Soldiers Shooting at Airplanes: Yet Another Reason to Decentralize Korea


I was just about to leave town for the summer when this incident occurred. In June, two Korean marines fired on a civilian airliner coming in to land at Incheon international airport (pictured above). Much of the commentary has focused on the heightened levels of tension because of last year’s incidents (the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island). And certainly, the ‘enhanced readiness’ and ‘proactive deterrence’ sought by the new minister of defense add (with obvious justification to be sure) to the tension. While clearly SK should defend itself, I was wary last year of the new guidelines because of precisely this possibility. Everyone is edgy, so incidents like this aren’t unexpected.

Yet no one has brought up the obvious fact that is hugely dangerous for civilian airliners to be regularly landing and taking off less than 50 miles from the demilitarized zone to begin with. I argued this point at some length last year. My concern was and remains that SK is far too centralized (a problem in itself) on a hugely vulnerable region right on the border with NK. 55% of the SK population lives within 50 miles of the DMZ, most obviously the massive northwestern agglomeration of people living in Seoul, its surrounding Kyeonggi province, plus the city of Incheon.

Note further that this problem is worsening, not improving. Seoul continues to grow, while Incheon, a new, hyper-modern ‘model’ city is exploding in size too. To boot, the new (and supercool and efficient) Incheon airport is now one of the busiest and largest in Asia. On the downside, Korea’s second city, Busan, which is already a paltry 3 million (Seoul is 20+ M), is shrinking. A friend who works in US Forces in Korea, and who interfaces regularly with the Korea military, tells me that the Korean military is increasing closing (naval) installations in the south (near Busan), because no one is willing live down here anymore. Just about all of my students tell me they want to move up to Seoul, the center of the universe.

So I will ask once again, why does the ROK government continue to worsen SK’s strategic position by permitting this wildly lop-sided regional development? You could say that this is simply the outcome of consumer choice – ie, SKs all want to live in Seoul. That is true, but the government could obviously do a lot to discourage that. Remember that this is SK – ground-zero for state-led capitalism, ‘administrative guidance,’ and all that. SKs are accustomed to the government ‘directing’ or “nudging” (in American/Obama era parlance) national life far more than westerners. SK efforts to incentive extra-Seoul demographic accumulation would hardly been seen as a government tyranny or something like that. And besides, the reason – security against NK – is very defensible. This wouldn’t be like uprooting a neighborhood to build a strip mall or something. This wouldn’t be District Six in Capetown.

If you lived next to North Korea (North Korea!), would you really want these sorts of demographic-regional patterns? Even if you drop all the other (very good) arguments about regional equity, sustainable living patterns, the informal discrimination against the rest of Korea doomed to the ‘provinces,’ etc, there is an obvious national safety argument to unwind Seoul-centricity. Yet this is never discussed, even after incidents like this shooting. I don’t get it…



1. The S&P downgrade of US debt was both meaningful yet ludicrous. Meaningful in that it put a point on something everyone already knew anyway – the US political process is so gridlocked and its political culture so acrimonious, that it calls into question the ability of the USG to meet future obligations. But it was simultaneously inaccurate, because the very next day, the market rushed into US Treasuries as the safest global asset. Interest on the benchmark US debt issue – the 10-year Treasury bond – is near record lows, around 2.5%.

In fact, I find this astonishing. For a decade, budget hawks (me included) thought the US was borrowing far more than it could ever pay back to cover the Bush tax cuts, the GWoT, and Medicare Part D. I find the interpretation that the western welfare state is in crisis, to be persuasive. I never thought the US would be able to just borrow and borrow and borrow like this. It is astonishing just how willing foreigners are to buy American debt. For all the chaos, no other asset is even close to the reliability of the T-bill, so maybe Cheney was right – we can just borrow forever… (how terrifying) … which leads to me next thought:

2. It is probably time for another stimulus. Increasingly it looks like the economy never climbed out of the 2008 implosion. The fear of the double-dip looks pretty warranted, but it is more likely to be understood as the long tail of the Great Recession rather than as a separate event. And increasingly I think Krugman is right that we should use the continuing super-low interest rates on US debt to fund another stimulus. I find the GOP/WSJ argument that the first stimulus didn’t work to absolutely fatuous. No less than the IMF has found that the stimulus prevented US unemployment from reaching 15-20%. The standard Keynesian prescription is that when consumer spending contracts, followed by investment spending, government is the only collective or ‘public goods’ actor that can step in countercyclically. And I don’t see much evidence that this doesn’t apply here, just as it applied and worked pretty well 3 years ago.

It should painfully obvious after the stockmarket roller coaster of two weeks ago, that uncertainty is worse than usual; government focus would probably help, especially given the policy-process meltdown of the debt-ceiling fight. But the DOW numbers increasingly strike me as frothy and casino-like rather than genuinely indicative. CNBC can cash in on the drama of wild ups and downs, but I think Yglesias (following Krugman) is increasingly correct – the real issue is growth and unemployment. And I don’t see the correlation between debt reduction and (job) growth (much-touted in the GOP Iowa debate). Speaking of…

3. The GOP Iowa debate was terrifying. Among other ideas raised were: to return to the gold standard (Ron Paul), to criminalize abortion for rape-victims (Santorum), to never raise the debt ceiling (Bachmann), to cut the highest US tax rate to 25% (Cain), and that the EPA runs a “reign of terror” over US business (Huntsman). Wow. Really? Who let these people of out the asylum? Is the GOP really this conservative? Is this even conservatism anymore, because it increasingly looks to me like nihilism of a sort. Do Republican primary voters (FULL DISCLOSURE: me included) really believe it when Perry says God is calling him to run for prez? None of this tea-party reactionary delusion actually reflects the reality of modern, cosmopolitan democratic governance enmeshed in the global economy. As always, I can only think that this sort of stuff convinces the rest of the world that we are bonkers and unfit to lead to lead the international community. Don’t believe me? Try to figure out how you explain this to non-Americans. Why aren’t the GOP candidates talking about stuff like this, a far more realistic and worrisome scenario of American power? Only Huntsman even came close, so if he survives to the Ohio primary, I guess I’ll vote for him. If anything, I left the debate thinking of Thomas Frank’s book, which I read this summer: the surreality of the GOP primary speaks to extraordinary insularity of rural America and the almost purposive resentment of the modernity in contemporary US conservatism. Creepy…


This and this are the best short-form articles you didn’t read this summer. And then of course, there’s this, by an expat busted for pot who turned his jail-term into local Korean celebrity – bizarre, but the article is dead-on.

5 thoughts on “Soldiers Shooting at Airplanes: Yet Another Reason to Decentralize Korea

  1. A little Clausewitzian irony comes to mind. When a state commits to war, says the Prissian, it should do so without reserve, because total war is horrible and there’s no way to ameliorate it. And, that horror will ensure that war is rare. So, Seoul’s location, which was optimal for a Korean state controlling the entire peninsula, is now a potent symbol of South Koreans’ trust in the DPRK not to incinerate them all.


  2. Good seeing you this summer Bob. Agree on Thomas Franks, but curious as to your thoughts on thy the US welfare state is in crisis. Tax revenue as a share of GDP is at a 50 year low. Subtract the war in Iraq, Medicare Part D, and the Bush tax cuts and even the Great Recession would have been manageable. This crisis was brought on largely by irresponsible GOP policies, not the failures of the welfare state. Not to mention that most growth in entitlement cost rises is attributable strictly to broadly skyrocketing healthcare costs, public and private. I see a set of dire but very concrete policy failures, not a general crisis.


  3. Pingback: Libya Lessons (2): NATO is No Longer Necessary – Get Out Now « Asian Security Blog

  4. Pingback: Why South Korea doesn't respond – Global Public Square - Blogs

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