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Entries in Koreas (35)


The tricky thing about Kim Jong Eun

Good WAPO piece about the ratcheting up of brinksmanship by NorKo, which has gotten so aggressive as of late that SouKo pols are discussing the nuclear option - as in, get some.

I was asked this last week in a speech in Nebraska (Lincoln), and my reply was, KJE has shown a distinct willingness to open things up internally, which is a very hopeful sign.  But, as with anybody in his position, he needs to show a lot of external aggression to: 1) prove himself as the new leader and 2) show his internal reforms won't result in any loss of international "stature."

The problem is, of course, that the external aggression becomes self-fulfilling, which is why the hardliners always demand it as a form of reform-snuffing activity.  

We don't know yet whether KJE has any real ambition to become a Deng-like transformative figure (China's dream).  We can only go off the evidence to date. And that evidence says, playing with reforms but also playing with aggression.

It's easy to go overboard in either direction, but the instinct of an authoritarian state/leader is always to err on the side of external aggression, which is why totalitarian regimes of this nature are almost impossible to reform from within.

The good upside?

It gets Korea back on the front burner and gives a rest from the growing China-v-everyone dynamic.  Plus it opens up the chance for cooperation with China on a shared burden.

But for now, it's the same old, same old with no clear path ahead.


South Korea follows Japan's path to soft-power exports

WAPO story on how South Korean directors are experiencing a sort of explosion in Hollywood.  I've long been a big fan of SouKo's horror films, but now it appears that we're getting a broader flow - post-Gangnam Style:

South Korea’s film directors, like its pop stars, have been trying for years to break out of their country’s competitive but small market and into the West. Just as Korean music finally broke through last year with Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” this might be the year that Korean directors take over Hollywood.

Three of South Korea’s top directors are this year releasing, and in one case already have released, their first English-language films, often featuring top-name American actors (or Anglophones who pose as Americans), the New York Times noted in a story this weekend. The directors have long had “fan bases” in Hollywood eager to pull them into the U.S. market, the Times says, explaining that American producers appreciate that Korean directors’ “style and restraint go hand in hand with a taste for visceral, often bloody stories in popular categories like horror and crime.”

South Korea seems poised to follow the path of Japan.  It had its democratization moment back in the 1990s, and its big firms have gone from knock-offs to high-end offerings.  Now, it's time to start exporting the culture.

It's a journey worth watching.  China invariably follows this path, and the Chinese spend a lot of time watching South Korea and how it navigates from middle-income to higher realms.  South Korea is, last time I checked, just about the biggest regional investor in China and you see Koreans all over the place in major cities - especially in universities.  It seems like a positive "lead goose" effect, wherein the Chinese are more ready to follow the South Korean example than admit to doing the same with Japan.

Then again, it's natural to focus more on the country making the journey is closest historical proximity to your own.  Japan modeled itself significantly on the US, South Korea watched and copied Japan's example.  China will eventually copy South Korea in many ways, and Seoul is an excellent example of how you do it.



Time's Battleland: Korea - Missile Launch Doesn’t Make NoKo’s Kim Jong-un a Dud


There’s a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Jack David saying latest North Korean missile launch proves Kim Jong-un won’t be a reformer and that — basically — anyone who still believes that is a dupe.

That’s specious logic in the worst, narrow-minded national security way.

Read the entire post at Time's Battleland blog.



The rest of Asia's hopes for China next stimulus package

Turns out China's one-party state is pretty predictable in its spoils system:  new leaders get in, investment boom follows, and you can bet the best connected princelings clean up.

So while the US resorts to QE3, the world waits and hopes for China's pattern to continue.  The biggest hopes for this path are located in Asia, where China's economic slowdown is causing the same for South Korea and Japan.

The Asian Union integration process has already begun.  Memberships were offered and accepted in the form of FDI flows and absorption into China's vast processing trade networks.  

Asia sinks or swims together, which makes for a new burden for China regarding leadership transparency (where in the world was/is Xi?), because Beijing's decisions matter far beyond China's borders.


More evidence that KJE is embracing Dengist reforms

The first line is key, because let's remember that this is a state that has - knowingly and systematically - starved its own rural population for many years, triggering what is arguably the most reprehensible experiment in mass malnutrition the world has seen since Mao murdered tens of millions with his Great Leap Forward:

To fend off starvation, North Korea will introduce bold agrarian reforms that will allow farmers to dispose of part of their harvests as they see fit.

The initiative was authorized by new leader Kim Jong Un, North Korean government and military sources said.

The planned reforms, the first in roughly 10 years, are intended to enhance yields and help mitigate chronic food shortages that plague the country.

The nation's ability to feed itself has fallen short by about 1 million tons a year.

But this year, a major drought has exacerbated the problem.

Under North Korea's system of collective labor in farming villages, harvests are collected by the state and redistributed to households according to their size.

The new system will allow farmers to do what they want with their harvests after they have handed over statutory amounts to the state.

This means they can consume the produce or sell it in markets, the sources said.

China introduced a similar "responsible production system" under its reform and door-opening policy that started in the late 1970s, whereupon yields increased rapidly.

North Korea has tried to follow China's model since the 1990s, but none of the reforms has taken root.

This is very good news, because it continues to suggest that Kim Jong Il's death has allowed a reformer son to emerge and finally manage what the crazy old man never could.  HT to Chris Ridlon.

A DPRK set on the path of Dengist reforms will lower the temp in the region a bit, although its capacity for exciting anybody has now been completely surpassed by China's aggressive actions over its seabed claims.


Chart of the Day: North Korean mobiles

Kim Jong-Eun is presenting himself in the guise of his grandfather, discounting the military and presenting a "great father of the natio" motif.

Now, with one million-plus phones, and all those portable cameras, the place opens up considerably.

My projection:  KJE is going to try and reform the place in the Chinese way and thinks he can handle the process.

My hope: it spirals out of control in a Gorby manner.

Whatever the mid-term outcome, nice signs and good progress in all of this. I honestly believe that DPRK is off the danger radar in five years.

That way, we can all get jacked about arresting fishermen in the South China Sea, pretending it serves as prelude to a high-tech war with China.


Sounds like China moving on DPRK diplomatic front

 Reuters reporting on Yahoo News, with my HT to World Politics Review's media roundup email.

To me, this is a very good sign:

North Korea has held secret talks with Japan in what is believed to be their first contact since the death of long-time leader Kim Jong-il, Japanese media said, as Pyongyang's closest allyChina and South Korea vowed to work closely on denuclearizing the North.

Amid a series of diplomatic contacts over North Korea in China, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing to discuss ways to preserve stability on the peninsula as the unpredictable North undergoes a delicate transition of power.

Hiroshi Nakai, a former Japanese state minister in charge of the abduction issue, met the North's delegation on Monday for talks on the abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 80s, Japan's Kyodo news agency quoted sources as saying.

The two sides are also believed to have discussed terms for restarting intergovernmental negotiations, the Mainichi Daily News reported.

Nakai's office confirmed his trip to China. A government official declined to comment on the trip.

Two logical explanations:


  1. China didn't want to push anything until Kim Jong Il passed; and
  2. Beijing now wants to capture successor Kim Jong Eun on the diplomatic front before any internal purging process pushes Pyongyang toward displays of aggression toward the West.


How does Beijing do this?  It makes a big show of supporting KJE to put him in a good place, and says these efforts are part and parcel of achieving the same internationally.

If this is not China as a "responsible stakeholder," then I don't know what is.

So, again, a very good sign.

Would be nice if Obama Administration made it own overtures amidst this diplomatic flurry. Could prove decisive and keep us suitably in the mix.  Alas, I think the White House is already too invested in its "strategic pivot" to contain Chinese power in East Asia, which, to me, is a perfect 20th century answer to a 21st century phenomenon.

But I can always hope for common sense to re-emerge post-election . . ..



Time's Battleland: How America Painted Itself Into A Corner on North Korean Succession

Great Washington Post piece on China’s intense desire for stability on Korean peninsula, thus the clear backing of the “Great Successor” Kim Jong Eun. Wrap-up paragraph says it all:

The notion of a democratized Korean Peninsula with U.S. troops positioned directly along the Chinese border — one scenario in a North Korean collapse — is threatening to China because of Washington’s other moves in the region. The Obama administration, describing the United States as a new “Pacific power,” has in recent months strengthened economic ties with the Southeast Asian countries it once neglected; it has also built relationships with some of Beijing’s neighbors, particularly Vietnam and Burma, threatening Chinese influence.

My company, the massively multiplayer online consultancy Wikistrat, recently ran a simulation . . .

Read the entire post at Time's Battleland blog.


WPR's The New Rules: A Foreign Policy Wish List for 2012 

Last year was a tough one in terms of global economics, humanitarian disasters and political leadership among the world's great powers. But it was also the year of the glorious Arab Spring and hints of similar developments in Myanmar, Russia and Ethiopia. So while the year's "fundamentals," as the economists like to say, weren't so good, it left us with plenty to be grateful for as globalization continues to awaken the desire of individuals for freedom the world over. Keeping all that in mind, here is my foreign policy wish list for 2012.

Read the entire column at World Politics Review.


Wikistrat post: Fareed Zakaria's GPS blog at CNN World

China eyes North Korea's minerals; what's next?

Editor’s Note: The following piece, exclusive to GPS, comes from Wikistrat, the world's first massively multiplayer online consultancy.  It leverages a global network of subject-matter experts via a patent pending crowd-sourcing methodology to provide unique insights.

Reuters reported that North Korea’s government will shift – for now – to rule by committee instead of by an all-powerful leader.  Most likely, a factional truce was worked out in advance of Kim Jong-il’s death.

Read the entire post at Fareed Zakaria's GPS blog at CNN's Global Public Square.

Here's the voting totals (by readers) as of 1506EST Tuesday:




Eurasia Group's Ian Bremmer and David Gordon cite top geo-pol risks for 2011

David Gordon is an old friend, who, as the National Intelligence Officer for economics and globalization in the National Intelligence Council, came to most of my wargames at the Naval War College and World Trade Center in NYC.  He later became Vice Chair of the NIC and then head of policy and planning at State in the final Bush years (when diplomacy made quite the comeback).  One of the smartest guys I know and just a great guy all around.  After Bush ended, he left government and went to direct research at Ian Bremmer's Eurasia Group, which specializes in political risk consulting.

Ian, you know from his books ("J Curve," "Fat Tail," "End of the Free Market"), all of which have made it into my own books or columns.  Ian and I did a back-and-forth on his "The Call" blog at Foreign Policy regarding the last one.  Ian is deservedly recognized as THE political risk guru out there (he often writes with Nouriel Roubini) and he's done an amazing job of building up Eurasia Group from nothing in just over a dozen years.  Having worked with Steve DeAngelis is building up Enterra Solutions over the past 6 years, I truly appreciate what that takes.  

I've been working for Dave and Ian since January as a consultant on a project for the government that's been a lot of fun and there are others in the hopper, so this is turning out to be a nice working relationship in addition to my other affiliations.  I've missed working for the USG these past few years, so it's been great to get back to that sort of analysis.

The top ten risks cited will also sound familiar enough to readers of this blog.  Here's the opening, plus the list as links to the report:

The risks that exercise us most usually center on a country, an issue, an event. We worry over political chaos before or after an election, a coup in a fragile regime, or military conflict with a rogue nation. But for the first time since we've been writing, the political risk environment is much broader this year. It's the change in the world order itself that gives us most cause for concern.

Two years after the financial crisis, there's a strong argument to be made for optimism. The American economy is poised for (at least modest) growth and emerging markets are still churning ahead. By that logic, it's high time for governments, captains of industry, banks, and citizens to get back to business. Time to leave behind record gold prices and put the trillions of dollars sitting on the sidelines back to work.

But that conclusion implies a level of confidence, if not quite comfort, with where the world is headed. Whatever your expected shape of economic recovery—a U-curve, V-curve, L-curve, or something else—we're entering an entirely new world order. That means new ways for states to relate with one another both politically and economically. It means new areas of conflict. 2011 looks to be the year that our understanding of how the world works becomes out of date.

This is scary not because it's incomprehensible but because the scale of change is so great that it becomes difficult to manage. Few of us have experienced a transition of this scope. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago, it was fashionable, briefly, to herald a new world order. The pronouncements were premature. Soviet collapse remade the global security balance, but its economic impact was considerably more modest. The advanced industrialized economies had ruled the global economic system; the end of the cold war meant a move from the G7 to the "G7 plus one." Globalization sped up a bit, the West had new countries to invest in (at least for a while), and some of the old ones (Germany) got stronger. "Plus one" didn't imply a new world order.

That's not true today. After the financial crisis, the G7 was replaced by the G20. This change brought no challenge to America's global military supremacy. But the rules of the economic road are a different story and the new geopolitical order is shaped not by a military balance but by an economic one. This new world order marks the end of a decades-long agreement on how the global economy should function. This is world-changing indeed, because the dominant economic trend of the last half century, globalization, now faces a direct challenge from geopolitics.

The rise of this new order will have a profound impact on nearly all of the world's big-picture, long-term trends. A lack of coordinated governance on key economic issues will become entrenched and give rise to lasting international conflict. States and corporations will become more closely aligned in both developed and developing states. Most significantly, we'll see a shift in the highest levels of global conflict to the region where globalization and geopolitics collide with greatest force: for the past twenty years, the sharpest geopolitical tensions were to be found in the Middle East; we'll now see a decisive and long-term shift of those tensions to Asia.

All the risks we're looking at in 2011—conflict from the North Korean succession process, the unwillingness of China to budge under international pressure, the lack of political and economic coordination in Europe, currency controls intensifying global economic misalignment, the geopolitics of cybersecurity—are intensified by this transition to a new world order. The red herrings on our list avoid risk in spite of it.

Surprisingly, and despite all the anxiety these changes have created, there's no name for this new era. We propose the G-Zero. This is the lens through which we'll understand global events in the coming years. It's our top risk for 2011.


1 The G-Zero
2 Europe
3 Cybersecurity and geopolitics
4 China
5 North Korea
6 Capital controls
7 US gridlock
8 Pakistan
9 Mexico
10 Emerging markets
*Red herrings

Being Mr. Counterintuitive, I like the "red herrings" the best. They are Iran, Turkey, Sudan and Nigeria. I like the optimism on each.


North Korea trembling in the distance


Little nervous in the service:

South Korea's online newspaper Daily NK reported on Wednesday that North Korea had created a special mobilization force to prevent any demonstrations similar to the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa

Another daily, JoongAng Ilbo, said on Thursday that the authorities had begun purging elites who had studied abroad inRussia for fear of a possible coup by people "who were exposed to a Western lifestyle". 

Yet another vernacular newspaper, Donga Ilbo, on Thursday ran a piece on the "dramatic increase" of North Korean females choosing prostitution amid worsening economic hardship, linking it to the growing social instability of the country. 

Indeed, hopes of a Jasmine revolution in North Korea are rising amid coverage of increasing pockets of resistance across the country, including the cities of Jongju, Yongchon and Sonchon, to mention a few. 

Citing several South Korean sources, the Korea JoongAng Daily in Seoul on Thursday said Meng Jianzhu, China's minister of public security, made a trip this month to North Korea to discuss ways to prevent the wave of democracy protests in the Middle East from spreading to China and North Korea. 

Fascinating to consider.

This democracy wave (a premature judgment at best) is like any big wave:  it nails some fixed targets while others escape.  But the big thing is, everybody's been put on warning.

In one sense, this does feel like a rerun of the 1930s, just more upside than down in terms of expectations triggered by globalization (vice despair triggered by trade protectionism).  The other big difference:  the empowering of individuals vice states--and the complete lack of a countering economic ideology.

Hat tip to Brad Barbaza.


WPR's The New Rules: U.S. Defense Cuts a Step in the Right Direction

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled his much-anticipated budget cuts last Thursday, signaling the beginning of the end of the decade-long splurge in military spending triggered by Sept. 11. Gates presented the package of cuts as being the biggest possible given the current international security landscape, warning that any deeper reductions could prove "potentially calamitous." Frankly, I find that statement hard to swallow.

REad the entire column at World Politics Review.


WPR's The New Rules: A Wish List for the New Year

To kick off 2011, I thought I'd put together my top-10 international affairs wish list for the year, going from left to right on my wall map. But like Spinal Tap, only better, my list goes to 12:

Read the entire column at World Politics Review.


WPR's The New Rules: Obstacles to a U.S.-China Partnership Made in U.S.A.?


In a column two weeks ago, I described the outlines of a proposed grand-strategic bargain between China and the United States. Basically, the "term sheet" that I helped draw up proposed various bilateral compromises over the security issues -- Taiwan, North Korea, Iran and the South China Sea, among others -- that keep the relationship clouded by profound strategic mistrust. The resulting climate of confidence would encourage Beijing to invest some of the trillions of dollars it holds more directly into our economy, instead of simply using them to facilitate our skyrocketing public debt. Since the column appeared, I and my co-authors spent two weeks in Beijing meeting with top government-sponsored think tanks and retired Chinese senior diplomats to discuss and revise the proposal. I thought it would be useful to report on this dialogue.

Read the entire column at World Politics Review.


WPR's The New Rules: Globalization, Air Hubs and the City of Tomorrow

H.G. Wells’ futuristic 1933 classic, “The Shape of Things of Come,” predicted a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity’s recovery would depend on the airplane as the primary mechanism for both travel and political rule -- the benevolent “dictatorship of the air.”  The book reflected Wells’ prescient fears of catastrophic world war and his faith in technology’s capacity to tame mankind’s worst instincts.  

A book due out in March entitled, “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next,” is the closest thing to a real-world vision to rival that of Wells. The book, written by journalist Greg Lindsay, is based on the visionary ideas of business professor John Kasarda, a latter-day Wells who dreams of building future cities around airports instead of the other way around.

Read the entire column at World Politics Review.


Esquire's Politics Blog: How the WikiLeaks Cables Reveal Obama's False Utopia

So the Obama administration says America's relations with our allies around the world can survive the latest WikiLeaks dump of U.S. diplomatic cables, and I'm inclined to agree. Truth is, the whole thing reads like a booze-addled Thanksgiving argument spun out of control, and nothing more. So the Middle East's corrupt autocrats hate each other and constantly goad the White House into taking out their garbage — big deal! God only knows the same good ol' boys will be the first to condemn us once things get tough and we choose to act. (To say nothing of Julian Assange's impending lawsuit.) In the meantime, sell the bad guys a few anti-missile defense systems and tell 'em to shut the hell up, because President Obama has one helluva lot more on his plate right now than just Iran, or North Korea, or Pakistan, or... you get the point.

Read the entire post at Esquire's The Politics Blog.


Esquire's Politics Blog: 5 Ways the U.S. Can Fend Off the Next Korean War

Well North Korea seems determined to stay on the front pages this month, having very proudly unveiled to a visiting American scientist a couple of weeks ago the existence of yet another uranium-enrichment facility (yes, it's apparently state-of-the-art and, yes, we already knew about it) and then launching an artillery barrage on Tuesday in self-declared retaliation for an apparently routine South Korea military exercise along the border. While it's tempting to write this off as just the latest shenanigans from Pyongyang designed to keep us on our toes, understand that virtually every all-out war scenario on the peninsula begins with a North Korean artillery barrage, so South Korea's decision to retaliate is no small matter.

Before this thing get out of hand too quickly, here's how the Obama administration can keep our already oversubscribed military away from another Axis of Evil war.

Read the entire post at Esquire's The Politics Blog.



Kims back in the driver's seat

NYT John Pomfret reporting that America and its allies in Asia are working to reopen talks with North Korea, afraid that the ongoing succession process could send the whole relationship down the path to war.

Score one for the Kims and so much for Team Obama's "strategic patience" (tough talk and shows of force and letting the Kims stew in their own paranoid juices).  I had thought the White House had settled on a solid path of not caving in, but Obama seems to have chickened out rather quickly:

Anxiety is rising on both sides of the Pacific that tightened sanctions and joint military exercises - what U.S. officials have called "strategic patience" - could, if continued indefinitely, embolden hard-line factions in the North to strike out against South Korea or to redouble efforts to proliferate weapons of mass destruction.

Ooh!  So NorKo sinks a South Korean military ship and we better back off, lest they strike out against South Korea!  Gotta love that logic.

So we basically say to Kim the Younger:  do as Daddy has done and you will be both respected and rewarded.


Our breakthrough demand?  NorKo doesn't have to admit it sunk the ship, just express condolences for the loss of life.

The US State Department sources describe a three-legged stool of sanctions, mil exercises and talking with NorKo.  If we only do the first two, we risk war!

And so the same old, same old is pursued with the usual vigor.  Non-change I can believe in.   Because the last thing we want to risk is a conflict that consumes this war criminal regime.  Kim's strategy of achieving firm deterrence against the US has been a complete success, telling similar regimes around the world to get themselves a nuke for similar, air-tight protection from US pressure.


More natural counter-China balancing in Asia: India-South Korea

Great WPR piece that speaks to the "Finlandization" fallacy peddled by Krepinevich:

Indian Defense Minister A.K. Anthony visited South Korea last week at the invitation of his South Korean counterpart to boost defense cooperation between the two states. His visit came just two months after the Indian external affairs minister visited Seoul and at a time of great turbulence in the strategic environment of the Asia-Pacific region. After having long ignored each other, India and South Korea are now beginning to recognize the importance of tighter ties. The resulting courtship was highlighted by South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak's state visit to New Delhi in January, when he was the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations. During his stay, New Delhi and Seoul decided to elevate their bilateral relationship to a "strategic partnership."

Ah, but what is this compared to the Assassin's Mace!

[cut to the Pink Panther squaring off against his man-servant]

South Korea and India entered into a free trade agreement last year too.