Robert E Kelly

Political Science, International Relations, East Asia, US Politics…and, yes, the BBC Dad

Robert E Kelly

Putin is Turning Russia into North Korea– Isolated, Fascist, Loathed, Recklessly Waving Nukes Around, Domestically Repressive, Dependent on China, Led by a Corrupt Paranoiac

RussiaYeah, it’s a click-bait-y title, but it’s kinda true! Putin’s foolish war is turning Russia into a hated, isolated country with a lot of the same problems as North Korea, just on a larger scale.

This is a repost of an essay I wrote for 1945.com.

Here is my punch-line comparing the two:

There is another country much like Russia emerging from the Ukraine war: led by a paranoid, brutal, nationalistic leader toadied to by servile cronies; with a corrupt, dysfunctional economy; loathed, feared, and isolated by much of the world; served by a corrupted, bloated military; leaning into nuclear weapons for international prestige; making outlandish threats and waving its nukes around recklessly; repressive of its own people, where anyone who can leave does; with an extreme nationalist ideology; dependent on China.

Scale is the difference of course. Russia is a great power (although only sort of now), with a UNSC veto seat and a much bigger population and economy. And yes, it’s not nearly as misgoverned as NK. But if Putin doesn’t end the war soon, Russia will be isolated as a danger to the world, as NK is. US SecDef just admitted that we want to see Russia weakened. And Putin is more reckless and and expansionist than Kim Jong Un is, ironically.

So yeah, the comparison is a stretch, but the more the war drags on, the more it works.

Here’s that 1945 essay:

Russian President Vladimir Putin is destroying Russian power, and his misbegotten Ukraine war is accelerating Russian decline. Putin himself does not seem to realize this. Western officials increasingly suspect that Putin is being lied to about the war by his closest advisors. And Putin has never seemed much interested in economic affairs. He does not appear to grasp just how much the Russian economy will shrink if the sanctions on Russia are left in place for a lengthy war.

In a few years, we may look back on this war as the breaking of Russian power, as the reduction of Russia to a middle power for at least a generation.

Putin is now a Fascist War Criminal

The regime Putin has built over the last decade and a half is increasingly authoritarian, closed, hyper-nationalistic, and repressive. Putin began his presidency seeking to restore Russian stability after the chaotic 1990s. A strong hand was arguably necessary to rein in the gangsterism of post-Soviet ‘wild west’ capitalism. But Putin slid increasingly toward open authoritarianism, rigging the constitution to stay in power almost indefinitely.

Please read the rest here.

The Ukraine War is Teaching N Korea that Nukes Can Keep the Americans Out of Your Conflicts

  North Korea ICBMRussia’s success at blocking NATO intervention in the Ukraine war via its nuclear weapons is a huge learning moment for North Korea. This is a re-post of an essay I wrote at 1945.com after the recent missile test.

Usually we say that NK wants nukes on missiles for:

1) Deterrence and Defense: to keep the Americans from ever striking NK, as they threatened in 1994 and 2017

2) Level the Military Playing Field: NK is too poor and technological backward to compete conventionally with SK or the US anymore. So nukes are a great equalizer.

This is true, but as we are all seeing in Ukraine, nukes are also a great way to keep the Americans at bay, to keep them from intervening in your conflict with an American ally. If Russia weren’t nuked up, it’s safe to say that NATO would be more heavily involved. And pundits have been very honest about admitting that we can’t do more, such as a no-fly zone, because we fear escalation with nuclear-armed Russia. I have argued this too.

So if you are NK, nuclear ICBMs, which give you direct deterrence with the US, are a possible way to prevent the Americans from helping SK in a conflict, just as Russian nukes are keeping us out of the Ukraine war. This is to drive wedge between the US and SK. At some point, we are going to have to reckon with this threat, and missile defense is not an answer, because it does not work well enough.

Here is my essay from 1945:

North Korea just tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile. It appears that this is Pyongyang’s longest-range missile yet. The goal, obviously, is to strike the United States if necessary. North Korea has sought, and now likely achieved, the ability to directly threaten the US mainland with substantial nuclear force.

ICBMs normally are designed to deliver a nuclear payload. North Korea first detonated a nuclear weapon in 2006. It is widely assumed that it now has several dozen nuclear warheads. North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un has also hinted that he wishes to develop MIRVs (multiple, independently-targetable re-entry vehicles). This would permit each ICBM to carry multiple warheads. So even if only one North Korean ICBM were to survive American missile defense, it could then still devastate multiple American cities.

Read the rest here.

South Korean President-Elect Yoon Suggested Preemptive Strikes on N Korea. There will be a Lot More of that Talk if the NKs Don’t Slow Down, which They Won’t

North Korean MissileThis was accepted and then withdrawn by a SK newspaper as too controversial even though the SK president himself suggested this. I don’t get that…

So I sent it to 1945.com instead. Basically the problem is that neither missile defense nor negotiations are dependable enough to protect South Korea against what is emerging as an existential threat to SK from North Korea’s spiraling missile program. Missile defense does not work well and is very expensive. Negotiations might reduce the North Korean arsenal but almost certainly not enough to eliminate the state- and society-breaking threat of the North’s nuclear missiles

Yoon’s answer is preemptive strikes on NK missile sites in event of a crisis. He got a lot criticism as a reckless war-monger earlier this year, and his suggestion is obviously hugely risky. It could provoke the very war it is trying to defend against. But he is ‘thinking the unthinkable’ as they used to say. Presidents must think about this stuff; that’s Yoon’s job, and if you don’t like his answer, come up with something else.

North Korea increasingly has the ability to rapidly devastate South Korea. The North Korean missile program is mature – more missiles, faster, longer-range, more easily fueled, more maneuverable, and so on. Its nuclear program is maturing too. Kim Jong Un now wants to develop tactical nuclear warheads and MIRVs. And this frightening arsenal is unsupervised. There are no inspectors, no NPT, no IAEA.

So yes, let’s keep talking. And yes, let’s keep throwing money at missile defense and pray it works. But when your facing an orwellian tyranny right next door who has aggressively threatened you for decades, you inevitably start thinking about options which might otherwise seem extreme.

Here’s that 1945 essay:

South Korea’s Debate over Preemption is the Inevitable Result of North Korea’s Rapid Missilization – As a presidential candidate, South Korean President-Elect Yoon Seok-Yeol suggested that South Korea might need to preemptively strike North Korea because of its spiraling missile development. This was criticized as provoking the very conflict it seeks to avoid. Obviously, no one but the most belligerent hawks seeks confrontation with North Korea. A second Korean War would be devasting, which Yoon clearly knows. Instead, Yoon is identifying, correctly, a growing strategic threat to South Korea – one which might become genuinely existential if left unchecked.

The North Korean Missile Challenge:

The conventional inter-Korean stalemate is deadlocked on the ground. In fact, North Korea is gradually losing that stand-off as American and South Korean technological prowess outstrip its large but antiquated conventional forces. The North knows this too. It has therefore invested for decades in nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them. These capabilities help it level the playing field.

Please read the rest here.

The Inter-Korean Stand-Off Needs Political Resolutions, Not ‘Peace’

U.S.-South Korea AllianceThis is a re-up of an essay I wrote a few weeks ago at 1945.com on the debate over an ‘end of war’ declaration in Korea. The debate has passed, but it was pretty hot in December and January, when Moon was pushing pretty hard for it.

My big concern about the end-of-war declaration was that no really knew what it means. If it were a treaty, it would be called a treaty and would be binding. But since it is not, would it be binding? No one really knows.

It is highly unlikely that North Korea would alter its behavior because of it, so I think the drive behind was: A) Moon’s desire for some kind of legacy after 5 years of hyperbolic but failed diplomacy with the North, and B) grounds for the activist left in South Korea to say that the US and UN should leave South Korea and that UN sanctions should be rolled back

If the South Koreans want us to leave, then of course we should. But I wish Moon’s coalition were more honest about why they sought this thing. The Biden administration dragged its feet until Moon finally dropped it. It is painfully obvious that Biden does not trust Moon after he played Trump (to meet Kim by suggesting he’d win a Nobel) and is just waiting for the next POTROK.

Here’s that essay:

As the presidency of Moon Jae-In in South Korea winds down, Moon has pushed hard for an ‘end of war declaration’ (EoW) over the still legally unfinished Korean War. Last week, I argued in this magazine that this declaration is curious approach. The inter-Korean armistice is pretty stable, and when it is broken, it is North Korea which does the breaking through its frequent border provocations. Also, legally, no one really knows what this declaration would do. A treaty is the well-established tool for ending wars; an EoW declaration is a diplomatic neologism. It is not clear if this declaration is intended to replace the armistice or a potential treaty, or supplement them in some unknown way. Or perhaps it is just symbolism.

For the rest, do here please.

Don’t Bet on a Biden Breakthrough with North Korea – but Trump was Never Serious about it Anyway

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This is a re-post of an essay I wrote last month for The National Interest, but since Biden just became president, this seems like a good time to put it up here.

The short version is that America’s North Korea policy options are poor, so now that the adults are back in charge, US policy toward North Korea will probably snap-back to pre-Trump form. Trump tried all sorts of hijinks – threatening war, then cozying up to Kim Jong Un – but none of it was ever serious and all of it failed, because Trump was buffoonish dilettante.

And yes, the status quo with NK is bad, but the options are worse – war or appeasement, basically – so this is why the containment and deterrence of North Korea has basically been our North Korea policy for decades even though no one likes it. I figure that is what is coming back now.

The full essay follows the jump:

North Korea’s 2021 Nuclear Modernization Announcements

Kim Jong-un examines ties with S. Korea at party congress - The Korea Herald

This is a re-post of an essay I just wrote for The National Interest. I discuss the recent announcement at the 8th Workers Party to Congress to significantly modernize and expand the North’s nuclear and missile arsenal.

A lot was announced, but my inclination is to agree with Ankit Panda that the development of battlefield nuclear weapons is the most important announcement. I noted this in my comments to Ankit on Twitter: “These strike me as a battlefield leveler for NK’s military which is technologically far behind. Also South Korea is really dense in just a few places/cities, and it has a few highly vulnerable critical junctures, like the highway Route 1 running through the mountains or Busan port. Battlefield nukes would be ideal for disrupting these junctures.”

The full essay follows the jump:

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American North Korea Policy under the Next President 2: Trump – He will just Drop North Korea

Biden calls North Korean leader a 'thug' but says he'd meet Kim if  denuclearization is agreed - Pacific - Stripes

This is the second part of a series for The National Interest on North Korea policy under the next president. Here is my first essay on Biden and North Korea.

I am of the school that says Trump’s outreach to North Korea was a great big nothingburger. More dovish analysts will tell you that there was a window there for a few years (2018-2019) to forge a deal. I don’t buy that, mostly because of Trump himself – his laziness, disinterest, unwillingness to prepare, and so on.

Instead I think Trump went into this solely for the symbolic imagery and a Nobel Peace Prize. Obama won a Nobel. Trump loathes Obama, so he had to get one too. I think it’s really as simple as that. That’s why there was no deal. The Trump team had not thought through the concessions which would be necessary to strike a deal. The North Koreans were going to ask for way more than just sanctions relief. Trump had nothing greater to offer – and bureaucratic resistance at home would have fought a serious concession like a US drawdown.

So my prediction for Trump and North Korea in a second Trump term is that he will do nothing. Trump has the pictures he wanted. He won’t get a Nobel, and he won’t fight the battles in Washington to offer concessions which NK might actually go for.

The full essay follows the jump:

American North Korea Policy under the Next President 1: Biden–Traditional Washington Hawkishness

North Korea lashes out at Joe Biden - CNN Video

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest recently. They’re running a good symposium on North Korea policy in the next presidential term: how would Trump and Biden differ? This was my submission on a possible Biden victory. My submission Trump is here.

Biden was the easier one to write. Biden is a pretty establishmentarian guy. He respects the foreign policy community. And as Obama’s vice president, we have his foreign policy thinking from that period too.

So it’s not too hard to predict that Biden will revert to a fairly traditional Washington hawkish approach – no more summits or public praising of Kim; working with allies; emphasizing sanctions enforcement and China. If this sounds really unimaginative – the same kind of old-hat you’ve heard from every hawkish North Korea analyst (including me) for decades – then you are right! It is the same old story, but that’s because our options on North Korea are terrible.

For all of Trump’s threats in 2017 and blandishments in 2018-19, he got nothing out of the North Koreans. Neither has SK President Moon Jae-In’s Sunshine Policy redux. So if it’s back to the future with Biden, I am not opposed to that.

The full essay follows the jump:

70th Anniversary of the Korean War: North Korea isn’t Going Anywhere; It’s Pretty Stable (Unfortunately)

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This is a re-post of my contribution to The National Interest’s recent essay round-up on the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. (My essay here; the full symposium here.)

My argument, in brief, is that North Korea is actually quite stable. Hence the answer to the symposium question – would Korea be re-unified by 2025 – is a resounding ‘no.’ Here is a brief Twitter thread which summarizes my argument.

North Korea faces little pressure internally – Kim has consolidated power quite nicely; elites are quiescent; there’s never been a popular revolt – and externally – China is unwilling to cut NK off; nukes give NK deterrence against regime change. The sanctions are tough, but Northern elites have been pushing the costs of them onto their population for decades. They won’t bring down or substantially change the DRPK system.

So we are stuck. We can try to negotiate, and we should, but the last few years’ flailing shows how hard that is. The stalemate is quite persistent.

The full essay follows the jump:

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A Quick 5-Point Summary of My Thinking on Corona in South Korea, Plus Links

Image result for corona

There has been way too much sensationalism about corona, so firstly, go wash your hands, drink a beer, and relax.

I was traveling for the holidays for awhile, so this is my first blog-post in awhile. Sorry.

My basic take on corona in South Korea is:

a) It is not a national catastrophe, and the foreign media has been too sensationalistic (CNN particularly). Yes, it is uncomfortable and disruptive, but it is not bringing down the state, creating panic on the streets, an apocalypse scenario like you’ve seen in zombie movies, and so on.

b) The big retrospective error will be understood as the SK president’s decision not to ban Chinese travelers. In fact, Moon Jae In still has not done that, which I find totally inexplicable beyond obvious political pressure from China not to do it

c) The disease’s spread is due in part to SK’s basic liberalism. The liberal state cannot coerce people to stay in their homes, take intrusive physical exams, throw them into camps, and so on (barring some really extreme national emergency which corona is not yet).

d) The South Koreans are actually doing a pretty admirable job in dealing with this. The population is broadly complying, and voluntarily so, with the government’s recommendations. There is no rioting, panic-buying, xenophobic explosions, and so on. As an American who was raised on the Reaganite idea that the government can’t do anything right, it is pretty damn impressive to see the deep capacity of the South Korean state and the cooperativeness of South Korean society once fully mobilized. I really doubt Americans will respond with the calm and discipline you see here.

e) The real Korean corona threat is an outbreak in North Korea. The government there is an incompetent mess when it comes to social services, and medicine is primitive for most of the country. So you know what Pyongyang will do with infected people – throw them into concentration camps to die with almost no assistance. It will be a tragedy which none of us will see.

Here is my recent writing:

1. What’s the Corona Outbreak in South Korea Like, update 1

2. What’s the Corona Outbreak in South Korea Like, update 2

3. What the US Should Learn from South Korea’s Experience with Corona

4. Corona in North Korea

5. South Korea’s China-Corona Dilemma

6. South Korea can’t just Lock Up Corona Infectees

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