This is a local re-print of an essay I published at The National Interest a few weeks ago.
The basic idea is that a unified Korea, even one unified under Southern leadership, has much stronger incentives to keep the North’s nukes than most people seem to think.
Generally, everyone seems to think that a UROK (united Republic of Korea) will give up its weapons to the American or, maybe, the Chinese. Or maybe destroy them. But keeping them would be a great way to keep a UROK out of the looming great power contention in northeast Asia between the US, China, Japan, and Russia.
If you are tiny Korea – the shrimp among whales – you want to stay out of the way when these big boys fight. That will be tough given Korea’s geography right in the middle, but nukes would be a really great way nonetheless to insist.
Also, nukes are a great way to defend sovereignty generally against all interlopers, even if there is no regional hot war. Even after France became friends with Germany after WWII, it still built nukes to make sure Germany never invaded it again. A UROK would almost certainly think the same way about its neighbors given their history kicking Korea around and manipulating it.
I am not sure. A UROK still allied to the US would come under a lot of pressure to denuclearize. But the probability of retention is way higher than most people think.
The full essay is after the break.
One of the many hopes raised by the recent détente efforts of South Korean President Moon Jae In and US President Donald Trump is the political confederation if not eventual unification of the two Koreas.
While full-blown unification is a pro forma goal of both Korean polities, many lesser steps and stages have been considered over the years. Frequently a confederation of some kind is mooted. This covering institution would follow China’s ostensible approach to Hong Kong and Taiwan – one country, two systems. In a ‘Greater Koryo Confederation,’ the North and South would retain their own internal political system but try to approach international affairs jointly as well as share resources. Over time, integration would increase, eventually leading to unity as suspicions between the two sides faded away.
This is very much the thinking of the South Korean left, from which Moon has come. The South Korean right still holds to the ‘Germany model’ – North Korea collapses of its own dysfunctions and/or external pressure and is simply absorbed into a greater Republic of Korea (South).
But either model now faces a new wrinkle – the future disposition of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. It should be pretty clear at this point that North Korea will not give up many of its nuclear weapons or missiles. They may give up some, in exchange for large American counter-concessions, but complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament (CVID) is a fantasy. North Korea is a nuclear weapons state whether we want to accept that or not.
Hence if unification, or some softer confederal solution occurs, what would happen to North Korea’s nuclear weapons? In the West at least, there seems to be a vague, albeit widespread, sense that a unified Korea would not need such weapons, and that they would be destroyed or surrendered – variously to China, America, or some other third party. I hear this all the time on the conference circuit here in South Korea.
This is likely if the South Korean right gets its way. The South Korean right likes the US alliance, worries about China (Chinese naval encroachments in the Yellow Sea are a major issue for the South Korean navy now), and wants better relations with Japan. In its favored scenario, North Korea implodes and is absorbed, much like East Germany, and the larger, but otherwise unchanged Republic of Korea (South), stays where it is geopolitically, just as the enlarged, post-unification Federal Republic of Germany (West) did.
For the left here though, regional geopolitics is a much more mixed bag. North Korea is not, in this perspective, an enemy or opponent, but a fellow Korean state which has lost its way. The answer to inter-Korean tension is therefore not war-threats, sanctions, and confrontation, but brotherly outreach and assistance. On Japan, the opposite is true; the South Korean left is unremittingly hostile for historical and nationalist reasons. That Japan is a liberal democracy and North Korea an orwellian monarchy are passing regime type concerns which do not cut to real, historical-cultural issues driving the South Korean left’s alignment choices.
The left here is also much more skeptical of the US-Korea alliance. The last two left-liberal presidents before Moon openly tangled with the US over North Korea in ways their conservative predecessors never had. Today the left here largely blames the sanctions regime – demanded by the Americans – for halting inter-Korean détente. Anti-Americanism on the South Korean left has been an occasionally political force. Finally, the Southern left is far more comfortable with China than the right. Where the South Korean right would align with the US, and somewhat with Japan, in the looming Sino-US competition in Asia, the left would not. It would likely seek a neutralist position.
Earlier this year, I argued that South Koreans care less about denuclearization than the US for these reasons: “Given that the South Korean left does not see North Korea as an enemy, but harbors deep animosity for Japan and American intervention in South Korea life, a nuclearized, unified Korea would be an ideal foundation from which to pursue a neutralist, non-aligned, post-unification foreign policy.”
An old Korean proverb has it that Korea is a ‘shrimp among whales.’ For a small state surrounded by larger ones – China, Japan, Russia, and the US – possibly stumbling their way into a major confrontation, holding onto nukes is actually not a bad idea. Like Switzerland – marooned for centuries in the middle of raging great power conflicts – a unified Korea might well choose a heavily armed neutralism. Such a non-aligned or finlandization strategy would help avoid a repeat of Korea’s late 19th century fate. Then, this small state in the middle of much larger competitive ones got was manipulated by them in a ‘great game.’ Korea was sucked into this regional competition even though it did not want to be. It eventually lost its sovereignty to imperial Japan and was next riven by the Cold War.
Nuclear weapons, coupled with today’s powerful, capable, Korean militaries, would permanently vouchsafe this unhappy possibility – much as France sought nuclear weapons in part to assure that Germany would never invade it again. Once Korean unification is achieved, why align with the various regional whales as they crash into each other, possibly sparking a major regional conflict? Korea’s geography would, as before, make it difficult to avoid getting sucked into a four-party conflict – China, the US, Russia, Japan – but nuclear weapons would make easier. The temptation to keep them – as tool to push back on Korea’s difficult political geography – will be high.Robert E Kelly
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University
So I have been a little preachy in these last few posts, so I thought that I would get back to basics and just talk about one of the best times of the year here in South Korea and one that few travels really know about. I am talking about Buddha’s Birthday.
I was shocked that when I started posting my images, that there were a lot of people that were living in Korea that had limited knowledge about the event. With so many temples around Korea, I was a little put back by the messages that I received. I think many people just thought that the lanterns and elaborate decorations were limited to Jogyesa Temple in Seoul. Fortunately, they are not and many of the temples outside of Seoul have far better events and celebrations.TongdosaAt the entrance to Tongdosa
This year is a particularly sad year for this temple as one man’s impatience and road rage lead to 1 death, another person in critical condition and 11 people injured. It is very sad new as this day is supposed to be that of celebration and happiness.Walking up to Tongdosa
Tongdosa is always a place of quiet thought and long walks. Due to its size, tourists are generally spread out and never get too crowded with the exception of the main temple complex and in front of the museum.
In recent years, they have increased the number of lanterns along the path to the temple as well as added themed lanterns in the stream and path in front of the temple. This makes it slightly different from other temples as many focus more on the amount of personal lanterns as each of them contain a donation.Testing out my lensball that I rarely useBeomosaThis section of Beomosa always draws my eye.
Beomosa is always a great place to spend the evening. This year my wife and I spent the evening wandering around the grounds. Sadly, it was a little too cool in the night for my wife and I was a little too focussed on my work to notice. However, once I paused long enough to notice the world around me, we went straight back to the car and warmed up.You don’t often see what lanterns and these alway look so elegant to me.
Beomosa is a temple that I go to pretty much every year. It is calm as peaceful before the big day and you can really get a sense of calm when you are there.Over the temple grounds at Beomosa
The temple is also slowly being surrounded by nice cafes, so if you do go, you will find a place to sit within walking distance from the temple. However, I tend to usually go down to Route Coffee, my old haunt from when I taught at the university just down the road from there.One of my favourite walks at Beomosa BulguksaThe sunsets at Bulguksa temple in Gyeongju
This year I was pleasantly surprised with my time at Bulguksa. Upon entering the grounds and my hazy creative brain as well, I was great by none other than a group of some of Busan’s finest photographers.As the festival starts
These guys are members of the Busan Lightstalkers group who happened to be returning from an epic camping trip and decided to stop in at the temple on their way home. They caught me mid-creative fog which was mildly hilarious as I am sure that there is now photographic evidence of their odd state that I go into.Blue hour at Bulguksa is amazing
At any rate, the temple was amazing. Not the millions of lanterns that Samgwangsa has, but just a wonderful assortment of lanterns and decorations in a UNESCO recognized temple.Under the lanterns
The evening ended with a lantern parade around the temple. By this time my batter had died in my camera and sadly I did not think to bring a backup. Typically, I have 2 fresh batteries in my bag and like an idiot I had left them either in the charger or next to it.shot and edited entirely on an iPhone using Flixel’s Blendeo app
Thankfully, I had my phone and I snapped a few long exposures using Flixel’s Blendeo app. This made for a nice effect with the flow of the lanterns in the parade.Haedong YeonggunsaThe standard Haedong Yeonggunsa shot
I have been wanting to go to Haedong Yeonggunsa for a while now. I really wanted to get a drone shot of the temple from the water. I felt that this would be the perfect time to do so. The lanterns add so much to the colour and contrast in the image.Just before the lights went out
Sadly, this visit was cut short due to the fact that the temple closed up early as they do, before the big day. Haedong Yeonggunsa also has a particular advantage when it comes to actually closing as it is one of only a few temples that has bridge leading to a single door.Haedong Yeonggunsa Buddha’s Birthday 2019
Most temples as you can see are quite open meaning that they usually have a larger main gate for vehicle traffic and whatnot but that usually doesn’t stop too many people from wandering in. Here, the bridge leads to a single entry point which was locked by the time I finished shooting outside.Overlooking Haedong Yeonggunsa
The also gave a huge warning by turning off all the lights momentarily. The photographers around me were none too happy about that. For me, it just happens and you have to deal with it. After all, the event is for Buddha and his worshippers, not for photographers and tourists.Temple pagoda with shrine to drivers
I hope that you enjoyed these images. This is really my favourite time of the year in Korea and one that I fondly remember from when I first got started into photography. If you have and questions about the locations or editing process either drop me a line here or send me an email.
Also if you are coming to Korea and would like me to show you some of these places, let me know. If you get in contact, I can make arrangements and take you around as I am slowly starting to do more photo tour here in Korea.
This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a week ago.
Basically my argument is that even if you are a hawk on China and see it as an emerging competitor or even threat to the US, the clash of civilizations framework is a weak analytical model by which to understand Sino-US tension.
The big problem is that Huntington builds his civilizations everywhere else in the world around religion, but in East Asia he can’t, because that would make China and Japan – who are intense competitors – allies in a Confucian civilization. Making Japan and China allies would be ridiculous, so Huntington can’t use Confucianism as a civilization, even thought that so obviously fits his model for East Asia. Hence, Huntington falls back on national labels, identifying separate ‘Sinic’ and ‘Nipponic’ civilizations. This ad hoc prop-up of the theory undercuts Huntington’s whole point of arguing that national distinctions are giving way to civilizational ones and that therefore we should think of future conflicts as between civilizations, not nation-states. Well, apparently East Asia didn’t make that shift; conflict here is still nationalized. So
There are other issues I bring up as well, but that’s the main problem. Please read the essay after the jump…
Kiron Skinner, the Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department, ignited a controversy last week when she analogized Sino-US competition to a clash of civilizations. There has been a good deal of pushback from international relations academics (here, here). Many noted that Samuel Huntington’s famous thesis (article, book) has not actually been born out much. There have not in fact been wars since his writing that have been as epochal as the ‘civilizational’ label would suggest. And Skinner’s particular comment that China will be America’s first “great power competitor that is not Caucasian” sparked a lot of extra controversy that ‘civilization’ was being use as rhetorical cover for the Trump administration’s persistent flirtation with white nationalism.
But one problem in all this not yet pointed out is how poorly Huntington’s model actually fits the dynamics of conflict in East Asia. The argument got its greatest boost from the post-9/11 war on terrorism. There, religious conservatives – on both sides ironically – saw the conflict as much as a millennial clash between Islam and Christianity, as between the US and rather small, if radical, terrorist networks. Huntington’s book was even re-issued with a cover depicting a collision between Islam and the US. But in East Asia, the thesis really struggles.
The central variable defining Huntington’s civilizations is religion. This is why the argument feels so intuitive for the war on terror, where religion is a powerful, obvious undercurrent. But in East Asia, religious conflict was never as sharp as in the West, Middle East, and South Asia. Nor did religion define polities in East Asia as sharply. Confucianism and Buddhism were obviously socially influential, but they generated nothing like the wars of the Reformation or the jihads of early Islam.
So while much of the world is coded by Huntington via religion, he struggles to use that in East Asia. Instead, he falls back on nationality mostly – coding China, the Koreas, and Vietnam as ‘Sinic’ and Japan as ‘Nipponic.’ He also suggested a Buddhist civilization in southeast Asia, as well as Mongolia and Sri Lanka.
All this is analytically pretty messy, however interesting. First, the most obvious benchmark for Huntington to use in East Asia, since he focuses on the world’s major religions elsewhere, is Confucianism. Whether coded as a social philosophy or religion, there is little doubt that Confucius’ writings had a huge impact on China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. But if Huntington had done the obvious and tagged a Confucian civilization including these four players, he would have made the laughably inaccurate argument that those states are natural, i.e., cultural/religious/civilizational, allies.
In reality of course, there is a lot of traditional national interest-style conflict – the kind Huntington says has been replaced by civilizational bloc-building – in the Confucian space. China and Japan are obvious competitors, and the East China Sea is a serious potential hot-spot now. The Koreas are still very far apart ideologically, and neither feels much affective affinity for China or Japan. And China and Vietnam also sliding toward competition in the South China Sea.
So Huntington is stuck; his model does not work in northeast Asia. So to save it, he carves out Japan as a separate civilization defined by nationality, not religion, with little explanation. He then lumps the Koreas and Vietnam under a Chinese-nationality defined ‘Sinic’ civilization, which, in my teaching experience, Korean and Vietnamese readers find either typical American ignorance or vaguely offensive.
The Buddhist civilization of southeast Asia struggles analytically too. Do Mongolia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka have enough in common to bin together? Why isn’t South Korea, where Buddhism was long influential and still very much alive, put into this civilization? Do these states communicate or cooperate with each other in any way that much reasonably defined as ‘buddhistic’? The answer is almost certainly that Huntington did not know or really care that much – likely as he did not know what to do with non-Arab Africa, so he just labels it all one ‘African’ civilization and moves on.
The thesis was really designed to explain the collisions in southeastern Europe (the Balkan wars of the 1990s) and the Middle East between Muslim-majority states and their neighbors, and this is where it continues to be most persuasive when taught. In east Asia though, it falls down pretty quickly. The units of analysis (civilizations) are not constructed in that region around the variable (religion) which Huntington uses elsewhere, and the conflicts of the region have little to do with religion, because organized religion was not as influential in East Asia’s political past as it was elsewhere.
So if this is to be the Trump model for US foreign policy – and it certainly seems to be the administration’s preferred mode to address Islam – it will lead to bizarre predictions and behaviors. The ‘Confucians,’ Buddhists, and East Asian ‘non-Caucasians’ are not going to ally against the United States. China, for all its ‘Sinic’ cultural difference from the West is also, obviously, deeply influenced by Western political thought – most obviously Marxism-Leninism, and, today, capitalism.
We may well fall into a cold war with China; prospects for a benign, or at least transactional, Sino-US relationship are narrowing. But there is no need to over-read that competition as an epochal civilizational clash and thereby make it worse and more intractable. That kind of thinking applied to 9/11 lead to wild overreaction, as we read salafist-jihadist networks as a far greater threat than they were. If we do that with China, which really is very powerful, our competition with it will be that much sharper and irresolvable.Robert E Kelly
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University
Skin on Sundays is a project created by Jessica Lakritz. Jessica makes physiopoetry, where she combines her own poetry with the physical canvas of the human body. We talk about her art, her life, the flat earth, anger management, herpes and how lucky we are for dogs. We discuss the excessive amount of dick pics Jessica receives in her DMs, and the environment women endure online. She also reads a poem from her book, Seasons of Yourself.Jessica shares a very sincere and personal Memory of Regret, and I share a very light and kinda yucky one. You can see and learn more about Skin on Sundays at the website, skinonsundays.com and Instagram.com/skinonsundays/ If you enjoy the show, please recommend it to a friend, leave a review on iTunes or whatever app you listen to podcasts on – and remember I love ya.
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Fifteen years. It’s a long time. Fifteen years ago, I was fired from a telephone survey job I had held onto out of laziness and fear of jumping into my eventual journalism career, despite having graduated the year before with an English degree, with experience under my belt and knowing that sitting in a drab, windowless, soulless call center in four-and-eight-hour shifts was no way to spend my early 20s. The following month I would work at a neighborhood park, sweating buckets as I pulled weeds and laid mulch until I finally stopped listening to the voice in my head saying no one would possibly hire me to be a reporter and applied, and became, a reporter. What a difference 15 years makes.
Fifteen years is also the collective amount of time my girlfriend and I lived and worked in and around Busan, South Korea. For the final two of my six years, I was the foreign editor for Busan’s English-language newspaper, Dynamic Busan. Jen taught English for the entirety of her nine years. We left that life behind on March 4th. After traveling through Vietnam, Britain and Iceland, we touched down at Newark Liberty International Airport on April 5th.
Growing up in New Jersey, I never thought much about some of the Garden State’s curiouser curiosities such as jughandles, pork roll and its infamous law banning people from pumping their own gas. But, Jen–born in Indiana and a resident of the suburbs outside of St. Louis, Missouri, since she was nine–certainly did. Likewise, I am finding Missouri’s double-lane turns, booze in the convenience stores, tenderloin sandwiches and “midwestern goodbyes” that can stretch beyond an hour things that I did not experience until the first time I visited her family home. Despite both of us having lived and traveled through Canada, South Korea, Japan, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Guatemala, Italy, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, Britain, Switzerland and Iceland, we’re both still surprised by things the others took for granted their entire lives.Although, neither of us were surprised by the “photo zone” in the Korean spa in Edison, NJ.
America is a big place. There is a lot neither of us has experienced in our own home country. That’s about to change when, on May 15, we set off from Jen’s family home in St. Charles, MO, for parts known and unknown, to see friends, family and places we’ve only seen on television, in magazines, on the internet and in our imaginations. To Indiana, Ohio, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington D.C., Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas and then, finally, back to Missouri.
We’re going on an American journey. We hope you’ll join us.
An ongoing list of posted and upcoming entries:
* Two Plumbers Brewery & Arcade (St. Charles, MO)
* Hermann, MO, wine country (Hermann, MO)
* Beer Sauce (St. Peters, MO)
* the Iron Fork food festival and competition at the City Museum (St. Louis, MO)
JPDdoesROK is a former news editor/writer in New Jersey, USA, who served a one-year tour of duty in Dadaepo/Jangnim, Saha-gu, Busan from February 2013 to February 2014. He is now a teacher in Gimhae.