Your humble blogger has spent the better part of his trip to Seoul at a conference co-sponsored by the Republic of Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the East Asia Institute. The topic was "New Strategic Thinking: Planning for Korean Foreign Policy," and I got invited because I edited this a few years ago. I hope that the Korean Foreign Ministry benefitted from it. I certainly learned a few things:
1) No one knows what the f**k the North Koreans are doing. There were representatives from the United States, United Kingdom, China, Japan and South Korea on the panels. I talked to a lot of them informally during breaks and meals as well. No one had any clue why Pyongyang had ratcheted up tensions to the extent that they did over the past two months. About the only thing approximating a consensus was the belief that the North Koreans were in fact bluffing about starting outright hostilities -- which makes their behavior all the more puzzling. In triggering the shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Park, the North Koreans cost themselves about $90 million a year that they can't afford to lose.
2) Chinese academics are getting more interesting. As recently as five years ago, my eyes used to glaze over whenever a Chinese academic started speaking at a policy conference. The reason was that there was a 100 percent certainty that the academic would simply repeat standard PRC boilerplate that didn't deviate from official government positions. An academic agreeing with one's government is not a sin, but only parroting official discourse is pretty friggin' useless.
Something has changed in recent years, however. Maybe I'm being invited to a better class of conferences, but I don't think that's it. Chinese academics are more willing to openly discuss ongoing debates within the Chinese foreign policy community about the wisdom of a certain course of action. At this conference, Qingguo Jia asserted that the Chinese really were rethinking their relationship with North Korea. Now one can debate whether the Standing Politburo is really entertaining such thoughts, but the fact that there's a public conversation about it is pretty interesting.
3) The best-laid foreign policy plans get destroyed by real-world events. The conference was devoted to how the South Korean government could implement Park Geun-Hye's concept of Trustpolitik that she articulated during her campaign for the presidency. The general consensus was that, at this point, there are very limited ways of building trust with Pyongyang. Furthermore, the likelihood of any confidence-building measures getting scrubbed during the next crisis are very high.
It is to Park's credit that she seems to recognize this and has yanked ROK workers from Kaesong as a signal of South Korea's resolve. Trustpolitik is a great phrase, but I'm dubious of whether it will accomplish anything.
4) It's the little things that matter to build mutual goodwill. That's a fancy way of noting the following: if you are a Caucasian academic in South Korea, can use chopsticks proficiently, and actually like kimchee, your South Korean counterparts will treat you like a god.
Your humble blogger will be making his first visit to South Korea in less than twenty-four hours, and is very excited about that prospect. Blogging will therefore be on the lighter side for the next few days.
Talk amongst yourselv-- wait, then again, maybe you shouldn't do that.
Before I explain what I mean, let's have some disclosure. I blog at the foreign affairs portal in the United States. I'm a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. I've done the occasional consulting gig. I'm on reasonably good terms with foreign policy wonks from across the spectrum. Occasionally I get invited to swanky DC events and interview Tiger Moms. The point is, relative to a lot of people reading this paragraph, I'm pretty damn insider-y.
I bring all of this up because I probably have a higher tolerance for inside-the-Beltway bulls**t... and yet after reading this and this, I had to suppress my desire to vomit on my computer screen. The first link merely confirms the epistemic closure that pervades much of the right wing in Washington, DC. The latter is, on the other hand, the most incestuous thing ever written about anything, ever, in the history of mankind. Really, compared to those stories, the George W. Bush library ceremony seems... tame.
Combined, the two stories either function as a damning indictment on the state of DC insideriness... or I'm overreacting to the standard offal that comprises much of political journalism. I'm honestly not sure. Contrary to a lot of outside-the-beltway folk, I've come to see a utility for rent-seeking and back-scratching in politics. It functions as a necessary lubricant to get useful legislation passed. One could argue that part of the problem with Washington as it currently functions is that there's not enough earmarking, vote-buying, or other cross-cutting political exchanges.
At the same time, the revulsion I felt after reading these essays was quite real. I could barely finish Allen's Politico story, it was that insipid. These are the kind of essays that cause even a jaded foreign policy hand like myself to mutter "you'll be the first ones up against the wall when the Revolution comes" after reading Politico. Sure, much of this behavior is baked into the cake that is American political science... but I still ponder about the future of the Republic.
So I'll leave this as something for readers to ponder while I'm in the ROK -- over the next week there's going to be some serious foreign policy questions being debated: whether to react to Syria's chemical weapons use, or what to do about inter-Korean tensions, for example. Will this conversation be taking place in a policy universe that is just too damn small?
What do you think?
Your humble blogger has been too hard at work
trashing his diminished reputation for seriousness working on other projects to blog about North Korea as of late. Now, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has been such a predictable cycle of DPRK provocative action, measured response, and more provocative action that I've been tempted to automate these posts the same way I have with Iran.
Still, as one reviews recent behavior, it's necessary to acknowledge that this cycle looks a little different. When Nick Kristof tweets that "I've been covering North Korean pugnacity and brinksmanship for 25 years, and I'm nervous about what might happen," the rest of us snap to attention.
1) There was the novel threat from a North Korean general to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States, causing Washington to "be engulfed in a sea of fire."
2) North Korea has also declared that the 1953 armistice with South Korea is now "invalid," cutting off the direct phone link with South Korea at Panmunjom.
3) North Korea's propaganda machine has ramped up against new South Korean leader Park Geun-hye in a rather sexist fashion, decrying the "venomous swish of skirt" coming from the Blue House. In Korean, this language implies an "overly aggressive" woman.
4) Something something Dennis Rodman inanity something.
5) North Korea has dramatically ramped up the number of air force sorties, from 100 a day last summer to at least 550 a day now -- a number that comes close to matching the South Korean daily number.
So, seriously, WTF, Kim Jong Un? Is this simply a more severe version of typical DPRK brinkmanship, or is this something altogether new and destabilizing?
Well … I think it's the former. First, let's just ignore the DPRK's rhetoric, because it's always over the top -- or, as with Rodman, completely disingenuous. Let's look at the DPRK's actions. Here, even the cancellation of the armistice doesn't necessarily mean much, as McClatchy's Tom Lasseter points out:
Pyongyang is infamous for issuing dramatic but empty threats, like turning its enemies into an apocalyptic "sea of fire." The North has also announced on several previous occasions that it was pulling out from the armistice, most recently in 2009.…
The last time North Korea disconnected the hotline, in 2010, was a year when the North killed four South Koreans when it shelled an island and was accused of torpedoing a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 sailors.
But Yonhap also reported that the North had not severed another North-South communication line, this one related to a North Korean industrial zone where South Korean companies operate.
So … nothing much new here. Beyond that there's the ramping up of air sorties, which does seem like a more powerful signal, if for no other reason than that it's actually a costly act. And beyond that … a lot of hot air.
So does that mean I can automate my North Korea posts? Well, Fareed Zakaria has a different spin:
No one knows for sure what is going on. It is highly unlikely that these moves are being conceived and directed by Kim Jong Un, the young leader who succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il. North Korea’s military dictatorship has wedded itself to the third generation of the Kim dynasty, which now seems to serve mostly as a unifying symbol for its people. But it is unlikely that a 28-year-old with almost no background in politics or experience in government is conceiving and directing these policies. (He does appear to have free rein on basketball policy in the hermit kingdom.)
The most likely explanation for North Korea’s actions is that it is trying to get attention. In the past, its provocations usually led to international (especially American) efforts to defuse tensions. Then came negotiations, which led to an agreement of sorts, which the North soon cheated on, which led to sanctions, isolation and, finally, North Korean provocation again.
The pattern may be repeating — but it’s a high-stakes game, with nuclear weapons, brinkmanship and hyper-nationalism all interacting. Things could go wrong. The most important new development, however, is China’s attitude change. In a remarkable shift, China — which sustains its neighbor North Korea economically — helped draft and then voted last week for U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.
For decades, Beijing saw Pyongyang as a historical ally. But now, a senior Obama administration official told me Wednesday, “We are clearly hearing increasingly levels of frustration and concern” from Beijing about North Korea.
Zakaria is correct to point out Beijing's growing disenchantment with Pyongyang. But I tend to share Jennifer Lind's assessment that this disenchantment won't necessarily lead to any dramatic changes:
One shouldn't exaggerate the significance of these recent developments. After all, in the U.N. negotiations over sanctions -- this time as before -- the Chinese have consistently played the role of watering down the degree of punishment imposed against Pyongyang. And in the past Chinese firms have helped North Koreans evade sanctions. It remains to be seen whether Beijing intends to enforce the new measures.…
Because the specter of North Korea's collapse could potentially destabilize the Korea peninsula, Beijing may continue to shield Pyongyang. But the two country's [sic] increasingly divergent interests suggest that China's dissatisfaction with North Korea is only likely to grow.
I'd be even more skeptical. Obviously, China's leadership would prefer North Korea to act in a less provocative manner -- but they really don't want a disintegrating North Korean state. So even if they're disenchanted, they won't apply the necessary pressure to foment regime change or regime collapse. Which means that Pyongyang will still have carte blanche to provoke everyone else.
So my take is … not much has changed. I suspect that the reason for all of the amping up has to do with domestic politics on all sides. On the one hand, Kim Jong Un is playing to his own military base. On the other hand, North Korea is also trying to suss out the policy preferences and resolve of the new leadership in both South Korea and China.
Unless and until Beijing gets fed up enough to desire a strategic shift on the Korean Peninsula, I'm dubious that anything will change.
Am I missing anything?
This week, there's been a rash of articles on the state of GOP foreign policy thinking, as well as some interesting and constructive responses to my Foreign Affairs essay on the same subject. I will try to respond to some of these over the weekend -- but first I think it would be useful to talk more precisely about the claimed benefits of military power.
One of the points I made in my essay was that Republicans need to take economic statecraft more seriously, but to be fair, this holds for the foreign policy community more generally. The relationship between military power and economic influence is often talked about in general terms, with a lot of casual assertions getting tossed around. But I think a lot of these assertions are wrong.
For example, prominent American foreign policy commentators often trump the benefits of America's overseas military presence. Danielle Pletka gets at this in her Foreign Policy essay when she says, "Americans have benefited tremendously from their involvement abroad," though she stays in generalities. To talk specifically, how exactly does the U.S. gain economically from its outsized military footprint?
Fortunately, we do have an attempt at an answer. In the latest Foreign Affairs, Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth argue strongly in favor of "deep engagement." They proffer a number of reasons why the U.S. benefits from current grand strategy -- but one of the more intriguing ones is that the U.S. receives direct economic benefits from its security arrangements:
A global role also lets the United States structure the world economy in ways that serve its particular economic interests. During the Cold War, Washington used its overseas security commitments to get allies to embrace the economic policies it preferred -- convincing West Germany in the 1960s, for example, to take costly steps to support the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency. U.S. defense agreements work the same way today. For example, when negotiating the 2011 free-trade agreement with South Korea [KORUS], U.S. officials took advantage of Seoul's desire to use the agreement as a means of tightening its security relations with Washington. As one diplomat explained to us privately, "We asked for changes in labor and environment clauses, in auto clauses, and the Koreans took it all." Why? Because they feared a failed agreement would be "a setback to the political and security relationship."
Now, this gets specific!! According to this paragraph, reliance on U.S. security means that Washington can obtain better economic terms. Sounds great!!
Except that I don't think it's true.
With respect to West Germany, it's certainly true that Washington was able to get Berlin to accommodate to U.S. preferences -- but only for a few years. The Bretton Woods system ended in 1971 because the Germans finally said "Nein!!" to U.S. inflation. So the economic benefit wasn't that great.
The South Korea case is more intriguing, because it's present-day and there's a real, live policymaker quote there. If a U.S. administration official asserts that the security relationship mattered, then it mattered, right?
Well.... no. We need to compare KORUS with something equivalent to provide a frame of reference. If security really mattered that much, then the Korea-United States free trade agreement should contain terms that are appreciably more favorable to the United States than those contained in, say, the Korea-European Union free trade agreement, which was negotiated at the same time. This is a great test. After all, the U.S. is the most important security partner for South Korea, whereas the only thing the European Union could offer to Seoul was its large market. So if Brooks, Ikenberry and Wohlforth are correct, the U.S. should have bargained for much better terms than the E.U. Right?
A Korean analysis of the two agreements, however, do not reveal that result:
[T]he United States has more favorable treatment in meat and vegetable products and transportation, while the EU has better treatment in processed foods, chemicals, and machinery. The large difference in outcomes in animal and animal products between the KORUS FTA and the Korea-EU FTA can be ascribed to the the reflection of greater sensitivity of the Korean market in this sector in the Korea-EU FTA compared with the KORUS FTA. Therefore the EU received a less favorable tariff reduction schedule than the United States in this area. This is true in the areas of raw hides, skins, leather, and furs, and transportation.
We have the opposite case, however, in the foodstuff sector: the many differences in Korean tariff liberalization schedules in the U.S. and European FTAs could be a result of the reflection of the EU positions, which preferred earlier tariff eliminations on many items in the Korea-EU FTA. This is also true in the manufacturing sectors such as hemicals and allied industries, plastics and rubber, textiles, and machinery and electrical products.
In (slightly) plainer English, the U.S. got better terms on the export sectors it cared about more, and the E.U. got better terms on the export sectors it cared about more. Both agreements are comprehensive in scope and contain roughly similar terms across most other sectors. Indeed, both the Congressional Research Service and U.S. Trade Representative's office acknowledge the basic similaritry between the deals, as well as the areas where the Europeans did better. So, in other words, America's ongoing security relationship with South Korea did not lead to any asymmetric economic gains.
Now, this is not to say that there are no economic benefits to America's forward military presence. There are other arguments out there, and they should also be evaluated. My point here is simply to cast a skeptical eye on claims that America's overseas military presence pays for itself in the form of geopolitical favoritism. Because I don't think that's true.
The Wall Street Journal has two great stories on the Federal Reserve's decision to go for QE3 -- a third round of quantitative easing. First, Jon Hilsenrath documents how Fed chairman Benjamin Bernanke built a consensus among the Federal Reserve governors:
For weeks, Mr. Bernanke made dozens of private calls on days, nights and weekends, trying to build broad support for an unusual bond-buying program he wanted approved during the Fed's September meeting, according to people familiar with the matter....
Fed officials described the Fed chairman's phone calls as low-pressure conversations. Mr. Bernanke sometimes dialed up colleagues while in his office on weekends, catching them off guard when their phones identified his private number as unknown. He gave updates on the latest staff forecasts, colleagues said. He asked their thoughts and what they could comfortably support, they said.
The calls helped Mr. Bernanke gauge how far he could push his committee. It also won him trust among some of his fiercest opponents, officials said. Nearly all of Mr. Bernanke's colleagues described him as a good listener.
"Even if you disagree with him on the programs, you know your voice has been heard," said [Dallas Fed President Richard] Fisher, one of his opponents. "There is no effort to bully."
So Bernanke did a lot of hand-holding, a lot of listening... to the key Fed decision-makers. What's equally important is who he didn't talk to -- namely, other central bank heads in the rest of the world.
I bring this up because some of these central bank officials are pretty pissed. QE3 has caused the yuan to hit its all-time high against the dollar, for example. Which leads us to the other interesting Wall Street Journal story. Aaron Back and In-Soo Nam document how South Korea and China have reacted to QE3:
Chinese and South Korean central-bank officials criticized the U.S. Federal Reserve's latest easing efforts and advocated reducing Asia's dependence on the U.S. dollar.
The comments Thursday, at a joint seminar in Beijing by the two central banks, are the clearest indication yet of a rising backlash in Asia against U.S. monetary policy, suggesting it could speed up the search for alternatives to the dollar as the main global currency.
"The rise in global liquidity could lead to rapid capital inflows into emerging markets including South Korea and China and push up global raw-material prices," said Bank of Korea Gov. Kim Choong-soo. "Therefore, Korea and China need to make concerted efforts to minimize the negative spillover effect arising from the monetary policies of advanced nations."
Chen Yulu, an academic adviser to the People's Bank of China, said Asia needs a "regional core currency" to reduce its dependence on the dollar. China's ultimate goal is for the yuan to be as important as the euro or the dollar, he said.
Whoa, this sounds pretty bad... until you get to the next paragraph:
But [Chen] acknowledged that will be a slow process, saying it would be possible for the yuan to be fully convertible by 2020, and that the overall yuan-internationalization process may last until 2040. China strictly controls its currency, though it has made small moves to broaden its use globally in recent years and has also allowed a little more flexibility in its movements (emphasis added).
Furthermore, it's worth noting that the international bitching and moaning about QE3 seems much less than the "currency war" rhetoric that QE2 triggered. Why? Based on my half-assed blog analysis I'd speculate that there are three reasons:
1) The global economy is in a more sluggish state in 2012 than in 2010, so it's hard to argue that expansionary monetary policy is inappropriate now.
2) The United States was not the only major economy to go the quantitative easing route in the past few months. Both the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan have made similar -- if uncoordinated -- moves.
3) The central bank heads have learned frrom QE2 that the bitching and moaning won't accomplish anything. It didn't stop QE2 and it won't stop QE3.
Am I missing anything?
Your humble blogger is currently knee-deep in a pedagogical project on the foundations of economic prosperity. You can imagine my delight, then, that Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have a new book coming out on that very topic: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. There's an excerpt in the Montreal Review -- let's see how it opens, shall we?
To understand what these institutions are and what they do, take another society divided by a border. South and North Korea. The people of South Korea have living standards similar to those of Portugal and Spain. To the north, in the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or North Korea, living standards are akin to those of a sub-Saharan African country, about one tenth of average living standards in South Korea. The health of North Koreans is in an even worse state; the average North Korean can expect to live ten years less than their cousins to the south of the 38th parallel.
These striking differences are not ancient. In fact they did not exist prior to the end of the Second World War. But after 1945 the different governments in the north and the south adopted very different ways of organizing their economies....
It should be no surprise that the economic fortunes of South and North Korea diverged sharply. Kim Il-Sung's command economy soon proved to be a disaster. Detailed statistics are not available from North Korea, which is a secretive state to say the least. Nonetheless, available evidence confirms what we know from the all too often recurring famines: not only did industrial production fail to take off but North Korea in fact experienced a collapse in agricultural productivity. Lack of private property meant that few had incentives to invest or exert effort to increase or even maintain productivity. The stifling repressive regime was inimical to innovation and adoption of new technologies. But Kim Il-Sung, his son and successor, the "dear leader" Kim Jong-Il, and their cronies had no intention to reform the system, or to introduce private property, markets, private contracts, and economic and political freedoms. North Korea continues to stagnate economically, and there is no sign that anything will be different under the new "dear leader" Kim Jong-un.
Meanwhile in the south economic institutions encouraged investment and trade. South Korean politicians invested in education, achieving high rates of literacy and schooling. South Korean companies were quick to take advantage of the relatively educated population, the policies encouraging investment and industrialization, the export markets, and the transfer of technology. South Korea became one of East Asia's `Miracle Economies,' one of the most rapidly growing nations in the world. By the late 1990s, in just about half a century, South Korean growth and North Korean stagnation led to a tenfold gap between the two halves of this once-united country---imagine what a difference a couple centuries could make. The economic disaster of North Korea, which not only prevented growth but led to the starvation of millions, when placed against the South Korean economic success, is striking: neither culture nor geography nor ignorance can explain the divergent paths of North and South Korea....
The contrast of South and North Korea illustrates a general principle: inclusive economic institutions foster economic activity, productivity growth and economic prosperity, while extractive economic institutions generally fail to do so. Property rights are central, since only those who have secure property rights will be willing to invest and increase productivity. A farmer, for example, who expects his output to be stolen, expropriated or entirely taxed away would have little incentive to work, let alone any incentive to undertake investments and innovations. But extractive economic institutions do exactly that and fail to uphold property rights of workers, farmers, traders and businessmen.
It will not shock you, my dear readers, to learn that I agree with Acemoglu and Robinson. Indeed, as Ezra Klein showed with the following chart, the divergent paths of North and South Korea represents ironclad evidence about the power of instituions to determine prosperity:
Well, that's pretty damn persuasive, isn't it? It seems pretty friggin' obvious which institutions work and which ones don't!
Actually, to be more accurate, it seems pretty friggin' obvious now. Here's another chart that extends that graph back another two decades:
Things look sightly different in this chart. That massive divergence is still there, but what's stunning is that for the 25 years before that, the DPRK and ROK looked exactly the same in terms of per capital income. Indeed, as Nicholas Eberstadt notes:
Around the time of Mao Zedong's death (1976), North Korea was more educated, more productive and (by the measure of international trade per capita) much more open than China. Around that same time, in fact, per capita output in North Korea and South Korea may have been quite similar. Today, North Korea has the awful distinction of being the only literate and urbanized society in human history to suffer mass famine in peacetime.
My point here is not to defend Kim Il Sung or suggest that the DPRK's economic institutions are underrated. Rather, my point is that as data analysts, we're all prisoners of time. Had Acemoglu and Robinson written Why Nations Fail in the mid-1970s, it would have either made a different argument or it would have had a much tougher case to make about the merits of inclusive vs. extractive institutions (during the 1970s, commodity extracting states were looking pretty good).
Keep these charts in mind whenever anyone confidently asserts the obvious superiority of a particular model of political economy. Because, I assure you, there was a point in time when such superiority was far from obvious. And there might be another such point in the future.
Well, it was a very exciting weekend on the Korea peninsula, as South Korea vowed to go ahead with live-fire artillery exercises on Yeonpyeong Island, site of the artillery exchange between ROK and DPRK earlier this month. North Korea vowed to retaliate, the U.N. Security Council met all day yesterday without any agreement on the matter, Seoul recommended island residents go to bunkers, and everyone urged restraint by everyone else.
Very exciting!! How would today's exercise play out? Mark McDonald and Martin Fackler report for the New York Times:
Defying North Korean threats of violent retaliation and "brutal consequences beyond imagination," South Korea on Monday staged live-fire artillery drills on an island shelled last month by the North.
The immediate response from Pyongyang was surprisingly muted, however. A statement from the North's official news agency Monday night said it was "not worth reacting" to the exercise.
"Maybe we had a little impact," said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who as an unofficial American envoy was in Pyongyang when the drills ended. Mr. Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations, said earlier that the North had offered concessions on its nuclear program, including a resumption of visits by United Nations inspectors.
Wait, that's it? Pyongyang issues threat after threat and then claims the whole thing isn't worth their bother? Let's dig a little deeper into the Times story:
The question now is whether the North will make good on its promises to retaliate, and how it might do so. Mr. Lankov, the analyst, said he did not expect a massive response by Pyongyang because the recent incidents are part of a North Korean "strategy of tensions," meaning that North Korean leaders want to choose when and where to strike.
"I do not think the North Koreans will do much this time," Mr. Lankov said. "They'd rather deliver a new blow later when they will be ready. But the maneuvers still mean a great risk of escalation."
Meanwhile, Mr. Richardson said the North had agreed to concessions related to its nuclear program, a main source of tension on the peninsula. A former United States special envoy to North Korea, Mr. Richardson was on an unofficial trip approved by the State Department. He met with high-ranking military officials, the North Korean vice president and members of the Foreign Ministry over four days.
Mr. Richardson said the North had made two significant concessions toward reopening six-party talks on the country's nuclear program. The North's proposal would allow United Nations nuclear inspectors back into the Yongbyon nuclear complex to ensure that it is not producing enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb. The North recently showed an American nuclear expert a new and stunningly sophisticated facility there. It expelled international inspectors last year.
North Korean officials also told Mr. Richardson that their government was willing to sell 12,000 plutonium fuel rods to South Korea, removing bomb-making material from the North, he said. "I would describe this as important progress," he said of the concessions.
So now North Korea also wants to restart the Six-Party Talks? What just happened? As always, trying to explain North Korean behavior is a challenging task. Here are some possible explanations:
1) North Korea finally got caught bluffing. True, they have the least to lose from the ratcheting up of tensions, but that doesn't mean they have nothing to lose from a military escalation with the ROK. The past month of tensions got everyone's attention, and North Korea is only happy when everyone else is paying attention to them.
2) Kim Jong Un was busy. One of the stronger explanations for the DPRK's last round of provocations was that this was an attempt to bolster Kim the Younger's military bona fides before the transition. Reading up on what little is out there, it wouldn't shock me if he planned all of this and then postponed any retaliation because he'd organized a Wii Bowling tournament among his entourage.
Somewhat more seriously, it's possible that there are domestic divisions between the military, the Foreign Ministry, and the Workers Party, and that the latter two groups vetoed further escalation.
3) China put the screws on North Korea. For all the talk about juche, North Korea needs external aid to function, and over the past year all the aid lifelines have started to dry up -- except for Beijing. As much as the North Koreans might resent this relationship -- and they do -- if Beijing leaned hard on Pyongyang,
4) North Korea gave the ROK government the domestic victory it needed. Bear with me for a second. The shelling incident has resulted in a sea change in South Korean public opinion, to the point where Lee Myung-bak was catching hell for not responding more aggressively to the initial provocation. This is a complete 180 from how the ROK public reacted to the Cheonan incident, in which Lee caught hell for responding too aggressively.
Lee clearly felt domestic pressure to do something. Maybe, just maybe, the North Korean leadership realized this fact, and believed that not acting now would give Lee the domestic victory he needed to walk back his own brinksmanship.
5) Overnight, the DPRK military hired the New York Giants coaching staff to contain South Korean provocations. Let's see... a dazzling series of perceived propaganda victories, followed by the pervasive sense that they held all the cards in this latest contretemps. Then an inexplicable decision not to do anything aggressive at the last minute, after which containment policies fail miserably. Hmmm… you have to admit, this MO sounds awfully familiar.
If I had to make a semi-informed guess -- and it's just that - I'd wager a combination of (1) and (4).
Alternative explanations welcomed in the comments.
There's going to be a lot of scholars, policy analysts and enthused amateurs who are going to drink up the Wikileaks documents as a great new empirical resource. So they should -- they did nothing to cause their release, and these are documents that ordinarily would have taken 25 years minimum to be declassified.
That said, there's going to be a natural inclination to think that any Wikileaks document will endow it with the totemic value of Absolute Truth. "If it was secret, then it must be true," goes this logic. That's a more serious problem. For Exhibit A, let's go to Simon Tisdall of The Guardian's interpreting what the Wikileaks documents reveal about how China views North Korea:
China has signaled its readiness to accept Korean reunification and is privately distancing itself from the North Korean regime, according to leaked US embassy cables that reveal senior Beijing figures regard their official ally as a "spoiled child"....
The leaked North Korea dispatches detail how:
In highly sensitive discussions in February this year, the-then South Korean vice-foreign minister, Chun Yung-woo, told a US ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, that younger generation Chinese Communist party leaders no longer regarded North Korea as a useful or reliable ally and would not risk renewed armed conflict on the peninsula, according to a secret cable to Washington.
Ah, OK, this explains why China has slowly distanced itself from North Korea's recent actions. Oh, wait, I'm sorry, China has done nothing of the sort.
I don't doubt that Chinese officials said everything reported in the documents. I do doubt that those statements mean that China is willing to walk away from North Korea. It means that Chinese diplomats are... er.... diplomatic. They will tell U.S. and South Korean officials some of what they want to hear. I'm sure that they will say somewhat different things to their North Korean counterparts.
The key is to determine whether China's actions reflect their words. And over the past six months, China has not acted in a manner consistent with Tisdall's claims.
This is not to imply that China is acting in a particularly perfidious or underhanded manner, by the way. They're acting like any great power would -- stall for time while trying to figure out the best way to handle a troublesome ally. The point is, just because someone says something in a Wikileaks memo doesn't make it so.
My latest diavlog is with
the man in the black hat LGM's Rob Farley about Israel, Turkey, the Koreas, and patron-client relationships more generally. One of our areas of agreement was that, with regard to the Cheonan incident, South Korea's government played things pretty damn well. The Lee government went slow on blaming the DPRK even though they knew it was a North Korean torpedo almost immediately. They boxed China into a corner by issuing a report that no one except Pyongyang really disputes. They took measures to indicate that they thought this was a serious breach, but also dialed down the rhetoric when things got particularly nasty last week.
And for all of this, the Lee government was rewarded with... a trouncing at the ballot box:
South Korea’s left-wing opposition has unexpectedly mauled the ruling conservative party of President Lee Myung-bak in regional elections, boosted by surging discontent about the way Seoul handled the alleged sinking of a warship by North Korea.
According to preliminary results on Thursday, the leftwing Democratic party confounded opinion polls to win seven mayoral or gubernatorial seats, compared with just six for Mr Lee’s Grand National party. The ruling conservatives narrowly held the mayoral seat in Seoul, where the challenger had styled herself as the “peace” candidate. Her campaign slogan was: “The last chance against war”
South Korean voters regularly punish governments in mid-term polls, but some of Thursday’s results sent shockwaves through political circles and prompted the leader of the ruling party to resign.
The Democratic party won the eastern province of Gangwon-do, on the border with North Korea, for the first time in 16 years.
In its campaign, the opposition had condemned Mr Lee for risking war by taking too hard a line against the North, despite the death of 46 sailors in March in the alleged torpedo attack on the Cheonan corvette. Two previous liberal presidents had engaged in a “sunshine policy” of rapprochement with the North, which Mr Lee ended.
What does this mean for the future? Unfortunately, more North Korean provocations.
As Kenneth Schultz demonstrated in Democracy and Coercive Diplomacy, opposition parties can send a powerful signal in world politics. If they go against the ruling party in a crisis, it signals the domestic vulnerability that these governments will face if a crisis escalates. The lesson that North Korea will draw from this electoral outcome is that it can engage in further provocations and the Lee government will be forced by its own domestic constraints to act in a more conciliatory manner.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.