Skip to Content

Recent Blog Posts

All Recent Posts

My Diplomat Essay for April: Unintended Consequences of US Alliances in Asia

Printer-friendly version


So this month for the Diplomat I wrote a speculative essay on US alliances in Asia – reposted below, original here. I think some people over-read it to mean that the US should leave Asia or that I endorse Chinese regional hegemony or whatever. I don’t. As I say in the piece, I still think the US presence is balance-positive, especially as China is moving from the ‘peaceful rise’ to capacious maritime claims off its east coast. Instead this was to be a thought experiment – an effort to tease out whether US regional alliances have negative impacts, given that almost all the discussion rather blithely assumes the opposite. I think the first possible downside suggested below – that China won’t cut North Korea loose until the US leaves Korea – is particularly strong and unsettling to the conventional wisdom. Ideally, this analysis would encourage thinking on mitigating these unintended side-effects.

Here is that essay. If you follow CSIS’ ‘PacNet’ series (which you should btw), a variant of this will come out there shortly:

“The conventional wisdom on US alliances in Asia, at least in the West, Japan, and Taiwan (but not necessarily in South Korea), is that they are broadly a good thing. One hears this pretty regularly from US officials and the vast network of US think-tanks and foundations like CSIS or AEI and their many doubles in Asia. US alliances, we are told, provide stability. They keep China from dominating the region. They hem in North Korea and defend the powerfully symbolic South Korean experiment in liberal democracy and capitalism. They prevent the nuclearization of South Korea and Japan and a spiraling regional arms race. In short, they re-assure.

The Chinese would almost certainly disagree with these attributions. They would say these ‘re-assurances’ are unnecessary. I have argued at the Diplomat before that Chinese hegemony is less likely than US and especially Japanese alarmism would have one think. Nor is it really clear that China intends to bully Asia like the Kaiser tried to in Europe (although it is looking ever more likely). So there is regional Asian pushback on US alliances.

But it is also true that US alliances in are rarely questioned by their own participants. We tend to assume these benefits – perhaps out of widespread strategic distrust of China – rather than prove them. And we also tend to overlook or downplay any negatives, unintended consequences and second order effects.

So to all the grad students reading this, here is a really good, politically incorrect research question – what are the second-order effects of US alliances (in Asia), and if they are costs, do they outweigh the first-order benefits? Measuring the possible negatives would be pretty hard, but then the positives listed above are also rarely measured. We just assume, for example, that the US presence halts a spiraling nuclear arms race in east Asia, even though that has not happened between India and Pakistan after they both went nuclear in the 1990s. Neither India nor Pakistan has a strong US alliance, nor are they governed as competently as most east Asian states, but that has not led to the widely feared nuclear spiral between them, suggesting that US reassurance might not actually be necessary for nuclear responsibility in Asia after all.

This research program strikes me as the sort of question that the think-tank consensus on US foreign policy could not digest without an intellectual meltdown. But it is clearly a logical possibility. Stephen Walt and many of others have argued, for example, that the closeness of the US-Israel alliance has all sorts of negative unintended consequences, like Muslim anger at the US in turn feeding sympathy for radicalism, and so on. So it is methodologically possible, however undesirable to US analysts, that similar negatives and false positives exist in Asia. Post-Iraq, it should no longer be taken as self-evident that a heavy US forward presence is obviously a good thing. Restraint does not equal decline, betraying allies, Munich 1938 all over again, and so on. But as the panicky, Obama-is-weak paranoia that followed Crimea illustrates, axiomatic hawkishness will be a hard habit to break.

I can think of at least four possible negatives, and these should actually be researched before they are simply dismissed by hawks as dove ‘isolationist’ propaganda or whatever:

1. US Forces in Korea (USFK) could be perpetuating the division of Korea now, because a) they are a critical prop in North Korean post-communist ideology without which the regime would struggle to explain privation to its people (Brian Meiers argues this a lot), and b) USFK’s presence deters China from cutting North Korea loose, as the Chinese scholars in my experience routinely say, and quite bluntly. Indeed, I have long thought that a good deal for Korea would be: the US agrees to leave permanently in exchange for China cutting North Korea loose thereby accelerating unification. A cut-off of Chinese aid would bring a huge crisis in the North and might well precipitate collapse and unification. A unified Korea could then ‘finlandize’ between the competing powers of its neighborhood, perhaps nuclearizing to insure that it becomes the Switzerland or Austria of east Asia. The US government might not like that outcome, but it is a petty good one for the Koreans, and a very good one for the long-suffering North Koreans. Remember that NATO was not supposed to station forces in the former German Democratic Republic in exchange for Moscow letting East Germany go (or so Mikhail Gorbachev has claimed; James Baker disputes this). But then the NATO moved east anyway, helping Vladimir Putin’s argument that the West is out to get Russia. The Chinese know this history and will not make the same mistake in Korea. The Chinese will not give up North Korea unless USFK leaves the peninsula, an uncomfortable point no one seems to want to admit.

2. The reassurance provided by USFK and USFJ (US Forces in Japan) freeze the Japanese-Korean conflict, encourage maximalist and zealots on both sides not to compromise, and give Japan regular political cover for not coming clean about its past imperial behavior. I have made this argument at length here and here.

3. The ‘pivot to Asia’ might very well precipitate the very cold war with China it is supposed to insure against. The evidence is actually mixed on how much east Asian states fear China, no matter how much westerners think China want to ‘rule the world’ and all that. It is important to not tumble unnecessarily into a conflict with China. There is a large debate over whether the US hawkish turn on the USSR with Harry Truman’s ascent to the presidency in April 1945 accelerated the collapse of the Big Three WWII alliance and helped start the Cold War. Similarly, the Kennedy brothers and Operation Mongoose certainly helped push Fidel Castro toward Moscow in the early 1960s. And the ‘recognition controversy’ debate on the foundation of communist China also suggests that America’s early Cold War insistence on reading any socialist/communist state as a tool of Joseph McCarty’s Moscow-run ‘international communist conspiracy’ prevented a basic modus vivendi with Mao Zedong for twenty years. The USSR might have collapsed earlier if the US been able to recruit China into anti-Soviet containment much earlier. In short, there is a fair amount of evidence/argument that forward, hawkish alliance building by the US helped ignite and/or worsen the Cold War. I worry a lot when I read things like this, that we will do the same with China. Hugh White is almost certainly right; the US needs to find a way to live with Chinese power – unless the US is prepared to seriously confront China in a major armed conflict which I highly doubt US public opinion would support.

4. US alliances almost certainly encourage allied free-riding, in both Asia and NATO, so unnecessarily driving up defense costs for US taxpayers. South Korea spends only 2.7% of GDP on defense, despite bordering North Korea. (Even the Chosun Ilbo seems to recognize that Korea is slacking.) Japan spends an astonishing 0.88% of GDP on defense despite Abe’s tough talk on China. These numbers are one reason my support for the pivot is so mixed. The pivot will almost certainly encourage Asian allies to continue to underspend on defense at American expense. But US defense spending is already in obvious competition with America’s aging population’s needs, massive infrastructure underinvestment, and the Tea Party’s insistence on smaller government.

Stack these possible costs against the possible benefits of the pivot, and it is not automatically obvious that US alliances are balance-positive. If I had to guess, I would say yes, primarily because of China’s recent shift away from ‘peaceful’ rise. (If China were smart, it would go back to the peaceful rise strategy that worked so well for decades and undercut US China hawks.) But the limited Indo-Pakistani nuclear arms race and enormous ability of South Korea to outspend North on defense, among other examples, suggest that US alliances may not in fact be doing what we think they are doing. Those benefits should be demonstrated, not just assumed under the simplistic guise of ‘internationalism’ against ‘isolationism.’

Filed under: Alliances, China, International Relations Theory, Japan, Korea (North), Korea (South), United States

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University


I Just Want to Scream

Printer-friendly version

I just want to scream, but I know it won’t do any good.

I heard that a ferry to Jeju that was sinking. News implied all would get out alive. I thought it was Costa Concordia like, if only it was comparable now.

We watched the television late into last night, and all of this morning the volume was up high. We heard talking heads of doctors and divers explain what is wrong and what is right. At one stage I almost cried. I felt that here was the greatest loss of life. And all the time the television showed that hull, the end where those rotors spun south, poking and bobbing like a message in a bottle, an arrow directing all souls to heaven’s heights.

I just want to scream, but I know it won’t do any good.

There are others more suited to anger. There are others more suited to decry. What matters now is to get those kids out alive. Kakao Talk told us some have survived. In a bubble somewhere with all kinds of refuse and the water as cold as those who died. We wait, and we wait, and we watch another news broadcast. And again a talking head tells us we cannot hold out hope for how many might be inside.

I just want to scream, but I know it won’t do any good.

A crane, they said, is floating to the site. A day it will take. I wish I could go and help push. Heave it with everyone else watching, in tears for these boys and girls in their formative years. The years when our lives are determined and we certainly never forget. Our friends who last with us until there’s none of us left. We go through it, our highest triviality til then,and we think it’s the end but come out together.

I just want to scream, but I know it won’t do any good.

The lies. The ineptitude. The waste. The love lost. The flowers laid. The broken days. The way so many lives were left to be taken so carelessly away.

I just want to scream, but I know it won’t be loud enough.


Independence in Colonial Asia

Printer-friendly version
To look at a map of colonial Asia is to see many colours. It is one with lines, shaded areas, dots on maps. These signify territories, treaty ports, zones of influence, railways, and other new introductions to a previously monarchical, rudimentary culture which had, in many respects developed of its own accord for thousands of […]

A Birthday Wish

Printer-friendly version

Kimchi boy's birthday wish all the way from Korea!

How Koreans Celebrate Their 70th Birthday

Printer-friendly version

Last Sunday, my husband’s third uncle celebrated his 70th birthday known as 고희 (gohui) or 칠순 (chilsun) in Korea. Korean seniors have three special birthdays to celebrate: 환갑 (hwanggap or the 60th birthday), 고희/칠순 (gohui/chilsun or the 70th birthday) and 팔순 (palsun or the 80th birthday). Traditionally, the 60th birthday was the one celebrated lavishly, since in the olden days, few people lived to be 60, but now that the average life expectancy in Korea has risen due to medical advancement and better quality of life, some Koreans don’t celebrate the 60th birthday anymore. Instead, the celebration is done on their 70th (or 80th) birthday.


When my 시아버지 (father-in-law) turned 60, we prepared a simple get-together in the house. There was no ceremony, just dinner and drinking. He wanted to go on a trip abroad with the family, but my sister-in-law just gave birth to her second child, so the plan didn’t push through. We will probably have the trip on his 70th birthday.  

While most Koreans have a big party in a banquet hall wherein many guests are invited, some just want to spend time with their family by traveling overseas with them. 

Normally, 60th, 70th and 80th birthday festivities follow ceremonial activities. Family members, as well as the birthday celebrator, wear hanbok on these occasions.  The celebrator is called to sit at the bountiful banquet table where piles of ceremonial food are beautifully arranged. These food include beef, pork, chicken, fish, fresh fruit, rice cake and traditional pastries that are heaped together in 30 to 60 centimeter-tall round stacks, and are placed in two to three colorful rows. The ceremonial food at the party we attended on Sunday wasn’t this elaborate, but there were fruit, rice cake, traditional cookies and a big cake on the banquet table that looked like a wedding cake. Cake was not served on 칠순 in the olden days, but today, it is a common birthday gift here in Korea. Wine was the most usual gift back then. The eldest son would bring wine for the ceremony, and he was the first one to present his parent with the wine and ceremonial meals. The celebrator’s children would all bow to him and offer him wine or other presents.

On my husband’s uncle’s 7oth birthday, it was the eldest son who was called to initiate the ceremony. There was no giving of wine, but the first son bowed to his father and gave him a message. The other siblings were not asked to bowand deliver a message, but they joined the guests in the toast. No one wore hanbok that day. I guess it wasn’t a verytraditional ceremony.


In another 칠순 party my husband and I went to, the children and the grandchildren of the celebrator wore the same color of hanbok. They bowed to the celebrator at the same time, and all the children gave their father short messages and offered him songs. There was a time when guests recited poems for the celebrator, but these days, performers are hired to entertain guests with traditional music, or sometimes the celebrator’s children prepare song and dance numbers. A long time ago, the celebrator’s children would dress as infants or kids to make their parent feel younger, but my husband told me that nobody is doing that now. Thank goodness, I can’t imagine my husband wearing a diaper or carrying a pacifier on his parents’ milestone birthdays! =)


From Korea with Love




Join 473 other followers


The Plastic Kiz & November On Earth (Live - The Stage, Downtown Daegu)

Printer-friendly version
Oh Korea. You have gigs in weird places.
A midweek show in the middle of the city for a noisy garage band and a quiet post-rock band
Accompaned by live street-art, beers and confused shoppers. Wouldn't happen in England.
...and that's why I left.
(Not great pictures, my DSLR doesn't work at night...)


While in Daejeon, I found the best restaurant to eat 칼국수...

Printer-friendly version

While in Daejeon, I found the best restaurant to eat 칼국수 (kalguksu). There were no other foreigners there, but Koreans definitely knew about it, as we waited for 45 minutes to be seated.

It’s a bit of a walk from Daejeon subway station, but I recommend taking the journey to find 오씨칼국수. Koreans traditionally eat these handmade, knife-cut wheat flour noodles served in a large bowl with broth and various ingredients. The restaurant serves the noodles, 손칼국 (5,000₩) with small clams, but also seafood pajeon 해물파전 (8,000₩), a bowl of clams 물총 (9,000₩), and clam soup 조개탕 (25,000₩).

If you go, don’t forget to grab a ticket right away, and wait for your number to be called. Have fun pulling your kimchi out of a large pot and cutting it at your table! (No, seriously, it’s fun.)

Address: 304-36 Samseong-dong Dong-gu, Daejeon

Phone: 627-9972

About the girl

Hi, I'm Stacy. I am from Portland, Oregon, USA, and am currently living and teaching ESL in Busan, South Korea. Busy getting into lots of adventures, challenging myself, and loving people. Something more than an ethereal will-o-wisp.

Thank you so much for visiting and reading.

Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, LastfmFlickr, and FacebookAsk me anything


Dear Korea #119 - Under Where?

Printer-friendly version


Erp, looks like I’m a day late. It’s sad how long it usually takes me to recover from a particularly weird week. Here’s hoping I can do better next week! I am the worst (or best?) procrastinator in the world.

Yes, this is another comic about miniskirts. Now that the weather’s getting warmer, it’s hard to walk a block without seeing them.

The conversation in the panel was one I actually had with a friend who enjoys wearing miniskirts. After talking to a number of other people, the general consensus seems to be that wearing short shorts automatically makes miniskirts safe, so to speak. I honestly can’t say anything, as I don’t own any skirts. I’m still trying to figure out dresses.

Dem legs..

Jen Lee's Dear Korea

This is Jen Lee. She likes to draw.
She also likes green tea.

Got any questions, comments, or maybe even some delicious cookies you want to send through the internet? Feel free to contact us at dearkoreacomic at gmail dot com.

You can also leave comments on the comic’s Facebook Page!


Ulsan Whale Festival

Printer-friendly version
I've never actually seen a whale in the waters around Ulsan, but I'm told they are there, just off of Jangsaeng-Pohang Port there's a migratory route they take that allowed them to become potential dinner for those who could catch or afford them.

Having a festival in honour of them seems a little sadistic...but I guess Ulsan City feels like they are honouring the tradition more than the illegal, but still in fervent practice of whaling. (Although the South Korean are doing something about it, and it's nice to know they dropped their stupid plans to reintroduce "scientific whaling" a few years back.)

Personally I like whale meat, what little I have had has been quite delicious and not at all like I imagined (for a sea creature). If you have issues with eating whale meat let me break it down for you:

You are a vegetarian/vegan: That's cool.
You are otherwise a meat eater: Piss off. (See also, meat eaters who have a problem with dog meat.)

Of course the Ulsan Whale Festival is not all about feasting on flesh. There are the typical Korean festival stalls that promote other festivals and regions in South Korea like a big fat hippy love-in and random bits of art, sculptures and floats including reenactments of early whale fishing by historians. There are probably lanterns and fireworks in the evening too.

There is also a dragon boat race that last year some friends trained hard for and participated in. Strangely, (but most likely for safety reasons*) the Korean and foreigner boat race competitions were kept separate last year (a fact that did not stop mixing within the teams themselves of course). This year all foreigners have been excluded from the boat race part of this festival, so I hear...

Whatever the reasons, banning people from taking part (if it is true, I'm struggling to find anything beyond the words of mouths) on the basis of nationality is fucking stupid. From what I saw last year there were people acting like pricks and others being perfectly civil in equal number during both competitions. As is wont to happen when you allow large groups of people to get together in celebration with alcohol.

UPDATEZ: So it turns out the amateur foreigner friendly dragon boat race was cancelled (according to T-Hope, a charity in Ulsan that coordinates with festival) but after strong words of protest the race is now back on, April 26th, from 9:00-12:30am. For those who want to take part check out the event page here. This year T-Hope will be raising money for Ulsan Orphanage & Lotus Children (a group that works Austistic children) for their summer activities.

*Safety yes, also the 'foreigner' races were amateur in status, hence the separation

If you are one of my mates from last year here's a few pics below:
On a sad note, last year's boat race was delayed due to reports of someone doing a bridge jump the night before. No body was recovered...


How to get there:
Ulsan Whale Festival takes place around the end of April every year. Check here or here for more details that are "comming soon". I can English too...
Depending on which side of town you are coming from (east or west) the 300 and 700 buses will take you there on the day. Aim for Taehwa Rotary, City Hall or anywhere in the middle of Taehwa river. Or check out this interactive map (Category: Recreation) from the wonderful Ulsan Online. If only every city had a resource like it...

Syndicate content

Facebook Group

Features @koreabridge
Blogs   @koreablogs
Job Ads  @koreabridgejobs
Classifieds @kb_classifieds

Koreabridge Google+ Community