is a sizable Hail Ants crowd that loves to speak admiringly of how Chinese diplomacy, unburdened by the whims of the electorate, takes the long view. I’m really not seeing the evidence for that in recent events. Instead, I see a Chinese political class unburdened of the need for objective analysis, beholden to enforced group-think, and addicted to emotional, bombastic nationalism.

Regular readers know that I’ve long advocated removing U.S. ground forces from Korea, but this is the sort of alliance I could support enthusiastically. Our Asian military alliances are still modeled on the deterrence of Cold War-era threats. They are in dire need of modernization to keep peace in the region until the the political systems of China and North Korea inevitably yield to the demands of the governed and become representative states, living (more or less) at peace with their neighbors. The stand-off capability of U.S. air and naval power will be essential to building a modernized Pacific Area Treaty Organization, and beleaguered Taiwan is the exception that proves just how essential. Its conventional deterrent is declining as it loses is qualitative and quantitative edge, as China’s missile force grows to overwhelming strength, and as U.S. security guarantees to a diplomatically marginalized Taiwan become tenuous. This widening military imbalance raises the risk of Chinese aggression, which is why one day, Taiwan should be invited into this alliance, too.

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Doug Bandow Still Wants USFK Out

You’d think that the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong should have a lot of people questioning what deterrent value American ground forces really add in South Korea now, in light of the risk of having them within North Korean artillery range, and the great expense to American taxpayers. So amid the questions about how to respond — and the bad decisions of former presidents have brought us to point where we don’t really have many ways to respond — Doug Bandow reminds us to ask why American soldiers are in South Korea at all.

My view may not be quite as extreme as Bandow’s. I can see reasons to keep an Air Force and Navy presence there, because those provide us with stand-off power-projection capabilities and secure the other end of a logistical pipeline, should we decide to intervene on our own terms. I certainly don’t agree with Bandow that South Korea’s dependence on us is more shocking than North Korea’s many atrocities, or China’s abetting of those. South Korea lets America subsidize its defense for the not-at-all-shocking reasons that it saves South Korea money, and because the Pentagon is willing to pay. But Bandow is correct that South Korea can and should bear the cost of conventional deterrence. Each new North Korean outrage makes it more indefensible that South Korean money is instead going to Kim Jong Il’s regime, through such failed experiments as the Kaesong Industrial Park. What Bandow doesn’t say and may not know is that every Friday night in Hongdae is a disaster-in-waiting for our political position there, the potential trigger for a Chung Dong-Young presidency (you say it can’t happen?). Such a development would do far more harm to South Korea’s freedom and security than the redeployment of the Army from South Korea.

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Plan B Watch: Clinton Announces Tightening of N. Korea Sanctions

Well, it’s about damn time:

The Obama administration announced Wednesday that it would impose further economic sanctions against North Korea, throwing legal weight behind a choreographed show of pressure on the North that included an unusual joint visit to the demilitarized zone by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

The measures, announced here by Mrs. Clinton after talks with South Korean officials, focus on counterfeiting, money laundering and other dealings that she said the North Korean government used to generate hard currency to pay off cronies and cling to power. [N.Y. Times]

Clinton announced the sanctions as she visited the DMZ, while accompanied by SecDef Gates, and while displaying her supernatural frost-projection powers against a hapless North Korean border guard. I count at least three priceless expressions in this photo.

clinton-dmz.jpg

The Treasury Department announcement I linked here yesterday now looks to be just the first part of the Obama Administration’s dangerously overdue and initially weak response to the sinking of the Cheonan, using at least some of the legal and financial tools I’ve advocated using for the last several years.

“Today, I’m announcing a series of measures to increase our ability to prevent North Korea’s proliferation, to halt their illicit activities that helped fund their weapons programs and to discourage further provocative actions,” Clinton told a news conference in Seoul after high-level security talks with South Korean officials.

Clinton said Washington’s “new country-specific sanctions” will target the North’s “sale and procurement of arms and related material and the procurement of luxury goods and other illicit activities.”

“Let me stress that these measures are not directed at the people of North Korea who have suffered too long due to the misguided and malign priorities of their government,” she said. “They are directed at the destabilizing illicit and provocative policies pursued by that government.” [Yonhap]

With apologies to KCJ, this is encouraging — a strong opening message that will get the attention of the investors on whose cash North Korea depends. Unfortunately, Clinton offered few details about the sanctions, and via some inside sources, I’ve learned that the administration is still debating just what specific measures it’s going to announce. Until I see what those specific measures are, and how strong and comprehensive they are, I will reserve judgment. Or, as one observer put it:

Nicholas Szechenyi, a northeast Asia policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the key to effective U.S. sanctions is how they are implemented.

“If the U.S. is doing this in isolation, doing this piecemeal, then I don’t think they’ll have much effect,” he said. “But if there’s a unified effort to not only announce these sanctions as an act of solidarity with our South Korean allies but also to apply some pressure on North Korea, then I think over time it might work.”

That sounds exactly right to me. Nick Eberstadt is more skeptical, and maybe he knows something I don’t:

The moves resemble piecemeal steps of the past, they add, and are unlikely to strike where it hurts: the regime’s access to under-the-table international funds.

“If I were in Pyongyang, I would not be trembling in my boots about this,” says Nick Eberstadt, a North Korea specialist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. [Christian Science Monitor]

The real question here is what the sanctions will be designed to achieve:

“The real question, if the talks resume, is so what?” says Mr. Lieberthal. Neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have been successful over two decades at curtailing the North’s nuclear ambitions, he says, adding that the Obama administration “shows no signs of being in the mood to reward North Korea” to prompt its cooperation, a pattern he says the North has become accustomed to.

“So even if the talks resume at some point, would they produce any serious results?” he asks. “I remain very skeptical about that. [Christian Science Monitor]

If the administration is looking for sanctions that are undone as easily as they’re done, this won’t work. Our financial power over North Korea is our power to scare away investors and sever its financial lifelines, including those that originate in China. If we try to spare Chinese entities and only target isolated investors like Orascom and various shady bankers here and there, this won’t work. If the administration nips at North Korea’s illicit financing at its fringes, a U.S.-led sanctions program will fail just as U.N. sanctions always have, because North Korea is very nimble at setting up new banks and companies to evade sanctions, and because Chinese entities will adopt a see-no-evil approach to transactions with North Korea unless it’s made clear to them that their own comingled assets are also at risk.

For what it’s worth, Hillary Clinton and Robert Einhorn will both be traveling to China to seek its cooperation. Wish them luck.

But if the administration goes all-in to hit North Korea’s finances hard before its big succession-focused party conference in September, this could be extremely effective, and might even disrupt Kim Jong Il’s plans to purge his and promote the next generation of apparatchiks to preserve his dynasty for another generation.

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A Good Week for Lee Myung-Bak, But What America Gained Isn’t So Clear

On balance, Lee Myung Bak seems to having a pretty good week — at least better than last week’s failure to secure a serious response to the Cheonan incident abroad or even at home. This week, Lee has already won a three-year delay in the dissolution of the U.S.-ROK Combined Forces Command, a/k/a OpCon transfer. He also secured a commitment by President Obama to push for an FTA that had faced strong opposition from some American labor unions and Max Baucus, the patron saint of cattle ranchers in God’s country (if you must know, it begins at the Rockies and ends where the eastern bank of the Missouri River cedes to the flat, glacial topography beyond).

Lawmakers from Obama’s Democratic party who had campaigned against the deal appear ready to approve it. “The president’s announcement of a concrete plan to move the Korea agreement forward is great news for America’s economy,” said Democratic Senator Max Baucus, head of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. He called it “the most commercially significant trade agreement in more than a decade.”

“But I’ve long held serious concerns about the unscientific barriers Korea has erected against American beef — barriers that must be removed. I intend to work with both the administration and Korea to craft a plan to fully open Korea’s market to safe and delicious American beef,” he said. [AFP]

You tell ’em, Max.

Readers will recall that I wasn’t initially a big fan of the FTA, either. For one thing, an FTA is supposed to be an inducement to better relations, yes, but also a reward to governments that behave like allies, which Roh Moo Hyun’s certainly did not. I was and am incensed by the idea of rewarding Roh’s anti-American ex-president and his anti-American party with an FTA for their valiant effort to unilaterally moot South Korea’s alliance with the United States, keep North Korea safe for human rights atrocities and proliferation, and demonize the American government and its soldiers. For another, the FTA annex regarding those “outward processing zones” clearly referred to North Korea’s Kaesong Industrial Park, and a stealth FTA for Kim Jong Il was more than I could stand (though not more than I could believe possible in the waning years of the Bush Administration). Today, Kaesong’s decline is sufficiently advanced that its death is pretty much assured, and I’m much less worried about this concern than I was in 2008. And while I won’t call Lee Myung Bak a true ally until he sends a brigade to forcibly repossess the ransom Roh paid to the Taliban, I at least credit him for slowing the rate at which South Korea undermines American economic pressure on North Korea. And if that sounds like faint praise, then it is.

As for delaying the OpCon transfer date, I share Robert’s disappointment and don’t have much to add to his thoughts, except to emphasize that South Korean opcon is fundamentally about a strong South Korea, though it’s also about tailoring U.S. force commitments to suit our own risk-reward calculations and national security priorities. Like Robert, I also hope we got something in return for all of these concessions, because I don’t think extending the opcon transfer will do anything to heal what’s fundamentally unhealthy about the alliance — the wide gap between how the two nations perceive their own interests and values.

If and when the U.S. and ROK governments finally realize that our fundamental problem with North Korea is with the identity and character of those who run the place, we’ll have a much more effective policy together than separately. It is the realization of this truth, the determination to act on it, and the creativity and vision to see how that can best unite the interests of the two nations. A strong alliance between America and South Korea can no more be built on the presence of thousands of American soldiers in Korea than it can on the absence of any significant Korean forces from Afghanistan.

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Lee, Bush Commemorate 60th Anniversary of the Korean War

Golly, this was a nice thing of President Lee to say:

As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, I offer our deepest, most sincere gratitude to all the American veterans and their families for what they did. The friendship and bond that we share is reinforced by the strong and robust military alliance, which in turn was the basis for the Republic of Korea’s remarkable twin achievements of the past six decades, namely achieving economic growth and becoming a true liberal democracy. [President Lee Myung-Bak, Atlanta Journal-Constitution]

If only President Lee’s own constituents actually believed this. I was ready to suggest that it’s them President Lee should be addressing until I saw that George W. Bush had emerged as our newest global goodwill ambassador. The former president, who is best known and loved by Koreans everywhere as the man who removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, was in Seoul the other day, also commemorating the anniversary, where he addressed a crowd of 60,000 (!) at a prayer meeting in a stadium:

“While South Korea prospers, the people of North Korea have suffered profoundly,” he said, adding communism had resulted in “dire poverty, mass starvation and brutal suppression”. “In recent years the suffering has been compounded by the leader who wasted North Korea’s precious few resources on personal luxuries and nuclear weapons programmes.” [….]

Bush, a devout Christian, described the 1950-53 conflict as an unforgotten war, saying “an act of unprovoked aggression” had led to an unnatural division in Northeast Asia. “It will never be forgotten by those who served and by those who were saved, and it must not be forgotten by the world,” he said.

The presence of US troops in South Korea showed Washington’s strong commitment to defending its ally, he said, adding the South’s prosperity is “a shining example of the power of freedom and faith”. [AFP]

As all 60,000 of those in attendance thought, as if with one mind: Just as long as our daughters stay out of Hongdae at night. Oddly enough, not all Koreans truly appreciate President Bush for his conciliatory outreach toward Kim Jong Il or his aid for the North Korean people, at least before he was ousted by a cabal of neocon hard-liners in 2009:

“It is just nonsense to bring to the Korean War prayer meeting the former US President Bush, who started the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have him give testimony,” they said in a joint statement.

Funny how these people never seem to hold grudges against those who start wars in Korea. But then, they’re not really anti-war. They’re just on the other side.

And in related news, Foreign Policy Magazine has voted Kim Jong Il the world’s worst dictator this year, easily edging out Robert Mugabe.

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Where’s the Outrage?

South Koreans’ unifiction mania may have cooled for the moment, but B.R. Myers tells us that public anger toward North Korea doesn’t approach that directed against America after the 2002 accident, and that plenty have made the decision to disbelieve the evidence that North Korea sank the Cheonan:

It would be unfair to characterize these skeptics as pro-Pyongyang, but there is more sympathy for North Korea here than foreigners commonly realize. As a university student in West Berlin in the 1980s, I had a hard time finding even a Marxist with anything nice to say about East Germany. In South Korea, however, the North’s human rights abuses are routinely shrugged off with reference to its supposedly superior nationalist credentials. One often hears, for example, the mistaken claim that Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, purged his republic of former Japanese collaborators, in alleged contrast to the morally tainted South. [….]

South Korean nationalism is something quite different from the patriotism toward the state that Americans feel. Identification with the Korean race is strong, while that with the Republic of Korea is weak. (Kim Jong-il has a distinct advantage here: his subjects are more likely to equate their state with the race itself.) Thus few South Koreans feel personally affected by the torpedo attack. [….]

This urge to give the North Koreans the benefit of the doubt is in marked contrast to the public fury that erupted after the killings of two South Korean schoolgirls by an American military vehicle in 2002; it was widely claimed that the Yankees murdered them callously. During the street protests against American beef imports in the wake of a mad cow disease scare in 2008, posters of a child-poisoning Uncle Sam were all the rage. It is illuminating to compare those two anti-American frenzies with the small and geriatric protests against Pyongyang that have taken place in Seoul in recent weeks.

If demographics are destiny, accounts like Myers’s suggest that our alliance with South Korea has no long-term future. Like Robert, I don’t think this is the time to speed up our disengagement or appear to abandon South Korea, but it’s as appropriate as ever to proceed with an orderly transition to an independent South Korean defense from which both countries will emerge stronger.

Hat tip to a reader.

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