Robert E. Kelly

The Diplomat’s James Pach spoke with regular contributor Robert E. Kelly about North Korea’s return to provocation, the performance of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, the significance of President Obama cancelling his Asia visit, and why the West really needs to keep the rise of China in perspective.

By James Pach for
Robert E. Kelly
Robert E. Kelly

“There has been a lot of rhetoric about Obama’s APEC no-show as ‘ceding’ Asia to China and Russia. I don’t buy that. American power survived the Iraq War and Great Recession; it will survive the Tea Party.”

North Korea has put its troops on high alert, restarted its reactor at Yongbyon and called South Korean President Park Geun-hye an “imbecile.” We’re accustomed to the pendulum of ratcheting up and then easing tensions, but this year Pyongyang seems especially schizophrenic. Is this the new leader Kim Jong-un settling in, or are there other factors at play?

This is a tough question. My own sense is that this is typical North Korean game playing. I made a similar argument at The Diplomat during the spring war crisis. It is true that Kim Jong Un is likely still finding his way. He is too young and too inexperienced in the old boys’ networks that run North Korea to easily step into his father’s shoes. But his period of greatest vulnerability was last year. The regime seems to be settling in around him comfortably – to many people’s surprise – so my sense is that this is the Korean People’s Army going through its usual hijinks to justify its massive and massively expensive role in North Korean life. I thought this too was the reason for the spring crisis, because North Korea does not actually want a war, which they will lose, badly.

What is your take on the effectiveness of Park’s “trustpolitik” in the Korean context?

I am rather skeptical of it. I wonder why anyone would trust North Korea at this point. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t deal with them. Freezing them out will just repeat the provocations of 2010. But I think the skepticism of American and Japanese negotiators is more than justified. My own sense is that “trustpolitik” is more for South Korean domestic consumption. The North is not a different place; it is the South Korean public that has moved on from the hawkishness of Park’s predecessor. South Koreans desperately want North Korea to just go away. If a little engagement and some side payments can pull that off, fine. But I see no reason why this strategy will be any more successful than all the other failed efforts.

Your most recent feature for us argued that the assertiveness of the British Parliament and U.S. Congress over military strikes on Syria was a positive for democracy. In Asia, given flashpoints like North Korea (not to mention Senkaku/Diaoyu and the South China Sea) do you think there could be a risk of misjudgment if the U.S. president is seen as weak or the U.S. as having “war fatigue?”

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My concern in that essay is to reinstall legislative checks-and-balances on the presidential/prime ministerial use of force in the West. Frequently it is argued that Western executive branches should have wide unilateral latitude to use force without legislative approval. That is deeply undemocratic, nor has history borne out the wisdom of such executive branch freelancing. Both the Vietnam and second Iraq Wars were projects pushed by the U.S. presidency on a reluctant Congress and public, and the latter were right! So I see no inherent reason why Congressional approval for the major use of U.S. force is a risk. Indeed, given the size of China and scale of conflagration a Sino-US clash would provoke, I would invert your question and say that a little more Congressional restraint on presidential war powers would be a wise way to avoid tumbling into a conflict in Asia. China, and the level of possible violence, is simply too large to exclude the Congress and public from the debate.

Late last year, you wrote about South Korea’s economy, and the structural issues preventing needed innovation. The economy continues to struggle this year. Have you seen any positive reforms under Park’s administration?

It’s a bit early to pass judgment, but I would say not really. Park campaigned on “economic democracy” (local language for welfarist social democracy in the West) and promised to rein in the chaebol. Once in office, those pledges disappeared. Her other ideas, like spending more government revenue to promote this or that sector – the Blue House is now mulling the idea of promoting Korean agriculture as an export sector – is fairly typical developmentalist dirigisme. This is just more of the same in Korea, whereas I strongly believe that Korea needs liberalization, particularly to relieve crushing consumer debt loads.

There have been some divergent views on the implications of President Obama’s Asia trip cancellation, from death of the pivot to minor blip. What’s your view? Is there an opening there for Beijing, or is China just too unloved?

I am of the school that sees America’s structural strengths (generous demography and geography, a highly productive labor force, unrivalled military) and liberal values as major challenges to China, which are basically unaffected by the ups-and-downs of policy dysfunction in Washington. There has been a lot of heated rhetoric about Obama’s APEC no-show as “ceding” Asia to China and Russia and so on. I don’t buy that. American power survived the Iraq War and Great Recession; it will survive the Tea Party. As you say, China is simply too unloved, too authoritarian for many Asian states. Democracies like Japan, South Korea and Australia will trade with China for the money but will likely never be its friends. Indeed, the great irony of Chinese power is how friendless China still is.

You recently wrote that the West should “relax” about China, because it faces enough constraints. Do you think those constraints will ultimately force China to be a status-quo power, or do you see the extrapolations of China’s rise off the mark entirely?

I think China will continue to grow much faster than the OECD. Basic convergence theory in economics suggests that. That will unnerve Westerners, because at some point in the next two decades, China’s GDP will be the absolute largest in the world. But the domestic constraints on “endless growth” are much more severe than the China hype allows. China has already picked much of the low-hanging fruit of modernization. It is rapidly exhausting the limits of “extensive development” – pushing more and more people into the labor market and pushing headline growth regardless of boundless corruption and negative externalities like Beijing’s awful pollution. (I have been to North Korea, and its air quality is better than China’s.) China will soon need to move to qualitatively better growth (“intensive development”) – even the Chinese Communist Party is haltingly admitting that. But that will require political reforms (corruption crackdowns, banking and SOE reform, better and freer information) that the CCP will find hard to digest. Such domestic turmoil will reduce China’s appetite for serious external conflict. As has been widely noted, China spends more on internal than external security. A major conflict would disrupt the latter and, in time, the former. So yes, I think China is, at worst, a limited revisionist in Asia.

You’ve read extensively the Greek and Latin classics. Looking at the Asia-Pacific today, do you ever find any historical reverberations?

The usual answer to this sort of question is to say that Thucydides has universal lessons for inter-state conflict. That is too easy and risks Eurocentrism, that is, saying that Western patterns of warfare will be repeated everywhere. There is already a good deal of evidence that that is not true. So I am wary of blithely generalizing Thucydides through time and space.

I can think of two other classical parallels which are not widely discussed but are more tightly focused than a simplistic invocation of Thucydides: the Persian contest with Greece in the 5th century BC, and the Roman-Carthaginian struggle for Mediterranean dominance in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Both remind one of China’s rise, because of their heavy maritime element.

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In the Persian Wars, large Persia faced a scattered collection of Greek city-states who did not seriously balance Persia until it was almost too late. If China does become a revisionist, its neighbors will also need to ally to resist it, and that may be hard.

The Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage might be read as an analogy for a long-term struggle between the U.S. and China in the Pacific. The usual example of bipolarity we use in international relations theory is the Cold War, but the classical Mediterranean was also bipolar for two centuries and that struggle was far more maritime than the U.S.-U.S.S.R. contest. As the Air-Sea Battle discussion makes clear, a Sino-U.S. bipolar contest will also be naval. Let’s hope it does not proceed as brutally as the Punic Wars, which gave us the expression a “Carthaginian Peace.”